What should you be teaching your dance students?
This particular blog series – “5 Skills Your Students Should Know” – was inspired by a question posed in a dance teachers’ group on Facebook a while back: What are the 5 skills that you think are most important for your students to learn?
As I’ve written in the past, I initially struggled to answer this question. Quality dance training can positively impact students in so many ways: physically, of course, but also socially, emotionally, creatively, cognitively, and even spiritually. How could I choose just 5 skills from such a wide range of benefits?
To explore the question in greater depth on the blog, I’m separating my answers out over a few posts, each looking at a different “category” of skill. This post is about the top 5 social-emotional skills I try to teach my dance students, with ideas for incorporating them into your classes as well.
Why social-emotional skills matter in dance training
Today’s dance students seem to face an overwhelming number of social and emotional challenges. For the average student, these might include overexposure to social media, peer pressure, online and in-school bullying, intense academic stress, anxiety about getting into college, and fear of and/or actual violence in their schools. For students with special needs, those without good home and family situations, and those who live with financial instability, the challenges are even more pressing. The need to help out our dance students develop strong social and emotional skills feels greater than ever.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) “enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.” Strong social and emotional skills positively impact students both in the studio and in their everyday lives, affecting areas such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. (These competencies are based on the Casel framework, learn more here.)
My experiences as a dancer and educator have helped me to see how dance can be instrumental in helping students develop strong social-emotional skills, whether in the ballet academy or pre-school classroom. In fact, I have become convinced it is our job as dance teachers to help students become capable and well-rounded individuals in addition to great technicians and artists. Only a fraction of our students, even the most talented and hard-working, will choose a professional career in dance. Of those, even fewer will find long-term success in the field. But the social-emotional skills that we teach our dance students will benefit them no matter what path they take in life. With that in mind, I humbly present these 5 vital social-emotional skills that students learn through dance – with some tips for teaching them in your own classes.
A brief note
Throughout my career I’ve studied and taught in a wide range of settings: studios, colleges, K-12 schools, conservatories, and community programs. I’ve worked with students from age 2-60, some of whom where stepping foot into the studio for the first time in their entire lives, and some of who had been dancing even longer than I have. I’ve led classes for dancers in the midst of their careers, trained students with professional aspirations, and taught novice students who love dance and those who were forced to be in class because of their school curriculum.
I’ll note here that my training and teaching experience is limited to ballet, modern dance, contemporary, improvisation, jazz (a mix of authentic and concert styles), and creative dance. I have a great appreciation for tap, Hip Hop, and global movement practices, and I’m always looking to diversify my teaching practices. However, my perspective is largely informed by my experience in Western concert dance styles.
5 social-emotional skill students learn through dance
Grit can be defined as “perseverance of effort (that) promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.” Grit is the most important (and perhaps most obvious) social-emotional skill that students learn through dance. Most of us who have studied dance with any degree of seriousness can testify to the fact that grit, persistence, and resilience are necessary for success in this art form. Very few people nail a perfect pirouette or fall gracefully into a full split on the first try. It takes time, and hard work, to achieve even basic dance skills.
- The Challenge: Given our current culture of immediacy – YouTube celebrity, fast food and same-day delivery, the internet’s knowledge at your fingertips – there is something beautiful about the patience, sweat, and effort necessary to achieve success in dance. The paradox, of course, is that the best performers make it look effortless. Countless dance students come to the studio after being enthralled a professional dancer on stage or on TV. Not realizing the years of practice and sacrifice that went into the inspiring performance, the student expects to be working on – and mastering – complex skills after just a few classes.
- My Advice: Help your students set, measure, and achieve realistic dance goals throughout the season. One of the best ways to do so, in my opinion, is to have them keep a journal in which they outline short and long term goals. Instructors should work carefully with each student to help them set appropriate goals and determine how to best measure their progress. Each week they should write an entry that discusses their learning and any set-backs they experienced. Setting goals and tracking progress toward them is a great way to help students see the larger picture of their training, so that when things seems slow or boring they know it is part of the journey. Having a formal way to track progress also helps students to acknowledge failure in a healthy way. They will learn it is natural to fall short from time to time, but that with continued hard work and focus, they can overcome the temporary set-backs and reach their goals! To make the goal-setting process easier, check out The Holistic Guide to Goal-Setting for Dancers!
Responsibility is another important social-emotional skill that students learn through dance – and one that I learned the hard way! I will never forget the day after my first “professional” show. My teacher had put together a concert, and invited a few of the more serious students to participate alongside the professional dancers. I was so delighted to be invited and worked really hard to master the choreography and give the best performance I could. I was riding the post-show high when my mom got a phone call the next day: I had left several items behind in the dressing room, including a card and gift given to me by my teacher/choreographer. I was mortified; how could I be so irresponsible after working so hard to prove myself during the rehearsal process and show? However, this experience helped to show me that being a “real” dancer would require more than just good technique. Maturity, accountability, and responsibility are needed for success on and off the stage.
- The Challenge: It often seems like we live in an era of un-accountabilty. Parents do not want to see their children fail, and will often go to great lengths to help them out in a pinch. How often have you had a dad run all the way across town to deliver a forgotten leotard, witnessed a mom sewing her daughter’s the pointe shoes in the lobby, or listened to a parent completely deny even the implication that their child behaved like anything other than a perfect angel in class? (I’ll add here that I can’t blame parents for this; it’s hard to watch our kids struggle!) This is part of a larger societal problem in which bad behavior is too often excused or overlooked in schools, workplaces, politics, and even at times the courtroom.
- My Advice: The dance studio is a great environment for teaching children accountability in a positive way. Dress code is a good place to begin. To begin, make sure it is clear to students and parents, via your website, newsletters, handouts, or social media posts, WHY adhering to a dress code is so important for dancers – everything from safety to being able to properly assess students’ alignment to helping students focus during class. From the start of the season, try to instill in parents and students that packing the dance bag is the student’s responsibility. Even the youngest dancers can help check that their dance wear, shoes, and hair accessories are tucked inside the bag before leaving for the studio. Set a dress code for each class, and have clearly listed expectations for not adhering to it. Enforce the rules consistently, uniformly, and with empathy, and you will be helping students develop this important social-emotional skill!
In a world filled with name-calling, bullying, and internet trolls, empathy is a vital social-emotional skill that students learn through dance. Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” I like to think of empathy in terms of real-life examples, however: Can a student relate to someone else when they are hurting, scared, or happy? Do they understand that everyone has different feelings and experiences? Do they realize that their actions toward another person have consequences for that person? Do they make choices based on the impact of their actions on others, not just on how they will be affected?
- The Challenge: Kids live behind screens. Perhaps that is a generalization, or an overly simplified rationale for why there seems to be so little empathy in our world, and especially in our schools. As dance teachers, however, we have the power to combat the overwhelming presence of screens in our students’ lives and get them connected in real and meaningful ways!
- My Advice: There are many activities that can be adapted from creative dance and dances of the African diaspora that can be applied in all dance settings to help students develop empathy. One of the easiest and most potent is the creative movement activity mirroring, in which two students face one another, with one following the other’s movements precisely. It is a great way to aid in the development of empathy because it involves making and keeping eye-contact, synchronizing physical movement, and “trying on” the movement preferences of another person. Other partnering exercises, from stretching in pairs to explorations of weight-sharing and counterbalance, can also help students learn to relate to and empathize with others. Call and response, a hallmark of jazz music and dance, is another favorite of mine, and my students! Dancing as a ensemble, whether in group improvisation activities like flocking or in unison choreography, creates connection with others, a sense of camaraderie, and kinesthetic empathy.
There seems to be lot of research and media coverage on this topic lately, and for good reason. Impulse control is a valuable social-emotional skill that students learn through dance. Poor impulse control often leads to behavioral issues that begin at an early age and last into adulthood. These can include difficulty following rules and expectations, inappropriate attention-seeking behavior, inability to delay gratification, aggression, intense emotional overreactions, a lack of empathy, and the inability to understand the consequences of their actions. While all children demonstrate some of these behaviors at times, it is important that we as teachers do not brush it off as “kids being kids.” Impulsivity can lead to increasingly destructive or dangerous behavior if not addressed at a young age, so it is important to include activities in our dance classes that help students work on impulse control.
- The Challenge: As discussed above, patience is relatively undervalued in our society today. Parents (myself included) rarely leave the house without a stock of toys and snacks, ready to tend to any of our kids’ potential needs the moment it arises. An entire world of entertainment is readily available from the phones and tablets that are handed over to kids to combat boredom and thwart tantrums. Many children therefore do not learn to wait or to handle negative emotions like disappointment, frustration, or even boredom in a healthy way.
- My Advice, part 1: Traditional dance class etiquette lends itself to the practice of patience and impulse control. In ballet class, students take turns going across the floor, for example, and are expected not to talk unless asked a question. In many West African dance styles, students respond to the rhythms and tempos of the drummers, not their own whims. Setting such expectations for proper behavior and enforcing the consequences fairly and uniformly is one great way to help students learn to delay gratification and control impulses. In addition, creative movement activities and games can be adapted for all ages and dance genres to help reinforce these particular skills. Connie Dow wrote a terrific guest post for the National Dance Education Organization on this topic, and I highly recommend that you check it out here.
- My Advice, part 2: When students explore emotions through movement, it can help them to understand their own emotional life. One of my favorite (easy!) activities for younger students is to incorporate emotional expression into freeze dance. To start, instruct the students to express a difference emotion each round, that is, to dance as if they are happy and freeze in a happy pose the first time the music plays, then sad the next, then angry, and so forth. A more advanced version of this game is to play music that evokes a particular emotion, and have the students interpret through their movement, dancing in a happier way to more upbeat movement, for example. For older students, consider playing in two groups so students see how their peers and putting these emotions into movement. You can also have a reflective discussion after playing so that students can process their experience verbally. Ask simple questions, such as “Did you prefer to dance in a happy way or a sad way?” or “What kind of movements helped you dance in an angry way?,” and allow all students some time to answer. You can find more games like this here.
Holding multiple perspectives
During your own dance training, how many times did you hear the phrase, “Well in MY class, we do it like this!” Although many Western concert dance forms, like ballet, modern, and jazz, share some of the same movement concepts, they are performed in very different ways. Even within a dance genre, there can be many differences. A ballet class following the Cecchetti method will feel different from one in the Vaganova style, for example. Each teacher will also have their own approach to the genres and styles they teach. As a dancer, you must learn to balance these varying styles and approaches and adapt to each. Dancers learn that their is no one “right” way to move, and therefore learn to hold multiple perspectives at once. The ability to hold multiple perspectives at once is an important social-emotional skills that students learn through dance, when they are allowed to experience many different styles and approaches throughout their training.
- The Challenge: It can often feel as though we live in a black and white culture, with little respect for nuance. Many people tend to assert that their methods, philosophies, and beliefs are the “right” ones, and everything else is wrong. This can lead to contention, anger, and even fear of the “other.” It is important for us to teach our students to value differences, honor and respect all people, and understand that multiple perspectives can be valid – it’s not always one or the other.
- My Advice: As a teacher, it can be tempting to think that your approach to dance technique is the most effective. Most of us spent a lot of time honing our skills as a dancer, and continue to refine and perfect our pedagogies throughout our career. It is important, however, that we ourselves respect our colleagues’ methodologies and never speak badly about them to our students (unless of course they are unsafe or developmentally inappropriate). It is also important that we continue learning and challenging our assumptions by seeking out professional development. When we demonstrate respect for different genres, styles, and pedagogies, as well as a desire to continue our education, we can help our students value multiple perspectives. Some more practical ways to go about this include bringing in guest teachers and choreographers, introducing your students to new ways of moving (including non-Western dance forms), encouraging them to learn about dance history and dance in world culture, and allowing time for discussion and peer feedback in class.
More resources for social and emotional learning through dance
- Learn more about social-emotional learning through dance in this blog post: 5 Vital Social-Emotional Students Learn Through Dance – and How to Teach Them!
- Put your students’ well-being first with these 5 Dance Activities to Support Your Student’s Emotional Health
- Consider the importance of your language in the dance studio with these 8 Things Your Dance Students Need to Hear from You Right Now
Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching and creative practice. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.