Recently after dance class, I was praising one of my young students to her mother. I described how she’d mastered the French names of steps and was leading the rest of the class in warmup. “I’m so glad,” her mother said. “I just hope she can drop some weight. I keep telling her that dance will help her lose that belly.” The child, just shy of first grade, stood nearby staring at herself in the mirror.

Though I was angry at the mother and sad for her child, I stopped myself from correcting her. After all, I’m just the teacher. Instead, I tried to steer the conversation back to all the other great things dance brings to the child’s life, like coordination, social skills and self-esteem, which this mother was chipping away at every time she brought up her daughter’s weight.

While you can’t control what goes on at home, dance educators can use the studio to instill positive messages about body and nutrition. According to Connie Evers, MS, RD, a child nutrition consultant and author of the Nutrition for Kids book series, you can start with children as young as age 2 or 3. “Kids that age really look up to their teachers and coaches,” she explains. “Dance teachers probably don’t realize just how big of an influence they have on these students. Anything they say can make a really huge impression.”

Kristen Nastanski, a former professional dancer and instructor at the Dance Theatre of Wilkes-Barre in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, also believes that introducing students to the value of nutrition at a young age will help stave off future problems. “I know a lot of young women who have struggled with their body images as dancers,” notes Nastanksi, “and if they had received some education at an earlier age, it may have been beneficial to their health.”

Start with Simple Messages

As many toddler-age dance classes begin with students and teacher sitting in a circle talking, find a way to casually work nutrition into these conversations. “Dance teaches kids that their bodies are useful; they can do many things,” says Evers. “Talk to them about how they need to treat their bodies right, that they need healthy food to give their bodies energy. Push the message that every body is beautiful, and that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”

For morning classes, Evers suggests asking students, “Who ate a healthy breakfast?” Go over the top, gushing about how great the kids are for eating healthy foods and including breakfast in their daily regime. “Keep asking students week after week, and soon they’ll be trying to get your praise by telling you what healthy foods they had,” adds Evers.

No matter what they ate, however, never label a food as good or bad. “Don’t ever tell them that eating cake is bad, or that any foods are off-limits. It’s little ideas like these that will stick in kids’ minds.” Instead, talk about how much you love healthy foods, like blueberries, for example. “The next thing you know, your 4-year-old student is saying, ‘I love blueberries, too!’” Evers says. Remember to notify the parents about the activity, as they’ll be the ones providing the children with a well-balanced breakfast.

Incorporate Song and Dance

Teachers can also work nutrition and food into class activities. Try using a fun food-related song for your warm-up or during a class game. “So much of what kids learn is through hearing the words to songs over and over again and memorizing them,” says Evers, who recommends the Smart & Tasty CDs by ABridgeClub. (For more teaching resources, see “Nutritional Aids” above.)

Role-playing, or having students dance like certain healthy foods, is another useful tool. “You can ask, ‘Who can dance like a banana?’ and have them peel their arms down,” says Evers, “or bounce or ‘pop’ like popcorn.” Students can also dance like pea pods, and link up as “two peas in a pod.” Be sure to mention how much you like bananas, popcorn and pea pods, for additional emphasis.

Always Lead by Example

Kids emulate your behavior, so as a teacher it’s wise to never engage in unhealthful behavior—like smoking, calling yourself fat while looking in the mirror or labeling certain foods as bad. The same goes for your staff. “Nutrition is a very serious matter and teachers should be educated on the subject before sharing wrong ideas with young dancers,” says Nastanski.

Creating a healthy culture in your studio can go a long way toward instilling good eating habits. If you’re having a party in dance class, for example, encourage parents to bring in healthy snacks rather than the usual cupcakes or cookies. “Kids will eat them,” says Evers, “especially if they think they’re getting a ‘yummy’ treat. Cut up a bunch of fruit, or arrange a cheese and cracker tray with cheese cut into little fun shapes.” Kids also like baked chips with hummus, salsa or guacamole.

Most importantly, try not to make learning about nutrition a too-serious or strict part of your toddlers’ curriculum. Keep things light and enjoyable, with an emphasis on fun. The ultimate goal is to provide them with positive reinforcement and, according to Evers, “to do everything you can to help children develop self-esteem and learn to appreciate their bodies.” DT

Debbie Strong is a writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.

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