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."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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