Teachers of all stripes have an impact on our lives. Most people probably remember at least one. Like that entertaining high school history teacher, or the English Literature teacher who changed our perspective on poetry. For those in the arts, teachers hold a particularly special place in our hearts, brains, and psyches. Their words and lessons are carried forward into careers, lives, and futures, for better or for worse. The brand of dance education received can have a direct impact on the kind of career, and maybe even the kind of life a person might have. Dance instruction can have a monumental role in shaping young lives, and this is something that many artists understand subconsciously. So why are the qualities and responsibilities of the dance teacher so frequently ignored?
Many dance artists turn to dance instruction as a way to make ends meet. Granted, for some, it may be what they feel compelled to do, but it doesn’t usually start that way. For example, a young dancer, fresh out of school moves to a large city to start their career. They soon realize that their dance gigs aren’t paying the bills, and they need to survive. Some go to waitressing, bartending, or fall back on another hobby or skill, but many decide to become dance teachers. Now, there is nothing wrong with this career trajectory, and lots of these individuals discover how rewarding working with younger artists can be. For some, it changes their careers completely, and they abandon their performance career in favor of teaching. For others, it stays as a side job, supporting them with consistent income in between gigs. The point is that for most aspiring dancers, becoming a dance educator is not usually the initial focus or intention for their future careers.
For studio owners and other employers of dance teachers, it might be time to start looking deeper than a glowing performance resume.
As a result, not much time in the industry is spent on considering what it takes to be a teacher, or how to become a good teacher. Many believe that if you can dance, you can teach, and by extension, if you’ve had an illustrious career, then you’ll be an even better teacher. This is a gross misconception. So much more goes into being an effective dance instructor, and there are so many ways in which a teacher can go wrong, particularly when it comes to impacting a student’s mental health. When a teacher steps foot in front of a class, they have a hand in shaping the young minds in front of them, whether or not they go on to become dancers. What they say and do has a heavy weight, and can be carried into an individual’s life long after the lesson is over.
To gain a wider perspective on this phenomenon within the industry, I spoke with three DancePlug instructors: Alexie Agdeppa, Annie Gratton, and Corina Kinnear, psychotherapist and former professional dancer Terry Hyde, founder of Counselling for Dancers, and Kristin Deiss and Michelle Loucadoux, co-founders of Danscend, a mental wellness resource for dancers and dance educators.
So, what do dance teachers actually do?
At first glance, the responsibilities of the teacher seem relatively mundane: you’re a dance teacher, you teach dance. You make sure kids know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what the counts for the choreography are. On the surface, that’s very true, but any dance artist will tell you the teachers who impacted them the most somehow managed to do much more than that, all while showing you how to plié. “From the get go, it’s always more than the dance steps,” says Annie Gratton, “...while I love choreographing, my favorite thing as an educator is showing kids how to accomplish what you want by working hard and working smart.” Gratton, an energetic and passionate jazz teacher, goes on to elaborate that even if a child does not pursue dance as a career, the lessons she imparts to her students within the classroom go beyond the art form: “Dance is my vehicle to teach kids that it’s okay to mess up.”
Alexie Agdeppa, a veteran with twenty years of teaching under her belt, highlights the multitude of skills that dance instructors need to have to be effective within a classroom context, “Instructors have so many responsibilities…you need a keen awareness of each student’s development as a person, not just a dancer, and a sense of compassion...an ability to see [your] students as people.” Agdeppa hits on something crucial. Dance, by its nature, places one in an incredibly vulnerable place. Since it is an art form that requires the use of the whole being–body, mind, and soul–it is a deeply personal experience. Corrections can feel like a personal attack if not handled tactfully.
Corrections can echo on in a dancer’s mind for days, months, and years after their initial utterance. For the teacher, it was a brief moment in time, but for that student, it can become something that shapes who they are. Terry Hyde emphasizes that dance instructors have to be careful with their words, remembering that everyone will hear and perceive things differently. “Students are very perceptive of comments, eye-rolling, and body language. I had a student come to me upset by a comment she’d simply overheard, not even directed at her.”
“Teachers’ words stick with us… they become our involuntary mental self-talk,” says Danscend co-founder Michelle Loucadoux. “I had a teacher tell me to quit because I was too large for ballet. His words are still in my head. Teachers should remember that they become almost a parental figure to these students, especially the ones training for 20 to 30 hours per week.”
Corina Kinnear, an accomplished and observant ballet teacher, aims to create a safe place for students to thrive in her class. “There are many different versions of achieving in the arts. Sometimes [students’] goals aren’t dance related… the classroom can be a place to grow as a human.” Kinnear highlights how there are many non-dance-related things that kids learn in dance classes: “how to wait in line, wait your turn, how to be brave and stand in front of the room, and how crucial body language can be.” Agdeppa, Gratton, and Kinnear all agree that a dance teacher certainly needs to be well-educated in the art form, but that they also need to have the ability to set aside their ego and performance ambitions for the sake of their students.
How do dance teachers contribute to students’ mental health?
Dance artists have unique challenges and pressures when it comes to mental health. The right (or wrong) teacher can drastically improve (or impair) the mental health implications that a student might face within the context of a dance class. Agdeppa notes that her positive experience growing up directly impacted her career both as a child artist and as an adult in the industry, “dance was a place that I could let go of time and be myself. I attribute that growth to my dance teachers’ support.” Not all artists are so lucky.
Hyde discusses the culture of fear drilled into many dance institutions, where students are in a state of fear: scared of the teacher, scared of assessments, scared of casting, scared of the choreographer, the artistic director, and the list goes on and on. “That’s what needs to stop,” says Hyde, “dancers need to feel supported and listened to. That is imperative. Allow the dancer to make mistakes and accept the times that they’re simply not okay.” He theorizes that if students had healthier support from the beginning of their dance training, there would be less likelihood of mental burnout and even physical injury. The all-consuming fear wouldn’t be there. Students could admit when they aren’t well, and rest when necessary.
When a teacher steps foot in front of a class, they have a hand in shaping the young minds in front of them.
When it comes to long-term consequences, a detrimental training environment can have ripple effects out into the dancer’s non-dance life. Kristin Deiss of Danscend highlights recent research on the concept of resilience as evidence of this. Resilience, which refers to the human capacity to bounce back from difficulties, can be greatly impaired by all different stripes of trauma. “Trauma in childhood can lower your resilience as an adult, the same way that trauma experienced in a training environment can lower your resilience as a performer. That can come from shame, ridicule, and excessive negative feedback.”
With both Hyde and Deiss's comments in mind, it is clear that fear and trauma, which often come hand in hand within a dance training setting, can impede a child’s ability to reach their full potential as an adult. The kind of language used, whether it is inclusive or not, the kinds of comments made, and the silent behaviors like facial expressions and body language can stay with an individual for life. That is a substantial responsibility, and teachers would do well to remind themselves of it each time they prepare to start class.
So do you have to be a special kind of person to be a dance teacher?
In short, not exactly. Teachers can come in a variety of personality types from loud and extroverted to quiet and contained, but it is necessary to have certain qualities and abilities. Agdeppa, Gratton, and Kinnear all agree that a good dance educator needs to be able to put the focus on their students and not themselves. It is common, especially now with social media and cameras in the room at all times, to see instructors centering themselves in the class. Whether that’s making the students watch them perform over and over, constantly comparing students to themselves, or a variety of other toxic behaviors, a dance teacher should be more interested in the students’ progress throughout the class than in showing off their own abilities.
Kinnear acknowledges that this kind of teacher can hold a sort of inspiration and sway over young dancers, noting that “maybe they’re more like motivational speakers… but I don’t devalue the fact that they do inspire. To see someone who’s really great at their art form, you can learn a lot from that.” However, this is not necessarily the recipe for the best long-term teacher. Gratton chimes in, “Well at the end of the day, dance is an ‘about me’ art form. It feels good to have people watch us perform… a bad encounter I had with an amazing choreographer as a kid was because the whole experience was about him. It wasn’t about helping us to become better dancers.” The natural self-centeredness that many dance artists feel has to be set aside when educating children. The reality is that inside of the classroom, it is about the students, not the teacher. Agdeppa, Gratton, and Kinnear all point out that an egotistical teacher can be harmful to a student’s development, as a dancer and a human.
Dance teachers have long been tasked with the idea of “toughening up” dancers for the “real world,” but is this a reality that’s truly necessary, or is it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Hyde points out that there is a bias in the dance industry towards “tough, thick skin.” He notes, “the dance world is tough because you’re treated badly, but if you weren’t treated badly, the dance world wouldn’t be so tough!” Dance educators should be ready to disrupt the vicious cycle of breaking down their students to build them up in favor of building up students who aren’t afraid to advocate for themselves, speak their minds, and become the fullest expression of their artistic self. “Dancing from the heart, not from fear,” as Hyde puts it.
Since this way of teaching might be extremely alien to many teachers who grew up with a different, harsher reality, Deiss and Loucadoux agree that dance instructors should be individuals who are open to and love learning. A dance teacher doesn’t need to have all the answers, but they should be aware of their weak points and ready to improve those. “Good teacher traits can be cultivated,” says Loucadoux. “If you want to,” adds Deiss, “If you love learning, then you’ll be a good educator.”
How can we improve?
For studio owners and other employers of dance teachers, it might be time to start looking deeper than a glowing performance resume. A solid performance career is great and can tell you quite a lot about that individual, but it cannot tell you about what kind of teacher they will be. Reaching out to references, asking for their teaching philosophy, and watching them teach a trial class are all good first steps to consider. If employers are interested in getting even more serious, they should implement background checks or some other form of independent verification. “Studios should vet teachers harder,” says Agdeppa, and Hyde agrees with her noting “remember, a brilliant dancer can be a rubbish teacher and choreographer.”
More rigorous teaching standards could be employed, from something as straightforward as discussing lesson plans to thornier issues like ensuring that employees have a modicum of training on how to discuss mental health issues with students. This is not to say that dance teachers should insert themselves into students’ lives, but if they have a student come and speak with them, dance teachers shouldn’t feel ill-equipped for that conversation.
The natural self-centeredness that many dance artists feel has to be set aside when educating children.
Hyde also emphasizes that teachers should know who to go to next if they have a student suffering at home; dance studio owners should consider having resources available for their teachers and students to seek out help. Dance instructors are in a trusted position with students, and it is common for kids to confide in a trusted adult; a dance teacher may be the only adult in their life who knows they are even hurting. Posting mental health resources, like hotlines and websites, around the studio would also be helpful. Dance teachers are not mental health professionals, but they are trusted adults in a child’s life. Resources that reflect that should be readily available at their place of work.
The bottom line is that teachers are a crucial link in the chain when it comes to protecting our youth and providing the best dance education for them. It’s time that the dance industry took the role a little more seriously. Not just anyone with technical skills can do the job, and if the wrong person is in place, it can be disastrous. In an ego-centered industry, a good dance teacher has to remember that it isn't about them, their career, or their talent. It is about the future–the young minds in front of them.
Both Terry Hyde and Danscend have resources for dancers and dance educators. Terry Hyde has Mental Health Self-Care Workshops that can be accessed through his website. He also offers one-on-one counseling. Several ebooks and other vital resources are available on his website. Keep your eyes peeled for some exciting new mental health projects for dancers from Hyde, coming soon! Danscend offers Mental Wellness Courses for Educators and Dancers as well as several mini-courses. They also offer a free ebook, The Educator’s Guide to Mental Wellness 2022, and a support group, Counsel.
Alexie Agdeppa, Annie Gratton, and Corina Kinnear are dance instructors with DancePlug and multi-talented educators and artists in their own right. You can learn more about them by following the links to their biographies.
Terry Hyde, MA MBACP, Psychotherapist and counsellor. Having danced with The Royal Ballet, London’s Festival Ballet (now ENB) and performed in West End musicals, Film and TV, Terry is in a unique position to understand the mental health needs of dancers and uses that in his one to one therapy sessions and mental health self-care workshops.
Kristin Deiss of Danscend holds an MFA in Dance and is currently the Chair of the Commercial Dance Program at a local arts college. Having battled a JIA diagnosis that changed the trajectory of her dance career, Kristin is dedicated to helping dancers better cope with the challenges of their art form.
Michelle Loucadoux of Danscend has been a professional dancer and educator for over thirty years. She danced on Broadway, in ballet companies, and on film and television and has traveled the world empowering young dancers. Michelle is a published author, has a master’s degree in business, and is passionate about creating a space for a more compassionate dance community.