It’s no secret that some (if not most!) of our dance students are struggling as we enter into the new year. The last 10 months have been hard on everyone, children and teens included. For many students, dance class has been an escape, a release, a relief from the realities of the pandemic and political melee. Some students may have been reminded of how precious their time in dance class is, and refuse to waste it – whether they are in the studio or online. These students may outwardly appear to be thriving despite of the present challenges, even if they are struggling inside.

Other students, however, are having a hard time adjusting to the new normal, especially as it relates to dance. They may be Zoomed-out, miss socializing in the changing room before class, or feel a sense of futility when learning choreography for a performance or competition season that’s not guaranteed to happen. Younger students may feel constrained by their 6-foot squares in class, while older students may be watching their professional aspirations slip away as the industry itself struggles to stay afloat. These students likely seem to be disengaging, zoning out, or giving up.

While we as teachers may want to get back to business as usual in 2021, we have to acknowledge that, whether they demonstrate it outwardly or not, our students have been changed by the events of the past year. We may feel frustrated that many students seem unmotivated, distracted, or that they have lost their zeal for dance. We may be confused when even our most dedicated students have moments where they seem to lose it or want to give up. We may be confused or even upset that our “go-to” teaching tools and motivational tricks are not working in these “uncertain times.” It is likely that we ourselves are feeling burnt out and overwhelmed (among a spectrum of other emotions!), and that we don’t have the time or capacity to come up with new strategies to help us motivate our dance students.

With all that in mind, I still believe that there are real, concrete ways to motivate your dance students in these crazy times, and that they aren’t as complex as we might believe them to be! Here are some of my best strategies for motivating your dance students, in 2021 and beyond:

1.) Put your dance students’ social and emotional needs first: One of the primary objectives of the The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach is to preserve our students’ Overall Well Being, which refers to their physical, emotional, and mental health, as well as their social development and growth. When students seem unmotivated in their dance training, it is often a sign that their social and emotional needs are not being met in the studio and/or in their personal lives. We can motivate our dance students, and help them grow into well-rounded individuals in and out of the studio, by including social and emotional learning in their training. Some easy ways to do this include:

  • Help each student feel seen and heard by greeting them by name while taking attendance, and allowing them time to share special news or answer questions about themselves. The questions in The Holistic Guide to Getting to Know Your Dance Students are perfect for incorporating into your attendance ritual!
  • Create opening and closing rituals that allow students to express themselves and connect with one another. Some of my favorite activities can be found in this blog post.
  • Incorporate activities that promote healthy and safe socialization into your classes. Some of my favorites include mirroring and shadowing, movement telephone, and the acting improv game Zip-Zap-Zop.
  • Assign class partners or divide the class into small teams, and encourage students to check in and chat with their partner or teammates throughout the semester. You can weave these check ins into your class opening and closing rituals.
  • Encourage students to reflect and process their emotions through journaling. The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Dance Students includes 52 journaling prompts related to dance and dance training, but keeping a daily log of their feelings or even free-writing on a weekly basis can also be helpful.
  • Get more ideas for social-emotional learning and how it relates to dance in this blog post!

2.) Shake things up in your dance classes. The new year is the perfect time to break out of old routines and shake things up! While it can be important to acknowledge and respect the traditions associated with dance training, it can also be helpful to step outside the box from time to time. Breaking with traditional class structure can shake students out of a mental funk and let go of bad habits that may have built up in the last year. This doesn’t have to be complicated – simply changing the music or facing a different direction can go a long way. Check out more strategies for shaking up your class routine in this blog post. At the same, it is important to remember that pre-schoolers and middle school students in particular can thrive on routine, and may be clinging to the structure that dance class provides as they deal with the uncertainty of the world around them. Choose carefully what – and how much – you change up with these age groups.

3.) Remember the importance of play. Of course, pre-professional dance training is a serious business. But it is important to remember that all students, regardless of their age or future ambitions, can benefit from play. To motivate your dance students, make sure to include movement of levity, fun, and silliness in class. Play can be an important escape from the sober and at times scary realities of the world, and most students are simply not getting enough of it right now due to online schooling and social distancing. Moreover, research shows that students of all ages actually learn through play. Play is not a “break” from dance learning – it can (and should) be an important part of the learning process itself. Thoughtfully designed games and creative activities can teach students new dance skills, all while keeping them motivated and having fun! Bonus: Make incorporating play into your lesson plans a breeze with The Holistic Collection of Dance Activities for the Winter Season, featuring 15 ready-to-use educational dance games that . Learn more about how I teach ballet technique through play in this blog post.

4.) Help your dance students set and achieve new goals. Goal-setting is a great way to motivate your dance students, especially in difficult times. It is important to help them set goals that are specific and personally meaningful, and create a plan to achieve them. Having a unique goal to work toward can help keep students engaged in their dance training, even when times gets tough. Check out this blog post with ideas to help students set and achieve new goals this year, and simplify the goal-setting process with these awesome goal-setting worksheets!

5.) Point your dance students toward new sources of inspiration. I was about ready to give up on my ballet training in high school, until I was introduced to my first choreography workshop. This new creative outlet breathed life into my passion for dance, and motivated me to continue on through college and beyond! Through the power of Zoom and other online resources, we can motivate our dance students by introducing them to new dance styles, new artistic outlets, and new ways of thinking about dance. Some easy ways to do this include:

  • Bring in an online teacher for a special workshop, or even to sub your own class. If finances are tight, you can make a trade agreement with a teacher in another city or state. They teach your students online one night, and then you return the favor with their students.
  • Give your students a list of social media accounts to follow of inspiring dancers, choreographers, and teachers.
  • Share resources for streaming live performances or master classes with noted educators or companies.
  • Recommend books on dance, dance related magazines, and dance blogs and podcasts. Check your local library to see what dance books are available to borrow.

6.) Be a stable, positive force in your dance students’ lives – but also be real with them (and with yourself!). Our first instinct, as educators, is to model positivity for our students. Staying positive is, for sure, one good way that we can motivate our dance students to stay focused and upbeat. But it is also important that we be real with them. The events of 2020.have sucked for everyone, to put it bluntly. Of course, some are experiencing far greater trauma and struggle than others, but all have been affected in some way. I think it is okay – even necessary – to acknowledge the ways in which you have been affected and how you might be struggling to deal with all that’s going on. In fact, being honest about our own struggles might be one of the best ways that we can motivate our dance students in 2021. It helps kids to know that adults don’t have all the answers, and they can learn from our example how to deal with difficult situations with persistence, grit, and grace.

However, modeling this level of awareness requires us to take care of ourselves well-being as fiercely as we take care of our students – something that is often easier said than done! A key component of The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach is holding space for our own well being, meaning that we work to recognize and care for our own needs as educators, artists, and individuals. If you have been struggling to maintain work-life balance this year, my newest resource is just for you. Subscribe to my newsletter and receive a free copy of The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancer Teachers. In the first part guide of the guide, you will be lead through 30 journaling questions that help you reflect on your growth, needs, and dreams related to your teaching practice and career, creativity and artistic expression, and overall well-being. The second part of the guide is a series of worksheets designed to help you turn your journaled reflection into an action plan! You will create goals that are specific and personally meaningful, along with a concrete plan to see them through all year long!

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.

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