Why are my dance students so unmotivated?
It’s no secret that some of our dance students are struggling from the residual effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The last few years 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 the present challenges, even if they are struggling inside. Other students, however, are obviously 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 outwardly disengaging, zoning out, or giving up.
But even beyond the strange events of the 2020s thus far, there are times when students are unmotivated for a variety of reasons. They may be going through a difficult time at school, having trouble with friends, facing romantic disappointments, or be burdened by family issues. For us on the other side of adolescence, it might be tempting to write these struggles off. We lived through them, and so will our students, right? That may be true, but giving our students some extra support when they are going through difficult times for any reason can go a long way in helping them feel motivated to succeed in their dance training.
What can I do to motivate my dance students?
As the pandemic seems to be fizzling out (fingers crossed!), we as teachers may want to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible, we have to acknowledge that, whether they demonstrate it outwardly or not, our students have been changed by the events of the pandemic, political events, and beyond over the past few years. 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. But even with all that in mind, I still believe that there are real, concrete ways to motivate your dance students in difficult times, and that they aren’t as complex as we might believe them to be. In this blog post, I will share six strategies for motivating your dance students, no matter what difficult times they may be facing!
Strategies for motivating your dance students
Try something new in your dance classes
Novelty can be a great tool to help quickly motivate students and reignite their interest in dance. Novelty can activate the dopamine system and release chemicals in the brain that can keep us happy, motivated, and feeling positive. (Research like this study indicates it also supports learning!) Trying something new in your dance classes can pique students’ curiosity and jump-start their motivation to learn.
Breaking with traditional class structure and trying something new 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. Some new things that you can try in your class to help motivate your dance students include:
- Changing up your typical class routine with the strategies in this blog post: Simple Ways to Shake Up Your Dance Classes
- Incorporating Creative Rest practices to help students reconnect with their bodies, reignite their creativity, and fight burnout. You can learn more about Creative Rest at this blog post: Embracing Creative Rest in the Dance Studio.
- Letting students explore their artistry by creating their own choreography. The Holistic Collection of Choreography Adventures is a great tool to help challenge their creativity and choreography skills.
- Add more improvisation into your classes (yes – even in ballet!). Improv is a great way to empower students to discover how technique works in their own bodies and to develop their creativity and artistry. Find ways to easily incorporate improvisation into your technique classes in this blog post: 4 Creative Ways to Use Dance Improvisation in Technique Class
Important to note: 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.
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, 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. Here are some of my favorite ways to teach social skills in your dance classes.
- 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!
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 moments of levity, fun, and silliness in class. Play can be an important escape from the sobering 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!
- You more about how I use play as an educational tool in dance in this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Play in the Dance Studio
- The Dance Games Bundle is a collection of 75 educational, movement-based games for dance classes that will incorporating play into your lesson plans a breeze all year long!
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. You can build goal-setting activities into your lesson plans, and check in with students frequently on their progress. You can also assign students’ goal accountability buddies – other students in their class who can help them stay on-track as they work towards their goals together!
- Check out this blog post with ideas to help students set and achieve new goals this year: 5 Ways to Achieve Your Dance Goals
- Simplify the goal-setting process by using these goal-setting worksheets with your students.
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 participated in my first choreography workshop. This new creative outlet breathed life into my passion for dance, and motivated me to continue on with my training 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 can teach your students online one night, and then you return the favor with their students another time.
- Give your students a list of social media accounts to follow of inspiring dancers, choreographers, and teachers. Feeling their feed with positive figures in the dance world that they can look up to is a great way to keep students motivated.
- Share resources for streaming live performances or master classes with noted educators or companies. Check out Ailey All Access, Jacob Pillow’s Dance Interactive, and Broadway on Demand.
- 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.
- Use your technique class time to introduce students to dance history, choreography, somatics, cross-training modalities, and more!
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 and beyond 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. It helps kids to know that adults don’t have all the answers, but that we are still doing our best to deal with difficult situations with persistence, grit, and grace – and so can they!
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.