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What do you do when you have a student who’s extremely talented, naturally gifted and a brilliant performer but their attitude outshines the aforementioned? How do you handle the lack of respect, the inappropriate comments to peers, the insults to your studio and the all-around negativity? While it may seem tempting to bite your lip because these type of talented dancers make your studio “look good,” the long term ramifications can affect your business, the precedent you’re setting and the example you’re setting for the other students.

Growing pains aside, we all deal with adolescents who have an off-period from time to time where they may seem distracted, disconnected in their classes and their attitude is not what it usually is. Fair enough. We are dealing with teenagers, hormones, their mental health and wellness, emotional roller coasters and drastic physical changes to the body here. But, as teachers, we are keen enough to differentiate and cut a kid a break when a usually well-mannered dancer is having a bad week or going through something serious vs. this being the actual temperament and usual behavior of a student.        

 So, what do we do? How do we approach the situation of a dancer who thinks they are the best thing since slice bread? The dancer who has the audacity to critique you in class, give opinions on choreography they don’t like? Feel they are not being taught anything worth knowing? Come late and leave early?  Have a habit of making inappropriate comments and eye rolling because they are not “feeling it?” Well, there are a number of things you can do and you are not the one who should be feeling helpless in the situation.

First off, tip-toeing around students such as these is not beneficial. Who’s in charge here, you or them? The more you worry about whether this student is going to “like you,” the more they are going to act up and feel they are in control. First and foremost, you are the adult. You are the studio owner, the teacher, their “studio parent” and their mentor. Regardless of their talent, the bottom line is if they keep this up, nobody will want to work with them in the future (whether they dance or not.) Clearly somewhere along the way, they are not receiving the discipline they require to understand the etiquette, respect and lessons necessary outside of technique and performance. Here’s where you come in…..

Now, take a step back for a second. First, think about where this might be coming from. This extreme behavior may in fact have nothing to do with you or the dance studio at all. Is there something going on at home or at school that may be acting as a catalyst to this behavior? Schedule a meeting with your dancer and try to get to the bottom of the situation first. Speak to them, not as a child but as a concerned mentor who still shows compassion without relinquishing the authoritative position you are in. Even if they don’t offer up any insight as to a possible cause, reminding them your door is always open and they never have to feel they are alone or have no one to talk to might just stay in the back of their mind. Consult the parents and be specific about documented examples of what you are observing in terms of their attitude, work ethic, behavior etc. Express your concern for what is going on and offer ways to work alongside the parents to help in any way you can. Sometimes, parents are unfortunately the last to know and keeping them in the loop is essential; for a number of reasons.

Now, if you have exhausted all the above possibilities and the dancer just in fact seems miserable at your studio which is why they are in turn acting out, then it’s time to cut ties. Allowing one talented dancer to drain your energy and bring down your team does not benefit anyone. And, if in fact it is a matter of the dancer feeling the studio is not the right fit for them and not enjoying themselves, they may just want you to bring it to their attention and say it for them. Remember, it never does any good in any situation to keep someone where they don’t want to be. The conversation does not need to be combative or confrontational, but you do need to explain why you come to the decision. Be clear that you have noticed how unhappy the dancer is in their current environment, hear the comments which are going around and think perhaps it’s time they take a break from the studio. There is nothing wrong with expressing the fact that this situation is not working for you either. You can remind them that if their commitment and attitude changes, that they will be welcomed back at a later time. Again, be specific and remind dancers that this a two way partnership; each needs to hold up their end of the bargain.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with meeting with a student and calling them out on things that are rude, inappropriate, negatively affect your other dancers or insult your faculty in any way, shape or form. The bottom line is if they are that unhappy- there’s the door. If they are going to attend YOUR studio, there are rules and protocol. There is an expectation to be a team player, have a good attitude, walk into class with positivity, work well with others and remember they are the dancer, not the teacher, not the choreographer. They are there to learn. Respecting the space, the faculty and the art form are all parts of being a dancer. Humility, openness to learn and respect are also an integral part to their training. You set the precedent for that and should they not comply, sending them off with the best wishes might be the best decision you make for you, your students and your business and their well-being as well. Tough love is so hard sometimes, but sometimes it is essential and so are boundaries. Good luck to you all.

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Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford is a native New Yorker and graduate of NYU Steinhardt's Dance Education Master’s Program; with a PK-12 New York State Teaching Certification. Her double-concentration Master’s Degree includes PK-12 pedagogy and dance education within the higher-education discipline. She also holds a BFA in dance performance from the UMASS Amherst 5 College Dance Program where she was a Chancellor's Talent Award recipient. Jess now works extensively with children, adolescents and professionals as choreographer and teacher and conducts national and international master-classes specializing in the genres of modern, contemporary, musical theatre and choreography-composition. Jess’ national and international performance career includes works such as: The National Tour of Guys & Dolls, The European Tour of Grease, West Side Story, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Salute to Dudley Moore at Carnegie Hall, guest-dancer with the World Famous Pontani Sisters and IMPULSE Modern Dance Company. Jess has been a faculty member for the Perichild Program & Peridance Youth Ensemble & taught contemporary and jazz at the historic New Dance Group and 92nd Street Y in NYC. She was Company Director at the historic Steffi Nossen School of Dance/Dance in Education Fund and in 2008 traveled to Uganda where she taught creative-movement to misplaced children. The experience culminated with Jess being selected as a featured instructor at the Queen's Kampala Ballet & Modern Dance School. She has conducted workshops for the cast of LA REVE at the Wynn, Las Vegas and recently taught at the 2011 IDS International Dance Teacher Conference at The Royal Ballet in London, UK. She is also on faculty for the annual Dance Teacher Web Conferences in Las Vegas, NV. Currently, Jess is a faculty member at the D'Valda & Sirico Dance & Music Centre and master teacher & adjudicator for various national and international dance competitions. Recently, she has finished her NYU Master’s thesis research on the choreographic process of technically advanced adolescent dancers and is the creator of “PROJECT C;” a choreography-composition curriculum for the private studio sector. Jess is also faculty member, contributing writer and presenter in the choreography and “how to” teaching segments on the celebrated For more info, visit her website at

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