Dealing with classroom conflicts

Mary and Betty,* dance students at Howell High School in Howell, New Jersey, had been good friends for as long as they could remember. They stood next to each other at the barre every day, and Mary even chose Betty to be in her piece for a student choreography class. But when Betty skipped some of Mary’s rehearsals, Mary replaced her with another girl. A furious Betty then announced that the two were no longer friends, starting a social war that eventually grew so severe the parents of the two girls demanded that the school’s director intervene.

Sound familiar? Every teacher knows that there’s a social aspect to dance training, whether students are choosing barre buddies or hanging out in the dressing room after rehearsal. But serious problems can occur when these friendships start to affect what’s happening in class.

“Friendship issues always happen. Every year. It makes me a little bit crazy sometimes,” says Lisa Twamley, the director of the dance program at Howell High who was in the middle of the Mary and Betty situation. “It’s usually among the younger students here at the high school. They’re at a vulnerable age, and there’s a lot of insecurity. A lot of the problems with cliques and people feeling left out stem from that.”

Dr. Jim Taylor, a California-based psychologist and lead author of The Psychology of Dance, says that dance classes also have an inherent competitiveness that can take cliques to another level. “Separating into groups is a normal part of forming identity, a part of feeling accepted,” says Taylor, who has worked with many dance organizations, including the Miami City Ballet, the Hartford Ballet and the DanceAspen Summer School. “In most teenage situations, groups are based on things like attractiveness. But in dance class, skill level and body type are often additional factors—and added pressures.”

DT takes a look at how teachers can avoid and address toxic classroom friendships.

Preventive Measures

While it’s almost impossible to eliminate cliques, dance teachers can lessen their negative impact by laying some class ground rules. “A teacher can build a culture in the studio of support and encouragement and establish that certain behavior is not acceptable,” Taylor says.

“We start with our 5- and 6-year-olds, letting them know that cliques will not be tolerated in the classroom,” says Pattie Beller, director of Beller Dance Studio in Overland Park, Kansas. “We tell the kids that we are all friends in dance class. They grow up with that philosophy and understand from an early age what is expected of them.” Teachers can reinforce these ideas by hanging posters encouraging friendship, teamwork and positive attitudes around the classroom.

As students get older, a few deceptively simple rules can go a long way toward preventing the most common problem scenarios. “We don’t let them pick who they go across the floor with—so basic, but so effective,” Beller says. “We tell them who’s in each across-the-floor group.” She finds that assigning spots at the barre is equally helpful.

Making a point of offering corrections and praise for every student also helps students feel that there is no “out” group. “I’ve learned that sometimes I unconsciously made my classes feel that certain students are slower than others by inadvertently devoting less attention to those students, and that can encourage exclusion,” says Donna Farinella, director of Dance World Academy in Clifton and Passaic Park, New Jersey. “Showing that you value everybody by consistently giving everyone equal attention sets an example for the students to follow.”

Incorporating team-building exercises into class is another way to help prevent clique problems. “One thing I do at the beginning of the year is have my students form a circle, with everyone sitting next to someone they don’t really know,” says Michele Larkin, co-owner of Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, Minnesota. “I give them 15 minutes to come up with 10 non-dance-related things about that person they didn’t know before.” Exercises of this kind foster an “everybody’s friends” mentality, which makes classes more resistant to clique issues.

Damage Control

But the biggest problems, Twamley says, usually have roots outside the studio. “We can control what they do in class, but what they do with their social time is beyond our control—and when we have problems, that’s often where it comes from,” Twamley says. “So-and-so didn’t get invited to a party. This group hangs out together all the time outside of class and this other group hangs out apart from the first group.”

The worst thing a teacher can do in this scenario is to look the other way. “You never want to appear to choose sides, but you can’t ignore social problems once they become severe,” Taylor says.

Larkin says she often asks other students to help if a student complains about feeling left out or if she sees a problem brewing. “I have captains for each of my performing groups, and whenever there are any friendship issues, I make sure the captains sit down with the group and discuss them. I may ask the captains to go out of their way to make that person feel better, too,” Larkin says. “I’ll say to a captain, ‘This girl is feeling left out. Can you help make her feel included?’” When the captain, a natural role model, leads the way, the rest of the group is likely to follow in her footsteps.

Diane Gudat, director of The Dance Company in Indianapolis, says she tries a different approach: She talks to the leader of the clique directly, but without casting blame. “I try the approach of saying, ‘I have a problem with so-and-so in class. She is feeling left-out and a little sad lately, and I know that you are very outgoing and that the kids all like you, so I would really appreciate it if you would help the others be nice to her and make her feel better,” Gudat says.

Twamley has had more success talking to students who are not involved in the conflict—students she knows are more accepting or mature. “Sometimes it’s best to go to the student who is a little more approachable and empathetic—maybe even someone a little bit older,” Twamley says. “A lot of times, those kids are your leaders anyway, and once everyone sees that person include the one who felt left out, they’ll follow along.”

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the ability to work effectively with a group is bigger than dance class—it’s a life skill. Remind your older students that in professional situations, dance-related or otherwise, they’ll need to be able to work with many different types of people to achieve success. Dance class is the perfect place to start practicing. DT

*Names have been changed.

Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer. She is on faculty at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, NJ.

Photo copyright iStockphoto.com/George Peters

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