Health & Body

You Might Be Body-Shaming Your Students Without Realizing It

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The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.

Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.


Watch What You Say...

The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.

Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."

Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)

Ringer, smiling in a blue shirt and black pants, sits in a chair at the front of the studio, smiling at the teen ballet students in front of her

Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School

...And What You Don't Say

If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"

Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.

Approach With Caution

All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.

If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."

Morgan corrects a teenage girl in a pink leotard's tendu at the barre. Two other teen girls at the barre observe

Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan

Body-Positive Studio Policies

A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.

Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"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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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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"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."

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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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