So You Want to Start a Baby and Toddler Program at Your Studio
These three experienced early-childhood dance educators say that running classes for infants and tots isn’t exactly child’s play—but it could end up being well worth the extra effort and expense.
Melanie Boniszewski has heard studio owners and parents alike turn up their noses at the notion of movement classes for infants and toddlers.
“To those naysayers, I would suggest comparing videos of a babies class at the beginning, middle and end of the year,” the founder and director of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York says. “You can really see the progression in gross motor skills, socialization and recognizing patterns.”
Early dance training isn’t just a win for little ones (and their grown-ups). The earlier in life a child discovers dance, the greater the chance that they’ll spend many years involved in all the programming offered at your studio.
But running this kind of class isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Here, preschool dance-education specialists share how to get the parent-and-tot set doing a happy dance at your studio.
Finding New Families
Marketing to this brand-new audience—namely, parents of children under age 4—might mean a brand-new marketing strategy. While Kim Black of Miss Kim’s Children’s Dance and Arts now enjoys name recognition throughout Burlington, NC, she first started spreading the word about her classes through social media. “I would message mommy Facebook groups, asking if I could advertise or make a post,” she says.
Targeted, paid posts on social media are a great start, echoes Nicola Ciotta, founder of Baby Ballet Long Island in Commack, NY. “In my marketing, I really try to push the fun element,” Ciotta says. “These children are just coming because the adult is bringing them, not because they want to perfect that plié.” When you promise fun, you appeal to exhausted parents looking for some no-planning-required quality time with their kids (and maybe also for a chance to meet and spend time with other young families).
Since this new audience might be totally unfamiliar with dance-studio culture, Black advises setting clear expectations before the first class. “You need to tell parents to dress like they’re going to work out,” Black says. “And don’t take for granted that they’ll put their little ones in ballet attire without you saying so.”
The Teachers to Feature
One of the biggest mistakes studio owners make with this age group, says Black, is putting a young or new teacher in charge. “Whoever’s teaching your mommy-and-me classes is the first point of contact with parents,” Black says. “Making a good first impression is Marketing 101.” She recommends staffing early-childhood classes with seasoned creative-dance instructors who are energetic and fun-loving—but also confident in managing young dancers’ behavior, and in drawing out any parents reluctant to participate in class.
Unless paid or volunteer teaching assistants are readily available, you may also want to consider smaller class sizes than are typical at your studio. (Even in parent-and-child classes, where there are more adults in the room—Ciotta still caps hers at 10.)
All in the Familiarity
To help little ones acclimate to the novelty of dance class, infuse as much predictability and routine as possible. Before the first class, Black asks grown-ups what music their little dancers love best. At the beginning of class, dancers and parents twirl prop ribbons to these favorite tunes, each played for about 30 seconds. As Black says, “Making a connection through music with each child who doesn’t know us lays the groundwork for a successful class.”
Boniszewski creates consistency by using the same structure each week. “There’s a welcome song, stretching, gross motor skills, an interactive song with props, jumping/mini tramp/balance beam. And the class always closes the same,” she says. When you figure out the activity that tots look forward to most, make sure it comes at the end of class.
Between marketing, hiring new staff and purchasing tot-friendly props (“spot markers, mats, tunnels, ribbons,” says Black, which she says will cost around $500 alone per classroom), be prepared for significant start-up costs. But Boniszewski says you can expect that by the time a cohort or two ages out of the program, those initial investments will have translated into ongoing profitability.
There are multiple approaches to pricing baby-and-toddler movement classes. Ciotta bases her prices on the going rate for other kinds of mommy-and-me activities on Long Island, while Boniszewski’s early-childhood classes cost the same as any other 30-minute class at Tonawanda Dance Arts.
Whatever the price, class should go no longer than 30 minutes, and 18 months is pretty much the minimum age: “They need to walk unassisted, step down and step up, and balance well,” Black says. As for semester length, Boniszewski recommends shorter sessions than other studio programming—think four to 10 weeks at a time, so parents can test the waters before making a longer commitment.
The beauty of offering dance class for such young children, Ciotta says, is that you set the tone for the rest of their education in dance: “You are the first person to ever teach them to say ‘yes’ to their name, to wait their turn, to curtsy at the end. It’s a great way of getting people through your doors, who will hopefully stay for a long, long time.”
Helen Hope teaches dance and has written for Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.