Health & Body

Are Your Students Self-Harming? Here’s What You Can Do to Help Them Stop

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As a mental-health advocate working in dance, I have the honor of speaking with teachers all over the world. Recently, I have been receiving more frequent inquiries on noticing self-harm in dancers.

"Self-harm" refers to anytime someone hurts themselves on purpose, and it can include cutting, punching, bruising, pulling hair, burning or even breaking bones. According to the National Center for Health Research, self-harm is increasing among teenage girls. The Center cites a 2018 study that found that 18 percent of teens had purposely injured themselves over the past year.

The increase in incidents of self-harm that dance teachers have expressed to me makes sense given these statistics. And anecdotally, dancers may be even more likely to engage in self-harming behavior because of the rigor of training and the prevalence of perfectionism and low self-esteem among dancers.


It can be scary to realize that a dancer in your class is deliberately hurting themselves. I spoke with dance teacher, clinical psychologist and researcher Paula Thomson, PsyD, to better understand what is happening, and how dance teachers can help.

Who is likely to self-harm?

Thomson says that self-harming behaviors are most prevalent in adolescents, between about 10 and 18 years of age. "Many people who self-harm have very low self-esteem. They have a lot of negative feelings about themselves or the world," she says. Thomson adds that dancers who are self-harming are frequently perfectionists, but being a perfectionist alone is not enough to lead to these behaviors.

Often, these dancers also feel that they should be punished for not being perfect. "They can't manage the negative feelings," says Thomson. "There may be emotional abuse in their background. They have gotten the memo that they are unwanted and not good enough." Those experiences may have arisen inside or outside the dance environment.

Why are they doing this?

According to Thomson, there are two common reasons for engaging in self-harm. "For one dancer who is self-harming, the cause is that the emotional pain is so intense. For the other, it is that it has become so muted and dulled," she says. (Of course, it's possible that some dancers may experience a combination of these.)

Some dancers who self-harm may appear social and even popular because they have compartmentalized their pain as a coping mechanism. Thomson says that in a case like this, the act of self-harm acts as a release for the dancer. When they are confronted with negative feelings, they engage in cutting or other methods of self-injury, the same way others may reach for a cigarette or a drink. "The first few times it may be an experiment, but when it becomes entrenched it is like taking a drug," Thomson says. "They stop dealing with the problems that are causing the tension, and like an addict they become consumed with it."

Other dancers may appear reclusive and antisocial. "If they are in a dissociative state, they will feel numb, they won't feel the negative feelings," says Thomson. "So then they feel the desire to hurt, to feel some pain." She adds that they likely have a lot of negative feelings about themselves or the world that they feel are not appropriate to express, so they make those feelings a secret, which isolates them even more. "Shame only further decreases their self-esteem," says Thomson.

What does self-harm look like?

Thomson says that because self-harm is such a secretive behavior, you should look out for dancers wearing long sleeved-leotards even when it is hot out. They may resort to cutting or other acts of self-harm on their abdomen or groin to hide it. "These are not random, like a cut from gardening or something," she says. "They are usually more organized, especially with dancers." A dancer's peers may be the first to notice because they are sharing dressing rooms, so you should take concerns from fellow dancers seriously. Self-harm is not limited to cutting: Bruises, burns, frequent broken bones and hair loss are all causes for concern.

When confronted with a person who is engaging in self-harm, an immediate concern is if they may be suicidal. While most people who are hurting themselves in this way are not suicidal, self-harm can lead to suicidal ideation if it is not addressed.

What should you do?

It is understandably scary to realize that you have a dancer in your class who is harming themselves intentionally. Early intervention is key, and treatments available for self-harm are highly effective.

In the case of a minor dancer in your class, you should be aware of the laws in your state surrounding mandated reporting. Whether you are legally obligated to act or not, a child who is self-harming is a danger to themselves, says Thomson, so your action is required. Tell the dancer what you have noticed, and let them know that you care about them and would like to assist them in finding help. Share that you are going to reach out to their parents before you do so.

If the dancer is not a minor, you cannot force the dancer to get help. But you can offer to take them to the counseling center if you are in a collegiate setting, or give them contacts for mental-health professionals in your area. Express that you feel they deserve to have support. In a week or so, follow up to see if they were able to get an appointment, and ask how you can help. For many people, the first appointment is the hardest one to make.

I frequently hear from dance teachers that they are afraid to say something, and even more afraid that by doing so, they may make the dancer feel worse and aggravate the situation. But, as Thomson points out, you are not shaming a dancer by asking about their cuts or burns—you are expressing concern and care for someone who clearly needs it. As dancers, we admire our teachers. Your willingness to confront the problem may be the thing that makes it important enough for the dancer to take care of themselves.

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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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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"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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