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DANCE TUTUS AND TOE SHOES

Dance schools for the younger set.
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TEN YEARS ago in the face of Vietnam protests, rising hemlines, and easy drugs, three Dallas mothers surveyed the booby traps facing their young daughters -and did what mothers have traditionally done to safeguard their daughters’ future: enrolled them in ballet class. Mary’s mother hoped the exercise would strengthen her skinny six-year-old and lessen her susceptibility to every passing germ. Starr’s mother, a former beauty-pageant perennial, wanted to give her blonde four-year-old a head start by enrolling her in pre-ballet (and tap at age five and piano lessons at age six). Feminine charm, Starr’s mother believes, is an expensive and delicate commodity requiring years of persistence to nurture to beauty-contestant perfection. The third mother had more modest aims -simply to give eight-year-old Heather, plump and sedentary, some physical exercise.

“The motives of parents enrolling children in dance class,” says modern dance teacher Joan Amick, “are as varied as parents themselves. Some hope dance will make their children strong, coordinated, and flexible. Others want their daughters to be graceful and poised. Yet others desire only the éclat they think ballet offers. A few hope a brush with the arts -both dance and music -will make their offspring more cultured. The benefits of dance training, in any case, are multiple.” Just how much individual children benefit depends, however, on three essentials: their willingness to work hard, their talent, and their good fortune in choosing the right teacher.

The Dallas area, as you might imagine, abounds in dance studios. Some have names such as Tutu Divine School of Dance and cater to the Starrs of the region with classes in every conceivable adjunct to hyperfemininity. Others, such as Dallas Ballet Academy, are affiliated with a dance company, and offer only classical ballet training of professional caliber. The others are harder to categorize, because their standards vary considerably from school to school.

Like the name, the location of the school alone won’t tell you much. Some schools spring up like doughnut shops in suburban shopping malls, conceived in the hope of tapping into the huge potential market of little Heathers and Jennifers. Others, like Etgen-Atkinson School of Ballet, try to cover all markets, with a studio in Dallas and another in Richardson. Yet others, such as Nathalie Krassov-ska’s and Denise Brown’s, have found permanent quarters in studios attached to the owner’s house. However housed, the quality of the studio depends primarily on the owner’s vision of her task and her abilities.

In the 10 years Mary, Starr, and Heather have danced, they have run up a considerable bill for their parents. A couple of thousand dollars have gone for dance lessons, another thousand for leotards, tights, slippers, toe shoes, costumes, hair nets, Band-Aids, leg warmers, Ace bandages, dance posters, and lamb’s wool. Yet another thousand has gone into the gas tank. In addition, parents have put in countless hours chauffeuring, occasional Saturday mornings standing behind bake-sale tables, other evenings in dressing rooms mending last-minute rips and applying blue eye shadow to guileless lids. The results show little correlation to the expenditure of time and effort.

Mary, now a junior in high school, has a chance at a professional career, though probably with a regional company. She also has a straight back, a beautifully poised head, and the telltale walk of a ballet dancer. Moreover, she has found another outlet besides honors classes for her relentless drive for perfection. Her circle of friends is small but close, being made up entirely of dancers in the Richardson high school she attends.

Dance has broadened Mary’s horizon beyond those of her Rebelette schoolmates. She’s spent the last three summers studying dance in New York, voluntarily listens to Mozart, and has no desire to grow up to be an accountant.

In contrast, Starr, now 14, aspires to nothing more than being the reigning beauty queen of Garland High School. Her 10 years at the ballet barre have given her a high kick, an ability to pick up drill team combinations quickly, and an album full of recital snapshots: Starr in clouds of pink net; Starr as runner-up in a junior Miss Big Thicket pageant. Several shots show her clutching her talent trophy for her interpretation of Les Sylphides to the music of Burt Bacharach. Despite four years in toe shoes, Starr can no more balance on pointe than a pig can sing.

Eighteen-year-old Heather quit ballet twice: first in adolescent rebellion against her mother, and second on the advice of her teacher, an honest soul who could see how Heather suffered in a competitive class where everyone else could kick her legs past her ears and had no discernible hips. Her teacher recommended modern dance, which is much more tolerant of less-than-ideal body types. While Heather knows she’ll never be a professional dancer (nor does she want to be), she has developed a strong, agile body and a modicum of confidence from performing.

If you were to ask the girls’ parents if they felt they got their money’s worth, all would say, “Most certainly.” Neither Starr’s nor Heather’s mother wanted a ballerina; Mary’s mother little expected a talent to bloom. They were lucky. Most parents choose dance schools for proximity as they would a laundromat. That their choices work out at all is a pleasant surprise, given the widely different purposes of Dallas’ some 40-odd dance schools.

If you are the parent of a potential dancer, it’s easy to find a place with a slick veneer and a smattering of French terms. But Tutu Divine will not pilot your child to the Ballet Russe. The good places must be ferreted out. The following pointers might help you in your search.

Children as young as three or four can benefit from dance class. Note that this is dance instruction, not ballet. Ballet should wait until age eight or nine. Before that, damage can be done to knees, hips, and feet with their large proportion of immature cartilage. Ballet stresses “turn out” from the hips and can put undue strain on unformed joints. In addition, small children lack the coordination that makes progress reasonably rapid and therefore satisfying.

Most dance studios are aware of the futility of rigorous training for four-year-olds, but they are also eager to cash in on parents’ penchant for baby ballerinas. Their solution: the merchandising label “pre-ballet,” which simply means that in all the skipping, hopping, twirling, and leaping about, tots occasionally point a Capezio-slippered toe.

The obsession with cutesy baby ballerinas, so clearly attested to by the cooed and squealed exclamations of “oh-how-dar-ling!” heard at recital time is of course what scares boys away. Which is unfortunate, since the benefits of dance are not gender-bound. In fact, such books as Dance Is a Contact Sport covertly try to legitimize dance for males. But books alone cannot counteract the regional bias that ballet is unmanly. Generally, Dallas boys who take up dance do so relatively late, and they gravitate toward the more serious, professional schools. There they get scholarships, good roles, and the no-nonsense approach they seek. They’re likely to discover, as did Dallas Ballet dancer Kirt Hathaway, who took up ballet while in high school, that dance is more exacting and better exercise than any sport. Joan Amick has found in giving impromptu dance classes on kindergarten playgrounds that invariably boys throw themselves wholeheartedly into the activity. Her preschool classes ask children to make like monkeys instead of Tinker Bells.

If you know a professional dancer, you might ask her to recommend a studio. If you don’t -there aren’t many in Dallas – you can pretty well follow your nose.

First check the Yellow Pages to see what schools are handy. There’s no point carting young Slovova across town until she’s shown talent or interest. Fortunately there are several good ballet schools scattered about. Modern dance schools are another matter. There are only two, one downtown and one in North Dallas. Avoid the schools that advertise baton and “charm.” After all, you wouldn’t go to Greasy Joe’s for salmon béarnaise.

After finding out what schools are within driving distance, call two or three about observing a class. Ask to see a class in which your child would likely be placed. You might even get to see the teacher she’ll have. In large schools, beginners are usually relegated to the hired starving artiste, who may actually be more qualified than the owner/director.

Arrive before class begins. Leave young Slovova behind if you think she’ll squirm. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible; you want a valid idea of the class, which you won’t get if the teacher and students put on a show for your benefit. You may blend better into the woodwork if you arrange to come on a parent’s visiting day – often the first class day of the month.

Check out the physical surroundings. Both modern and ballet classes should have a room large enough to allow leaps across the floor. For ballet, there should be a barre, preferably at two different heights because children come in different sizes. In some studios the barres are bolted to the walls, in others they’re freestanding. Portable barres have the curious virtue of being slightly unstable and thus discourage dancers from hanging on for dear life.

The floor itself is of crucial importance, although dance experts debate what makes the best floor. Some prefer soft wood laid across beams atop yet another floor. Denise Brown installed such a floor in the studio attached to her house, carpeting the underneath floor to muffle the echo. Others prefer cushioned tile; yet others swear by marley – a rubber flooring – atop hardwood. The important point is the floor should be both resilient and smooth. Bare concrete or linoleum laid atop concrete will not do; it will subject the body to too many shocks, and bones and tendons will suffer. Remember, ballet slippers, unlike Nike shoes, do not come with a half inch of cushioned sole. Even if they did, the sole would not be resilient enough to absorb the 500 pounds per square inch of pressure exerted on the foot when the dancer comes down to earth from a soaring leap.

The longest unbroken wall should be lined with mirrors. If the mirror stops short of the room, the dancers at the un-mirrored end will feel like rejects or else will jockey for space in the middle. Mirrors do more than feed vanity and make the room look bigger. They help the dancer to notice errors and so correct them instantly. While teachers want students to learn how to feel what their bodies are doing, they know that seeing a hip too high gets the message to them right away.

With dancing comes music. A piano makes class seem less canned. Most studios, however, rely on recorded music, which can be excellent if it is varied and of good quality. Years of listening to the classics develops discernment.

The room should be warm. Dancers’ muscles must remain warm; hence the sweaters, sweat pants, and leg warmers you’ll find in the advanced classes. In fact, if you’re too warm, the dancer’s muscles are doing just fine.

After surveying the physical accommodations of the studio, look closely at the dancers. You should be able to see every bulge and skinny rib. Almost all studios insist on body-revealing leotards and tights, the better for the teacher to spot flaws. Don’t be too impressed if everyone is wearing the favored black leotards, pink tights, and pink slippers. It’s the fit and not the uniformity that counts.

Talent being rare, you should be prepared for the fact that klutzes will outnumber sylphs, and some classes will be all klutzes. They’ll wobble when they should waltz and jiggle when they should glide. Nevertheless, the class should look like a class. That means everyone pays attention, stays quiet, and does as instructed.

You do not have to be a trained dancer to make some judgments about the teaching. If you see the dancers’ heads held high, chests lifted, attempting to straighten the spine, torsos infused with energy, the class is going in the right direction. The students in a well-taught class will be conscious of their torsos, and those in a poor one will work only on their arms and legs. Dancing is done with the entire body, and improper body alignment throws everything else off. In a well-taught class, the dancers will look alive, full of energy, even when they are standing.

The one specific danger signal you should know to look for is forced turnout. In a properly trained dancer, turnout is achieved by rotating the entire leg outward from the hip joints, and not just from the feet. If the teacher pushes feet so they assume a tight fifth position, rather than stressing turnout from the hips, all sorts of bad things can befall the dancer’s body. Her arches may roll inward, causing undue strain on her knees, and making her support unstable. Eventually, the damage to knees will take its toll -sometimes in the form of permanently aching knees.

Unlike calisthenics, dance exercises require concentration. If the students look too rehearsed, and all the exercises proceed very smoothly from one to the next, it’s possible that the combinations have become deadeningly familiar and the dancers’ minds are on auto pilot. In some studios, students look like Radio City Rockettes in their almost robot-like similarity. Not only do their feet go brush-point in clock-like perfection, but their heads turn to exactly the same angle, and arms swoop together in unison. This kind of wallpaper-print symmetry may mislead you into thinking, ah, a well-disciplined class. Actually, the teacher might be better off coaching a peewee drill team than teaching dance, which is supposed to leave some room for expressiveness and individuality. Katherine Chamberlain, who has a studio in North Dallas, says she does not prescribe every aspect of every movement, preferring to encourage students to put something of themselves into the dance. Instead, she concentrates on proper placement and quick and flexible feet.

Besides surveying the class and the environs, you can also learn a great deal by observing the teacher. In a beginners’ class, the teacher should provide both ample demonstration and adequate explanation. As students become more advanced, they will need less of both. For beginners, however, a teacher whose feet look like dead fish, or whose knees buckle in, is not the good model they need. Even so, it is not unusual to see old, overweight, or arthritic teachers conducting advanced classes quite satisfactorily by using a few expressive gestures and an abbreviated vocabulary.

No matter how erect her carriage or exquisite her technique, the teacher will not elicit hard work if she lacks rapport with her class. Those with a flair for beginners have a knack for humor and simile. Kathy Chamberlain, for example, told one stiff-legged moppet to “make the assemble like a small breath, not a yawn.” When the class was lined up to bourrée across the floor, Nathalie Krassovska reminded them that their “hands must be light, like feathers.” Good teachers also nudge children into proper classroom behavior with such admonitions as “Dancers talk with their arms and legs, not their mouths.”

On the other hand, there are teachers in a few Dallas studios who would have enjoyed overseeing the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Perhaps believing that discipline should be all sternness, they fume and rage, or coldly snap. Undoubtedly, some of their students go away equating dance with misery.

The teacher should pay as much attention to the klutzes as to the sylphs. Joan Amick believes the teacher should treat every student as a potential Pavlova, for, she says, “You never know who is going to blossom.” The corrections should be given in the proper spirit, that is, dispassionately. More advanced and dedicated students can bear an impatient comment or a little irony -such as Kathy Chamberlain’s “Why are you taking a coffee break after the glissade?” -but younger students are likely to take sharp comments too much to heart.

The instructions should be clear and simple. It doesn’t do for the teacher to rattle off before each exercise, “stand-straight-tummies-in-seats-under-knees-straight-heads-up-shoulders-down,” making the students feel like overprogrammed Univacs. Nor does it help to give corrections only after the exercise is completed. That’s like complaining the steak is underdone after you’ve eaten it.

Some onlookers unfamiliar with dance class may be taken aback by the frequency of corrections. Unless given in anger or contempt, corrections wound no souls. Ballet has very clear-cut and unvarying standards.

The purpose of class is to help students match their efforts to those ideal standards. There being nothing idiosyncratic or nebulous about the ideal -a leg perfectly extended in arabesque attitude brooks no argument -no one suffers bruised feelings if told to bring the foot level with the knee.

A good teacher makes her corrections concrete by frequently touching, or where need be, by grabbing hold of an arm or leg. The teacher may, for example, seize an uplifted ankle and gently push the leg higher, in order to show the student the full potential of her extension. Or she may press one hand on a protruding tummy and the other on the sloping back. Such lining up of the spine eliminates a lot of guesswork for the child, who may have thought her posture was correct. Touching also makes the child more conscious of isolated muscles, so that as her body awareness develops, so does her control.

A good teacher explains why as well as how. For example, when Tanju Tuzer tells his class to push up into relevé, he explains that “the push is what gets you off the ground in jumps.” Similarly, Ann Etgen points out that if dancers don’t bend their knees before a turn, they’ll never make it all the way around.

Most good teachers have performed professionally, which is a reliable sign that the teacher has had excellent training herself. Moreover, a full career as a performer means the teacher is not likely to lose sight of the fact that technique is secondary to style.

When Nathalie Krassovska, a former Listed below are several reputable Dallas area dance studios, their credentials, and their experience in the area.

Chamberlain’s School of Ballet. 13935 N. Central Expressway. 234-4021. Classes in ballet and pre-ballet. Small classes; some performing opportunities; intensive summer workshop; New York City Ballet style. Years in area: 4.

Dallas Ballet Academy. 3004 Fair-mount. 748-3930. Classes in ballet and pre-ballet. Official school of Dallas Ballet. Large faculty; summer workshop with guest teachers; piano accompaniment; large studios; boys’ classes; performing opportunities (but no recital). Years in area: 16.

Dancers Unlimited. 1924 1/2 Main Street. 742-7821. Classes in modern, jazz, and ballet. Affiliated with Dancers Unlimited Repertory Company. Large faculty – all members of the Repertory Company; small classes; large studio; non-competitive atmosphere. Years in area: 7 months.

Denise Brown School of Ballet and Gymnastics. 5936 Sherry Lane. 348-8185. Classes in ballet, aerobics, and gymnastics. Large, airy studios, excellent floor; piano accompaniment; non-competitive atmosphere; some performing opportunities. Years in area: 31.

Etgen-Atkinson School of Ballet. 6815 Hillcrest and 340 Spanish Village, Richardson. 361-0278 (Dallas) and 239-6911 (Richardson). Classes in ballet. Official school of Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. Two studios; men’s classes; intensive summer workshop; good performing opportunities. Years in area: 17.

Joan Amick Dance Directions; Denise Brown Studio and Dallas Gymnastic Center. 5936 Sherry Lane and 2605 North-aven. 348-8185. Classes in modern, dance for gymnasts, and “dance exploration.” Affiliated with “Sailaway,” a professional dancer cooperative. Imaginative children’s classes; some performing opportunities; guest teachers; chiefly Bella Le-witzky technique. Years in area: 11.

Nathalie Krassovska School of Classical Ballet. 5731 Richmond. 821-4160. Official school of Krassovska Ballet Jeunesse. Large studio; small classes; good performing opportunities; coaching in romantic style. Years in area: 18.

Schaffenburg-Cross School of Ballet. 10911 Dennis Rd., Suite 402. 241-0760. Classes in ballet, tap, and jazz. Some performing opportunities, strong on technique. Years in area: 1.

Tuzer School of Ballet. 610 UniversityVillage, Richardson. 783-1735. Classes inballet and ballex (balletic exercise foradults). Small classes; summer workshop;some performing opportunities; strong onport de bras. Years in area: 4.

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