Monday, January 26, 2015

Fighting Bullying With Dance Movement

According to the Justice Department, one out of every four kids is abused by another youth each month, and every day as many as 160,000 U.S. children miss school because of bullying. Many programs are designed to cope with youth conflict issues, but one dancer/educator, Dr. Martha Eddy, believes that in order for a program to be effective, it must integrate movement into the curriculum. Since dance teachers work in an environment built around movement, the principles Eddy has developed are particularly suitable to them.

“Body language and movement are at the heart of human behavior,” explains Eddy. In addition to holding a doctorate in movement science and education, she is a registered somatic movement therapist, certified movement analyst, and founder and director of The Center for Kinesthetic Education in New York City.
Central to Eddy’s work is the premise that “any type of violence—physical, psychological, verbal—will have an impact on our bodies,” she says. “Sometimes it affects our whole body; sometimes we just get shoulder cramps or an increased heart rate. This has to be reconciled; the body has to come back to homeostasis. Unless we move, we carry that tension.”

Last February in New York, at the Dance Education Laboratory of the 92nd Street Y, she presented a course on conflict resolution and bullying prevention for teachers. Her curriculum for “Performing Peace: Including the Bully” uses a cooperative approach drawing from dance, theater, creative movement, somatic education, and reflective thinking processes. The workshop guides adults or children (K–12) in understanding and examining the nature of bullying and being bullied, and in the practical implementation of peaceful behavior in times of stress—teaching new responses through movement games, and choreographing positive responses to a wide range of feelings.

Including the bully might sound like a recipe for disaster, but according to Eddy, the opposite is true. “If you don’t include the bullies, they will still stand apart, be angry, and feel alienated,” she says. “They probably have their own history of trauma, of being bullied. Until we really help that bully, nothing is going to change at that school. Often bullies are leaders, but have been told they are bad or never do [things] right. We have to get them to buy into rules about human caring and set some rules with the group. Rule number one: no physical abuse.”

While working on her doctorate, “The Role of Physical Activity in Violence Prevention Programs for Youth,” at Teachers College at Columbia University, Eddy identified conflict resolution and non-violence programs around the country. They showcased an array of approaches: from martial arts to dance and theater, somatic awareness and relaxation, and even social studies taught by a dance therapist. “To the credit of all the existing programs,” she says, “they all used role play—but role play is just a beginning, not necessarily a context that conflict will come up in.

“For some programs,” Eddy continues, “the main issue is about focusing on the kids having self-control or being strong enough to defend themselves, or aware. So a lot of programs are just about becoming aware of violence, learning that some of what goes on at parties is psychological abuse, learning to be alert to that. It might not be learning how to stand up to violence, but about how to respond.”

Adapting some ideas from movement analysis and child psychiatry, Eddy identified four content themes related to progressive decision making:

Self-Control/Social Skills
Awareness of violence and the Surrounding Environment
Self-assertion and Self-determination in the Face of Violence
Peace Activism

Each of these could be addressed by four movement activities or behaviors: body regulation, avoiding violence, finding strength, and readiness to act. Using these principles, students can learn to regulate tension and energy. Through movement phrases, gestures, or compositions, they can learn to focus on avoiding violence or perceiving peaceable options. Movement can help them find the strength to stand steady, to assert themselves, and also learn when it is appropriate to act or get involved.

Dance can be used to enhance self-control, self-assertion, and interpersonal awareness.

Dance expression through improvisation, choreography, and performance around concerns regarding conflict and violence provides an outlet for expressing feelings and building confidence and self-esteem.

Improvisation and composition teach problem-solving skills, creative brainstorming, and cooperation—all needed for conflict resolution and moral reasoning.

Choreography also encourages problem solving and team building, while performance expands the sphere of responsibility to the community at large, providing an opportunity to take action in the world, which helps develop confidence and pride.

Eddy’s research also uncovered the importance of teacher commitments to youth advocacy and the teacher empathy needed for these programs to succeed. Among the notable people identified during her research were Nancy Beardall at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Sarah Crowell at Destiny Arts in Oakland, California, pioneers who are still leading in the field.

Beardall, dance therapy coordinator in the Expressive Therapies Division at Lesley University, has a peace-education program and also heads a creative-arts program. “Her original ideas,” Eddy says, “came out of the [university] dance club, and the intimacy a teacher has preparing everything for performance. She developed the first program dealing with bullying in her company in the ’90s.”

Crowell has taught dance, theater, and violence prevention to youths in schools and community centers in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1990. In 1993 she co-founded Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, a troupe for teens to co-create original movement/theater productions based on their own experiences.

“They have a dojo [a martial-arts training space] and a dance and theater program,” Eddy says. “All the kids get to do their own choreography and write their own scripts around issues of violence, and they are taught some conflict-resolution skills.”

Conflict-resolution skills come naturally when you work in a group, according to Eddy. “Even if [teachers] don’t know they are teaching conflict resolution, because they are modeling it, student issues will come to the fore. Teachers in classrooms, gyms, and studios draw upon body-awareness activities like breathing and stretching with equal ease. This technique, which is used to calm groups down, helps with self-regulation and focus.”

Eddy has been teaching courses for educators and therapists on conflict resolution through movement and dance for about 10 years. As part of her “Embodying Peace” classes, she offers workshops for adults or children in conflict resolution, violence prevention, body awareness and language, stress reduction, and the use of the arts for social and emotional education. Teachers learn to guide students to respond to conflict peacefully by using body language awareness and to manage anger by tuning in to bodily cues. Verbal and nonverbal behavior for resisting bullying and dealing with difficult situations are practiced. Students may be taught how to express moods through dance and then to use dance alone, with partners, and with groups to make positive choices in responding to their feelings.

Eddy recommends that teachers who are interested in conducting workshops “invite in experts who have an understanding of your population. First-graders have different needs than eighth-graders. Girls have different social dynamics than boys. Experts can help teachers learn about ‘Queen Bees’ (strong-willed, popular girls), that boys need to rely on play fighting for physical contact, etc.”

When hiring an expert, Eddy says, make sure he or she includes a body language and movement component. Alternately, work with The Center for Kinesthetic Education to develop a movement-filled workshop or take the Dance Education Lab workshop next time it is offered at the 92nd Street Y.


Embody Peace:
The Center for Kinesthetic Education:
Lesley University Division of Expressive Therapies:
Destiny Arts:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Defining Healthy: The Ever Changing Ideal Dance Body Shape

It wasn’t so long ago that university dance programs were affiliated with physical education departments, and some schools were slower than others in moving their dance students into the humanities. At Stanford, this happened in 1996, just in time for Chelsea Clinton’s visit to the campus, when the dance division switched from the Athletics Department to the Drama Department. Dr. Janice Ross, who now heads Stanford’s Dance Division, said the aim of the program in previous decades had been “giving girls a good experience in movement rather than producing artists.”

With its transition from athletics to humanities, dance has challenged assumptions about its purpose, such as illustrating physical virtuosity, as well as its practitioners, namely agile bodies, especially female bodies. Even so, these definitions remain among some audiences and in certain contexts. Conversations about the role of dancing in societies and who is deemed “suitable” to dance did not always accompany the shift to different departments.

Although there are both schools and artists today that promote dance as a form of knowledge, communication and expression, the definition of a dancer as an idealized athlete is still prominent. Today’s reality television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars contribute to notions of dancers as technicians who can be assessed according to physical prowess, versatility, flexibility and strength. These shows equate dancing with vigor and youth; when Buzz Aldrin, then 80, competed on Dancing with the Stars, he didn’t last long, with critics saying he was “clearly outmatched.”

The blurring of dance and sports is visible on concert stages as well. A New Republic article entitled “Crisis in Contemporary Ballet” reported that there is “too much athleticism” in the art form, stating that “artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before—wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance.” A week later another New Republic writer responded, “This dearth of feeling might have something to do with the growth of competition culture, in which artistry is scored and treated as just another variable.”

Dancers may have a hard time extracting this art form from associations with athletes and competitions because these are dominant forces in American culture and politics. As far back as the Greek Olympics, physical training was valued for its role in nurturing endurance and patience, and these qualities were linked to being a good citizen: disciplined, devout and virtuous. The chiseled bodies of Olympic competitors became synonymous with strength, competence and health. Even President Kennedy participated in this ideology of linking aesthetics and health when he wrote an article for Sports Illustrated in 1960 that derided the “soft American.” He stated, “The President and all departments of government must make it clearly understood that the promotion of sports participation and physical fitness is a basic and continuing policy of the United States… the federal government can make a substantial contribution toward improving the health and vigor of our citizens.”

Jostling conventional ideas about who’s a dancer is a trend that’s now 40 or 50 years old. Liz Lerman incorporated multiple generations of performers in her work, inspired by an idea of community by Robert Nisbet that advocated for the establishment of new forms, “forms which are relevant to contemporary life and thought.”  With the current generation of artists in the Bay Area and abroad, this search for relevant forms continues. Artists like Catherine Long, Eric Kupers and Sean Dorsey challenge us to dismantle associations of bodily aesthetics as “ideal” or “healthy.” Years ago Lerman noticed that if “one dancer is her own self, the more another dancer can be his own self.”
This ability to honor differences, which includes cultivating a sense of groundedness and awareness, keeps dancing, the art form of our bodies, alive and healthy. Kupers, director of Bandelion, adds, “I crave art that is raw, that stays human, that has glitches and rough edges. I want to leave a show, my own or other artists’, feeling more alive, more human, more accepting of all parts of myself. But usually I feel alienated from apparently ‘perfect’ bodies doing ‘perfect’ movements that I feel I could never do, and especially that those not trained in dance feel separate from. What’s the point of paying a bunch of money to feel more separate?”

Sean Dorsey, the Artistic Director of Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions, says, “Modern dance, as a physical mode of expression, has the tremendous potential and capacity to empower, liberate, inspire and connect diverse communities. It also has tremendous potential to expand what we think of as ‘beauty’ and ‘grace.’ But modern dance doesn’t always do this: modern dance often ends up enforcing all the hetero-normative, racist, gender-binary rules that we’ve been so busy FIGHTING against on the streets and in the courts. Why drop our politics as soon as we enter the theater? Many of my dance heroes have challenged the racist and white supremacist assumptions of modern dance; others have challenged the sexist and misogynist; others of my dance heroes have challenged the able-ist codes. Transgender visibility and gender norms are the very last to be challenged in modern dance. Transgender bodies, queer bodies, bodies brimming with complexity – these bodies are beautiful and full of grace and I ache to see them dancing, in leadership, creating, performing. This is my life work and it’s a JOY and a privilege.”

Inspired by Keith Hennessey, Liz Lerman, Bill T. Jones, AXIS Dance and Sins Invalid, Dorsey says “their luminous challenges to dance’s definitions of WHO can dance, and what makes a ‘healthy’ body” are important to his understanding of dance and performance. “I feel I’m part of a great big family of shit-disturbers who make beautiful, powerful work in the process of changing minds. I’m also inspired by transgender artists like writer Kate Bornstein, singer-songwriter Shawna Virago and filmmaker Christopher Lee.”

An artist and scholar invested in building awareness of disability cultures, Petra Kuppers writes: “I am fascinated by how artists use specific experimental techniques towards self-empowerment, system critique and identitarian allegiances (in various combinations).”  Dorsey responds to this quote: “Too much is at stake for us NOT to critique the system. This is not an academic exercise for my community: my transgender and queer communities died by the hundred, by the thousand during the early AIDS crisis. No one talks about all the transgender women that died. History doesn’t remember them. Yes, my work is absolutely about self-empowerment. I hear it every week in emails I receive from young transpeople, LGBT elders and straight dancegoers. ‘Self-empowerment’ is a fancy term  for: I want you to see your unique body reflected in art & culture; I want you to hear your unique story there; I want you to feel entitled to tell your story; and I want you to get to tell that story and know it will be listened to.”

As dancers have persisted in expanding definitions of who can perform and what people can dance about, audiences have embraced a diversity of body types on stages as well as an understanding of performances as sites that shift dominant ideologies about ideal bodies. Current generations continue questioning not only what it means to perform, and who we consider a dancer, but also how we interact with performers and how inclusivity can generate collectivity. Kupers’ performances involve artists and audiences of differently abled movers in ever-evolving relationships. He says, “We have choreography and written text and musical compositions to use as a launching pad, but we have to hold those lightly and allow for the mysterious to emerge—to allow for surprise and sudden change. And so we train in becoming intimate with our fusion of art forms and cultivating an ability to relax in uncertainty… In this context, the idea that performers should look one certain way, or have similar body shapes and sizes, or have the same abilities or disabilities is ridiculous. Conformity kills presence. And what we are seeking is presence.”

Kupers advocates for dancing as a performing art that belongs to anyone and any body, and his work challenges notions that dancers must present specific images of grace and beauty. This presses against missions of mixed-abilities companies that still aspire to create athletically daring or physically virtuosic programs. Kupers adds, “The idea that a dancer’s body has to be thin and young and highly athletic and able-bodied is to me a complete affront to the power of dance. Dance is a birthright. If we are breathing we can dance, and some would say we already are dancing. Yes, highly-trained concert dance can be beautiful, but no more so than street dance and ritual dance and club dancing. Each has its place and its function… ”

Janice Ross writes in her book about Anna Halprin, “Dance, more than any other art form, is weighted toward showcasing the kingdom of the well. Both those who create and those who perform dances are presumed to be healthy… The more visible the body, as in athletes or dancers, the more developed and refined [their sense of] control tends to be, conveying an impression of underlying health…”

Halprin, similar to Isadora Duncan before her, advocated for dancers’ health rather than “lockstep duplication.”11 Decades earlier, Duncan said that ballet was “an expression of degeneration, of living death,” and the bodies of such dancers consisted of “deformed” muscles and bones. In contrast, Duncan described her mission as expressing “what is the most moral, healthful, and beautiful in art.”

In the 1950's and 1960's, as Halprin rejected the tendency to define dancers through body types and its accompanying idea of dance as the display of vigorous feats, she also tapped into the variety of intelligences carried through bodily movement. In the documentary Artists in Exile Halprin explains her interests, “It became vital to me that we deal with people’s feelings, that we deal with the differences that we have. That started this whole idea for me of healing. How can dance look square in the eye at itself as some ‘Look at me!’ kind of dancing or ‘Look how clever I am!’ or ‘Look what I can do!’ Who cares?! I couldn’t care less!” Halprin’s rejection of dancing as athletic display coincided with her growing interest in the role of performers, and a specific interest in salutary experiences for these people.

Asked if he considers dance an art form that promotes healthy living, Kupers replied, “‘Healthy’ is highly subjective. It is not about where we fit on lists, statistics or probabilities… Health includes blood pressure and cholesterol and immune systems and metabolism and aerobic exercise. But it also equally includes state of mind, ability to flow between diverse emotional states and not get stuck anywhere, confidence to sing and dance just as you are, relationships with each other, relationships with the natural world, energy levels, ability to access joy in the present moment, ability to acknowledge grief and loss, finding one’s ‘calling,’ aligning one’s career with one’s deeper values, ability to help others, ability to be helped by others, ability to ignore statistics and probabilities when our intuition tells us something different, and so much more.”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Society and The Dance Boom of the 1960's And 70's

At right - Politicians making war in Kurt Joos’s GREEN TABLE created in Germany between World Wars 1&2, staged by the Joffrey Ballet

Balletomania - extraordinary enthusiasm for ballet - resurges from time to time. During the 1960's and 1970's a convergence of creativity, talent, vision, politics and money created what is known by many as the dance boom.

Ballet, usually relegated to the back of the arts section, was front page news. The newspapers were full of ballet, which is normally kept for the back of the arts section. Ballet dancing even made the front pages. Many outstanding ballet dancers defected from the Soviet Union and seized the world's attention. The most prominent defectors included Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. These ballet dancers sparked a renaissance in classical ballet and nonclassical items were reinvented. Suddenly new first rate ballets started appearing and ballet was the hip thing to do.

And there was money for it. During the 60's and 70's the federal government established the National endowment for the Arts, individual states created their own arts councils and private organizations like the Ford Foundation gave generously to dance and dance education.

Today, a Russian dancer can move to New York without too much difficulty, but before the fall of communism, it was unthinkable. Russia did not allow people, especially prized ballet dancers, to emigrate. When Russian dancers had tours to Western countries, they were under constant surveillance and were not permitted to go on tour at all if the government harbored suspicions about them. Ballet dancers lived in fear for their families that were left behind in case the government retaliated against them. If they did defect, they had to assume that they would never see their loved ones or their homeland again. Artistic freedom came at an enormous price and huge risk.

Nureyev dominated the stage with his magnetism and put male dancing in the spotlight again. Makarova brought with her exquisite line and expressive phrasing along with brilliant technique. Baryshnikov will be remembered for his astounding leaps and turns that just seemed to come out of nowhere.

Nineteenth century ballets got a much needed boost, and new classics were in full production. In Europe, Cranko, MacMillan and Ashton choreographed important and enduring ballets. In New York, Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Ttheatre of Harlem. At New York City Ballet, Balanchine and Robbins created some of their finest work. With NYCB's move to Lincoln Center in 1964, the advent of dance on television, creativity seemed boundless and endless. The 1972 Stravinsky Festival offered 22 premieres on one week, 10 by Ballanchine.

Alvin Ailey was a curator of dance as much as a creator of it. Under his leadership the company's repertory was as far-reaching, although not always as distinguished, as those of the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater, troupes with far greater financial resources. He had an endearingly casual, unpretentious way of bringing the great and not-so-great, the past and present generations of choreographers under his wing -  Pearl Primus, Todd Bolender, Ulysses Dove, Ted Shawn, Hans van Manen, Katherine Dunham, Elisa Monte, Lester Horton, Billy Wilson, Lucas Hoving, Talley Beatty and Rudy Perez.

Although these choreographers' ethnicity is as various as their artistic stature, Ailey probably came by his preservationist streak through his own heritage. He wanted to give black choreographers the berth they could not easily attain, for reasons of prejudice and plain ignorance, in a primarily white dance world. His championship of victims of racism led him naturally to the victims of time and changing fashion, and so to such white pioneers of modern dance as Horton and Shawn.

Robert Joffrey demonstrated how ballet could rouse an audience to political protest. The Joffrey Ballet revived important but rarely seen ballets from the distant and not-so-distant past. It also presented new work by then unknown choreographers like Tharp, Forsythe and Morris. In 1967 Joffrey revived Kurt Jones's 1932 harrowing antiwar ballet, The Green Table Two years later, when the Vietnam War as at its height, Joffrey put The Green Table on the program. During the performance, each dancer wore a black armband when his or her character was taken by Death; their final group appearance at the end creating an eloquent silent protest. Audience members were moved to follow the dancers out onto the streets of New York to join the demonstration.

All that said, everyone knows that the dance boom has ended. It fell victim to drastic cuts in government and private financing that curtailed touring and put some companies out of business. The creative drive of that exciting time has also petered out. Douglas Dunne no longer lies on a crate for hours. Ms. Tharp no longer investigates the limits of perception, daring audiences to follow her dancers from room to room or up and down staircases in museums.
Old-timers will tell you, rightly, that dancers value technique over artistry today. But this is not true in all cases, especially in the way Balanchine works are danced 23 weeks a year at New York City Ballet, the only company in the world that can attract a public for that long in one city. Professional Balanchine mourners: move on. Doomsayers of the dance world: stand by; any art form is greater than a single individual, be it choreographer or superstar. We are in an interlude waiting for the next boom. In the end is the beginning.

Interview/Documentary from Dance in America with the Joffrey Ballet in 1976. Includes Robert Joffrey briefly interviewing Kurt Jooss about "The Green Table"

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Need to be Perfect: When Dancers Are Driven to Extremes


Corps member Megan wanted her dancing to be absolutely perfect. She worked hard and was incredibly focused. But instead of concentrating on how much she was improving, she obsessed over her mistakes. “I constantly saw my weaknesses and flaws as something wrong with me,” she says. “In class, I’d be so busy thinking about the last mistake I made or the things about me that needed ‘fixing,’ that I would miss corrections from the teachers or would be slow to pick up the combination. This affected my confidence and focus.”

Sound familiar? If so, you may be suffering from a kind of perfectionism that is impeding your progress and making you feel bad about yourself.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Linda Hamilton (who specializes in the performing arts) and sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby (who works with elite athletes and dancers)  give the scoop on how to deal when perfectionism has got you down.

What is Neurotic Perfectionism—and how different is it from Perfectionism?

Most dancers are perfectionists, which is a good thing. We have a strong work ethic, high standards and are often organized. “A lot of what we do is about perfecting our physique and technique,” Megan says. “We are constantly making adjustments and improvements.”

But when this is taken to the extreme, it becomes neurotic, or maladaptive, perfectionism. “Neurotic perfectionism is the need to succeed taken to the extreme,” says Maryland-based Silby, who has worked with dancers at The Kirov Academy in Washington, DC, and American Ballet Theatre. Maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by a constant need for approval, the setting of unreasonable standards and endless anxiety about meeting those expectations. On the other hand, “People with a healthy drive to succeed understand that there are ups and downs,” Silby says. “If they fail to meet expectations, they’re able to negotiate through it in an effective way and use it to move forward. For neurotic perfectionists, it’s either success or failure, and typically, it’s failure because the standard is so high it’s almost impossible to meet.”

Maladaptive perfectionism can cause a host of psychological problems, like disordered eating, anxiety and substance abuse. It can make you lose your love for dance and make you feel depressed. It can also lead to burnout—a maladaptive perfectionist might “continually over-practice or never take a day off,” Hamilton explains. “She might add cross-training, thinking she’s doing something good for herself when she needs to rest.”

What are the Signs?

“If a dancer is unusually critical, is focusing on her mistakes, not seeing all the good things she has done, or is setting very high standards that no one could meet, my antennae go up for perfectionism,” Hamilton says.
Neurotic perfectionists tend to…

…overemphasize PRODUCT, and underemphasize PROCESS. Dancers who fixate on the final outcome—say, not being cast in a particular role—dismiss the ways in which they have contributed to their success. “They don’t say, ‘I had a great audition today and here’s why: I visualized my variation, I took a deep breath and told myself to trust my training,’” Silby says. This makes performing even more anxiety-provoking because they don’t give themselves any credit for contributing to the outcome! (In fact, when asked how they have contributed to their success, nine out of 10 perfectionists will say they don’t know.)
…set unrealistic standards that make them feel like they’re constantly failing, which can lead to depression.
…procrastinate. The sheer thought of failing keeps them from trying at all, so they put it off.
…be indecisive, which can be problematic on or offstage. “In performance, if you can’t decide whether you’re really going to go for it or kind of going to go for it, it wreaks havoc on performance,” Silby explains.
…feel shame and guilt about letting others down and worry about the sacrifices their parents or teachers have made for them.
…say “should” a lot instead of focusing on what they can do or have already accomplished.

Contributing Factors

Teachers and the studio environment also play an important role. Does your teacher put emphasis on effort or only on outcome? Does she pay attention to all the students or just the most talented ones? “You need to be able to dispute the negative thoughts with fact, logic and reason,” Hamilton says. Look at the bigger picture. The teacher may have ignored you today because she worked with you yesterday, or because you have a cold and you weren’t at your best.

This is hard to do on your own. Hamilton recommends thinking of what you’d say to your best friend if she was complaining of being ignored. You wouldn’t tell her she was a complete loser! You’d probably give her a slew of factors—mostly circumstantial—that have contributed to her feeling down.


Hamilton focuses on both the physical and psychological issues, starting with whether the dancer is getting enough sleep. (Being sleep deprived can make anyone feel awful.) Then she uses cognitive behavior therapy to help a dancer cope.

First, she uses a technique called “thought-stopping”: When you feel a negative thought coming on, you stop it early. Then you reframe the situation by treating a mistake as a learning opportunity. Let’s say you fell out of a turn at a critical dress rehearsal. Instead of beating yourself up, ask yourself why. “Maybe you’re exhausted,” Hamilton says, “or maybe it’s an awkward step. It doesn’t have to mean you have no talent.”

Hamilton asks dancers to become aware of their own “self-talk.” What are you (unconsciously) telling yourself? Are you berating yourself for being untalented, or do you feel proud of doing a step well? Hamilton asks dancers she works with to keep a “stress diary,” where negative self-talk is disputed with facts, logic and reason.

You can learn to turn maladaptive perfectionism around so that it doesn’t negatively affect your dancing and self-esteem. “After a huge injury forced me to take a break, I realized that I focused too much on my imperfections and on the things that went wrong,” Megan explains. “I was stressing myself out and overworking in this unrealistic attempt to be perfect.” What did she do? “I started accepting myself and the things that I couldn’t change. I’m committed and disciplined, but now I try not to put unnecessary pressure on myself.”

She also advises staying positive for the sake of your fellow dancers. “The worst thing is working with a dancer who has a negative self-image. Now I work hard on my weaknesses, but they don’t affect my focus and stress level—and they don’t hold me back. It’s because I’m aware of my strengths, too.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Affirmations: How Phrases Keep Dance Students Focused

I had a dance teacher who loved to use inspirational quotes as a way of helping students to aim high and work harder. Some have stuck with me, while I've learned others through my own experience. Here are some that I'd like to share.

Make excellence your habit.

If I could live by only one saying, this would be it.

It is a rare thing for young people to work toward personal excellence. Sometimes their time is spread so thin that they become mediocre at several activities and fail to feel the satisfaction of doing their best at anything. The unique setting of the dance classroom calls for discipline and personal growth, which can inspire young people to show their best.

Excellence isn't the same as perfection. No one is ever truly perfect. But everyone brings a different natural ability and aptitude to the dance classroom. Those who work to their maximum potential are demonstrating their own excellence.

Let no one outwork you today.

If dancers work as hard as possible in every class, they will become the best dancers they can personally be. Although teachers should never compare one student’s physical aptitudes to another’s, holding each to a personal level of excellence promotes a good work ethic. The desire to work hard is a gift they give to their dance friends. When teachers and students put out their maximum effort, they become the strongest of dance families and achieve their goals together.

I try to give students realistic goals that will help them develop their work ethic, since some feel overwhelmed with certain tasks. For example, with dancers who are working to improve the height of their extensions, I tell them that if every day I placed one square of bathroom tissue onto a pile, it would take quite a while for anyone to notice a change in the pile’s height. But eventually the stack would become a tower, at which point it would be difficult not to notice it and ask its purpose. It would become quite impressive, just like the result achieved by a dancer who lifts her leg higher in each class, even if the difference is as incremental as the thickness of one slice of bathroom tissue. Eventually that tiny change will add up to an amazing accomplishment that might take years for others to notice but will be sure to impress eventually.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare also illustrates this concept wonderfully. I have had many hares in my classes, but it is the tortoises that have changed the quality of the studio.

You are the boss of you.

Most people, especially teenagers, prefer to listen to no one but themselves. Teachers offer suggestions, but their words merely fly around the room unless the students pull the information inside their heads and decide to initiate a change. An advanced student’s best teacher is often the voice inside his head. No dancer becomes outstanding until he accepts responsibility for his own training. Students must move their own bones and muscles, hear and feel the music their own way, and store what they think is important until the next class. They must recognize that the image in the mirror is of their own making. Once they feel that they are in charge, amazing things can happen.

At the beginning of class, I ask my students to take a moment to consider why they came and what they hope to accomplish, and to set a personal goal for that class.

Lead by example.

This goes back to my grandmother, who often said, “Don't tell people what to do; show them.” If you want your students to be on time for class, do not start class late. If you want your students to be focused in class, stay on track yourself. If you want students to show progress from class to class, make sure the class is structured in a way that allows them to feel the connection. If you want them to be nice to each other, be kind to them.

This slogan should also apply to your students. Every year at recital time, as students are learning their entrances and exits, there are always one or two students who cannot resist the urge to shout, “Go!” or push the student in front of them to get them started. I remind them that the polite thing is to lead by example. For example, if they begin to run in place at the right time, their dance friends will notice the reminder that it is time to get started.

Dance dangerously.

Encourage your students to dance full-out at all times. It may not always be pretty, but dance is physical, and unless dancers push the boundaries they will have no concept of how far they can go. Watching a dancer take risks and stretch each movement to its fullest is an exciting experience for the audience. This bravery extends to the direct emotional contact a dancer must establish with the audience.

Watching a safe dancer can be like watching a beautiful figurine inside a snow globe: It is lovely but completely untouchable. A dancer’s job is to affect the audience in some way. Whether it is to make them smile, laugh, think, or cry, dancers must learn to connect with audiences and let them feel as if they too are dancing.

In the same vein, I also use the phrase “Surprise yourself!” Do what you think you cannot. Do not question or correct yourself. Go for it!

You Can't be Too Flexible

Some people may argue this point, but if students are to excel, they must be as flexible as possible. We rarely have time in class to develop maximum flexibility in our students, so we must find ways to encourage them to work on their own.

Find your passion and attack it.

When people find what they love, they should move heaven and Earth to make it happen. Teachers can help students identify their passions and direct their studies in ways that will satisfy their interests. If dance is their passion, there are countless ways to develop that interest into a career. A student who loves dance and photography could combine those interests and specialize in dance photography. A math whiz with good organizational skills could manage a dance company. Painters could consider getting into set design. Those who love to sew can investigate costume design and construction. In this day of immediate Web access, teachers have the resources at their fingertips to guide students in researching all kinds of careers.

All people should be inspired to do what they love and love what they do, and teachers can play a part in helping their students make that discovery.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kindness: A Weakness or Strength?

“Someone is going to take advantage of your kindness.” Different variations of that theme exist in cultures all around the world, implying that people who are kind are going to be used by others who are not so nice. So much of society seems focused on helping the self rather than others, so this belief of kindness being weakness – not physical, but mental and emotional – may not be surprising. Specifically, kindness is viewed as weakness because kind people are seen as easy to manipulate, poor handlers of valuables, and simply naïve in matters of life.

The adjective kind is defined as “having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature …tolerant and forgiving under provocation.” These seem like positive traits for a human being to have, yet mentors often try to stamp out kindness in their students, saying that ruthlessness is much more likely to get a person to where he/she wants to be as an adult. Kindness, after all, is just a person’s inability to say no, right?

Not necessarily.

First, kindness is repeatedly mistaken as a personality quirk that makes someone easy to manipulate. Assumptions are made that kind folk can be maneuvered by fast talk and sad stories into giving up time, money, or energy for someone else. For example, a con artist might lie to a nice person about needing a loan to fix a car or help a child, hoping that the person’s “tender and considerate and helpful nature” will result in being gifted money with no interest or rush to pay it back – if it is paid back at all.

However, one can still be kind even if he/she does not pay out. Drawing up a contract that details how and when the money will be repaid, giving less than what was asked, or even offering to help work out a deal with the local bank are all offers of kindness to help out the one in need without being taken advantage of by the con artist. Helpfulness and kind actions do not mean that someone is easy to manipulate.

Next, kind people are assumed to be unfamiliar with the monetary value of objects and the importance of holding onto their possessions. “Why did you give that away? It could have been worth something!” is a sentiment heard all too frequently by those who donate to shelters or causes. Someone who decides to give away old electronics rather than sell them, for instance, can be thought of as a fool who does not understand the value of what was donated.

Kindness does not mean that the giver has no idea or does not care about making money. It does mean, though, that the giver finds the intrinsic reward of providing help to another to mean more than the extrinsic reward of selling items. One is not necessarily better or worse. Each person must make his/her own choice about whether to give or sell, and that has nothing to do with weakness, only a person’s private moral standards.

Finally, kindness is often believed to be a sign of someone’s naivety. Others assume that kind people do not understand how “the real world” works. As such, they are used, abused, and end up losing everything because they simply do not look out for their well-being. Kindness is thought to mean that the nice person does not realize how cutthroat and hard one is expected to act in order to get one’s desires, and so he/she gets nothing and accomplishes little.

Again, this is not true. Kind people can indeed push and fight for what they want to do, what they need to do, but they may not. They may prefer instead to achieve their goals through politeness, compassion and compromise. This sort of approach is commonly viewed as weakness – someone unwilling to fight for resources – but instead, it is just a different way of accomplishing goals.

Rather than putting self-interest first, kind people focus more on helping others. While assumptions about how easy kind folk are to manipulate, how little they value money, and how naïve they are frequently are thought to be weaknesses, I'd say that it takes far more strength to hold your tongue instead of lashing out, to spend time with a lonely person instead of spending time shopping for yourself. I do know that whenever I am kind, I feel better about myself. And, to me, it's a great and strong feeling.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Smart Goal Setting For Dance and Life

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For the new year, goals are more defined and easier to tackle than resolutions. For dancers, goals can be anything from nailing a new "trick", to perfecting a technique, to getting a role, or advancing in class levels. In life, creating goals is a process that requires much thought and motivation. In your life, work and relationships, it is not only an opportunity to take a closer, more in-depth look, into what you want to achieve, but even more,goals require constant attention and action.

To borrow a concept from the business world, a dancer's goals or any life goals should be "SMART" - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time framed.


1. Your goals should reflect your dreams, values and passions.
2. Identify goals that you truly want to accomplish (not what you think will sound good to others).
3. Goal setting is for you. Share it only with family or friends you know will be supportive and encouraging.
4. You can have as many goals as you want.
5. Goals should be specific and measurable so you will know when you accomplish them.
6. Dreams and goals should be reviewed often.
7. Dreams and goals may change so adjust them over time.
8. The secret to accomplishing your goals is to write them down and review often.

The Specific Purpose of the Goal

First, your goals should be specific. This means, rather than saying "I want to get better at pirouettes," start your goal with "I want to achieve a clean, triple pirouette." By using specific terms (clean, triple), the goal becomes something tangible. Simply saying you want to get better at something does not constitute a goal, since getting better is objective and isn't easily determined to be achieved.

Setting goals helps keep life in balance, but one really important question to ask yourself is: Why do I want to make this my goal? Goals create momentum and when achieved, they give us a great sense of accomplishment. However, not all goals are good goals. The selection process in goal setting is an important one. A goal is good if it is the right fit. Finding the reasons behind the goals is just as important as creating the goal itself. In his book,"How Do I Set Goals That Work?"Tim Brownson suggests that intrinsic motivation is better for goal setting than extrinsic. Finding what is important and what will bring a greater sense of joy rather than what other people expect. Tim mentions the following as being good reasons for setting goals: "I want to leave a legacy, I want the world to be a better place for me having been here, I want to set a great example for my kids, I want to be able to leave my 9 to 5 job to spend more time with my family, and lastly I want to align with my own core values. These are all great reasons to set a goal." To get a clearer sense of what you hope to obtain from goal setting, make a list of the values that are important to you. This will set the stage for goal setting.

Measurable Goal

In the example above, a triple pirouette is measurable  Losing 10 pounds is measurable. Saving $5 a month so that you can purchase a certain dress or pair of shoes is measurable. Having a set goal that you can measure in steps makes it easier to achieve.

Achievable  and Realistic Goals

Your goals should be achievable and realistic, in that they should coincide with your abilities and current class levels.  If you're a dance beginner, set a goal to master one of the new skills you are learning, such as a time step in tap or a tendu sequence  in ballet.  Don't try to aim for unrealistic goals outside of your skill and level range. It is better to set a goal that you can realistically achieve, but one that will take hard work and determination in order to reach.

For life goals, Robert Choat suggests. "Once you have the end in mind, then plan backwards."An important rule in goal setting is to make goals that can be reached as well as important to you. It is great to dream big, but if that seems too daunting, try to set smaller goals that are achievable. For long-term goals, use the system of breaking them down into smaller steps to make them more achievable. Being able to reach a goal is a huge accomplishment that can give great satisfaction. However, don't be afraid to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes can be great catalysts for finding a new way of thinking. They can help reveal answers that weren't present before. Tim Brownson said, "“The surest way to fail is to adopt the belief that it isn’t ok to fail.” Failing and taking risks is a part of life and goal setting.

Time Framed Goals And One at a Time

The final component of your goal is a time frame.  For example, you could say "I want to achieve a clean, triple pirouette by April 1st," or "I want to achieve a clean, triple pirouette before my summer intensive audition." This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time framed. It gives a specific end date, and puts a timeline on your preparation.

Write down your goal in a place that you can refer to it often. It can be in a journal, in a notebook where you take notes for classes or write down choreography, on a piece of paper tucked into your dance bag, or on the mirror in your bedroom where you get ready for dance class. This will help you to keep sight of your goal or goals as you go through the dance season.
In life, set time frames.  Be aware of the time and effort it will take to reach a specific objective, and include this in the description of the goal.

A long-term checklist is a great tool for keeping goals in perspective and keeping efforts moderate and realistic. Work on accomplishing major objectives in a realistic time period, and ensure that each goal gets the amount of attention it needs to be reached successfully. Check off each step that you complete to reach your ultimate goal.

When you achieve your long-term goal, you can set one for the next year. It is important not to get discouraged if you do not meet your goal in the time frame you set. Examine the goal again, and determine how to make it better. Maybe you need a longer time frame, or maybe you need to adjust your expectations a bit. Either way, discussing your goals with your instructor can help you to make sure your goals fit the SMART criteria, and press you to work hard during the dance season. 

Reviewing Goals

Review your goal(s) After you have decided on your goal and written it down, tell your teachers and classmates. This helps you to be accountable for your goals, but it also gives you a support system. If you are working on a particular technique or step, your teacher can give you pointers and guide you to achieve it.

Be careful not to overload yourself with numerous goals. Set at least 2 goals for yourself: something you want to achieve by the end of the year (or end of the dance season, or at your annual recital), and then set a goal that you want to achieve in the next 1-2 months. Once you achieve your short-term goal, you can set another one and continue to update your goals every month.

In life, review a plan for reaching a goal every so often. See if the plan is on schedule, or if the plan needs to be reevaluated to take new situations into account. Looking at the steps of a plan can alert individuals to any problems in the plan, as well as any areas of a plan that have been neglected.

Choose a small reward for each completed step of a goal, such as a spa day, a trip to the movies or a fancy dinner. Rewards are a great tool for keeping motivation strong and improve the odds of successfully reaching an goal.

Setting and reaching goals can be a big challenge for many people. However, ensuring that goals are reasonable, well planned and specific can make the challenge manageable. Know what skills are needed and reward each success along the way to help make reaching any goal easier.

Staying Motivated

As you continue your journey with goal setting use this visualization exercise provided by Tim Brownson, "Sit in your favorite chair and take several deep breaths. Make sure the exhale is about 50% longer than the inhale and allow yourself to relax, When you are well chilled  really imagine with all your senses. the more you visualize success, the more progress you will make.

Preparing for Setbacks

Small failures, roadblocks and setbacks are part of working on a goal. Errors and delays are common and can be frustrating for individuals. However, anticipating setbacks and coming up with alternate plans can help individuals deal with achievement problems. For example, prepare for a week of vacation by planning meals in advance to avoid over-eating when trying to lose weight.

Avoid feeling as though a temporary failure or setback makes any goal unreachable. Roadblocks on the path to reaching a goal can test an individual’s resilience, creativity and ability to cope with disappointment; learning these skills can also help individuals as they strive to reach other objectives in the future.

Overall, goals can lead to many great things in your llife as a dancer, in relationships, at school. etc. More importantly, these great things are set in motion by you.


Brownson, Tim, "How Do I Set Goals That Work?"
Choat, Robert, "New Year's Resolutions Are Simply an Illusion and What Really Works"

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