Balancing long hours of dance technique classes, workouts and rehearsals with schoolwork and other activities. Learning the true meaning of teamwork. Fighting sore muscles and exhaustion. Bright lights, prop mishaps and wardrobe malfunctions. This is the world of competitive dance, and it’s not for everyone.
The dedication, sacrifice and hard work that competitive dance requires may seem overwhelming for some. But for competitors with the passion and love for the dance, it’s thrilling, and performance is the culmination of all their time and effort. It’s their chance to shine.
“Once the music starts, I take a deep breath, and take in the lights and the people. I’m not thinking about anything else, and I get into character. It’s a real adrenalin rush,” said 14-year-old Abby Rhodes.
Competitive dance, which typically starts at age 4, is a time and financial commitment for the entire family, and studios in central Arkansas take an active role in ensuring that families know what they’re getting into.
Auditions for competitive dance companies are usually held at the beginning of August, and classes, training and rehearsals follow the school year and end in May. Most competitions are February to May. Overall, it’s a nine- to 10-month commitment, said Kristen Pittman, owner and artistic director of Rock City Dance Center in Little Rock.
Pittman and Karen Harrod, owner of Ms. Karen’s Dance Studio in North Little Rock, discuss this commitment level with parents and require them to sign agreements ensuring that everyone is on the same page about what’s expected. Families commit to a certain number of dance routines and hours per week. The time involved varies depending on a child’s age, and number and type (groups, trios, duos and solos) of dance routines they take on. This can be anywhere from two to 20 hours per week, Pittman said.
Harrod said families must be realistic about what they can and cannot do – strategically and financially.
Along with classes and training, the cost of competitive dance includes traveling to competition, entry fees, costumes and more.
Individual studios decide how many competitions to attend. Rock City’s company attends four competitions a year – two locally and two outside. Ms. Karen’s company attends one national and three or four regional competitions each year.
“It’s definitely a commitment,” said Rachel Bass, whose daughter Caroline, 11, began dancing competitively three years ago.
“If you start the year, you have to finish it. It’s also a financial commitment, but it’s worth it to see the look on (Caroline’s) face when she meets a goal and sees her hard work pay off. It’s just fun to see a child excel at something.”
The Bass family commitment involves about nine hours a week for Caroline, who likes jazz best and participated in a solo, duet and two group dances at Rock City last year. Bass’ younger daughter, Sascha, 4, started competitive dance last year, requiring about an hour and a half a week.
Stacey McClellan, whose daughters, Ali, 13, and Mary Margaret, 10, are both involved in competitive dance through Rock City, said her family spends more than 20 hours a week on dance. Last year, the girls were in eight group dances and had four solos each in a variety of genres including jazz, lyrical and contemporary.
“They’re dedicated and we can’t do it any other way,” Stacey McClellan said. “They work really hard and give up so much.”
Abby Rhodes, who has been dancing competitively for six years and enjoys tap most, said she had to “step up” her commitment level to nine and a half hours a week last year because she participated in a solo for the first time, along with seven groups at Rock City. That means planning ahead when it comes to schoolwork and even doing assignments early, she said.
“We couldn’t be prouder of her,” said Julie Rhodes, Abby’s mom. “She’s really applied herself and set goals. She loves it and that makes any parent happy.”
Members of Rock City’s dance company are required to take ballet, learn the technical aspects of all types of dance, and work on agility and stretching, instead of just rehearsing routines, Pittman said. Most studios follow a similar educational path.
“We want to make our dancers well rounded and skilled in all areas,” Harrod said. “You can do technique all day long but it’s that passion that makes you succeed.”
A Personal Best
Learning, progressing and doing one’s best is the message that Pittman has instilled in her dancers. The goal is to “strive for a personal best,” and winning is the “icing on the cake.”
“We work hard and like to win, but there’s so much more to it,” she said. “We look at it as an opportunity for kids to get on stage and share their passion. It’s more about the experience.”
Be sure to check out our list of central Arkansas dance studios.
Rock City’s company has won local, state and national titles, a big accomplishment for a studio that has been open for only three years, Pittman said. Ms. Karen’s dancers have also won many local, state and national championships since it opened in 1988.
Performing is a competitive dancer’s favorite part because they can showcase all their hard work, and they get to wear costumes. For Abby Rhodes, performing is about “challenging myself and my body,” and “getting better as a dancer,” she said.
Caroline Bass said she enjoys seeing the judges’ and crowd’s faces when she’s performing, and “it feels good to put effort into it and improve.”
“Before going on stage, I prepare for the best or the worst,” Bass said. Once, she said, she forgot her solo routine on stage and had to improvise. She placed in the top 10 in that competition.
“If you don’t win, it’s another performance opportunity,” said Ali McClellan. Mary Margaret McClellan said when she wins awards, she’s most “excited that the judges thought I deserved it.”
Competitive dance is a judged sport, and when there are hundreds of competitors, it can be difficult to get noticed, said Stacey McClellan.
“There are so many hardcore competitors,” she said. “You have to have a child that’s dedicated and driven, with a thick skin. As a parent, we just want them to do their best.”
The McClellan sisters have won some major national titles, and are becoming well known in dance circles. Ali was named National Junior Miss Dancer of the Year last summer, and Mary Margaret was named National Petite Miss Masquerade. This summer, Ali, who has been competing since age 7, is attending the Synthesis Dance Project in New York City.
“I love dancing,” Ali said. “It’s like second nature. You think to yourself, ‘if I want this, I have to work for it,’ and don’t let anyone stop you if you love it.”
Behind the Scenes
Competitive dance teaches a lot more than steps, shuffles and routines. Dancers learn many transferrable life skills, like respect, dedication, discipline and hard work, which will come in handy in any career, Pittman said.
Dance also teaches loyalty, leadership, accountability and real-world skills, like presenting oneself and being on time, said Marisa Kirby, who started dancing at Ms. Karen’s when she was 3 and is now the studio’s company artistic director.
“It’s a great social outlet,” she said. “And, it gives kids something to work toward. There’s not much better than seeing kids excel, when they’ve been working on something.”
Competitive dance teaches a work ethic like no other, and most agree passion is essential. Caroline Bass offers the best advice to anyone considering getting involved: “really think it through before you do it.”
“It’s a lot of work and involves sacrifice, but it pays off,” she said. “You have to work as hard as you can to get to the top.”
Tap Intensive at Rock City Dance Center
Which Dance Studio is Right for You?
The key to finding the best recreational or competitive dance studio for children is “research, research, research,” said Kristen Pittman, owner and artistic director of Rock City Dance Center in Little Rock.
“Get to know the owner and management and make sure your philosophies line up,” she said, especially because children spend a lot of time with their dance teachers.
Karen Harrod, owner of Ms. Karen’s Dance Studio in North Little Rock, urges parents to visit classes and watch performances. She said a studio’s values and personality must be in line with parents’.
Here are a few more tips for finding the best studio for you:
- Find out about teachers’ backgrounds
- Know what you want out of dance lessons, and be realistic – for example, does the child want to compete or just take a few classes?
- Look for versatility in types of dance offered
- Understand the commitment involved
- Find out about teachers’ availability to talk to parents
Boys Only hip-hop class at Rock City Dance Center
Just for the Fun of It
Recreational dance is a creative outlet for boys and girls of all ages. It’s also great exercise and teaches youngsters important skills that will last a lifetime. Central Arkansas is home to several dance studios with a lot to offer.
Recreational dance classes usually start at age 3 and are open to anyone of any level and ability, said Kristen Pittman, owner and artistic director of Rock City Dance Center in Little Rock. At Rock City, classes are arranged by age and limited to 15 per class, so that little dancers get the attention they need.
“It’s an open free space to be a kid and for them to express themselves in a loving, supportive space,” she said.
Rock City offers classes in ballet, tap, jazz and hip-hop. There is even an all boys hip-hop class, Pittman said.
While many local studios also offer competitive dance, Studio One Dance in North Little Rock is devoted solely to recreational. Owner and Artistic Director Stephanie Slagle, who started dancing at age 5, said she wanted to focus on “technique, discipline and learning to love the dance.”
Slagle said her studio is flexible with students’ schedules, which allows for more time to work with students and to focuses on “individual students and their strengths”
In its fourth year, Studio One’s classes are based on age and include ballet, tap, jazz, modern and adult barre. Slagle said recreational dancers perform in a year-end recital and groups sometimes perform at community events.
“It’s important to have the performance experience,” she said.
Recreational dance is good for all kids because it builds confidence, teaches discipline and gives them the chance to work with their peers, said 10-year-old Mary Margaret McClellan, who started recreational dance at age 2 and competitive dance at 6.
Most competitive dancers, like McClellan, started out in recreational, which often sparks the desire to take it to the next level, Pittman said.
Julie Rhodes, whose 14-year-old daughter, Abby, made the leap to competitive dance six years ago, after starting recreational in pre-K, said recreational dance is a great way to see if children like it. She said the transition from recreational to competitive is a “big step.”
While most agree that 3 is the ideal starting age, some studios are creating classes for toddlers and even babies. Recently, Ms. Karen’s Studio in North Little Rock started a Tiny Twos program and is planning a class for babies age six to 12 months, said studio owner Karen Harrod.