Picking Up the Steps: An Introduction to Dance Training


Music visualization class at the Ted Shawn Studio, Grand Ave…From the NYPL Digital GalleryDance education, like any other type of education, seems to be divided into two main approaches:  hollistic or test-oriented. In this case, however, the test tends to be the end of the year show, most commonly referred to as the “recital”. 


As a dance educator, the word “recital” makes me cringe. To me, it implies a demonstration of acquired skills, which could also be referred to as “tricks”, to an outfit dripping with sequins referred to as a “costume”, and a production with little care to the design of lights, sound, set, or choreography to express more than a picture of the product that has been bought. The treatment of dance lives more in the arena of athleticism than artistry and education, and well, kids are learning stuff but what stuff might be up for debate when you pay close enough attention. 


The key for deciding how, when, and where your child should start their dance education (and they should, regardless of gender!!) is to first decide what kind of experience you’d like them to have and then find a venue that may offer those type of experiences. As in everything else, there is good and bad and ugly, but with the right information you may either A) be able to find the right place or B) make the most of what is available. Here goes:


Creative Movement and Pre-Ballet for preschool ages

Dance, by nature, tends to be a social activity. 

For children around 3, having the opportunity to be with other children, take direction from an adult other than their parents and/or caregivers, and having space to move freely can be a liberating and productive experience. This is what classes designed for this age group tend to emphasize. 


These types of classes are usually referred to as “Creative Movement” or “Pre-Ballet”. The purpose of both classes is to prepare students to learn dance in a meaningful way and in a structured environment and both should introduce some dance terminology and codified movement vocabulary. 


You may consider “Creative Movement” to be the foundation for modern dance training, and “Pre-ballet” to be that for ballet, but rest assured the important thing is your child getting a great movement experience that strengthens and stretches their minds as well as their bodies. 


The types of movement in these classes might draw upon the same principles but may use space differently, which supports the development of training when style of dance may become more “important”, for lack of a better word. In this way, the “Pre-ballet” resembles a traditional ballet class in that the movement will likely be very vertical with little to no use of floorwork other than basic stretching. A “Creative Movement” class may resemble a Modern dance class in which floorwork is an integral part of the technique. 


As a parent, it is likely that for age 3 and below, you might find “Mommy and Me” offerings (Dads are welcome, too, inspite of the unfortunate title) where you would be expected to move in the class as well. 


Combination Classes: A little of this, a little of that

As your child ages, you may find “combo” classes such as Ballet and Acro (Acrobatics), Ballet and Tap, or some other interesting pairing. This class is designed to serve as a sampler of movement styles as well as a ploy to maintain a young child’s interest for 45 minutes to an hour. 

Evelyn Stillwell teaches a ballet class: Sarasota, Florida. Photograph by Charles Barron 

Styles of Dance:  Ballet, Jazz, Tap, Lyrical, Contemporary, Modern,…..

Dance, in professional settings, takes on two modes: Concert and Commercial.


Concert dance tends to be danced by dance companies and relates dance that conveys some kind of meaning or story. While it is entertaining, this is where artistry really starts to take hold and dance becomes a way to express an idea when words may fall short. In reality, concert dance consists of any “style” of dance as long as there is meaning or a point of investigation to be explored within the creative process, resulting in a dance or “piece”. In studio settings, the styles typically tracked for concert dance futures would be Ballet, modern dance, and classic jazz.


Commercial dance tends to be driven by pop-culture and is usually more accessible to the general public. Dance that is seen in music videos, industrials, awards shows, and often television (not PBS!) or film is often commercial. Commercial dance can use story within its structure but how the story is treated is very different, as is the creative process. In the studio setting, the courses that would prepare students for this line of experiences would typically be hip hop, lyrical, contemporary, and so on. 


Finding a “Good” Studio.

This can be tricky. Essentially it comes down to philosophy, the extent at which the owners/teachers create their course offerings to please the public, and their own personal training and experiences in professional dance and collegiate dance. 


  1. It is NOT how many or how tall the trophies are in the window or in the lobby.
  2. It is NOT how young or how cool the “it” girls are. Spend a few minutes sitting in the lobby observing and you’ll know what I mean.
  3. It is NOT how many alumni have gone on to be teacher’s assistants on the convention circuits or how many times they’ve gone to Los Angeles.
  4. It is NOT how many turns, how high the kicks are, or how in unison their “troupe” is. 
  5. It is NOT is they have Gold, Silver, and Bronze companies.


Class at the Denishawn School of Dancing, including Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Martha Graham, Louise Brooks, Robert Graham.. from the NYPL Digital Gallery via The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Jerome Robbins Dance Division. 

Here are some sample questions to ask:

What is the education of your instructors?

Hope for BA or BFAs in Dance at the minimum.


Who teaches the youngest classes?

If I owned a studio, I would place my most seasoned instructors in the youngest classes. Just like early childhood education, this is the foundation and where the real (and still fun!) work begins. In reality, however, the youngest classes are often taught by the studio’s most “advanced” teenage dancer. Proceed with caution.


Do you incorporate other aspects of dance into classes such as health and wellness, theory, history, and/or production?

This might be rare in many studios but it will let you know who is teaching the whole child.  


What types of performances do you present and what do the students typically wear? Is this a competition studio?

The choice of words used in the response will give you a good idea of what to expect. Perhaps ask what creates a successful performance. Is it the process, the product, or the appearance?  Mastery of steps is important but so is the journey to achieving that mastery. 


If it is a competition studio, find out why they compete and consider what “competition” of any description means. Sure, it can be healthy but it can also be destructive and sometimes misplace the value within an experience from the pride in creating to the pride in winning. Not all competition studios forego one for the other, but it can be a hard balance to maintain. 


Do you have any pictures of past performances I may see?

Check to see what types of costumes are being worn and what kind of music is being danced to. Is it age appropriate? Does it fit your comfort level? 


Finally, keep your eyes and ears open. 

Listen by the door to the instructors teaching class. Listen to what parents are discussing in the lobby. Listen to your gut. 


Any questions?



Heather Vaughan-Southard is a dance educator and freelance choreographer based in Michigan with rich teaching experiences in higher education, K-12 public schools, and private studios. With an approach of teaching dance as a liberal art, she draws from her experiences dancing professionally in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to create experiences that move beyond the boundaries of a studio, producing well-rounded, thinking dance citizens. She is author of the blog EducatingDancers, where she chronicles her perspectives on dance and dance education and is the K-12 Dance Education columnist for Dance Advantage. Heather holds an MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in dance from Western Michigan University, K-12 Dance Certification from Wayne State University and is the mother of two small children whom never seem to stop moving.