Do your dancers struggle with social skills – or are they overly social?
Time and time again, I read posts from dance teachers in Facebook groups asking for tips on managing overly chatty and talkative students in their dance classes. The responses from the communities are generally wonderful, filled with tips for getting and keeping students’ attention and helping to channel their energy into productive dance learning. But one thing is rarely addressed in these forums – why are students so chatty and social during class in the first place?
On the other side of the coin is the stereotype of the silent muse, the retreating and demure dancer who is to be “seen but not heard.” She (and this figure is most often cis-female) is there to bring the choreographer’s vision to life, without questioning his (and this figure is most often cis-male) motives, intentions, or artistic choices. Fortunately, this trope is changing, as more women take on creative and leadership roles in the dance industry, and more dancers of all genders find a platform for their own voices and perspectives through social media.
Both ends of this spectrum make it clear to me that social skills should be actively taught in the dance studio. We use social skills everyday as we interact with the people around us, and they are vital for success and happiness. They help us have positive interactions with those we encounter through the day, develop strong friendships, and maintain appropriate relationships with peers and authority figures. When we have strong social skills, we are able to effectively resolve conflicts, speak up for ourselves when necessary, and demonstrate empathy for others. And yet, social skills seem to be lacking in many of our current students. This lack of social skills can lead to real issues, both in terms of student behavior in the dance studio, and in their lives as they grow up.
In this blog post, I’ll share six easy ways to teach social skills in your dance classes, as well as make the case for WHY these skills are so important! You’ll find fun activities that will improve your dancers’ social skills – and possibly solve some common behavioral issues as well!
Why do social skills matter in the dance studio now, more than ever?
While it may seem like the world has returned to “normal” following the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the truth is our students are still catching up in many ways. Many students experienced nearly two and a half years of extreme disruption in their academic, family, and dance lives. Some students may have had little in-person social interactions with people outside of their immediate family for much of that time. It is important to acknowledge how much our students’ social skills have suffered as a result of the pandemic, even though we know that safety measures such as distancing and masking were necessary and life-saving (and continue to be for vulnerable populations). These setbacks in social skills means that a third-grader might be demonstrating the same social challenges we’d usually see in a kindergarten student. It is equally important to recognize that, as dance teachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our students recover those social skills and reclaim their ability to interact positively, appropriately, and productively with their peers in class.
Beyond the pandemic, the very nature of childhood is changing rapidly. In my opinion, many of these changes come at a detriment to kids’ social skills. Students are increasingly over-scheduled. They are expected to not only be involved in numerous clubs, activities, lessons, and teams, but they are expected to be highly committed to each from a young age. This expectation comes not only from parents and coaches, but also from colleges who place too much value on the quantity, not quality, of a students’ involvement in extracurricular activities. Being overly scheduled into hyper-focused activities (including competitive or pre-professional dance training!) leaves little time for free play, hanging out with friends, family and neighborhood gatherings, and unstructured time with peers – all of which are experiences that help children develop social skills. At school, students spend much more time at their desks and on independent test preparation than they did in previous generations. These means less recess time, which is another crucial tool for the development of social skills, and less time for class discussions. “Helicopter” or “snow plow” parents increasingly step in and solve conflicts between friends, or even between students and teachers, at the expense of teaching their children necessary conflict-resolution skills. And of course, so much of our students’ peer-to-peer interaction now happens online and through the phone. Social media and messaging make communication easier in some ways, but can also sorely damage kids’ ability to communicate effectively in offline settings.
Why is it important to help our dance students develop strong social skills?
When students struggle with social skills, they are unable to effectively communicate their needs, and often become uncomfortable in social situations. And, as much as may not think of dance class as a “social situation” – it is! Students who struggle with social skills may act out and have behavioral problems in dance class. They get disruptive when they have an unmet need, rather than trying to communicate it in an appropriate way. Some students with poor social skills may struggle with self regulation, finding it difficult to use the appropriate behavior for any given situation. When they can’t self-regulate, students are unable to stop talking when directed, or wait their turn in line, or stay in their designated dance space, for example. They may also have issues with sensory processing, which means they have trouble focusing, and can’t make sense of the information they are receiving. These students may get easily overwhelmed and stop paying attention as a result. In short, when we help our students develop social skills, we not only set them up for success in life by helping them learn to communicate effective, resolve conflicts, and relate to others – we also can get a handle on common behavioral issues that might be plaguing our classes. It is a true win-win!
What is social and emotional learning in dance?
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 social side of social-emotional leaning. The dance activities in this blog post are designed to help students learn how to appropriately and productively relate to their peers in class, while also working on vital skills like communication, collaboration, and empathy. To learn more about social skills specifically, check out the Kid Sense Child Development website.
My experiences as a dancer and educator have helped me to see how dance can be instrumental in helping students develop strong social-emotional skills, whether in the ballet academy or pre-school classroom. In fact, I have become convinced it is our job as dance teachers to help students become capable and well-rounded individuals in addition to great technicians and artists. Only a fraction of our students, even the most talented and hard-working, will choose a professional career in dance. Of those, even fewer will find long-term success in the field. But the social-emotional skills that we teach our dance students will benefit them no matter what path they take in life.
How to Teach Social Skills in Dance Class
Get in (the right) formation
How we arrange students in class can have a significant impact on our students’ social skills. In many dance classes, students spend most of the time in lines facing the mirror. This may have benefits for their technique, but it is not the optimal formation for social interaction and growth. I like to start my classes in a circle. (Yes, at times I even start advanced ballet like this!) The circle symbolizes equality and democracy; everyone in the circle can see and be seen; no one is in front, no one is behind. A circle formation almost forces students to make eye contact, which is a foundation of strong social skills. It allows me to see every student, and puts me on equal footing with them, at least in that moment. Utilizing a circle formation for an opening ritual, part of warm-up, in your cool down, and throughout class can help students see class as a community event, rather than an individual undertaking. A circle formation can help build trust among dancers, a necessary foundation for successful socialization.
I know many of you may be reading this and thinking – I can’t get my students to stop talking, why would I ever encourage them to start? I believe that our students genuinely want to be heard and acknowledged, especially now as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic. Too often, they do not feel as though anyone is listening. Giving students the opportunity to speak up at an appropriate time in class can provide that outlet. Once the student feels heard and acknowledged, they may be less likely continue talking at inappropriate times in class. It also allows you to teach boundaries around talking: “We had discussion time at the start of class, now we are focusing on technique. I’d be happy to hear your story at our next discussion time.” It is important that you allow each dancer some time to not only speak, but to be acknowledged by you and by their classmates. Consider some of the following options:
- At the beginning of class, ask young dancers a specific question, such as their favorite color, animal, or food. After the dancer has shared, ask them why that is their favorite, and give them some time to explain. Then, ask the other dancers in class if they also like the student’s choice, by a show of hands or a gesture like a thumb’s up. Acknowledge the group’s response: “Oh, I see that 5 other dancers also like the movie Frozen!” If another dancer starts talking about why they like Frozen, you can redirect them by asking if Frozen is their choice of favorite movie, or if they have a different favorite movie to share. If that dancer has already shared their favorite movie, you can say something like, “I’m so happy that you and your friends all like that movie, let’s find out what Sadie’s favorite movie is ….” before moving on to the next student.
- For older students who may want to vent a bit, you can try a game like “Pros and Cons.” (Shout out to my 2019-2020 pre-teen beginning jazz class for this idea!) Each dancer who wants to participate can share one “pro,” or positive thing, about their week, as well as one “con,” or not-so-great thing. After a dancer shares their “pro” and the “con”, set a timer for 1-2 minutes of discussion among the group before moving on to the next dancer. You can find a movement version of this activity in this blog post.
- Ask questions of your dancers throughout class. Try to avoid generic “Yes or No” questions, and don’t be afraid to pose the same question in different ways if you don’t get a response the first time. Wait at least a full minute for someone to respond before moving on – often students need time to process the question and articulate a response in their heads before they will speak up. Allow students to “piggyback” on one another’s responses and take the discussion in their own direction, but redirect them if they start getting wildly off-topic. Some of my favorites questions include:
- “What did that movement feel like in your body?”
- “What did you notice about your body while you were doing that movement?”
- “How did you choose to express (a feeling, mood, character) in that movement?”
- “What changed for you after you applied that correction?”
- “What were you thinking about while you performed the combination that time?”
- “What will you do next time to feel more successful?”
- Get the students to ask you questions. I recently saw a meme on social media that encouraged teachers to stop asking, “Do you have any questions?” Instead, the author encourages us to reframe our approach by choosing “What questions do you have?” or even, “Ask me two questions about that.” This simple change of phrasing normalizes the process of asking questions and seeking clarification, and may give reluctant dancers the encouragement to speak up.
I cannot stress how much I love a good collaborative dance activity. Getting students to work together to solve a movement problem or create something together is one of the best ways to teach social skills in our dance classes, in my opinion. We might think of “create your own choreography” classes as a time-killer or brain break for ourselves, but we shouldn’t overlook the myriad benefits they offer to our students, especially when we focus on collaborative choreography projects. Collaborative dance activities, like designated discussion time, provide a productive time for socialization, and can help you set boundaries around talking in class.
Collaborative dance activities should be structured, which provides support to students who are more reserved or shy. A structured collaborative project that has clear directions can a be much less scary way to work on social skills than discussions and open-ended social time. Collaborative projects are also productive, meaning that the dancers need to work together to accomplish something. A set expectation to be met at the end of the process can help keep chatty or unfocused students on task.
When grouping students together for a collaborative dance activity, it is important to consider who is working together, and why? Can students choose their own group to work with? There is certainly value in that option, as it allows students to work with people they are comfortable with and can communicate with easily. It also offers more agency to the students as it gives them a choice. However, there is also something to be said for curating groups to help each individual dancer grow. You might put your strongest students together one time, so that they can push one another. Another time, you might want to mix groups up so that some of the stronger dancers are in each group, allowing them to take a leadership role and support the developing students.
Not sure what kind of collaborative dance activity would work for your students? The #ChoreographyAdventures might provide the inspiration you need! Try one (or more!) of these choreography prompts as the basis of a creative project for students to work on together. They groups can perform their choreography informally for their classmates, turn them into a dance video or TikTok, or share during parent observation or bring a friend week. You can also use them as part of the choreography for recital or competition.
If you follow my blog, you might be thinking that I consider play to be the answer to every problem we face as dance educators in the studio. And you know what, you might be right! There are so many benefits to incorporating play into you dance classes, and stronger social skills is definitely one of them. Play requires a different kind of attention and focus than technique exercises, drills, and choreography. Students learn to express themselves through play, often letting their guard down a bit more because they are having fun and being silly. At the same time, students learn to work together as they play together, and play offers opportunities to develop communication, collaboration, and leadership skills. There are many ways that you can incorporate play into your dance classes, and most of them will help teach social skills of one kind or another. You can read more about my approach to play in the dance studio, and find strategies for incorporating play into your dance classes in this blog post. You may also want to check out The Dance Games Bundle, with 75 educational and movement-based dance games for students age 7 and up. These games were designed to help students grow in dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills, with an emphasis on both self-expression and teamwork!
Empathy is, in my opinion, one of the most important social skills that we can teach our dance students. I believe that empathetic people make the best performers, because they can really understand and embody a character or mood and make the audience feel it, too. Not only is empathy good for dance artistry, but it is also vital for healthy relationships outside of the studio. One of my favorite ways to foster empathy in my students is through the improvisation activity “Mirroring.” In this activity, two students stand close together, facing one another and making eye contact. One is designated the leader, and begins moving slowly and deliberately. The other dancer copies their movement with the opposite side of the body, as if they were the leader’s reflection in a mirror. That is, when the leader moves the right side of their body, the other dancer moves their left. The goal of this exercise is for the dancers to become so in sync with one another’s movement that they start to move in tandem, without a clear leader or follower. Mirroring is a highly effective activity for fostering empathy because it involves direct eye contact as well as “trying on” another person’s movement style and attempting to embody it as your own. For more dance improvisation activities that help build social skills, check out The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts and Activities.
Incorporate peer feedback
Peer feedback allows students to verbally connect with one another in a way that is productive and educational. When students observe and critique their fellow students, they develop important skills in analysis, critical thinking, and communication. Peer feedback involves the dancers watching one another and providing notes on what they see. You can use peer feedback between partners, with one dancer specifically watching and critiquing each other one on one. You can also use it among the entire class, with dancers observing each other in groups and commenting generally on what they saw from the group instead of from an individual. In either case, it is important to set the expectation that feedback is designed to help a dancer improve, not point out their faults, and that all feedback should be given with kindness and received with gratitude.
I like to incorporate peer feedback after the students have been working on an exercise for a while, and I’ve already given notes on what I want to see a few times. This gives the students a set of expectations to ground their own feedback in – they know what to look for in each other’s dancing. Sometimes a correction will “click” for students when a classmate tells them what they need to work, even if I have been saying the same thing over and over! Other times, the students give really unique feedback, or express things in ways I wouldn’t have thought of. I often find myself learning from them! That being said, I always walk around and listen in on feedback discussions so that I can intervene if necessary.
Let your students teach each other
Sometimes, the best way to learn is by teaching someone else. When students are allowed to teach their peers, they learn valuable social skills such as communication and leadership. They practice higher order thinking skill such as analysis and synthesis as they process what they already know and figure out how to share it with others. As a bonus, you get to assess your students in a new way, as they demonstrate not only what they know, but how they understand it and articulate it to others. Some ways that you can let your students be the teacher in class include:
- Assigning each student a day to lead warm-up or cool-down
- Having students make up their own progression, exercise, or combination to teach the class
- Asking experienced students to explain a movement or concepts to those with less experience – this is a great way to approach mixed-level classes!
- Allowing students to choreograph a section of a piece for concert or competition, and teach it to the other dancers
- Letting your dancers teach you! They can share their favorite TikTok trend, a dance from their heritage, old recital choreography, or something new they create just for the occasion! Check out my Introduction Games blog post for a detailed explanation of the heritage dance concept.
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!
- 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