September 16, 2019 | Francisco Gella 

Learn Why Mentors Are So Important For Your Dance Career

Guest Authors: Sue Sampson-Dalena, Owner/Artistic Director, and Martha Allen, Office Manager, of The Dance Studio of Fresno

I was honored to be asked to share my thoughts on the importance of mentoring dancers with Francisco Gella Dance Works. As a studio owner and teacher for 38 years, I have enjoyed great success, taught more classes and team rehearsals, and mentored many more great dancers, than I could have ever imagined. We now have two and three generations of families dancing at our studio, as we have grandparents who danced here bringing their grandchildren in for classes.  

Photo courtesy of The Dance School of Fresno

As I began my dance journey, I did not enjoy having a mentor per se… although my mother has always been an outstanding role model as both a parent and a business owner. Therefore, my expertise in dance is the result of trial and error, dreams, innovation, continuing education, and the inspiration of others in the dance world.

My Journey to Mentorship

While teaching is phenomenally fulfilling and profitable, there has to be more. This is not just a business – it is my life’s work. I want to “go deeper” to see dance change the lives of those open to the journey. I long for students to find their own fulfillment in this world of ongoing challenges and creativity. To satisfy that longing, I mentor those who are willing to dream with me. Mentoring has become a large part of who I am, and I hope it is part of my future legacy.

As a mentor, I recognize that my responsibility far exceeds that of just teaching and spending time with students; it requires that I reveal my own experiences with wisdom garnered from my successes and failures. I commit to providing guidance, motivation, and moral support to my proteges. I require myself to always “aim higher” as their role model over the several years we explore their possible careers and I help them in identifying resources to further their progression towards their goals and dreams.

My daughters and I attended the College Prep Workshop in Huntsville in September. At that time we were completely overwhelmed and WAY behind on our preparation for college dancing. My daughter, who is a senior, was devastated to learn how much we didn’t know. We had recently departed our “home” studio due to zero care and guidance. After our class and discussion with Julie, we were on fire to get home and begin. Quick update for y’all: my daughter already auditioned at Butler University. She has been on a campus visit to Indiana University and passed her pre-screen and will audition in January. She has been accepted academically to Point Park and just auditioned for them this morning. She still has 3 more places she is auditioning. I wanted to thank y’all SO MUCH for getting us started. It is your guidance and caring spirit that gave us the courage to chase her  dream. And we’ve already started making earlier decisions for my other daughter who is a sophomore this year. Keep up the excellent work!!

Many of the students I have mentored have succeeded in dance careers as studio owners, company founders and directors, choreographers, and coaches. Several became dance teachers in studios, as well as in performing arts high schools and colleges. I count among them dancers in ballet and contemporary companies, commercial dancers, and those on Broadway and television. There are even those who became physical therapists and kinesiologists that specialize in dance. As I consider their careers, I am both humbled and honored to have influenced the direction of their lives.

My Mentees Share Similar Characteristics

There are certain qualities I look for when deciding if I will mentor a dancer and all of those qualities are critical to the success of our partnership: 

  • Aptitude and Physical Characteristics: I notice high levels of interest, excitement, and aptitudes in children as young as 5 years old. I do not approach them at that age, but instead wait to see if they have sufficient enough interest in dance to move forward (with their teacher’s affirmation). 

    When dancers are 7 to 9 years old, I begin to track their progress a little more closely without becoming too aggressive. Oftentimes, a teacher will notify me of the child’s passion and progress in the classroom. Sometimes the dancers are already participating in our JumpStart Teams, which are a primer to competition and performance teams.

    Most proteges have some level of identifiable talent, but many do not have an “ideal”  dancer body. Some are all arms or legs, and some struggle with weight issues. The students I most desire to work with, however, are more than just talent combined with physical attributes.  
  • Maturity Level: When dancers are 10 to 12 years old, I assess their maturity and begin a conversation about potential, work ethic, and the future. I am often pleased and surprised to hear dancers at 12 years old already expressing their dreams of a future in dance. It’s at this point that the real adventure begins!
  • The ‘it’ Factor: The best candidates have the “it factor” combined with personal drive. They are truly committed to learning and bring a different type of energy to classes and rehearsals. These dancers prepare before class, and remain consistent and determined during class. They persist through frustration until the movement is clear, demonstrating a superior work ethic.
  • A Hunger to Learn: The hunger in these dancers is something I can see and feel – it’s almost tangible. They arrive early and stay late for rehearsals. They take risks that make them vulnerable, even if there’s a chance of feeling foolish. These students are generous with others in class, encouraging and helping them accomplish a particular movement or combination. These students will help others with the material, and even volunteer their own time to rehearse outside of the classroom.
  • Ability to Lead: I look for proteges who present natural leadership qualities. They have influence over others (whether their own personalities are very vocal, or quiet) and they are not afraid to lead.  Oftentimes, I mention these attributes to dancers, but they may not recognize these qualities in themselves. As a result, I must be able to explain what leadership is, and cite examples for clarification.

Not all dancers come to me with ballet training in their background. In fact, two of my proteges started in gymnastics, then transitioned into dance. Some of my best have been cross trainers, having extensive experience in multiple disciplines. Again, I do not simply look at talent or what a dancer already knows, but future potential and drive.

My Closing Advice

The mentoring process is a lengthy one, yet it has been one of the greatest joys of my life.  I have found over these many years that opportunities to mentor are both invigorating and completely rewarding. These relationships have lasted for decades and, outside of family, often prove to be some of the most enriching relationships of my life.  

For dancers wanting to develop this type of relationship with your studio owners or teachers, I would encourage you to begin to dream, define your goals, recognize your natural aptitudes, and work consistently hard in classes and rehearsals. Be bold enough to approach instructors to discuss a one-year plan, five-year plan, and even beyond.  Honor the advice you are given as you pursue your future.

In closing, I would like to thank all those who have opened their lives to me in this regard, and look forward to equally fulfilling experiences with others in the future. I will always treasure each and every one of you, and wish you the very best of success.

Sue Sampson-Dalena, Owner and Artistic Director of The Dance Studio of Fresno, is a highly respected leader in the industry who has created one of the most successful dance studios in the western United States. In 2017, Sue was honored with the Dance Teacher Award from Dance Teacher Magazine and in 2015 her studio received a rare honor, Studio of the Year and Grand Prize Winner at The Dance Awards. She has mentored her students to go onto dance at colleges and conservatories, join professional companies, compete on So You Think You Can Dance and hired for other television and movie opportunities, become dance teachers and open their own dance studios.

Martha has worked with Sue Sampson-Dalena at The Dance Studio of Fresno for the past 18 years.  As the office manager, Martha has a wide range of responsibilities but regards business writing as a highlight.  She has written an extensive employee manual; publishes a monthly newsletter for a client database of over 2,300; and assists Sue with presentations and articles.  She has also written ministry manuals for her local church and various articles for collectors clubs.