Teaching Tips

Tough Not Rough: Show Your Dancers Compassion Without Compromising Teaching Standards

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While the days of slapping students' legs with a cane have become part of (recent) history in dance training, a "leave it at the door" mentality persists in many studio settings. But when a student enters the studio, they come as an entire person, with all the shades of complexity that entails—especially in their years developing into an adult.

In a 2017 survey of 1,000 dancers by Dance Magazine, only 10 percent of students said they would definitely feel comfortable talking to a teacher if they had a mental health issue. And while it is not the role of dance teachers to play therapist, you may be one of few adults who interacts with a student on a regular basis, and ultimately their success and well-being are tied to your investment.


Consider that one in six people will struggle with depression, one in four will suffer anxiety, and most people experience their first mental health issue in their late teens and early 20s (prime dancer training years). "We have a responsibility to our community beyond our role," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a clinical psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. "Are you going to be a bystander?" By taking a compassionate approach in teaching, your students will dance better, and you may also make a significant difference in their lives.

Tough vs. rough

Excellence in dance does not come from coddling. It is reasonable, and even required, for teachers to ask for tremendous effort and performance from their students. But how these demands are delivered is absolutely key to emboldening students to succeed. For Brian Goonan, a clinical psychologist who has worked with dancers in Houston, Texas, for more than a decade, the delivery is the difference between being tough and being rough.

"When you are tough, you have very high and exacting standards, but you do not need to use fear or shame to get the job accomplished," Goonan says. "You state your expectations very plainly and very clearly and use accolades and directives to get the results that you want."

James Payne, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director, does this by helping dancers set reasonable goals, rather than focusing on negatives. "You give them attainable goals," he says. "If it's not attainable, you have a separate conversation. But either way that conversation doesn't have to happen in the studio with 18 other students around them." By giving the student honest feedback that focuses on small things they can achieve to move forward, he sees dancers reach a higher end point, "because you aren't focusing on what they are not doing," he adds.

Boycott shame

We have all had that teacher. The one who makes you feel small when you make a mistake, but these practices do a disservice to your effort. Goonan points out that the same part of our brain that reacts to bodily safety, like to the danger of a gunshot nearby, fires up when we are confronted with emotional safety or shame—fight or flight. "Anxiety preempts learning and the creative process," he says. "You are not really absorbing information because the only thing you are doing is trying to make the shame stop." He adds, "When we feel shamed, the parts of our brain that are wired for safety, not learning or creativity, begin working."

Have a conversation

"I don't try and be Dad, so I don't need to get in all of their business," says Payne. "But if I see a sad face in the hallway, I stop and ask 'Is everything OK?' I know we are all busy, but it takes five seconds. Even if you don't see something wrong, you greet them and say 'good morning' as you pass them in the hall. I think that works toward being approachable." If a student does respond that they are somehow distressed, Payne will immediately cancel other meetings to talk with them. "My first priority is those kids," he says. "If it goes into an area that requires parental notification, I call the parents and I talk to them."

Kaslow notes it is essential to establish the rules of confidentiality when you check in with a student. "I would argue that you can't promise confidentiality," she says. "If someone might kill themselves, you can't keep that to yourself." Let the student know that you are there for them, and that you will only share the conversation if you feel that you need to, in order to support them. Kaslow also acknowledges that not every teacher is the right person for this kind of interaction, and that is OK. She advises that schools consider designating a person on staff who can check in with dancers as needed and remind students periodically that this person is here and willing to listen and help.

Consider your impact

As a teacher you are training not only future dancers but also the future dance audience. Cultivating love of dance is as much of an accomplishment as a student with a contract, because studies have shown that as much as 50 percent of the dance audience is made up of current and former dancers. "Four or five percent of the students that I get to train are going to make it out onto the stage as a professional," Payne says. "If they walk away with a love of dance even if they can't be onstage with it, then they are going to participate with it and are going to be OK with their children being involved with it. If they have an awful experience, they are going to check out completely and not want to be a part of it at all."

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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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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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"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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