I’ll be continuing my series on advice for adult beginners with how to choose your studio. If you missed the last post, about whether ballet is right for you, you can read that here.
So, choosing your studio: with any luck, you’ll have a wealth of choice available to you- these days, ballet classes for adults are more popular than ever. Some studios specialise in adult ballet classes, whereas others offer them in addition to children’s and vocational courses. If you live in a big town or city, you’ll likely have more choice- the further out you live, the less choice you’re likely to have. You may have to be prepared to travel a little further for your classes.
The best place to find out what studios and schools in your area offer adult classes is to go online- just a quick search should bring up good results. Some may also list ads in local newspapers, on notice boards, in dance magazines and in directory catalogues such at the Yellow Pages. Still, looking online is probably the quickest and most efficient method.
Here are the things you need to consider:
DOES IT OFFER CLASSES FOR ADULTS AT MY LEVEL?
This information should be on the website, but sometimes it’s not immediately clear if classes for adults are available, so give them a call and ask if you’re not sure. Also ask what levels are available, and if you can, get a description of these levels. Sometimes the differences between classes can be vague, and vary greatly between establishments. “Elementary Ballet” in one place can be something totally different in another school, in terms of difficulty. Make sure they offer a class that’s suitable for your level of experience- at my studio, I’m often the one answering this type of call, so I know that they should be able to advise you well- they probably get a lot of this sort of question!
DOES IT FIT IN WITH MY LIFE?
You need to think practically. How far away is the studio? Are you prepared to make that journey? Is the class that’s at your level at a good time to fit in with your schedule, including time to travel, change, and warm up? Do you want to take class once a week, or more? If so, is this offered? If not, are you willing to go to more than one studio to take different classes on different days, and are those classes at a good time for you? These are the things you need to think about before looking into that studio any further.
WHAT IS THE SYSTEM?
By ‘system’ I mean this- does this studio offer drop-in classes, do they have to be booked in advance, do you book and pay month-by-month, or does it work by terms or semesters? Do classes happen throughout the year, or only the academic year? Choose what works best for you. Sometimes it works out as better value to pay for a month or term of classes, but it might be easier to pay per class. Can you commit to a whole month or term? Do you want to only do class during the academic calendar, and have breaks, or dance throughout the year? (Of course, if you have breaks, you can still take drop-in classes at other studios). Each system will have its own pros and cons, you just need to pick what works best for your budget, your schedule and your aims.
SYLLABUS OR NON-SYLLABUS?
A syllabus-based class is one where you will take a class in a certain grade, working towards an exam. You can then take the exam to gain the qualification in that grade of ballet, or at some studios you may be allowed to progress to the next grade when you are ready without taking the exam. These are more common in children’s classes, but are also available for adults.
Graded syllabus classes have their pros and cons. They offer a system of teaching that progresses in a logical way- you start with simpler movements, which once mastered, evolve into more complex versions. However, with syllabus work, you often spend a lot of time on the set exercises for the exam, meaning there is less time spent on free combinations. When you have to pick up a combination on the spot in a different class, for example, you may really struggle. Syllabus classes can make the brain lazy- but then you also get a chance to really work on and perfect the exercises.
Exams come in at extra cost- usually extra classes in the lead-up to the exam, new shoes and sometimes uniform to ensure you’re looking your best, and the cost of the exam itself.
This is a good option for people who are goal-orientated and like to receive marks in their work- in most exam-based systems, you’ll receive feedback on each portion of the exam, which is helpful for growth.
Non-syllabus classes are much freer, and usually better for the mind in terms of picking up new combinations and dancing in different, more varied styles. However, you won’t receive marks in exams or be put into a certain grade. You may get some written feedback from teachers, or you may only receive verbal corrections during class.
I used to take adults’ syllabus classes, now I take non-syllabus. I prefer my current classes, but learned a lot from the syllabus-based system.
Syllabus classes also guarantee that your teacher is fully qualified, as they can only teach the syllabus after being thoroughly trained and tested in its methods. These qualifications are a good indication that the teacher knows their stuff, but many teachers without this accreditation are just as good or better. Many non-syllabus teachers won’t have received any teaching qualifications, but might be amazing natural teachers, or may have had a sensational professional career, which can bring great insight into your studies.
The main dance examining bodies in the UK are RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and ISTD (Imperial Society of the Teachers of Dancing), and these bodies exist internationally as well. There are others, but these are the main two in this country- research what is available in your country and your area, and see what would suit your learning style best.
WHAT IS THE COST?
You need to think about the cost of classes- don’t forget that in addition to fees, you will need to pay for things like dancewear. These costs can be reduced with frugal thinking- click here for some great tips for ballet on a budget.
If the studio has a set uniform that you need to buy, that will add to the cost of joining that studio, so take this into account, although it is rare for a uniform to be required for adult classes.
The best way to compare cost between studios is to try to work out what you’d be paying per class- if the fees are payable monthly or termly, divide by the number of classes you’d be taking to get the rate per class.
It’s worth paying more for a studio that has proper sprung, non-slip floors, and mirrors, as these are useful additions. Some studios will also boast a live pianist, which is nice but not essential, and the same goes for proper barres as opposed to portable ones, and good changing facilities. Use the next section to make a list of things you want from your dance studio, and think about what you’d be willing to pay more for.
Many schools and studios will offer discounts for students, NHS workers (UK), teachers, military personnel, senior citizens, those with disabilities and those in receipt of benefits. They may also offer discounts for people wishing to take more than one class per week, or if your child also attends that school. Even if no such discounts are available or you’re not eligible, it is a good idea to have a word with them if you’re struggling to afford the fees. They may be able to help you spread the cost or reduce the amount. It’s worth asking if you really like the studio, but the fees are too steep.
Not all studios and schools are created equal. What might seem like a great-value class could end up being one that lacks essential facilities. I have taken classes in school classrooms and village halls which had unsuitable floors, chairs instead of a barre, no mirrors, and not enough space. You can get a lot of information about the facilities on offer by looking at the website, and calling to ask. If it seems promising, pay a visit to really get a good picture. These are the things to think about:
FLOOR: This is the MOST IMPORTANT thing to think about. The floor affects your dancing so much. Ideally the floor would be fully sprung and covered with a non-slip surface- specialist dance floors such as Harlequin are the best option. This will enable you to jump and turn without fear of slipping over, and it will prevent injuries. A wooden floor is the next best option, but you may need to use water or rosin to avoid slipping. DO NOT dance in a studio that has concrete floors under the floorboards/ surface. They are unforgiving on your joints and you could seriously injure yourself. These floors are not suitable for dance, yet some venues will be providing dance classes on such floors, as specialist floors are expensive, so be aware.
MIRRORS: This is not totally essential, but it’s very, very useful. You need to be able to check your reflection to spot mistakes, and to see if you are doing things properly. Learning to spot your own mistakes and correct them is a very important part of the learning process. The teacher may also draw your attention to certain things in the mirror, so it is useful to have. It is good to learn not to rely on the mirror, however, and make sure you are practicing correct eyeliner and head direction. There isn’t a mirror on stage!
BARRES: The studio may have barres attached to the walls, or portable ones. Both are fine provided there is enough barre space for everyone, and they are a suitable height. Many professional schools and companies use portable barres, although I admit I personally much prefer a barre attached to the wall. When you stand next to the barre, it should be around waist-height. It will vary by studio and according to your height. Some studios will have a higher and lower barre, so you can choose which one is a better height for you- this can be an important factor if you’re on the smaller side, for others it might not be as important.
SPACE: There should be enough space to travel and to jump. There should be no obstructing pillars or other features, and preferably the room will be square or rectangular, not a funny shape with lots of corners. Some studios are smaller, which is fine, you will likely do your centre work in smaller groups- this is a good chance to observe others- but you should be able to travel.
MUSIC: A live pianist to accompany the class is a lovely privilege, but by no means essential. Many studios will use recorded music, which works absolutely fine. A pianist is a pleasure to have in the room, because they can usually play varied pieces and add a bit of extra inspiration to an exercise, and they can also speed up and slow down as necessary. A class with a live pianist may cost more, but may be worth the extra cost depending on your priorities and budget- although sometimes you can still get lucky and find a cheap class with a pianist!
CHANGING: Good changing facilities are important if you’re planning on coming straight from work and getting changed there. If you just wear your dance wear with warm-ups over the top to and from the studio, you can be less picky. Showers are rare, but may be available in some studios, especially ones with full-time vocational students. Ask about the changing facilities, and look at them if you can- decide if they meet your needs.
This is the most important part of your choice. Once you’ve gotten all of the practicalities sorted, you need to find a teacher who inspires and motivates you, and who you can learn from in the best way.
As mentioned above, you may choose to take syllabus or non-syllabus classes. If you take syllabus classes, your teacher will have had to pass examinations in teaching by that examining body, and you will know they are well-qualified to teach that syllabus.
Non-syllabus teachers do not need any qualifications to teach dance. You need to be aware of the things the teacher is asking the students to do to make sure that they are practicing dance in a positive and safe way. The best thing to do is to observe a class, or take a trial class. This is offered at almost all studios.
If the teacher doesn’t have qualifications in teaching, it’s a good idea to look at their biography if one is available. They may have had an impressive professional career, or a long career of teaching dance.
However, whether the teacher has awarding body qualifications or not, and whether they were or weren’t a professional dancer, and wether they have years of experience of teaching or only a few, none of this guarantees that they’ll be a great teacher, or the right teacher for you. Again, the only way to know is to watch or take their class.
The teacher should have energy and authority. Don’t be surprised if they don’t give a lot of praise- this is normal in ballet! It’s something you have to get used to when you start training, so don’t take this personally. The teacher should give plenty of corrections- to be corrected is a privilege and a chance to better your technique. If they are giving you attention, they believe you have the potential to take your technique to the next level, so feel lucky! You’re not being picked on. If you are new, the teacher might not correct you much until you have been coming to class for some time, to allow you to settle in. It depends on that teacher’s style.
When they give exercises, it should be clear what they mean (maybe not to you if you’re new, but to the rest of the class), and preferably they will actively demonstrate the movements. Some teachers won’t be able to because of age or injury, especially those who have worn out their bodies with long professional careers, but it should be clear what they want you to do. They should welcome questions and answer them well.
The teacher should not be shouting at the students (this is okay in a pre-professional environment, but not productive in an adult class), be critical of people’s shape or weight, and they should be present and paying attention to the dancing that’s going on. Alarm bells should not only ring if the teacher seems excessively critical, but also if the teacher is not giving enough feedback. Especially for more beginner levels, teachers should not be allowing students to practice in incorrect form- they should be looking out at every opportunity for a chance to help them improve. They might concentrate more on some people, sometimes those who are newer, or those who are more advanced and need more in-depth corrections, but they should offer help to everyone in the class, not just one or two favourites.
Some will be strict, others relaxed and friendly. Some people prefer a strict, disciplined atmosphere in class. Others prefer a class that’s laid-back and chatty- you’ll come across both kinds, so pick what you prefer. I like a class that’s strict- I prefer it when people aren’t breaking out into chatter, and when people are standing in the correct space and keeping out of the way of the dancers. When people are standing wherever, I can’t concentrate- many others feel the complete opposite! Choose what works best for you.
As one extra thing, some studios may offer opportunities to be in the schools’ performances. This is less common with adult classes compared to children’s classes, but if it’s important to you, you may be able to find somewhere that will enable you to do this. If not, you may be able to take separate short courses in the holidays, especially in the summer, which culminate in a performance, or join an amateur company such as London Amateur Ballet, which give performances as well as short courses. I’ve done the LAB summer course before and it was an amazing opportunity to dance full-time at a time when I was not in full-time training- the other adults loved it, and it ended with a performance. They also put on bigger performances with their regular year-round company.
Once you’ve considered all of the above, and watched or tried out a class, you can decide whether to go ahead with that studio or whether to keep looking. You may do more than one class at more than one studio. Getting different teachers’ perspectives can be very useful, as long as you remember that in their class, do things the way they like them done. There will likely be contradictions and discrepancies about technique between different teachers and at different schools, and this is the nature of ballet, as there are different styles and methods. Remember to do things the way that teacher likes them done when you are with them. It’s respectful and just logical, too!
Next time, I’ll talk you though a few basics that it’s useful to know before you start your first class. Let me know what you think in the comments, and ask if there’s anything else you want me to cover!