When I first started taking dance classes, I was about three-years-old and didn’t have to worry about balancing school and family time. My greatest worry was having enough sunlight and warm weather to jump on the trampoline and run through the sprinklers. However, as I grew up and started advancing in both dance and school, I had to make sure I could balance my school responsibilities, my dance schedule, other extracurricular activities, and family time.
I should note that I attended public school from kindergarten through high school (that’s seven hours of school time a day). So this piece is based on my experience as a public school student who was focused and determined to meet her own expectations. My parents also made it clear that my education was to be my top priority and dance was a privilege—if my grades declined or if I showed signs that I was too overwhelmed then dance would be eliminated.
The balancing act started gradually. I took two years of combo classes and moved on to take individual tap and ballet classes once a week. When I was seven, I decided to add jazz into the mix—which made a total of three classes a week. This schedule was consistent for a couple of years, with an additional ballet class added here and there. The slow increase in my dance schedule allowed me to establish my academic habits. I had time to fine-tune a homework and study regime that I carried with me through college.
Every student is different; each one will have a different way they learn, study, and grow, but it’s important to establish your academic habits early because this will be the foundation you build from.
By honing in on a homework and study regime that worked for me, I didn’t feel overwhelmed when I danced at two studios in fifth grade. Yes, I danced at two studios. I took three to four ballet classes at one studio and I took jazz, tap, lyrical, and hip-hop at another. I split studios for four years, and I added another jazz class to my schedule and joined the Colorado Youth Ballet along the way. By knowing my routine and needs as a scholar, I knew how much time I needed to set aside for homework, how much I needed to work ahead (I would often read ahead in my text books and take notes to review so I wouldn’t forget the information during class), and what order I needed to do my assignments in so I wouldn’t burn myself out at night.
It was also during this time that I had to start balancing family time and activities—family dinners, movie nights, game nights, football Sundays, etc. My parents were also helping my grandparents with their medical changes, financial responsibilities, and yard work. I often spent my Saturdays going from dance classes and rehearsals to my grandparents’ house where I would help finish raking leaves, do some homework in the sun-room, help with dinner, or just play checkers with my grandpa—depending on what was happening that given Saturday.
This might sound like a crazy schedule (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes it was), but I wouldn’t change it for the world because I was blessed to have each and every opportunity God gave me. I had a wonderful school experience and I loved learning, so I tried my very best to master all the material I could. Not every child has the option to dance at a studio, let alone having a family who supports the idea of dancing at two studios—but they made it work financially and my mom didn’t complain about chauffeuring me around. I also had the amazing opportunity to spend a lot of time with my grandparents, having family meals and playing games. Even though I might have been stressed about remembering choreography or a certain assignment at school, the mental break my family gave me was an energy boost full of laughs that turned into priceless memories.
My main ballet studio began to offer more of a variety of classes, and I decided to eliminate the second studio at the end of eighth grade, which saved my family time, money, and gas. In terms of dance, I had more rehearsals and performance opportunities, and at school I took honors classes and joined academic clubs. My parents and I weren’t sure about the added responsibilities of the clubs, but I wanted to give the new challenge a try, promising I would drop the extra activities if it was too overwhelming.
I would also like to note that I was very honest with my teachers. I attended all the open house nights and parent teacher conferences because my parents taught me from an early age that it’s important to show my teachers that I’m invested in my own education. By building this type of relationship with my academic teachers, they became very easy to approach if I needed help with a concept or if I decided to work ahead on a paper; they were often willing to read a rough draft earlier than suggested on the syllabus. They knew I was a dancer and had added responsibilities. I would talk about my schedule with them in every day conversations; and when it came to clubs, I made sure I helped with donations if I couldn’t attend certain events. If I missed school, my teachers were willing to work around my schedule as a dancer because I had proven myself academically responsible—this was extremely important when it came to dress rehearsals and performances.
High school did complicate my schedule a bit more due to homecoming games, dances, clubs, honors classes, and AP classes. However, I became very picky about which extra events I attended because I knew my attendance would mean extra effort and planning on my part to work around my dance, homework, and family schedule. So I had to learn to prioritize my time—I didn’t attend all the school dances and I only went to certain functions (which often meant going directly from dance class to the school function). My friends knew I was a busy girl so they never pushed when they asked if I was going to a given school event, but I never felt guilty for saying no because I was doing what I needed to do to make sure I wasn’t stressed—dance, academics, and family were my top priorities.
I make it sound like I was a great planner and I balanced my life well, but don’t let me fool you. I had to pull all-nighters to finish some projects and papers or even study for an exam. Even on a good day, I didn’t get a full eight hours of sleep. However, I tried my best and I somehow kept up with my schedules. I learned how to work ahead to make sure that if I needed a night off from homework I could take it because I was a day ahead with my assignments. I made sure Friday night was family movie night; and I made sure I took time to play and snuggle with my dog. Though, sometimes I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed and I would sometimes have a break down (and by break down I mean my emotions would come out in the form of tears). But that’s what’s great about having a supportive family—they are there to pick up the pieces and to make sure you’re okay. Anytime I would feel overwhelmed my parents would let me cry or vent, give me some extra hugs, and then ask me the questions that needed to be asked given the situation—do you need extra help (i.e a tutor); do you need to drop a club, cut back on dance, drop a class; do you need to talk to your teacher or school counselor?
So my advice to you, as a person and as dancer, is to be honest with yourself. Find a routine that works for you. Build that basic foundation where you establish yourself as a student and allow yourself to grow. Know what kind of learner you are, know your limitations, and know that you can’t do everything—so don’t be afraid to say no to that extra activity, club, or class; don’t be afraid to ask for help or to accept help; but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with new opportunities either. Challenges help you grow.
It’s also important to be honest with your parents. If they ask you how you’re doing, don’t give them a generic answer, tell them the truth. Your parents have known you all of your life; they know how you think and they’ve also been through their own successes and challenges. They will help support you, guide you, and problem solve if you allow them to do so. If my mom felt like she hadn’t seen enough of me or if my flame seemed to be burning low, she would come into my room in the morning (on a school day, mind you) and ask if I had any quizzes, tests, or lessons that shouldn’t be missed. If I answered no, she would decide that I needed to have a mental health day and we would have a girl’s day (lunch, movie, shopping, etc.). Now I’m not encouraging anyone to play hooky, but I do have to say that by proving my credibility, to my parents and myself, I was able to have a fun day with my mom—and it was always needed.
Life is a balancing act—that will never cease to be true—so use this time in your life as an opportunity to exercise your muscles because you will use these skills to balance all aspects of your life throughout your life.