What is the right age for my child to begin formal dance lessons?
One of the questions I am asked most frequently about my dance studio is, “How old do children have to be to enroll?” Many parents notice that their child responds naturally to music from the minute they can stand up and cruise around. They smile and bounce to the beat, march their feet and wave their arms. Dancing is an innate part of the human experience. Children love to dance! So… when is the right time to expose your child to a formal dance education? There are lots of things to consider when you are thinking of enrolling your child in dance lessons.
1. How young do the dancers begin?
Each studio will have a different approach here, but parents can usually find a program for dancers as young as 18 months to 2 years. Most often, this will be a “mommy and me” type structure where dancers are guided by a parent or other caregiver. This is most appropriate at this age and will help dancers to become familiar with the dance studio and the structure of the class without needing to be as independent as an older preschooler might be. This type of class allows for parents to attend to the focus of each individual student while the instructor keeps the class moving and flowing. Its also a great situation when dancers are not yet out of diapers. If needs arise, parents are right there to assist. The dancer can become more confident and independent as the class progresses.
2. How are the age groups divided?
This is an important point for the preschool set. A class should be structured for a particular age level with appropriate motor skills and activities. These change vastly from age 2 to age 5. So, what might be engaging and appropriate for a 2-year-old may leave a 5-year-old unchallenged and unimpressed. In general, dancers under age three will need a parent present, lots of imaginative play, and activities that switch constantly to keep them engaged. By age three when dancers may be able to enter the studio independently, they are ready to work on more specific motor skills like hopping and skipping. They can learn the names of some basic movements and practice short routines. They love to sing and tumble. A program for 3 and 4-year-olds should reflect these things. By age 4 or 5, a dancer is much more sure-footed and can probably stand on one foot for a while. This is a great time to begin basic tap dancing. Dancers are excited for the rhythms and a license to make noise! Before this age, correct tap technique is impossible to teach because standing on the ball of one foot is required.
3. Is your program designed to appeal to a young dancer?
Any “ballet” class for preschoolers should actually be creative movement based. Trying to get very young dancers to stand at the barre and do plies would be counterproductive and inappropriate for this young audience. (Think monkey bars! 😊) Young dancers need constructive play-based classes where they learn through imaginative games and movements. A formal ballet barre should be reserved for much closer to age 8 or 9.
4. Who will be teaching the classes?
A great studio will have teachers who specialize in younger dancers. This awesome age group requires a teacher who knows not only how to dance, but also how to interact with the preschool crowd. She will know how to reign in a class full of excited dancers with humor and skill. She’ll be able to spot a tired dancer, a dancer who needs to use the restroom, or bring a shy dancer out of his shell. This is a job for the seasoned dance teacher, not an apprentice or teenager. Look for a studio with teachers who are skilled at this special age group and their needs.
5. How long is the commitment?
A first dance class may go really well. Or it may not. Look for a studio that will allow you to try a class or that offers a trial before the season begins. Then you can see for yourself how your dancer will take to the formal dance setting. For the mommy-and-me crowd, sessions are generally shorter with less commitment. Preschoolers can be fickle. You’ll want to be sure you can discontinue your classes if you need to without penalty. Approach programs that require large deposits or first and last month’s tuition up front with caution. At this age, studios should be flexible and understand that a nine-month season (which is the norm for dance schools) is a long time. Choose a program that allows you to pay in installments as you go.
6. What happens if I need to miss a class?
Most studios will not refund tuition for missed classes. The instructor still needs to be paid and the studio has operating expenses that continue regardless. But studios can offer make up classes when they are available and this is a big help when you have a toddler or preschooler. Preschoolers get sick. They get invited to birthday parties. Things come up. Choose a studio that will allow you to make up a class on a different day or time if you miss your regular class.
7. How much does it cost?
While this is usually one of the first things people ask, it is probably the least important. While it is imperative to find a class that won’t break the bank, studios will need to charge enough to pay a qualified instructor and maintain a safe, clean space for class. An established studio with a good reputation will most likely offer classes for your toddler or preschooler at a reasonable price. After all, they’ll want your dancer to fall in love with dance and stay for many years!