Teaching Tips

How to Physically—and Emotionally—Ease Your Students Back Into the Studio

Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.


Start With a Conversation

In addition to any sort of COVID-19 screening you're doing with students upon entry, be sure to also assess their overall physical well-being. "From kids taking Zoom classes in their kitchens to those whose parents transformed their basement into a full-on dance studio, everyone's experiences will be different and you need to be prepared," says Marissa Schaeffer, a physical therapist and strength conditioning specialist for The Ailey School.

Set up a system with an email questionnaire or hold individual check-in conversations with dancers and their parents to establish an open yet private and judgment-free line of communication. Inquire about things like how much physical activity students have done since March, if they've developed any injuries, and how their bodies have been feeling generally. (In the rare case that you have a student who has recovered from and tested negative for COVID-19, be sure to check in about any lingering health issues.) Schaeffer also points out that students with asthma might be at greater risk for an asthma attack while dancing in a face mask, so keep an extra-close eye on those students.

Focus on Reconditioning

While students will likely be itching to jump back into normal dance class, the reality is that many of them were less active than usual throughout the summer and are physically deconditioned.

"Now is the time for teachers to pull back the reins," says Schaeffer, "and make class meaningful without dancing the entire time."

Instead, for the first month back, take the information gleaned from the initial screening questions and tailor a class that focuses on reconditioning your dancers. This could include an extended warm-up with additional stretching, an extra sequence of core strength-building or incorporating cross-training, like yoga or Pilates.

"Going slow out the gate," says Schaeffer, "is a win–win, decreasing risk for injury while increasing dancers' strength, flexibility and mobility."

Implement Emotional Check-Ins

It's important to acknowledge with students that this has been a wild, traumatic year. But a long therapy session usually isn't necessary.

"Let students know 'I'm here and I'm open to talking about emotions," says Rachelle Theise, a licensed clinical psychologist in Westport, Connecticut, and clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone's Child Study Center. Simply inquiring about how your students are feeling will let dancers know that you're available if they need extra support. If a student does seem to be withdrawn, stressed or overanxious, let the student's parent know.

Parental anxiety is also to be expected. "If a parent approaches a teacher showing concern about their child's progress or what they've lost technically," says Theise, "it's important that teachers not join in on the criticism." Try to calm the parent's worries with the reassurance that their kids will soon be back on track.

Avoid High-Impact Movement and Jumps

Schaeffer advises that the last portion of the class, typically reserved for leaps and high-impact work, would be better served to reacclimate dancers to the impact of jumping.

For the first few weeks, replace across-the-floor exercises with center combinations that build strength and control. Schaeffer suggests single-leg relevés—both élevés and forced-arch relevés—or single-leg squats that target the lower extremities. From there, practice deconstructing jumping. "Do a fast plié to relevé in the center with a slow lowering so dancers can work on controlling the movement," says Schaeffer.

After two weeks, add jumping off of two legs (sautés in first, second and fifth). The following week, add two-feet-to-one-foot exercises (sissonne assemblés), and slowly add high-impact jumping from one foot to one-foot sequences.

Focus on the Positive

It's safe to assume that the pandemic has been a stressful time for many of your dancers. Their emotions, just like their physical bodies, need extra TLC right now.

"Kids have been emotionally impacted by what's been going on with COVID-19," says Theise. "They will have more anxiety about being out in the world and might be anxious about being back in the studio."

Even more than usual, focus on creating a warm, uplifting environment. Give students positive reinforcement just for showing up to help prevent feelings of inadequacy or shame.

Emphasize to your students that questions about how frequently they did or did not practice over the past six months or what their bodies are capable of are strictly to gauge their physical health, not pass judgment on what they've lost during the pandemic.

"We don't want kids to be functioning from a deficit place," says Theise. "We want to meet kids where they're at now and not to feel that they're at a disadvantage or that they've not done enough to keep up."

News
Getty Images

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading... Show less
Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.