Dancer Health

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."

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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

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