The importance of establishing good habits at the start of the dance season
Is there anything better than the start of a new dance season? The air feels electric with potential and possibility. If you are like me, you spend the weeks leading up to the first class polishing your lesson plans, perfecting your playlists, developing assessment tools, and brainstorming recital and concert ideas. With these plans in place, I always feel energized, excited, and ready to take on the new season. I feel like a super teacher, even if just for a few short weeks!
But the biggest reason I love starting a new dance season: it’s a fresh start. The “clean slate” of the new season provides me with a chance kick old bad habits and start great new ones. In this blog post, I’ll share four important habits that dance teachers should start in the first six weeks of their classes.
These habits might seem simple, but you shouldn’t overlook their importance. Implementing them early will not only help you get your season off to a great start, but they will also make your teaching life much easier during the entire year. When we can establish good habits for ourselves and with our students upfront, we have a better chance of success throughout the year. It is important as dance teachers that we set healthy boundaries, lay out expectations, and develop good relationships with our students and, when applicable, their families. When these become habits – especially habits established at the beginning of the season – they become second nature for us and our students.
Why the first six weeks of dance class matter
What’s with the first six weeks? In the Responsive Classroom methodology, the first six weeks of school are considered crucial. Teachers who adopt the Responsive Classroom methodology follow specific steps to ensure that their students start the year in a way that sets them up for engaged and productive learning. As described on the Responsive Classroom website, “The early weeks of each new school year offer teachers distinct opportunities and challenges. It is during this time—when expectations and routines are established, rules generated, and goals articulated—that the foundation is laid for a productive and cooperative year of learning.” Dance teachers can apply a similar mindset during the first six weeks in the studio to help set their students up for success throughout the year.
Here are four key habits that dance teachers should establish in the first six weeks of class to ensure a successful dance season – for their students and themselves!
1.) Encourage your students to show up, on time and in proper dress
As educators, we know that students simply cannot improve if they are not regularly present in class, from start to finish, and dressed in a way that will keep them safe and help them focus. But sometimes, our students (and their families) fail to see why even those basic practices matter. Instilling the importance of these practices during the first six weeks of class will help students and their families develop good habits as related to attendance and dress code. Here are a few strategies to get started:
- Make sure that your attendance, make-up class, tardiness, and dress code policies are clearly listed in all studio materials or in your class syllabus so students and parents are aware of them before classes start.
- Discuss your expectations often with students and their families during the first six weeks. Explain why attendance is crucial (it’s the only way to improve individually and keep the class moving forward as a group), why tardiness is disruptive and dangerous (the late student distracts their peers, and missing warm-up could result in injury), and how dress code helps students learn most effectively (it addresses safety issues, limits distractions, and helps the teacher see and correct potentially dangerous alignment issues).
- For new students, provide plenty of resources on why dress code matters, where to buy dress code items, and how to properly fix hair. Ensure that these resources inclusive of a variety of skin tones, hair lengths and textures, and gender expressions. Handouts, in-class demonstrations, and videos are all great options!
- Create dress code options that are inclusive and make students feel comfortable, regardless of their shape, size, or skin tone. For more, check out this article from Dance Magazine.
- Consider incentives for good attendance and dress code adherence on a monthly or quarterly basis. The immediacy can be more effective than waiting until the end of the year to acknowledge good behaviors!
- Plan an observation time within the first two months of lessons so that students have a chance to apply their skills and families can see that the learning starts from day one.
- Make sure that you are making the most of the first 5 minutes of class. You don’t want to give students or families the impression that the beginning of class doesn’t matter that much, as it will only encourage tardiness. Make sure that your class starts off with a meaningful, engaging ritual, such as an energetic warm-up or a fun introduction game that students don’t want to miss! Make time for attendance and chatting a little later in the class.
Remember that the first six weeks are a time for setting expectations and informing students of consequences. There will certainly be learning curves as students and families adjust. Be kind and give some grace. A nice option for these first weeks is to have a stack of reminder slips with the expectation and potential consequence that can be discretely handed to students or their parents after class if they are late or not dressed properly.
2.) Create a consistent class routine
Kids thrive on routine, and having consistency can help them feel safe and comfortable while also supporting their learning. I have found this to be especially important for pre-school and middle school students. The class routine should be designed to reinforce behavior expectations, from how they enter the studio to how they say thank you at the end of class. Some things to consider when creating your class routine are:
- A welcoming opening ritual that can help students transition into class more easily.
- Structured warm-ups, with some room for variation from week to week to fit with your class theme or goals, that help students prepare their minds and bodies for the challenges to come.
- A basic class outline that stays more or less the same from week to week gives students an idea of what to expect and can help mitigate behavioral issues that arise from anxiety or fear of the unknown.
- Cool downs and closing rituals, from a reflective meditation to a formal révérence to a casual high five on the way out of the studio, that help students process their class experience and leave on a positive note.
If you are worried about students getting bored or parents getting suspicious of too much repetition, change the focus of your warm-up, progressions, or cool-down each week. Some ideas include adding level changes, playing around with different tempos, and changing up the movement quality or direction. Small changes help keep things fresh while still providing the comfort of the class routine. More ideas on that can be found in this blog post.
Spend a good portion of the first six weeks helping students adjust to the routine and become comfortable with it. Take time to explain the importance of each part of class: Warm-up prepares our bodies and minds for class. Progressions help us improve our technique. Phrases and combinations challenge our memories and help us apply what we are learning in new ways. Cool-down helps our muscles recover and our minds reflect on what we’ve learned. Help students navigate class transitions with focus and master the basics before pushing complex technical elements.
- If you want to give your lesson plans a refresh and ensure that you are creating a strong and consistent class routine, check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning.
3.) Cultivate a positive class culture
You likely want your students to develop certain attitudes and qualities, such as respect for self and others, focus and disciplined work, energy and enthusiasm, and kindness. The first six weeks should be a time to cultivate those attitudes and create the kind of culture you want for your class. This can be done through activities designed to bring out these qualities, such as partner exercises to develop teamwork and empathy, and goal setting to help students find their internal motivation. It is also important to talk to the students often about your expectations for their attitude and behavior, and to enforce consistent and compassionate consequences when these expectations are broken.
- Remember that your class culture starts even before the students walk into the studio! Take time to greet students and parents in the lobby before or after class if your teaching schedule allows. Make it a goals to know not only all of your students’ names, but also as their primary parent or guardians’ (when possible) by the end of the first six weeks.
- Teaching social-emotional skills is an important part of our role as educators, and the process should start in the first six weeks! My favorite ways to teach social and emotional skills through dance can be found in this blog post: 5 Vital Social-Emotional Skills Students Learn through Dance – and How to Teach Them!
- In the first six weeks, you should focus on getting to know your students well, so that you can best support them throughout the year. Are they introverted or extroverted? Do they thrive on attention or withdraw when you correct them in front of others? What kind of music do they respond to? What hobbies or interests do they have that you can connect to their dance training? The Back-to-Dance Bundle includes great resources that will help you get to know your students, help them set goals, and create a strong and supportive community in your class.
4.) Put a stop to bad movement habits – your students’ and your own
It is important to address your students’ postural and movement concerns in the first six weeks of class. For pre-schoolers, it might be the “W sit” or toe walking. For older students, it could be not getting all the way over the box of their pointe shoe, not reaching to the end of their kinesphere, or slouching between exercises. If you allow students to start the year off with sloppy habits, they will only get harder to correct. Address these fundamental issues before incorporating new or advanced technical elements into class.
- For little ones, it can be a good idea to have a set waiting posture, such as “ballet sit” (with one leg out and the other crossed over as in a Degas painting), butterfly with tall back, or a mermaid sit with legs to the side, to encourage good posture and energy in transitional moments of class. I like to provide students with several options that they can choose from and allow them to shift between them as needed. Some students have difficulty maintaining a set position for long periods of time, so giving them a few choices and letting them shift slightly can be helpful.
- For older students, spend some time correcting the postural issues that come with modern life, such as swayback resulting from tight psoas muscles due to sitting too long, or hunched neck and rounded shoulders caused by texting. Remind students to be cognizant of their posture both while dancing and in transitional class moments.
- During the first six weeks of class, it can be fruitful to spend significant time on conditioning exercises to help make these corrections. Encourage at home practice with a checklist of these exercises and incentives for completion. Of course, postural corrections probably won’t happen in those first six weeks, but the early focus will help set students up for success throughout the year. You can track their progress with photos and videos, helping them to see the results of their hard work!
But a beginning of the year posture check isn’t just important for our students. As dance teachers, we can also benefit from a renewed focus on our alignment and movement habits. Teaching dance can be hard on our bodies, and if we want a long and healthy career, we need to do all we can to prevent wear and tear. If you are able, give yourself a good warm-up before your classes start – or at least participate in your students’ warm-up as much as you can. Use your best dance technique when you demonstrate, and try to alternate which side of a combination you show most often so you don’t get imbalance injuries. If you have several classes in a row, give yourself some downtime by planning time for your students to improvise or do a creative activity that doesn’t involve demonstrating. (You may like these improv activities, choreography prompts, dance history activities, and dance games.) Mind your posture as you sit, stand, or walk around the room to observe your students. Cool down at the end of your teaching block – its tempting to run right out of the studio, but even a short cool down goes a long way!
More back-to-dance resources
My favorite tips and strategies for getting your year off to a great start can be found in this blog post: 8 Easy Ways to Make the Most of Back-to-Dance Season
For great games to help you get to know your students and create a strong class community, check out these blog posts:
Get all the dance teacher resources you need to get to know your dance students and create a strong class community – all at a great price – with the Back-to-Dance Bundle!
Want resources and inspiration to last the whole season long? Visit my Resources page, and join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher and sign up for my newsletter!