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The dance world dislikes adult students, and it's a problem for everyone

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

As someone who’s been a serious dancer since I was five, I can tell you ageism is prevalent in dance culture.

It’s blatantly obvious young students get priority over adults. They’re treated better, they get better opportunities, and no one even tries to hide it.

If you grew up dancing, you’re conditioned to think being the youngest in class is something to be proud of, and the oldest, something to be ashamed of.

Ageism is harmful to adult students. It’s harmful to young students. It’s harmful for dance schools. So why is no one trying to change anything?

As proof of ageism, check out all the problems with most adult dance programs.

Growing up, I had all the opportunities the dance world offers--a large quantity of classes open to me, yearly performances, competitions, summer intensives, college dance programs, scholarships…

But after I graduated college, my only option for classes was adult dance programs, most of which kinda suck.

Problem #1: Scarce advanced adult classes

While adult beginner classes are plentiful, it’s much harder to find intermediate or advanced classes if you’re over 18 years old. The few that exist usually offer only one or two classes a week. Three, if you’re lucky. Ballet West Academy is the only school I’ve found that offers daily, affordable, high-level adult classes (Props to Ballet West! Progress!).

I moved to Salt Lake City specifically for this program. That’s how rare and valuable it is.

Summer intensives for adults? Practically nonexistent. If they do exist, they’re short--generally only one or two weeks--and the class offerings are limited compared to child and teen intensives.

It’s because there’s an assumption all adult dancers are either beginners or professionals, which is absolutely untrue.

"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

There’s a large population of advanced adult dancers who aren’t in companies. Dancers who can’t get into professional dance companies due to lousy politics, late training, body shape, or a myriad of other reasons. Dancers who love the art but don’t want to dance professionally. College students at a university without a dance program who want to keep taking classes. Dance majors looking for extra practice. Retired performers.

That’s a lot of people.

Why are dance schools intentionally missing out on such a huge audience--and therefore, money? Lack of funding? No excuse. Their adult students are paying them. Adults have limited schedules and can’t take class daily? Devoted dancers will do their best to take as many classes as possible, and besides, evenings exist. You’ll still have some students in every class if you offer classes daily--some

in the mornings, some in the evenings. Lack of studio space? I have a solution. We’ll get there in my next post. Lack of teachers? They make the effort to find good teachers for youth classes. Why not for adults?

It makes no sense. Unless the thought of taking adult, non-professional dancers is abhorrent to them, I guess.

It sort of gives off the vibe of, “If you’re over 18 and you’re not on a company, you’re not worth teaching.”

Big yikes.

Problem #2: Even at adequate adult classes, there's a pervasive attitude of, “You guys are adorable.”

But even though I was progressing at a pretty good clip, I could never shake the feeling that I was kind of a joke, that adult students are an afterthought, in a placating, "Aw, that's cute" way.
-Lindsay Martell

This is exactly how I feel about adult dance programs, especially adult beginner ones. They exist as a cash grab, or because “Aww, Mommy wants to take class like her daughter! That’s adorable.” They’re slapped onto the class list just so the school can say they have them.

I feel many dance schools think of adult students like pre-ballet students, but grown up--an infantilizing view that comes through in the advertising. “Do you want to dance like the star in Swan Lake?” “Have you always dreamed of being a ballerina?”

I’ve seen the same sorts of phrases on the covers of those ballet DVDs marketed to five-year-olds.

Problem #3: The education isn’t very good

Then there’s the faculty’s lack of enthusiasm. There’s no feedback. You have to specifically go up to the teacher and ask for corrections. There’s no praise. No sense whether you’re improving or not beyond what you see in the mirror. Some teachers just show the combinations, then sit back and watch. Maybe throw in a generalized correction for flavor if they feel they’ve been quiet for too long.

Not all teachers, granted. I’ve actually had many great teachers in my adult classes. In most cases, I think it’s actually the higher-ups who have those attitudes, and tell the teachers, “Hey, take it easy on them. They’re just casual dancers.”

Except, casual dancers deserve good education, too. Besides, even casual dancers love the challenge and want to improve. That’s half the fun of dancing, in my opinion.

We need adult classes that take everyone seriously and give proper feedback to everyone. I don’t understand why it’s not a thing. It’s the bare minimum! If the people in charge of youth classes can take their students seriously, they can do the same with adult classes. It’s just, no one is making the effort.

Ageism harms dancers of all ages

Most young adults feel pressured to succeed in their 20's. There’s this unspoken deadline of 30 years old, and you must succeed by then, or else. You must get a career straight out of college, or you’ve failed at life and you’re a disappointment to your family.

Dancers have it worse. We are additionally “limited” by our bodies. As the body ages, strength, flexibility, and the ability to quickly bounce back from injuries fades. A dancer’s career is comparatively short. As a result, there’s pressure to get a career straight out of high school!

For dancers, the deadline for success is closer to 18. 21, at latest.

Example of the pressure to be better younger

The pressure to reach this deadline is amplified by the attitude toward adult dance students. Younger students feel pressured to make it into a professional company by eighteen, or else be treated like they don’t matter. Combine that with young dance prodigies showcased everywhere on social media, and now you have a huge expectation to be better and younger than everyone else in class.

If a student fails to get into a company by 18, they’re seen as a failure. They also suddenly have no place to continue honing their skills, resulting in a resume gap and a decline in skill that makes it even more difficult to achieve their dream.

Perfectionistic tendencies increase. Stress over imperfections increases--especially as the “deadline” comes closer. Low self-esteem increases. The risk of depression and anxiety increases. Young dancers fear the natural and unavoidable process of aging, and may tie part of their self worth to their age--something they can’t control.

The effect on adult, non-professional dancers themselves is significant. Many lose the love of dance. For those who have danced their whole lives, it can feel like a loved one has died. And it’s all their fault, for some reason, for not being good enough by the time they turned 18.

In worse cases, many lose the love of themselves, when suddenly they’re “undesirable” and “not worth teaching.” I cite ageism (among other things) in dance as a major contributor to my depression these days.

Not only is this dismissive attitude toward adult students harmful to students of all ages, it’s a problem for the dance school, too. Dance schools offer adult programs to get more students, and through them, tuition money to fund the school. The problem is, dance schools with this attitude are driving students away. Dancers quit because why take a class where you’re not being taught anything? Also, people really don’t like being looked down on, or talked down to. If they’re in an environment that treats them like they’re not important, they’re going to leave.

This is a worse problem than I think people realize. It negatively affects a majority of the dance community. Change needs to happen.

I have some ideas for bridging the gap between youth and adult dance programs coming in a later post.

If you've had any experiences with or thoughts on ageism in dance, feel free to share them in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Quote source: Why Adult Ballet Students Should Be Taken Seriously, Lindsay Martell. Dance Magazine, Sep. 7, 2019.

Other stuff to check out:

If We Want to Dance Past 40, Who's Really Stopping Us? Beth Corning. Dance Magazine, Sep. 18, 2018.

On Ageism in Dance. Janice Parker. June 17, 2021.

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