Emotional Rescue

Posted on October 17, 2009 by

As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

By nature, dance teachers—and dancers in general—are a hardy and resilient group, with stamina that helps them through a physically grueling schedule, not to mention the discipline

and dedication that dance requires. That devotion likely spills over into everything they do, meaning that when the going gets tough, many teachers buckle down and keep going, however stressful that may be.

Elsa Posey, director of the National Registry of Dance Educators, is one teacher who is no stranger to such devotion. She has continued to teach despite overwhelming personal hardships. “I am going through breast cancer complications, but I continue to teach,” she says. “I did this 10 years ago without missing a class. Most of us keep going—no matter what concerns we have.” That’s not to say that doing so is easy; the challenge is to keep these issues from disrupting a good learning environment. So read on as several educators share their methods for achieving personal balance.

Maintain mind over matter.

For many teachers, the strategy is to first and foremost commit to leaving those personal issues at the door when teaching class. “We all have problems outside of the studio. Who wants to take class from someone who has their problems hanging out all over the place, or who has a negative attitude? No one,” says Maria Triano, owner of the PA Dance Network in Pennsylvania. “So with that in mind, I focus only on what my job is while I’m at the studio.” Sometimes, she admits, it comes down to good old-fashioned mind tricks. “When other thoughts come into my mind, I allow them to pass by without getting attached to them or the emotions they create. It’s not easy, but I have no choice,” says Triano, who names divorce, family issues, self-doubt, problematic home renovation and monthly hormonal changes as things that have affected her mood while teaching class.

Triano cites yoga and spending quiet time reading as ways she maintains her mental health in her busy life. “I do a guided meditation at home before leaving for the studio, even if it’s a three-minute one. It allows me to relax my whole body and it takes my mind elsewhere, giving me space to be more present when I walk through the door of my studio. And I make sure to get outside every day,” she says. “It’s like filling up your gas tank and using up all of the gas. If you don’t have ways of refueling yourself, you are empty.”

Try reflective thinking.

For times when emotion gets the best of you and you feel overwhelmed, take a minute to reflect on the situation before acting out emotionally, recommends Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt, a psychologist who also serves as director of arts education and wellness at the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble. “Strong emotions push out logical thinking,” she says. “When you feel yourself getting worked up over a situation with a student, take the time to be reflective and ask yourself: Is there an underlying reason why I’m getting upset? Is this situation representing something else?” For instance, maybe a disobedient student is reminding you of the way your children have been acting at home, or it’s triggering a memory of your childhood when a classmate was mean to you. “Try to figure out what larger issues are at play, and you’ll feel that much more in control and equipped to deal with the situation,” she says.

Talk it out—but be professional.

Goldschmidt also advises keeping a sense of humor, because it can relieve tension. When you’re feeling upset, make a joke or say something lighthearted that will make you and your students laugh for a few minutes, while still being respectful and class-appropriate. And she says it’s imperative that every teacher put a support system in place. “A teacher should have someone she can talk to—not necessarily a professional, but a colleague, a friend, a spouse. She needs a place to vent, to put it out there.” Talking to someone who is understanding and not judgmental, who will listen and take the time to help you sort out your problems can be one of the best ways to help keep the problem out of the studio, she says.

But Goldschmidt says think twice before blurting out at the studio or during class the frustration or problems you are having. “This varies from teacher to teacher on what their comfort level is on sharing with students what may be going on in their lives. Just be sure you aren’t mentioning your problems to solicit sympathy or help from your students. Maintain clear boundaries between yourself as an adult and your students. You could just say, ‘I’m going through a stressful time in my life,’ if you don’t want to get into details.” Above all, she says, “Always respect the boundaries between teacher and student. Keep it strictly professional, and be consistent.”

Sending Out An SOS

What happens when it’s the students’ life issues that threaten to spill over into class? One teacher, Dalana Moore of Encore Performance Company in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, found a unique—yet perfectly fitting—way of helping her students: She encouraged them to express their emotions through dance.

“As teachers, we know immediately when children are simply not themselves. While it is unprofessional to get too involved with the personal lives of your students, because we do care, it is nearly impossible to ask them to just leave their issues at the door,” she says. “As educators and mentors, we need to let the children know that their feelings are natural and normal. I wanted the students to be able to face their emotions in a positive way.”

So to help a group of her students deal with jealous bullying at school, Moore created a dance project with them. “We designed a piece that represented the vicious circle of jealousy and how kids will often follow the bad just to fit in,” she says. “I chose an upbeat ’80s song that could carry many of the emotions associated with typical pre-teen and teenage school drama. Each week, we dealt through dance and discussion with the different feelings and scenarios associated with this teenage tragedy. There was a positive message in the story, too, which is always a plus. And the choreography primarily consisted of strong movements, which we all know helps to release frustration. In the end, it proved to be a very healthy project.”

Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.

photo copyright iStockphoto.com/Anna Omeltchenko

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