Changing attitudes towards dancer wellness


I grew up in what I like to call the “suck it up, buttercup” era of dance training. Thirsty during class? Suck it up, buttercup – if a camel can go weeks without water, you can go 90 minutes. Injured? Suck it up, buttercup – here’s an ibuprofen and a Diet Coke. Didn’t get the part you want? Suck it up, buttercup – and try harder next time while you’re at it.

Don’t get me wrong, my teachers were not cruel and it’s not like I was gravely mistreated as a dancer. It was the culture of dance training at the time – a culture that likely reflected the demands of the dance industry that we were being trained for. But just because that’s how things were, it doesn’t mean it was right. I’m still recovering from some of the things I had to “suck up” and accept as the norm during my training – and I know I’m not alone in that.

Fortunately, things are changing. It’s not as common for dancers to be told to lose weight at all costs, for example. There is a greater understanding of the importance of wellness in the dance industry. One of the most exciting developments, in my opinion, is the focus on social and emotional growth as a part of dance training.


Social and emotional wellness in the dance studio


It’s becoming much more widely accepted that social and emotional wellness is just as important for dancers as physical conditioning and technique training. Many dance teachers agree that social-emotional learning should be an important part of any dance curriculum. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that dance can be used to support students’ social and emotional health and help them develop the important social skills that will help them navigate an ever-changing world.

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.) In this blog post, I will be focusing on on emotional Side of social-emotional leaning. The 5 dance activities in this blog post are designed to help students understand and express their emotions, as well as develop important emotional skills like persistence, empathy, resiliency, emotional regulation, and emotional clarity.


Why social and emotional learning in dance matters more than ever


Now more than ever, with the world recovering from 2 years of Covid-19 pandemic and an uncertain future before us, it is critical that we address our dance students’ emotional health in their dance training. As we continue to navigate the effects of the pandemic, our students are likely experiencing lingering feelings of fear, anxiety, and a major sense of disruption. Some will be facing additional trauma at home, having struggled immensely without the safe zones of school or the studio or dealing with loss of loved ones during the pandemic. Right now, all of our dance students need us to support their emotional health by using dance to provide tools for coping and resiliency, far more than they need technique exercises or choreography drills.


Dance activities to support you students’ emotional health


The Check-In Dances 

This dance activity helps students identify how they are feeling, how emotions manifest in their bodies and in their movement, and how exercise and creative expression can impact our moods.

  • Before starting class, ask students to think of one word that describes how they are feeling in that moment. Invite them to verbalize the word or write it down.
    • Students may be feeling conflicting emotions, and mature dancers should be encouraged to explore these through combinations of movement with multiple body parts.
  • Next, ask them to consider where that emotion lives in their body; that is, where do they feel it? For example, anxiety might be felt as a tightening in the chest, excitement as butterflies in the stomach, or grief as a heaviness in the shoulders.
  • Once they know where they feel the emotion, they will then identify how it manifests in movements, such as the hands gesturing wildly when excited or fingers clenching when angry.
  • Finally, ask the students to create a dance movement that expresses their emotion based on the answers to those two questions. For example, worry might be shown as a deep, strong contraction in the chest. Worry mixed with excitement could be shown with a flourish of the hands that leads into the contraction. Make sure that they practice their movement a few times so that they can recall it after class.
  • At the end of class, repeat the exercise from the beginning. Ask the dancers to note any changes in their mood after dancing. Have them articulate how they are feeling, where this new emotion lives and how it moves. Direct them the create another short movement based on those answers.
  • Then, ask them to create a short phrase that consists of the pre-class movement, a 4 count transition, and the movement that thy created at the end of class.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • What was it like to feel an emotion inside your body? How can you use this experience to help you become a better performer?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?


The Letting Go Dance

This dance activity validates the wide range of emotions students are feeling, while also helping them release their attachment to those feelings.

  • Individually or as a group, ask the dancers to brainstorm a list of emotions that they have felt since your last meeting. Give them time and encouragement to list positives, negatives, and everything in between. Note if any dancer seems particular distraught or stressed so you can follow up privately.
  • When the list is finished, say the words out loud, slowly, while the dancers sit or lie quietly and notice how their bodies and minds react to each word.
  • When you are finished reading the list, ask the dancers to stand in a neutral position to transition to the next part of the activity.
  • Say the list again, letting the dancers freely improvise as you do. Ask them to return to a neutral position only when you have finished reading the list.
  • Finally, say the words one at a time. For each word, direct the dancers to make and hold a shape that reflects what they felt and how they moved when they heard it. They should hold the shape with intense focus for at least 8 counts.
  • After holding with intensity, invite them to let go of the shape – and the emotion behind it – through movement. Allow them at least 16 counts to move out of the shape in a way that feels good – shaking it off, melting out of it, using their hands to manipulate other body parts, etc.
  • Dancers should return to neutral before you say the next word.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Did any emotions stand out or feel particularly impactful to you? Why?
    • How did it feel to sit and listen to the words? To improvise with them? To hold the shape? Which did yo prefer and why?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?


The Pros and Cons Dance

This dance activity helps students recognize and honor the fact that their emotions can ebb and flow, helping them navigate conflicting experiences with more calm and grace.

  • Ask students to reflect on their week. Options for this include inviting them to writing a journal or sharing as a group if they are comfortable doing so.
  • Students should then be directed to list as many “pros” (or positive experiences) and “con”s (or negative experiences) as they care to share. They should have at least 2 of each. The experiences can be related or unrelated.
  • For each pro or con, students should make a movement or gesture that  reflects how they felt about the experience. (You can use some of the steps in activity 1 or 2 above to help them create the movement or gesture if you’d like.)
  • Direct the students to arrange their movements in an alternate pattern (pro-con-pro-con…).
  • Have the students create transitions between the movements. The transitions should assist the students in moving naturally and seamlessly between each movement. Help them find the rhythm: pro-flow-con-flow-pro….
  • Invite the students to perform their dance several times in a row, without stopping the flow .
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Were you more comfortable reflecting on the “pros” or the “cons”? Why?
    • Which movement or gesture felt best to create and perform? Why?
    • Could you feel the flow of the movement, carrying you from “pro” to “con,” almost like a wave? What was this experience like?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?


The Resiliency Dances

In this blog post, I outline 21 different prompts for choreography or improvisation designed with resilience in mind. The focus of these prompts is overcoming challenges, and explorations include physical challenges, emotional check-ins, and dances to foster community even in the face of isolation. You can use these prompts for improvisation exploration during your online class time, or assign them as “homework” to encourage students to create their own choreography throughout the week.



I highly recommend that students be encouraged to journal throughout their dance education experience, especially now. They are living through history, and recording their experiences can be an important part of their processing and emotional growth. Dance students can write freely about their experiences, reflect on how dance supports their emotional health, or track their social-emotional growth through dance. To help facilitate a productive journaling experience, check out The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Dance Students. This list of 52 writing prompts that help students reflect on their technical and artistic growth and overall well-being is available here.


More resources for social and emotional learning through dance



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.