Dance teachers: What to do about pushy parents

Teachers, directors, let us bow our heads for a moment and think about that time… that time before studio life, that time before ordering costumes, cleaning mirrors, filing business taxes, and that blissful time before pushy parents! We absolutely adore our students, and appreciate their incredible parents, but sometimes they just don’t understand, and we have to work together to make sure the dance can go on. 

Here, two of BDC’s amazing instructors who teach multiple genres all over the NYC area, as well as two studio owners from across the nation, explain how they best handle a range of scenarios that come up with parents. We hope that their sage advice can give you some new ideas and support.

pushy parents

“When can my daughter go en pointe?

Emily Bufferd, BDC instructor and producer of the Young Choreographer’s Festival

“I always use my personal experience as an example for this. I have loose ankles and actually was required to do an extra year of pre-pointe while all of my friends got their pointe shoes. I’m so appreciative that my parents listened to what my ballet teachers were saying; in the long run, those teachers made a stronger dancer, and probably saved me from injury.”

Ellen Wilcox, director and owner of Pure Energy Dance Productions, Texas

“Ballet Austin dancer Jaime Lynn Witts recommended to us a series of physical tests for the dancers wanting to go en pointe. This takes a lot of pressure off of the teachers and directors; either the dancers can perform the tests correctly or they can’t, and you can show them and their parents exactly what needs to be worked on. We also only allow a dancer to start in her pointe shoes at the beginning of the dance/school year.”

Carrie Badeaux, director of the Sundance Ballet Company and The Dance Scene Studio, California 

“We have a Pre-Pointe Program in place that outlines the preparation required before going en pointe. Students have to complete the program, which can take years, and then an assessment is done with the student, parents and instructor to give feedback on progress. We stress to inquiring parents that we all have the same goal and want each student to be ready and have the correct training for the next step.”

“Can my son move up to a more advanced level?

Bufferd

“If a parent doesn’t trust their child’s teacher to be putting them in the appropriate level class, than I feel really firmly that they shouldn’t be training with that teacher. Teachers want to see their students thrive, and if they felt that being moved up a level would be an appropriate push, they would move them without being pushed.”

Tracie Stanfield, BDC instructor and artistic director of SynthesisDANCE

“In the information packet sent to accepted and registered dancers, I detail my philosophy of teaching and my expectations of each dancer attending. I speak to the trust involved in the dancer-teacher relationship and that learning to advocate for one’s self and to articulate concerns in a mature way is a valuable life skill that should be developed. I also let them know that I will not speak to parents regarding any issues related to placement and class work.”

Wilcox

“It’s important for the dancers and parents to feel as much as possible that the director and teachers are on their side. Be clear about safety concerns of not being ready to advance. Give tangible goals for the dancers to strive for. Recommend classes to help them advance more quickly. For any of these issues, it helps to: 1.) Only allow changes once a year, so if they didn’t move up or get placed, the conversations won’t continue throughout the year. 2.) Have a team of directors and teachers who make the decisions so it isn’t just one director against the parents. 3.) Have an outside expert come in for placement auditions to further remove the pressure from the directors and teachers as well.”

“Can Sarah get added to a performance piece?

Badeaux

“Casting for performance pieces is the choreographer or director’s choice, period. Sometimes a brief discussion will be had with inquiring parents, but ultimately it comes down to who fit the piece best.”

Bufferd

“Casting decisions are final, and typically based off of the results of an audition. Again, if a parent trusts me with training their child, I expect that they will trust that I have placed their child in the pieces where they will thrive and be most successful.”

“Can’t Isabella get added to the competition team?

Bufferd

“With very little exception, this is based on an audition that has a set date. If they want to potentially be on the team, they need to be there. If there is an extenuating circumstance, sometimes a private audition can be made possible for the child.”

Badeaux

“The coach and I have developed requirements to be on the Junior or Senior team, including specific flexibility and technique. Dancers have enough notice of these requirements, and that if they’re not there yet, they can show how committed they are and make the progress to improve and reach their goals. Essentially, they have to put in the work.”

“Can you make sure my daughter receives special treatment in class?

Wilcox

“The best way to diffuse any special treatment issues is to be very clear from the beginning before any classes have even started. Have the rules outlined, written out, speak to them in person and get their buy-in by asking, ‘Does anyone foresee a problem with these rules, conditions and requests?” The agreements can be referred back to when an issue comes up.”

Bufferd

“There are a few exceptions to the rule of ‘all children are treated the same’: do they have a medical problem? Are they injured? Outside of things that are beyond my control as their teacher, all of my students are to be treated/trained equally.”

“Let my kid bend the rules (not follow dress code, have extra absences, sit out).”

Bufferd

“Again, this would have a few exceptions – medical issue, injury. Outside of those very specific circumstances, there are no exceptions to any of these things. The rule for one is the rule for all!”

Stanfield

“It has been my experience that when I break a rule or make an exception for a parent, it backfires (tremendously!) or they overstep and expect special treatment in the future. I have learned that by being very clear in my expectations and methods, it gives parents the opportunity to decide if I am a good fit for their dancer andfor them.”

Wilcox

“It’s the director’s job to remind the teachers that it is their place to hold the dancers to a certain standard. Usually, the dancers will fall in line if the teacher holds them to a standard, and the parents are kept out of the classroom and often out of the studio during class times. The dancers don’t want to be called out in front of their peers. Close the blinds and turn off the TV monitors if the parents continue to insert themselves in the way the class is conducted. As a client of the studio, they decide if they trust you with the training of their dancer; if for any reason they feel as if they can’t, it’s always their choice to find a different studio.”

Badeaux

“If students or parents are trying to bend the rules, then they’re not very committed to dance training and should try a more recreational program. Our class rules and regulations are all for the benefit of the student’s experience and progress, and if that’s not being followed, then a meeting stressing these requirements would be had and an agreement set henceforth.”

“Can I observe class or be backstage?”

Wilcox

“Establish the rules beforehand, and be very clear. A good office manager or front desk person is helpful in these situations as well to remind the parents of the rules and keep them from sneaking in. In general, no one wants to cause a scene, so with a little firmness, they will do what you’re asking them to do. Backstage volunteers must stay backstage and help all the dancers, and audience members must stay in the audience. And you must have a monitor at the door to sign kids in and out of the backstage.”

Bufferd 

“If it is for the chicken nuggets, yes, I would not only allow but expect their parents to be making sure they are ready backstage and in the studio for class. Outside of that, no, the older kids are quite capable of getting themselves ready, and there is no need for parent interjection.”

Badeaux

“Parents can be in the waiting room during classes or the audience for performances. These are enforced by nicely informing them of this policy.”

What if the parent is generally over-the-top and threatens to pull the kid out if they don’t get their way?

Badeaux

“If parents are over-the-top or threatening to pull their dancer from the program, we would have a meeting to discuss concerns and our expectations. If there is still an issue, then they should be on their way. Everyone has to work together with the student’s best interest in mind.”

Bufferd

“This sounds harsh but, bye. I do my best to keep my expectations of my students very reasonable, and to offer them the best training that I can. If a parent feels that my expectations/training are not to their liking, then I am simply not the teacher for them. No ill will, but I will wish them well and hope they find someone more suited to their needs.”

Wilcox

“I’ve learned from experience that it is best to either let these people go, or ask them to leave. It’s tempting to try to do what you can to make someone happy. However, once the rules have been bent for one dancer, then it sets an unfair precedence for the other dancers. It’s hard to feel as if you’re losing a client, but the reality is if these over-the-top parents stay, they will be ruining the experience of your studio for many other parents and dancers. Many more clients will be lost trying to make one unhappy parent happy than will be if you suggest to them that ‘yours isn’t the studio for them and their dancer.’ Even worse than losing the dancer, or having them drive out other clients, would be having them stay and infest the other parents with their negativity. The culture and feeling of your studio is very important to your success as a business, and negativity is very infectious and very difficult to change. The unhappy people need to leave.”

What is one of the most common pushy parent requests you get, and how do you handle it? 

Wilcox

“An expectation of many parents is that you are available for them by phone or text at any time of the day or night. Personal calls and texts about team placement, competition results, in-class dramas and even little things like, ‘What tights or shoes do I need for picture day?’ are very common. After certain hours, I do not answer phone calls or texts. I’ll ask them to call the front desk during office hours, or many times, I send a note to the office manager/teacher/director who can best tend to their needs and ask them to contact the parent at an appropriate time.”

Bufferd

“In 2019, I find that many parents think that choreography lacking tricks isn’t going to win at competition from seeing that type of thing on television, and they interject their thoughts on what they think their kids should be performing on stage. My kind reply is a firm ‘thank you for your thoughts, but no,” as I’m a believer in quality over quantity. Thankfully, thus far, my kids have done just fine at competition sans tricks in their pieces.”

Stanfield

“They can trust me, but I will not answer texts or emails from parents. In 10 years, I have had one parent break this rule, and I did not allow the dancer [to] finish the program. This type of interaction pulls me from my work and from helping dancers reach their goals.”

Badeaux

“We have great parents, but the most common request is to advance too soon. We do evaluations and follow our advancement rubric. We explain to inquiring parents what has to be worked on in order to move to the next level. Sometimes private lessons are recommended to get more one-on-one training, and sometimes staying at the same level for another term or until specific requirements are met is recommended. We try to give clear feedback on what we expect so everyone can work together.”

By Leigh Schanfein of Dance Informa. 


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