Nurture: The Importance of Looking After Student Well-Being
Published on 12/09/2017
"Lift your arches, press your heel to the roof, stretch those feet...tummies!" From a technical perspective, dance training, in particular classical training is all about pushing for the best of everything: posture, turnout, extensions, feet. It’s about aspiring to the impossible: perfection. As teachers, we encourage our young dancers to always strive for more. It’s a trait that will stand them in good stead in life as well as in dance. But what of self-esteem? What of being satisfied with one’s achievements? Of having self-confidence?
As much as dance training is about always improving, it is also about self-belief and self-confidence.
Whether young dancers are vocationally-minded or taking classes for recreation, we want students to be walking away from the studio feeling positive about themselves, both as dancers and as people.
While it may seem like these two goals are contradictory in terms, in some ways this is not the case. The teacher whose students feel valued is more likely to feel motivated too, and conversely, students who feel motivated are more likely to feel a sense of self-worth. So how do we teach young dancers to strive for more whilst maintaining self-esteem? How do we look after their physical progress and mental health in the studio?
See the individual
Think back to “Advance: Embrace the nerves”. Remember how we spoke about performance arousal, that energy that gets you ready to perform? That energy associated with stage performance is also present in class, albeit in a less intense way. And as with stage performance, in class we need some level of arousal, but not so much that our performance is hampered.
Performance psychologist Dr Shona Erskine explains that each student will experience different levels of performance arousal in dance class. “Some students need to have their performance arousal levels lifted, others will need it lowered,” she elaborates. As dance teachers, she continues, we sometimes tend towards what she refers to as “mono-coaching”, where we use the same teaching techniques for the whole class. She warns against this saying, “Understand the people you are working with and their individual differences.” Shape the way you teach each student to suit that student’s needs, rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach.
Process versus product
In dance, students are always working towards a goal - a concert, an eisteddfod, an exam, an assessment. As a teacher, it’s easy to focus on that goal as a way of motivating students – “The examiner will be looking for…”, “When you’re on stage...”. Erskine suggests varying your teaching style, where possible, so that the focus isn’t always on the product – the performance or assessment – but on the process of learning. Practically speaking, as the goal gets closer, the focus will need to shift, but the earlier stages of preparation are a good time to experiment with this.
So how do you teach a process-based class?
Give constructive feedback
"The ways you give students directions and information in class will determine whether your class is more process or product based", says Erskine.
The first thing to notice is how much you speak during class. If you’re anything like me, you probably talk a LOT, constantly giving students information. Erskine suggests experimenting with staying silent while students are dancing and simply observing. Then, rather than giving feedback after they’ve had a first attempt at an exercise or enchainment, let them have several turns before you speak.
The reason? This gives students a chance to feel the movement for themselves, and make adjustments of their own volition, based on internal feedback. It’s a useful skill to develop.
The second thing to consider is how you give feedback. “Rather than simply giving a correction, ask students to consider several ways of approaching a correction. Let them try the different options and then discuss which option worked best for them,” suggests Erskine. This method is particularly recommended when correcting a student who tends towards perfectionism, she adds.
You can also use what Erskine calls “corrective feedback”, where, rather than giving the student corrections, you ask them, “How can we correct what happened?” and then let them try their own suggestions.
Use praise wisely
Interestingly, when I think back to my time as a young dance student, the teachers who gave me the most confidence in my abilities actually weren’t all that big on praise. Not that they didn’t give any, but they didn’t give it out frequently… so when you received it, you knew you’d earned it.
Not over-praising is important, as is being specific with praise – so that students know exactly what the praise is for – rather than just a generalised “good work”.
"It’s also crucial to praise effort rather than outcome", says Erskine, "to encourage the young dancer to be willing to try, to meet challenges bravely." In keeping with this she also advocates praising dancers for the strategies they use to tackle challenges, and the choices they make in doing so.
A thinking dancer
It’s interesting that the techniques we can use to build mentally resilient dancers are also strategies that will create dancers who think for themselves and find their own solutions to problems. So in looking after young dancers’ self-esteem, we help them to become more competent as well as more confident.
Nina is co-editor of Dance Australia and has been teaching dance for 20 years.
If you would like to know more about Dr Shona Erskine’s research in the area of performance psychology, head to https://www.danceknowledge.com/. Erskine and Dr Luke Hopper, researcher at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. have created the website to share research in dance training with dance teachers via online professional development courses.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Bloch Ambassador and Owner of Claudia Dean Classical Coaching, Claudia Dean and student Amy Metcalfe for featuring in this article