How to Approach Teaching After a Body-Changing Injury

Jessie Laurita-Spanglet teaches modern dance at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Betsy Mann, courtesy of author

Nearly all dance educators experience injury at some point in their careers.

After I was diagnosed in 2016 with Freiberg's disease, a rare foot injury, I began asking myself a series of questions, starting with "What do we do when we can no longer teach by doing?"

When I explained the condition to my dance program director, I realized that even if my department were to give me a semester off from teaching technique, I didn't want to put my career on hold. With this in mind, I devised a plan for teaching my intermediate modern technique class while injured. What I discovered has changed some of my core beliefs about teaching.


Can Verbal Description Be Just as Effective as Physical Demonstration?

I have always leaned heavily on physical demonstration over verbal explanation. In my own conservatory training, dancers were taught to do, but rarely to speak. My injury changed this. How did this work? For some combinations, I wanted my students to understand an overarching idea rather than the details of the movements, so I would only show the combination once and ask them to view it through a particular lens. Thus, the combination became a road map for improvisation, not a study of specific gestures or steps.

When I wanted to focus on detailed movement acquisition, I had to find ways to communicate nuance with words. I might say, "Swipe your right elbow like you're running it across a smooth table," or, "Drag the inside edge of your foot as if you're pulling a heavy chain." At first it felt awkward, and often I was tongue-tied or lacking words for something I understood on a visceral level. I craved a common language to describe movements to my students—an issue that might have been helped by a deeper understanding of Laban Movement Analysis.

Like many of my contemporaries, I am a product of an education that draws on disparate influences and teachers. If I'd been trained in only one technique—say, Cunningham or Graham—I could have drawn on an established vocabulary.

How Do We Move Away From Seeing Our Bodies Merely as Objects to Be Trained and Perfected?

Though I had to limit my physical demonstration of standing combinations, I found new freedom in floorwork. Drawing on distant memories of floor barres from my ballet training, my work leading Pilates mat classes and knowledge of Bartenieff Fundamentals, I created a lengthy floor warm-up combination. Then I transitioned to more physically vigorous floorwork and tumbling through space. As a result, my students improved their ability to drop their weight and release unneeded muscular effort—skills that translated well in standing combinations.

What Do We Do When We Can No Longer Teach by Doing?

Next, drawing my inspiration from a performance class I took with Adriane Fang as a grad student at the University of Maryland, I asked my students to learn a solo from video (in this case, Caribou, by the choreographer Helen Simoneau). The idea was to challenge them physically in ways that I could not, providing a stand-in for the full-bodied combination often at the end of a modern dance technique class. I divided the class into three groups, one for each of the three sections of Simoneau's solo. Once each group had learned their section, I created new groups, taking one person from each of the original groups so that each new group combined students trained in different sections. This project proved successful in many ways: My students learned from teaching their peers a short piece of choreography; they were challenged physically by the very intricate and complex nature of the work; and they gained experience performing a solo—a new experience for many.

Toward Seeing the Body as an Ever-Changing Record of Who We Are and Where We've Been

As a teacher who'd always relied on my own body to gauge students' physical experience, I felt blinded when I lost this ability. Eventually, however, I learned to see from the outside more than I ever had before—in part because I wasn't dealing with the interference of my own physical limitations. This new type of observing, done with my eyes rather than my body, allowed me to see each student in a more individualized manner.

From this, I've come to think of the body not as either injured or healthy, young or old, strong or weak, but as a constantly evolving entity. As I think about my own body on a continuum, I feel humbled at the position of privilege that makes my small foot injury appear to me as a major hurdle. When I shift to seeing my own body as I see others—in a constant state of flux—I recognize that my difficulties and the ensuing shift in my teaching are all part of the natural human condition of change and growth.

Checking in anecdotally with my students at the end of that semester, I discovered that they'd barely noticed that I was injured. What felt like such a monumental shift to me—what had completely upended my teaching style and approach—turned out to be barely discernable to them. Something else, too: Around midterm of this very challenging semester, I noticed a shift in my own language and thinking about my injury. Instead of saying that I was "dealing with an injury" or "getting over an injury," I started saying that I was "dancing with an injury." This minor shift in language marked a major change in seeing. Instead of ignoring my injury or letting it overpower me, I was doing something else: I was engaged in a dance with it.

The Conversation
Unsplash

When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

Keep reading... Show less
Unsplash

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

Dancer Health
Getty image

When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty image

Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Dance Teacher Tips
International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @sparklethetinychi on Instagram

In our not-so-humble opinion, dancers and dogs should rule the world. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that we are positively obsessed with all things that are dog and dance at the same time. Namely, puppies dressed up in tutus. OMG—so cute!

We couldn't keep our knowledge of this perfect combination of dreaminess to ourselves. So we decided to share with you some tutu-wearing dogs from Instagram that we will never get over.

You're welcome!

Get ready to experience a level of cuteness that is almost too much to handle, ladies and gentlemen!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
FreeVerse photography, courtesy of Quenga

As a hula instructor at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hawaii native Kaina Quenga is committed to sharing the traditional dances and culture of Polynesia with the people of the Big Apple. Through training with famed kuma hula (master teacher) Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Quenga developed a respect for and understanding of the artform that has carried her through the nearly 20 years of her professional career.

In spite of her success as a teacher at 92nd Street Y (she also teaches at Concourse House Day Care in the Bronx and Spoke the Hub Dancing in Brooklyn, and offers free classes in various parks around NYC during the spring and summer), Quenga never anticipated becoming an educator. "I really just lucked into it—I'm not a kuma hula," she says. One can only become an official hula master teacher when their own kuma hula bequeaths knowledge to them through a formal ceremonial ritual after years of training. "But when I came to New York, everyone kept asking me if I would teach classes. There was a need for it. So I started teaching the basics."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I'm an older dancer/teacher and have some pain under my heel bone and Achilles tendon. I feel it most in the mornings and when I'm walking down stairs. Would wearing teacher shoes with heels help me?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, courtesy of DM Archives

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

Keep reading... Show less
Editor's List: The Goods
Getty image

Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

Here are three interesting books we think you should check out (or re-check out) in 2019!

Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Sponsored