Help! My Mom's My Teacher!
Is the person leading technique class also—gulp—your mother? Here's the good news: Having a parent as a dance teacher comes with many advantages. “From a young age, I had a built-in manager who knew the ins and outs of the business," says tapper Donovan Helma, who grew up dancing with his mom in Denver before performing in Tap Dogs on and off for 10 years. However, finding a balance between “home mom" and “dance mom" is difficult, and you might feel singled out by classmates for being the teacher's child(/pet). Here's how to deal with the difficult issues that can arise when your parent's also your instructor.
Establish Respect in the Studio
Developing a healthy teacher–student relationship with your mom is crucial to maintaining a supportive studio environment. Start by agreeing that the rules of the classroom apply to all students—you included. “My mom worked hard to treat me just like the other kids," Helma explains. “If I missed a certain number of ballet classes, I was kicked out of the company. If I goofed off, I was punished the same way the other kids were." Sometimes your mom might actually be tougher on you to prove she's not playing favorites, which can feel demoralizing. “It'll be common to have miscommunications between you and your mom about how you want to operate in the classroom," says Dr. Kate Hays, a sports and performance psychologist. Keep the lines of communication open, so that you can tell your mom when you feel uncomfortable—and she can tell you when you're truly out of line. Hays even suggests developing subtle, nonverbal signals (a head nod for “nice work," a finger by the ear for “pay attention") that'll allow you to check in with each other during class.
Plan Conversations Outside the Studio
Are things getting really frustrating in the studio? Don't try to hash out larger problems immediately after class, when emotions are high. Instead, set aside time to talk to your mom at home. In fact, scheduling regular meetings to discuss your technique, your goals and your feelings about dance is a great way to keep your relationship on track. “On our drives home from the studio, my mom and I often discussed corrections or compliments I'd received in class," says Elisabeth Champion, a principal at Central West Ballet who studied at her mom's studio in Kentucky. “She'd always lead with 'I'm saying this from a teacher's perspective,' so I'd understand she wasn't being Mom in that moment."
As you get older, you may decide that you want to branch out and study with a different instructor, or start to feel less enthusiastic about dance—subjects that can be difficult to
broach with your teacher mom. “It's common to feel like you're not your own person when your parents' feelings are at stake," Hays says. She recommends preparing for fraught conversations by creating pro-and-con lists or specific written notes, to show that you've put thought and care into your decisions. Sometimes it'll be your mom who initiates those difficult conversations. Be open to what she has to say. When Champion was 12, for example, her mother suggested that she audition for the Cincinnati Ballet's Otto M. Budig Academy. “I was pretty nervous to go to a different school because I had only ever had my mom," Champion says. But the discomfort was worth it. “To have another teacher offer me corrections and give me praise was eye-opening," Champion says. “Ultimately my mom gave me the freedom to decide whether or not I wanted to attend. It was an important step on my career path."
Cultivate Mom-Free Friendships
Making friends at your parent's studio can be difficult, especially if your classmates feel like you're being favored. “Sometimes, the other students would be bitter when I'd get a role, or they'd gripe at me about casting," Helma says. The key here is a change of scenery: Let the other dancers get to know you outside the studio (and outside your home), where your mom isn't part of the picture. Choose another activity—bowling, going to the movies, shopping—that gives you a chance to hang out without the pressure of having mom there.
And if you're not getting along with the other students, you can always—counterintuitive as it may seem—bring up the subject with Mom. “This is one of the advantages of having a mother who is a dancer: Odds are good she's been in similar circumstances," Hays says. “She might have really helpful advice."
Elisabeth Champion with her mom—and former dance teacher (Adelina Milano/Milano Photography, courtesy Milano)