Words matter, even in the dance studio
Our words matter. It seems like we are reminded of this again and again in today’s news cycle: stories of bullying with terrible consequences, politicians inciting violence through the way they talk about their opponents, folks being called out for offensive posts on social media. But even in our everyday lives – and even in the dance studio, the language we use matters.
For dance teachers, this applies to all aspects of our interaction with students. One of my mentors once described the power of language in helping to evoke desired movement qualities: “You’re giving me honey, and I want molasses,” her teacher was fond of saying. The right verbal cue can be crucial to how our students understand and embody technique and performance quality.
Moreover, out language can have a strong impact on our students emotional health. The way we speak to our students can make a big difference in how they think about themselves. They internalize our words, and it can often become part of their own inner monologue. That self-talk becomes extremely important, as it helps them define who they are and their relationship to dance. Choosing the right things to say – about our students’ bodies, appearance, and dancing – can be crucial to their overall feel-being.
Well-being 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. How we talk to and about our students plays a big role in that social and emotional growth.
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, and how it relates to the ways we talk to our dance students.
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.. Now more than ever, it is important that go beyond technique and artistry and work to preserve and protect our students’ social and emotional health as part of their dance training.
In this blog post, I will share 8 phrases that should become part of how you talk to your dance students at this point in time, or whenever they are facing challenges in their dance training or personal life. These phrases can have a big impact on your students’ well-being, especially when combined with a conscious approach to our language overall.
8 things that your students need to hear from you right now
I’m proud of you.
Even if your students seem a little unmotivated, they are still showing up even after having faced enormous challenges in and out of the studio. That perseverance, that willingness to show up, is something we should definitely be proud of. We may be the only adults in our students’ lives who take the time to tell them how proud we are of them for showing up – so let’s not waste a single opportunity to do so! For more encouragement, check out this blog post: A Letter to My Dance Students in 2021.
I’m here for you.
Our students need a calm and steady adult presence in their lives when things get tough. Though we hope that they are getting this kind of love and support at home, the truth is many students rely on adult mentors like their dance teachers to be their champions in difficult times. Let your students know that you are there to listen, guide, and support them, no matter what. Set time aside in class to talk about – or dance about – their concerns, anxieties, and frustrations.
This is hard.
Too many adults try to force a sense of “normalcy” on kids, during the pandemic and almost any time students face challenges, These adults may mean well, but what kids need, more than “normalcy,” is empathy. They need to know that what they are experiencing right now is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and that any sorrow, grief, frustration, and anger they are feeling is justified. Allowing students to express their emotions – in words or in movement – is an important part of their healing from the struggles of the past year. For ways to incorporate healthy emotional expression into your classes, check out this blog post: 5 Dance Activities to Support your Students’ Emotional Health.
You are doing a good job.
Today’s students were already facing enormous pressure before the pandemic – from an increasingly difficult college admission process, to the highly competitive nature of today’s dance culture, to peer pressure and the quest for perfectionism fueled by social media. The challenges are always greater for students who have unstable home lives, lower socioeconomic status, or special needs. The COVID-19 crisis incited new challenges for many of our young people, and excasperated existing issues of race, class, and ability. We might feel a desire to “push” our dance students past their current challenges, but what they may actually need to hear from us is that they are doing fine, just as they are.
This will pass.
Remember when you were a pre-teen or teenager and everything felt like the end of the world? Every break-up, every bad report card, every failed audition, every dust up with a friend? Imagine how much more deeply our dance students must have felt the gravity of their circumstances during the pandemic. While we do not want to diminish or downplay what they are feeling during any difficult time, it is important to remind our students that this, like all things, will pass. Someday, the break-ups, the report cards, even the pandemic and all it’s trappings will be a distant memory – but the lessons we learned from it will last forever!
You can come out of this stronger.
Difficult times can make us better, stronger, and kinder – if we let them. We must remind our students that they have a unique opportunity to emerge from their current challenges with a new perspective, new resolve, and more courage than they ever imagined possessing. Tell them about things you are struggling with as a result of the pandemic, and how you are actively working to succeed in spite of, and because of, these struggles. For more on how to support your students’ social and emotional growth through their dance training, check out this blog post: 5 Vital Social and Emotional Skills Students Learn Through Dance – and How to Teach Them!
Dancing can help.
Many students may be feeling burnt out, uninspired, and disconnected from their dance training after the last 2 years. While this is completely understandable, the truth is that dance can help them navigate any difficult situation – even the pandemic. Dance – whether it is online, in a hybrid format, or with social distancing – offers unparalleled physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Reminding students of these benefits, and providing ample opportunities for the kind of training that fosters them, can help to motivate and encourage your students. Read more: Why Still Need to Dance – Even If It’s Online.
It’s okay if you want to take a break – or quit dancing all together.
I’ll be honest, it is hard for me to type this last one. There were so many times I wanted to quit dancing during my career, yet pure stubbornness prevented me from doing so – for better or for worse. While ultimately I’m glad I didn’t give up, for some students, taking a break can be the best option right now. Students get into dance for many reasons. For some, it’s purely a social activity, and now that the social aspect is largely gone (for the moment at least), they may not be experiencing the same joy they once felt. For others, time onstage made the grueling hours in the studio worth it, and without regular performance opportunities, they are losing their desire to continue training. Still others might be looking at the fairly dismal reality of the current arts job market, and are realizing that the sacrifice is no longer worth it with diminished career prospects out there. These students need just as much love and support as those who are choosing to stick it out. It is not easy to part with something that has become an integral part of your identity – but sometimes it can be the best option for one’s physical and emotional health. If you have a student who wants, or needs, to take a break, let them know that you support them – and love them – no matter what. Remind them that they will always have a place in the studio, and in your heart.
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!
- Discover the importance of Creative Rest in supporting emotional health: Embracing Creative Rest in the Dance Studio
- 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.