Health & Body

7 Self-Care Strategies to Protect Yourself While You Teach

Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Tamara King

A raspy voice and sore muscles are not obligatory for teachers, but that's often what happens after hours of teaching. Being a dance teacher is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Unfortunately, whether it's because you're pressed for time or that you're focused solely on your students, self-care isn't always the top priority. You might think you don't have time to attend to your personal well-being, but what you really don't have time for is an injury. Here are seven strategies that will help keep you injury-free and at the top of your game.


1. Find your breath

A normal day for Catey Ott Thompson, who teaches at Marquette University, Milwaukee Ballet and Danceworks, involves toggling between administration and movement. Being aware of her breath helps her connect to her body and manage stress. "When I feel pain, am clenching or feel overwhelmed," says Ott Thompson, "I just exhale."

Additionally, talking while dancing (as you do while teaching) challenges the respiratory system and can stress your diaphragm muscle. Because the diaphragm is attached to your spine and has an essential role in core support, stress on the diaphragm can bring a host of issues, including back pain.

Breathing exercises can improve your abdominal coordination, helping your body stay strong and healthy. Ott Thompson recommends a simple approach: During an inhale, observe habits or scan for hidden tension, then concentrate on a slow, grounding exhale.

2. Preserve your voice

Unless you're a musical theater dancer, you probably never learned to care for your voice. Matt Pardo, a dancer with Lucinda Childs Dance and an assistant professor at Elon University, finds that when the studio is large and full of loud music, he's tempted to lift his chin and chest to try to push his voice out. However, years of classical voice training have taught him that it's better to resonate his voice from a relaxed chest. As Pardo explains, "Leave the head toward the back; then the neck is in alignment, and you're able to project more."

He also suggests establishing short cues and prompts with students the first few weeks of every term to spare your voice. For example, if Pardo says "Toes" during rond de jambe, students know that he wants to see better articulation in the feet.

3. Take your own advice

You probably advise students to stretch, cross-train, warm up and cool down. Don't forget to do these things yourself. Use your dancer discipline to carve out time each day to condition your body. "I absolutely religiously do a floor barre/Pilates/stretching routine every morning seven days a week. It takes about 30 minutes," says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. "If I can, I add 10 minutes on the elliptical, or, more likely, take the dog for a brisk walk." Before you pack up for the day, or hop in the car or sit down to a pile of paperwork, spend a few minutes stretching and cooling down, too.

4. Work bilaterally

You never did like your extension on the right side, and now that you're not a student, you might think you don't need to use it, but you're wrong. Bilateral demonstration is important for preventing injuries because asymmetry puts imbalanced loads on the body, making you vulnerable to injury by stressing the joints and tissues. Many things in the classroom can prevent you from working both sides of the body. Perhaps the spot that makes you most visible to students means you stand facing one direction, or a lingering injury discourages you from ever standing on your left leg. Hold yourself accountable to demonstrating with the right and the left. Try switching back and forth: pliés on the right, tendus on the left.

5. Treat your feet

Your feet are the foundation of your body, and without a strong base it's hard to build a good structure. The ballet slippers, bare feet or socks that worked for you as a dancer might not be enough now. When you age, your feet can become more irritable as cartilage thins, bone degenerates and muscle fibers are replaced with more-rigid collagen. A structured dance sneaker might better suit your needs. Tamara King, principal of Boston Ballet School's Newton studios, finds the arch and heel support of her sneakers is essential when she's teaching.

Your feet also provide balance feedback to your nervous system, so King recommends teachers do a 10-minute foot warm-up. Before teaching, roll your feet over a small ball. Thread your fingers through your toes, and mobilize your mid-foot with gentle twists. Practice doming your arches, and finish by pointing and flexing with an exercise band.

6. Let technology in

Emphatic demonstrations to illustrate a point to your students are tempting, but going from nothing to 200 percent is exhausting and puts you at risk for injury. Even more hazardous is imitating students' errors; there's a reason you don't want their knees rolling in on a landing from a jump. This might sound like sacrilege, but let technology help you. Using the video function on a phone can show students what you're seeing. Video is a vivid, objective medium that can help students learn how to self-evaluate. Let their devices be helpful practice tools, not just distractions.

7. Stay present

Most important, stay present. Do you ever find yourself thinking about your students, business and class structure all at once? This divided focus can prevent you from catching your body's warning signals and puts you at risk for injury. Somatic techniques or meditation can help you learn to reduce mental clutter. For example, Alexander Technique (a somatic technique designed to improve postural efficiency) helped Adele Nickel to be mindful of her own experience while teaching dance: "Every time I step into the studio, I aim to quiet down inside myself and cultivate a listening attitude." Nickel feels that connecting to herself and the present moment improves her teaching by helping her see her students and relay her intentions more clearly. "If you're stressed-out and nervous, then that's what you're communicating, no matter what you're saying with your words."

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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