Dancer Health

This Studio Owner Built a Program That Prioritizes Mental Health Among Dancers

Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Dance should be a release. But as rates of depression and anxiety rise among teens, and as students feel the pressure to take on ever more commitments, time at the dance studio can turn into yet another stressor. Even if dance isn't the cause of duress, dancers as a population can be obsessive and perfectionistic, qualities that build meticulous technicians but may also make them more prone to common mental health struggles than the general population.

It's a topic dancers can be hesitant to confront, and one that requires significant awareness-building and education—which doesn't happen overnight. "It takes time away from the dancing," says Brian Goonan, a sports psychologist who works with dancers in Houston. "Most athletes feel, 'If I don't spend my time with the physical self or learning the craft, then it's not valuable.'" But if a dancer doesn't develop mechanisms to cope with stressors and maintain a healthy sense of self, she puts herself at risk for anxiety disorders and depression, which can drain her energy and love for dance, cause her to struggle in school and personal relationships and, in the worst case, threaten her life.

Misty Lown remembers what it's like to struggle mentally and emotionally during adolescence. Her parents divorced and faced financial difficulties when she was in high school, at which point she started making destructive decisions like skipping school, and she developed an eating disorder. "I felt pretty invisible," she says. She credits a librarian at her school for taking interest in her as a person and making her feel like she mattered. "It only takes one caring adult to change the life of a child," she says.

Because of her personal experience, Lown, who now owns Misty's Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, puts dancers' mental well-being first. "You realize you can shorten their path to discovering their worth," she says. Teachers, who see kids for hours a week—sometimes more than their parents do—can't afford to ignore the growing mental health problem. They may be the first (and best) line of defense to help students in need and nurture happy, healthy dancers.



Misty's Dance Unlimited students participating in a master class. Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

Helping students balance their schedules

Until recently, many of Lown's most committed dancers attended classes or rehearsals six days a week. Rehearsals for competition, ballet company and performance troupe dances were tucked in around other classes in 30-minute increments. It was an attempt at efficiency that wasn't working. For guidance, Lown talked to her clients. In surveys and discussions with parents, she heard over and over that students were struggling to get enough sleep and to keep up with demands of their dance training and other after-school activities. When considering restructuring, she polled parents on ways to improve the program. She decided to upend and remake her studio's schedule of 200 weekly classes to make everyone less stressed-out.

This means she gave up some revenue. Monday nights used to be a popular night for young children's classes, with 150 to 200 students attending classes. But it was the night the parents of older dancers preferred for rehearsals, so Lown took the financial hit and moved rehearsals to a single three-hour block on Mondays. Everyone's much happier, she says.

She also moved older dancers' classes to later in the afternoon, so they can attend after-school activities beforehand. Lown reasons that this group of students is concerned about improving their resumés before graduation, so she accommodates their other commitments. "Colleges want to see those after-school activities," she says.

A workshop with physiotherapist Lisa Howell (on mat). Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

Creating a Zen environment

Lown's Monday-night rehearsals now include a study space, an eating area for dancers staying through their regular dinner hour, and—miraculously—not a cell phone in sight. That's right: For three hours, there is no social-media–posting, no photo-sharing or newsfeed-reading. No phones allowed.

Connections between social media and mental health is a hugely popular area of research, with many experts suggesting spending so much of their days online can make young people depressed. The rise in depression and anxiety among teens correlates indisputably with the swell in popularity of smartphones. Excessive phone time may also make it harder to get a good night's sleep. Lown is already seeing positive results of going phone-free in students' dancing. "To get them dialed back in after being in digital land is hard," she says. Students were checking their phones between every rehearsal section. "Now they're more focused, doing more productive work in the classroom."

Photo by Megan MCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD

Making mental maintenance part of routine conditioning

Lown has a network of consultants she hires regularly to host talks and workshops for students and parents. Along with a nutritionist and a physical therapist, she invites a family practice doctor to talk about students' whole-life balance and tuning in to stress cues. A popular guest was the sports psychologist for the Minnesota Vikings, who talked about how mental health relates to performance.

She also offers yearly "dance pathways" conferences in the spring, where she meets with a dancer and their parents to talk specifically about the student's schedule and strategies for balancing that dancer's various commitments, including those outside of dance. "I don't address their development as a dancer," Lown says. "If they want to know how their pirouettes are progressing, they speak with their teacher."

Goonan says administrators show how much they care about students' mental health by how much time they make for it. If you bring in conditioning specialists and nutritionists, he reasons, you should bring in psychologists, too. "Class for mental health is not just how to eat a meal," he says.

Lown (in black) heads a curriculum-licensing program called More Than Just Great Dancing, with 208 affiliated schools. Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

A focus on being better, not best

A positive mission statement or mantra can help shape the culture of a studio. Lown's is "progress over perfection." She frequently shares a quote, widely attributed to Baryshnikov: "I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself." That's the example she asks dancers to follow to shape their expectations for themselves. Dancing better than you did the day before is something any dancer can strive for. For some students, this may not even mean achieving better form. "Their focus can become stronger, their attitude can become more positive, their teamwork can become more collaborative, even if their leg isn't going higher and they're not getting pointe shoes," Lown says.

A plan for reporting concerns

Similar to how teachers should be on the lookout for eating disorders among students, Lown and her staff have protocols for watching for common mental health troubles, like anxiety and depression. The studio relies on guidelines published by Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, an organization that promotes healthy and safe experiences for dancers. Misty's Dance Unlimited is certified through the YPAD training program. If a normally outgoing student becomes withdrawn, for example, or a dancer who typically looks put-together starts showing up looking unkempt, teachers report it to Lown, who will make arrangements to talk to parents. She's careful with wording. "We always say we just want to share some observations we're seeing in the classroom and see if you've seen them in other places and how we can navigate that," she explains. Goonan agrees it's essential to direct dancers to experts, rather than try to solve the problem yourself.

Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD

Lead by example

Lown encourages her staff to model healthy self-care and asks they take their paid-time-off days for any reason they need. "If things are hard at home, it's hard to be an A-plus teammate at work," she says. She also makes it a point to reach out if she senses a staffer is struggling. Sometimes just sending a text asking if they're all right or if she can help can go a long way, she explains. "Doing something to show teachers you care sends a strong message," she says. Lown's focus on a healthy work-life balance has clearly rubbed off on her teachers; staff bonding outside studio walls—book and walking clubs, for example—is a faculty fixture.

As for maintaining her own mental health, Lown sticks to a regimented schedule as much as possible, waking up early and building in time for yoga twice a week. She even schedules downtime, putting her phone away from 5 to 8 on certain nights off to spend uninterrupted time with her family. "Routines and boundaries help me," she says. "If a crisis conflicts with my routine, obviously I deal with that, but if I can keep to what I've established as good self-care 80 percent of the time, I know I have that margin for anything else that comes up."

Show Comments ()
Dance News
On June 9, we showcased the first group of the IMPACT program in Florida at MAD Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of MTEAF

This weekend, The Maria Torres Emerging Artists Foundation is making the dreams of 12 young girls come true.

Keep reading... Show less

Showstopper is the nation's leading dance competition. It provides the perfect platform for dancers, teachers, and choreographers to showcase their talents and hard work. Showstopper's environment is inviting, motivating, and above all, inspiring. If you haven't experienced it, now is the time!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Though a new studio year brings with it its own stressors—class scheduling, orientation, newly sore muscles—you'd be remiss if you didn't also use this opportunity to carefully consider what's been working (and what hasn't) for your studio. Is it time to repaint your lobby? Get rid of that more-trouble-than-it's-worth vending machine? Finally add a social-media clause to your student handbook? August is your chance to roll up your sleeves and give every aspect of your business the mental elbow grease it needs.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via @tilerpeck on Instagram

One of my favorite questions to be asked is, "What does your perfect day look like?" I love it so much because I have my response down to a science! As a dance lover, it's simple. My perfect day would be filled with ALL dance ALL the time. It would be HEAVEN!

Because I know our readers are dance addicts, too, I thought you might relate to my oh-so-dance-obsessed 24 hours as well. Check out what made the list, and let me know if there are any "MUST-DO'S" that we should have included over on our Facebook page. On your next free day (lol, cute right?) give it a try, and let us know if it's as fabulous as we think it is!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Booker T. Alum Celeste Robbins and Linda James. Photo by Brian Guiliaux

Linda James, a dance teacher who retired in June from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, recently wrote for Arts+Culture about her 36 years of teaching.

"I am proud to say that I am a former member of the dance faculty at Booker T. (an affectionate name given to the school by recent alums). In June 2018, I retired from BTWHSPVA—a privileged position that fed my soul. When school resumes in the fall, I know that I will miss the hugs, boisterous clamor and rhythmic outbursts of spontaneous movement as students dart down the halls on the way to class and rehearsals."

She goes on to praise the success of the school's graduates, including the five male dancers in 2016 who were accepted to The Juilliard School, which admits only 10 males each year. She also thanked the local dance schools that have enriched the community:

"Thanks to the outstanding training provided by area dance studios and schools, the skill level of incoming BTWHSPVA dancers has grown steadily. The Booker T. dance faculty eagerly amplify the students' technique and foster the development of their artistry."

For the full story published at Arts+Culture, visit here.

Dance Teachers Trending

After 14 years teaching on the convention circuit, Kim McSwain's known for her positivity. And in 2017, she started a dance education and consulting agency to offer personalized training for dance studios. Through Changing Lives, she and a network of 10 experts advise on faculty training, studio-business management and consultation, parent education classes, curriculum development, choreography and private lessons for teachers and more.

McSwain is particularly known for her work with the "littles," the 5-and-under dancers, having begun as an assistant teacher in the preschool room of her local studio at age 19. Combining her own dance background (her resumé includes dancing for Britney Spears and *NSYNC) and her genuine love of children, McSwain went from assisting classes to running the studio's performance and competition teams.

"It was better than anything I'd ever felt dancing professionally," she says. "I never looked back. I always tell my faculty that their class can either light up a kid's world or it can add to the darkness most kids are already dealing with. There's nothing in-between—so let's light up their lives."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
It doesn't have to be diagnosable by the DSM-5 to be dangerous to your health. Photo by Dominik Martin/Unsplash

When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.

I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.

My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Thinkstock

We asked and you answered! Here are the top 11 things dance teachers wish their students understood. Let us know if you agree with these over on our Facebook page!

Thanks for being fabulous and keeping your students' best interests at heart. We vow to love you all forever and ever! xoxo

Keep reading... Show less
Editor's List: The Goods
Gaynor Minden's celebrating 25 years in the best way possible: With a sale! (via dancer.com)

Time for a quick pop quiz: What does "BTS" stand for?

A. Back To the Studio

B. Behind The Scenes

C. Back To School

D. Back To Shopping

Answer: All of the above! We've searched far and wide to round up a quartet of blockbusting BTS online sales that you won't want to miss. Ready, set, stock up on everything you'll need for the 2018–2019 year of dance.

Happy shopping, dancers!

SOFFE

via soffe.com

Through Tuesday, August 14, use offer code "EXCLUSIVE30" on soffe.com to nab a cool 30% off dance graphic tees and tanks for guys and gals alike.

Studio Owners
Photo courtesy of Showstopper

Q: Some of my competitive dancers want to pick and choose what genres they train and compete in.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored