Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Mama Mia! When Your Dance Student is Your Child
Teaching your own child can be a challenging task. Many parent-teachers struggle to find the balance between being the mother of a child whose skills they are uniquely proud of and being the teacher of a classroom filled with students they have to treat equally. But a few key strategies can make the pleasure of teaching your child far outweigh the added stress.
Teacher vs. Mom
For mothers who double as teachers, the first step toward avoiding conflict is helping your child differentiate between you in “teacher mode” and you in “mom mode.” Mary Price Boday, an associate professor at Oklahoma City University’s Ann Lacey School of American Dance and Arts Management and the coordinator of the school’s American Dance Teacher Pedagogy Program, suggests beginning when the child is young with a conversation that draws the distinction between you as mother and you as teacher.
“Explain to your daughter that she is one of the students, and when she’s in the room it’s not mommy and daughter anymore, it’s teacher and student,” Boday says. “Mommy and daughter time is afterwards.” In fact, scheduling a specific “mommy-daughter” outing soon after class—a trip to the ice cream stand or the bookstore—can help younger children differentiate between “teacher mom” and “mom mom.” Bevalie Pritchard, the school mistress and principal teacher at the Orlando Ballet School, found this method to be highly successful when teaching her two daughters. “Eventually, they separated me as mommy from me as teacher, almost as if I were two different people,” she says.
Separate, But Not Equal
Isolation from peers is also common among the children of dance teachers, because it is hard for them to define themselves as individuals in their mother’s presence. Boday had trouble with her daughter who, as a teenager, developed an attitude about the other students in class. “Our late-night dinner conversations would be my daughter asking what was wrong with everyone else in the class,” Boday says. “‘Why didn’t you correct this? Why didn’t you try to fix that?’ She kept herself separated from all the other students because of it.”
According to Boday, children of dance teachers often feel overshadowed by their parents, and they have a tendency to think that things should go their way because they are the teacher’s child. In this case, Boday eased that tension by explaining the rationale behind when and how she made corrections in class. “I told my daughter that if I corrected every single thing that every single person did wrong, nobody would get anything done and everyone would have a flattened ego,” Boday says. “So I picked only the most important things to correct.” Boday also suggests preventing isolation from peers by making the rules the same for everybody and sticking to them. “It’s not always possible, but if you can, make it so that everyone has the same part and no one is going to be a soloist,” says Boday. “That way it’s easier for your child to feel equal to the other students, and they in turn don’t view your child as a threat or someone they are jealous of.”
Look at Me!
That same need to define themselves as individuals can also cause teacher’s children to engage in attention-seeking behaviors. Tracy Solomon, director of The Dothan School of Dance, found this was the case with her daughter Ashlie. “Ashlie wanted to be friends with everybody,” says Solomon. “But it was hard for her because I was there in class clamping down on her. She would resent that and, as retaliation, disobey the rules.”
On one particularly harrowing day, Solomon asked Ashlie to leave class because she was disrupting the barre routine. A few minutes later, Solomon looked out the window and saw that Ashlie was right outside of the studio, ostentatiously continuing her barre on the porch. For Solomon, the problem was frustrating on a number of levels. Not only did Ashlie misbehave so frequently that Solomon had to ask her to leave class at least once a week, but Solomon was also disappointed by the fact that Ashlie was wasting time making scenes and therefore not living up to her potential. “I expected her to be everything that I knew she could be, and when she would clown around or not try a hundred percent, it would really ruffle my feathers,” Solomon says. “It was hard to treat her the same as any other child because my expectations for her were higher.”
Boday acknowledges the difficulty of tempering your expectations for your child and recommends actively “checking” yourself as a parent. “You have to have a mental conversation with yourself,” says Boday. “Say, ‘I’m invested in every student that walks through the door.’ You have to give each and every person the same amount of yourself, your child included.” Solomon found that giving Ashlie additional responsibilities as she got older also led her to be more attentive in class. “I would give her younger group dances to choreograph and also let her teach some pre-ballet classes,” Solomon says. “It helped her realize how important it is that teachers demand attention and attentiveness and that the students follow the rules.” Experiencing the challenges of being a teacher will help your child understand the decisions you make in class.
The More Teachers, the Merrier
Giving your child the opportunity to study under other teachers—both at your own studio and over the summer, if possible—is also helpful. “It’s important for your child to have the opportunity to learn from others along the way, so that you aren’t her only idea of what a teacher is,” Pritchard says. According to Boday, working with different teachers will also help your child respect and enjoy the classes she takes with you more, since you will no longer be her only dance authority figure. And summer programs, if affordable, can be even more beneficial. “Sometimes the children of teachers love dance, but they haven’t really buckled down because it’s their mom at the front of the classroom,” says Boday. “Then, when they go away to a summer program, they get so excited about the progress they’ve made that they’re more serious when they come back.”
Solomon hired another teacher to teach Ashlie’s classes during her junior and senior years of high school. “She finally realized that dance class was serious, not just a place to goof off,” Solomon says. “Her junior and senior years were when she buckled down and realized that she wanted to do this as a career.” Even with the challenges, most teachers agree that the experience of teaching one’s own child is priceless. “Watching them grow up is the most exciting thing in the world,” says Pritchard. “Now we’re closer because of it.”
Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.