I took dance class for the entirety of my childhood. I attended my first dance school from about ages 3-5. I actually STILL can remember what the studio looked like, I still have memories of changing dance shoes between classes, and can still see myself doing the butterfly stretch. It was a 3-in-one dance class with tap, jazz, and ballet.
In first grade, I transferred to a new dance studio, where my mom’s close friend worked at. Her daughter was also my age, and there was a group of us who were all in the same grade, who would carpool together with each parent taking turns driving. So, it was really convenient for my mom to have me go there.
I took tap and jazz lessons at this studio from grades 1-6, and would also go back to ballet again at the start of 7th. It was once a week, but classes were long and intensive. I usually ate dinner at home quickly beforehand, or would get take-out with the carpool gang and we’d eat in the car. I don’t remember how I had time to get my homework done on those days, I think I would either do it at the studio while waiting for class to begin, or super late at night when I got home.
The classes were super strict. I had a friendly teacher, but she was also really hard on us — that’s just how the culture is. We would get screamed at while we danced, like “SMILE!” or “STAND UP STRAIGHTER!” or “MORE ENERGY!” etc. We had very short occasional water breaks, and once they were over, if we did not return to our spots in time we would get screamed at. In between classes, if we did not change our shoes fast enough, we got screamed at. If you had to go to the bathroom at any point, you would either not be allowed, or the teacher (and often the other students too) would make you feel really awkward about it and tell you to hurry up. It was really high-pressure for a bunch of elementary school kids.
Calling out sick was frowned upon, and in the months before the annual dance recital, our teacher would tell us — “if you call out sick, you better be on your death bed, coughing up blood.”
I did have a lot of fun, still. Learning dance moves was so much fun. When the whole class did a dance together, and everyone got the moves right, it felt really cool. My favorite was tap class. The other girls were nice for the most part, I made really good friends with a girl in the grade ahead of me and actually got along with her better than the ones in my own grade, she also ended up joining the carpool.
But it kept getting stricter every year. I think my dad still has PTSD from this weekend, my mom was away, and he had to help me buy the right tights for a professional photoshoot. That was a whole nightmare! Haha!
I really did not want to sign up again once I got to 7th grade. But my mom was super persistent, probably because of her close friend being there. I began dance lessons for the first few weeks, at this point I was trying ballet again, and it was way too much. At that point, I really put my foot down and begged them to let me quit. I really enjoyed dancing, but all the pressure was making it not fun anymore, at all.
After leaving that year, I tried hard to find a new studio that was a better fit. One of my close friends was interested in starting dance lessons, so her and I found a new place that we went to together. On the contrary, this place was actually too relaxed for me. There was no annual dance recital, which was a bummer for me. Dance recitals are stressful, but I loved being able to perform for my family. The whole studio had absolutely no structure at all. Our teacher (who was very chill and cool, I admire that) would really just “wing it” every class, she often didn’t know what she was doing, what we were supposed to be doing. Only half the time did she actually have something to teach us. On top of that, my friend who I joined with did not show up for class most of the time.
And so, it was time to continue the search. I had another close friend who was also interested in taking dance lessons, so her and I did research together and found a new studio that had just opened up — right in town, only five minutes away from home! My previous studios were 20-30 min away. I joined the studio — however that same friend flaked out at the last minute — which didn’t matter anyway, because it ended up being such a perfect fit.
This studio, I attended from grades 8-12, was the perfect happy medium. They were balanced between disciplined and relaxed. This would be my favorite dance studio. Since it was up-and-coming, there were many girls in the younger classes, but sparse in the older classes (because most girls stick with the same studio their whole childhood.) My classes usually had no more than 1-2 other girls! (Except for my hip-hop class, which had like 10 of us.) Sometimes it was just me, which was pretty cool, like getting private lessons.
I started with tap and hip-hop, and then expanded to lyrical and eventually pointe ballet. I usually attended classes twice a week. I also took classes over summer break. One summer, my friend from school also joined me. My two teachers, who founded the studio, were sisters. My teachers said that lyrical and ballet really fit me best, that I was very graceful with my movement.
I should also add that I was on the cheerleading team at my school in grades 11-12. I enjoyed it more in grade 11, when we had a coach with a dance background, who made everything much more dance-y. Overall, it was too militaristic for me. Cheerleading is all about having stiff movements like a robot. It’s a great sport for those who enjoy it, but not for me, I prefer being more flow-y.
In college, I was on the dance team for my sophomore and junior years. It was really fun the first year I did it, but that also became way too high-pressure for me. The captains that year would spend most of the time telling all of us that we weren’t good enough, they were extremely dramatic, they did not care how about stressful course loads that everyone was dealing with. There was no need to take something that should be fun and turn it into boot camp. The thing is, many of them came from backgrounds like mine, growing up with teachers who (metaphorically) spat on them as children, conditioned to think that this is acceptable. At least one girl had a background with dance competitions — which I can imagine was even ten times stronger. Ultimately, they were all repeating to us the same things that their own teachers yelled at them for. The difference was, I was a full-grown adult at that point, I wouldn’t put up with that.
I’m thankful for all of the years I had learning dance. I am most thankful for the teachers I had during my teen years. Those will always be my favorite years of dancing. I’m not saying my elementary/middle school dance years were bad, trust me there were plenty of wonderful times, and I learned so much. Growing up with dance lessons really did give me a better posture, along with confidence, understanding the importance of expressing myself, and how good it feels to stretch!
I’m glad I left my second dance studio when I did. For the girls who stayed, they carried bottles of Advil with them and had to pop pills multiple times a day. Even at my last studio, I suffered from a bout of tendonitis, I often had injuries and bruises, and during just one year of pointe, I already had visible damage on my toes/feet. Dancing is no joke — while it may not be a sport (unless you compete), it is physically excruciating and dangerous!
What people should understand is that, unfortunately, much of dance culture is toxic. Actually, reality shows like “Dance Moms” and “Cheer” shed light on the common culture of dance and cheerleading. Certainly my experiences were never as ugly as you see on those TV shows, but I have to say that my second studio I attended came kind of close. This is how most dance schools are — teachers constantly yelling at and demeaning vulnerable children. And then they use toxic positivity by telling you to smile wide through your performances and that you’re never allowed to get sick or tired. (This is why I love ballet/lyrical — you don’t have to smile while you dance.)
Again, this is not true for ALL dance studios. Like I said, the one I went to in my teen years was nothing but a positive experience. And the super relaxed one I went to before that was certainly not toxic (it just wasn’t for me.) But if you do have a child who attends classes, be sure that they are being treated fairly! Dance is a discipline, but the main goal is to have fun!
[The featured photo of me is not from class or a recital — this is me at a family resort’s talent show, solo dancing/singing to Britney Spears!]