Sunday, April 2, 2006

All the right moves: Patience, passion required of quality dance instructors

By Liz Garone
Special to Sunday Jobs

When Erika Townsend was 6 years old, she took her first dance lesson. It was then that she became hooked and has been on the move ever since.

"I just loved to dance, and I never stopped," says Townsend, who has been teaching for three decades and currently is the head of the ballet department at The Dance Academy in Modesto. "I love kids and I love the art form."

For Townsend, her favorite part of teaching dance is "watching the children grow up." She has seen young students "who start with two left feet evolve into beautiful dancers."

But that isn't always the case. No matter how hard some students try, fluid movement doesn't come easily for them, Townsend says. For those students, patience isn't just a helpful quality but an essential one for a teacher to have.

"With some students, you will give the same correction every week, and they don't fix it. You ask yourself, 'Am I talking to the wall?' You really need to be someone who loves the art form and likes children and has a lot of patience," Townsend says.

Heidi Gomez and her husband, Xavier, opened the You Can Dance Company 12 years ago in Modesto. The studio, which is open seven days a week, specializes in ballroom dancing and offers everything from the Tango to the Foxtrot, the Merengue and even a class in Hip-Hop.

To teach ballroom, you need to be very outgoing, Heidi Gomez says. "You have to be a people person. It's totally a social dance."

Those people skills are one of the first qualities Gomez looks for in potential instructors. In addition, a good understanding of music and rhythm and the ability to feel the music and relate to it are also essential, she says. There is a lot more to teaching dance than memorizing steps and patterns. "You have to be able to convey them in different ways, in ways that everyone can learn," Gomez explains.

Dance instructors aren't required to have a credential or advanced degree in order to teach, and most don't. Many learn "hands on" by taking numerous lessons. Certification through some private studios is available for ballroom dancing but not in the valley at this time.

In ballet, it is quite common for top students to become teachers, Townsend says. Many start out by assisting with classes and move up from there. "A lot of studios hire from inside," she says.

Lazy people need not apply. Teaching dance can be physically demanding and exhausting, both Townsend and Gomez say. "We work six- to 10-hour days seven days a week," Gomez says.

Townsend teaches 10 one-hour classes each week at The Dance Academy. "It's like teaching school," she says. "I have a notebook with a section for each class. I jot down what I want to accomplish as well as what we have accomplished each week."

The pay for dance instructors varies greatly, depending on location, type of studio and number of students. It can start as low as $9 an hour and go as high as $100 for top-notch, in-demand instructors. But, in general, it is not a field that people pursue for the money, Townsend says, and many teachers supplement their income with other work. "There's not a big income in dance teaching unless you have a prestigious position at a university," she says. "You need to love what you are doing."

You Can Dance Company has experienced record growth lately and is currently looking for new instructors. The Gomezes are even considering adding a new course for people who want to become instructors. While they prefer hiring teachers with experience, they are also willing to train the right candidates. The Dance Academy is also accepting applications. For more information, phone You Can Dance Company at (209) 522-0895 and The Dance Academy at (209) 522-6879.

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