Teaching Tips

4 Toxic Dance-Teaching Phrases and How to Fix Them


We've all had times when we've failed miserably while trying our best to communicate important concepts and ideas to our students. We are all well-meaning with hopes that our dancers will achieve their dreams and become kind humans along the way. Unfortunately, our delivery may need some honing in order to help them without causing some damage,

Here are four common phrases dance teachers often say, and four ways we can adjust them to make them constructive and productive.

Let us know over on our Facebook page what phrases you try to avoid as a dance teacher!

1. "You want to win, don't you?"

When you're trying to get your dancers to work hard and prepare for competition, it's easy to make things all about winning. This is not conducive to fostering creative dancers who are motivated for the right reasons. If your dancers' happiness is centered solely around whether they win or not, they'll quickly lose their love for dance.

Try saying this instead: "You want to do your very best this weekend, don't you?"

2. "A day off in dance is like a week off in any other sport."

This phrase is often used to encourage dancers to work hard rather than ditch class for trivial reasons. While this is effective in getting students to show up, it can take a toll on their psyche should they become injured or need to take some time off to focus on mental and emotional health. Dancers who feel that taking even a week off of dance will hurt their chances of a professional career are likely to prematurely give up on their dreams.

Try saying this instead: "It's important for you to be in class consistently, in order to make the most progress in your training. If you need to take time off for your health, we can work extra-hard together to help you reach your goals when you're able to dance again. The time will need to be put in no matter what, but don't let your hopes be dashed if it needs to be reorganized a bit."

3. "You're talented enough to do anything you want to in the dance world, as long as you watch your weight."

As much as we wish it weren't, variations of this phrase are very common in the dance world. Our bodies are our instruments, and we reside in a culture focused on traditional ballet body types. Frankly, it can be hard for teachers to not encourage their dancers to watch their weight in one way or another. Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are rampant in the dance world, and teachers can have a big impact on the way dancers view themselves. Ultimately, we need to undo the damage dance culture has done to our own understandings of body image, and recognize beauty in all shapes and sizes.

Try saying this instead: "You are all beautiful as you are. Make sure you are fueling your bodies with the proper nutrients to give you the energy and strength you need in class every day. Take care of yourselves in a healthy and balanced way, and you will be sure to reach your dreams and keep a healthy perspective along the way."

4. "This competition was political."

While it's true, politics do sometimes have a place in the competition-dance world, it does your dancers no good to think this way. Oftentimes, the dancers who won truly did so on their own merit, and if they didn't, your dancers should use it as inspiration to work harder next time. It takes something spectacular to skew a judge who's motivated by politics, so be that something spectacular!

Try saying this instead: "This competition was disappointing for us, but you did the very best you could. Now let's go home and work even harder so that with each competition you've improved, and are one step closer to reaching your goals."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

Keep reading... Show less
For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.