Dancer Health

Consulting PNB School Psychologist Shares How Dance Teachers Can Manage Stress

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Last Wednesday was National Stress Awareness Day, and all day we couldn't stop thinking about dance teachers.

Whether it's helping your students cope with anxiety caused by the pressures of our industry, unpacking your own anxiety caused by a lifetime in this industry or simply just managing the day-to-day stresses that come with teaching, you are dealing with a lot of stress, and we want to help.

Dance Teacher caught up with a Pacific Northwest Ballet School consulting psychologist Toby Diamond to get some professional advice on how to deal with anxiety. She gave a teacher's seminar at PNB on this subject earlier this year.

Try out some of her tools, and see how they can benefit your health and the health of your students!

Good luck! We're rooting for you!


Teaching Tools for Helping Students Manage Anxiety

According to Diamond, the current breakdown of anxiety includes body dysmorphia, perfectionism, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders, which, of course, are all major concerns for dancers. While everyone will deal with some level of anxiety in their lifetime, the pressures of dance training can really exacerbate it. "Ballet in particular can reinforce these feelings in dancers," says Diamond, "It's so precise that it can drive students to focus on perfection rather than artistry."

Diamond has three tips for teachers looking to combat stress and perfectionism in their students.

1. Begin class with meditation.

Diamond recommends teachers begin class with a moment of meditation to help their students prepare for new learning in a positive way. She cites academic school teachers who have incorporated this into their curriculum, and the powerful impact it has on their students.

"This practice will reduce stress in your students," Diamond says. "There are a variety of meditations that you can do, but even just taking two minutes at the beginning of class to have your students stand at the barre, close their eyes and breathe can be helpful in getting them to leave their stress and anxiety at the door."

According to Diamond, as the dancers are able to leave their stresses at the door, class can become a supportive experience rather than a negative one that has simply become part of their routine.

2. Talk to students about the value of risk taking.

"Many dancers have excellent technique, but they fail at taking risks," Diamond says. "That will become a critical part of their career. Everyone has technique, but the performers who are hired are the ones who can break free, fall down, get back up and continue on. Teach your students to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than a flaw in their abilities."

As dancers are able to take risks and let go of perfectionism, it will not only benefit their mental health, but their performance as well. Communicate this to your dancers whenever it's appropriate.

3. Measure how often you use negative reinforcement in class, and then correct yourself.

Diamond recommends you record yourself in class in order to see how often you use negative corrections in class. Pay attention to the times you say, "no," "not this but that" or "that was wrong," then adjust your language to something more positive. For example, rather than saying, "Can't you jump higher?," you might consider, "That was a great start. Now let's try jumping a little higher."

"There is such good research out there about the use of negative language and its effect on learning," Diamond says. "It's hard to eliminate, but it's so important."

On the flip side, Diamond discourages overpraising students to the point that your words no longer mean anything. She recommends telling students they had a good beginning, and then giving them their correction. Always encourage rather than criticize.

If you're a studio owner, ask your teachers to do the same. "Dance teachers are very powerful," Diamond says. "Many students will have the same teacher throughout their adolescence, and they will become a major role model in their life. I don't know if teachers realize the lifelong impact their words will have on their students."

Diamond recognizes that there are many teachers who were trained differently and will have a hard time adjusting their teaching styles, because they feel it was effective for them. In response, Diamond says that, while talented dancers can still rise to the top even with negative training, it's not necessarily what has made them successful. The long-term ramifications it will have on their personalities and interpersonal relationships is much more powerful. She recommends studio owners and conservatory leadership address their entire body of teachers and ask them all to take on this mind-set.


Tools for Coping With Your Own Anxiety as a Teacher

As mentioned, the way teachers were trained can have a major impact on their mental health for the rest of their lives. Diamond recommends two different ways they can deal with this.

1. Journal.

Write down your past experiences and take an analytical look at them to see how they have impacted you. Getting things on paper can be very revealing.

2. Get professional help.

"If teachers find that stress and perfectionism are affecting their relationships outside of dance, or the way they're raising their children, they should work with a good professional therapist or psychologist. Get a little guidance about how to listen to yourself and understand whether your standards are too rigid. Rigidity in your personal life can be a problem."

Signs that you may be too rigid are that having dishes in the sink is a major problem for you, or you can't handle getting a lower grade on a test.

"To see failure as life-altering is very dangerous. Dancers and teachers have a long life ahead of them, and it's critical that they see mistakes as only little blips."


#1 Tips for Managing Day-To-Day Stress

Beyond major anxiety, the daily stresses of life and teaching can wear you down. Diamond recommends healthily compartmentalizing your stresses so they don't overtake your entire day.

"Manage stress by saving all your worrying for a specific time," Diamond says. "If you find yourself obsessing during the day. stop yourself and save it for 6–6:20 pm. Then, at that specified time, go over all of your worries until they bore you. Over time you will become aware of the monotony of your worries, and they will begin to seem trivial. Be dedicated to this in the same way you are dedicated to your teaching, and you will see a difference.


Let us know in the comments what kinds of things you do to manage stress in your own lives! We can't wait to see the ways you are making our industry happier and healthier.

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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."

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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."

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