Educating Dancers

About Heather Vaughan-Southard

Heather Vaughan-Southard is a dance educator and freelance choreographer based in Michigan with rich teaching experiences in higher education, K-12 public schools, and private studios. With an approach of teaching dance as a liberal art, she draws from her experiences dancing professionally in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to create experiences that move beyond the boundaries of a studio, producing well-rounded, thinking dance citizens. She is author of the blog EducatingDancers, where she chronicles her perspectives on dance and dance education. Heather holds an MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in dance from Western Michigan University, K-12 Dance Certification from Wayne State University and is the mother of two small children whom never seem to stop moving.

On Paths and Pyramids: Reshaping The Future of Dance

Recently, I spent two days proctoring a standardized test to high school juniors. Due to the rules involved in what I could and could not do while proctoring, I had a lot of time to think. Thankfully, Sarah Anne Austin’s article for Dance/USA, “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme” gave me a lot to think about.

Read it. It is important.

Of the many valuable points made, I poured over one especially while circulating the test room – the standardization of dance.

Since coming to this school, I have had several conversations with dance friends- choreographers, performers, dance-makers- about my current experiences working with competition kids. Having worked primarily in concert and academic dance, working with competition kids has been a shift for me; an important one.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the Sidewalk Begins… or Ends

Within these conversations, my colleague usually alludes to the fact that there are aspects of competition dance that go against what we, concert/academic dancers, feel is important about dance but also that it doesn’t lead to anything.

Competition dance ends at age 18. At that point, these dancers choose to buy-in to college dance or choose to let go of dance with few options in between.

As dance academics, this is often when we first interact with these dancers. We can be smug. Sometimes even smug enough to shake our heads when this adjustment is hard for these students and they wear their booty shorts to modern class.

…The very class which may or may not be retitled to contemporary because it has become a true contemporary class or because we think that title will draw better enrollment.

Or we shake our heads because these students have an aesthetic cultivated over many years that hasn’t included any dance-for-art exposure. How low-brow.

We, concert/academic dancers, have been reluctant to admit that the challenge of choosing a path happens to us but it isn’t when we are 18. It is when we are 25, 35, or older. It is at an age at which we are able to rationalize the meaning of dance in our lives and reflect how it has shaped our paths to successes we never imagined to have at 18, when we planned for exclusive careers as performers and choreographers.  

It is also a critical point in time when we address the standardization of our education as artists on a personal level. When we don’t have a clear system to comply with or circumvent. When we don’t have a political playback for our role in a program/department/field. When we address personally how we measured up or didn’t and now we must decide the role of dance in our lives as well as what to do with it. 

At this point, many of us are just as heavy-hearted and confused about what to do and how to do it as our 18 year old students grappling with the same question. The thing we have cared for so deeply seems not to exist in the way we perceived it and choices must be made.  

The Charge of Young Dancers

I shared Austin’s article with my students- many of whom are about to enter college dance programs. I told them I would help them unpack the fear and I have never seen the entire pack so attentive for an entire discussion.

I explained to them that they are the Hybrids.

They are the dancers who will be shaping dance in a way that will connect and combine their dance experiences – competition, concert, commercial – all of it.

They are the dancers who will have the courage to put down the labels of high art, low art, contemporary, jazz, ballet, flamenco, street… just as Ohad Naharin and other power-houses listed in Austin’s article have introduced.

They are the dancers who will enjoy returns upon their investments in service-learning and community-building based in sharing, not just dance performance, but practices in creativity through dance.

They will have to. These are the careers that used to take place after a performance career. Right now, these are the careers happening simultaneously to the performance/choreography careers. These will be the intentional experiences that college programs will be promoting not as a second thoughts but as a main paths for careers in dance.

Why? Because college is standardized too. Careers and jobs are what matter, not education, which is the second thought.
Reshaping the future of dance

Preparing Hybrids for Their Futures

So how do I plan to prepare the Hybrids for a future different from my own path?

  • By collaborating with them.
  • By discovering with them the connections of our worlds and our aesthetics and the people that are making important work regardless of labels.
  • By giving them time and space to create, to make mistakes, to build references through technique and history, to introduce a myriad of processes for problem-solving and art-making.
  • By offering them an opportunity and responsibility to take control of their education, really, and allow them room to make good-dance that speaks to our audiences as well as our dancers. Even if it reaches beyond my taste. Especially if it reaches beyond my taste.
  • By expecting them to do something with their experiences- their mastery of the dance and the worlds they know.
  • By reminding them that art is cultural.
  • By giving them movement experiences that add to their repertory of movement sensations and methodologies.

Next year, we aren’t competing my work or guest artists’ work. We will be competing their work.

They are the masters of their domain. Better let them start owning it.



pyramid cloud” by Tiffany Day is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropped and text added]

Where the sidewalk ends” by Ryan Dickey is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropped]


Potential Hazards of Discussing a Dancer’s Potential

Talking To Dancers About Their PotentialIs an educator obligated to share his/her perspective on whether or not a dancer will “make it” in the professional dance arena?

Recently, I was talking over topic ideas with a friend preparing to moderate a talk with a panel of professional dance artists. Among the topic suggestions, education came up as well as the role of the educator in the preparation of a dancer’s career — specifically, the question above.

Ripe for discussion and debate, right?

Here are my two cents:

The Hazards of Potential: When the Future Trips Up the Now

For the young dancer, this is a loaded term and one that I think they equate with landing jobs and securing fame. I did.

As educators, I think we see potential as a culmination of skill, work ethic, and artistry. We may see that this dancer has the same “grit” that was required for the path we took as professionals, or the paths we view as being professional. It will include the skill of the dancer, and the artistry. It might also include the willingness to sacrifice, the tunnel-vision, or the financial backing. It might also include the “right” physicality, the aesthetic, the etiquette.

So much might be implied yet never even considered by the person, or people, hearing the message.

I say people there because it isn’t just the main character of that narrative that hears the explicit and implicit dialogue about potential. It is interpreted and acted upon by all the characters of the narrative – those dancers making up the rest of the community within a program. It is somewhat responsible for how the pecking order to established; how the politics are determined.

We must be clear in how we perceive and define potential.

Standing on bench to see eye to eye

Seeing Eye to Eye by Chris Beckett is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think we benefit from being honest about how we view the profession of dance as well as professional dance. I think we are obligated to teach all of our students fairly, if not equally.

Proportionally, very few of us are teaching in conservatory feeder schools to major dance institutions where people go to learn how to dance this specific way. Most of us are teaching students that will go on to do a myriad of careers in dance, or nothing, and everything in between. We simply can’t predict the future of dance anymore than we can predict the future of a student.

Lack of Potential

When the talk turns to the lack of potential, the emphasis should be on the choices obstructing potential and not the person. The behaviors are what we as educators can address, in the hope to inspire the person to make change. It is not our responsibility to judge the person and condemn them to the thought that they aren’t good enough to “make it” in dance.

Some educators, though, treat conversations as anecdotal evidence for the negative message being conveyed about a student. A scenario like this, “I tried to talk to her about how she’s late to every rehearsal. I told her that won’t cut it in the real world. She didn’t even want to talk to me about it. See, she doesn’t have what it takes.”

Here are some examples of how you can turn your conversation enders into starters. These will only work, however, if you are interested in the dancer as a whole person.

Instead of:
“Your classwork is sloppy and inconsistent. No one will hire you with a work ethic like that.”

“You appear to be making choices that don’t support your best work, I am wondering if there is anything I can do to help. Would you like to hear what I mean?”


Instead of:
“You want the fame and the glory but you aren’t committed. You can’t make it without commitment.”

“I hear you saying you want this, but your actions tell me otherwise. Would you like me to share what I am noticing?”


Instead of:
“You claim you want to want to dance [insert place or company] but you won’t fit in.”

“I am wondering if your goals still include this, because if they don’t, I would like to adjust the feedback I give you so it is most useful.”


Personal Potential

I think it is important that we go back, though, to the perspective of the educator in defining the profession as well as potential — the story of that educator’s life and journey in dance, and in professional dance.

Not all educators have engaged in professional dance and not all educators have engaged in the type of professional dance that may speak to that student. (See Nichelle’s great article about Defining Dolly Dinkle Dance and the brilliant commentary).


So how are you determining your potential in educating dancers?


First Sprout” by Cristina is licensed CC BY 2.0

When Challenging Advanced Dancers Presents Challenges

“How do you challenge the advanced dancer?”

I was asked this last year in my interview when I went from my position in a K-8 school, where I worked with urban kids, to working with high school students in a suburban district. It’s a question that keeps floating around in my mind.

I think my answer was, “It depends on how you define advanced.” I went on to explain how I think a student would answer that question and how I would address their needs through that definition.

Now that the school year is rolling along, though, I grapple with how to reconcile how students define “advanced” and how I do.

The students I am currently working with range, across the program, from those that have never studied dance and thought it’d be fun, to those with some studio training, to the hyper-trained competition dancer clocking 30 hours a week at a private studio. I even have a kid taking dance because he lost a bet. (Boy, am I glad he did- he’s a character that adds so much to the energy of the group).

Youth Dance Company

Brandywine Ballet Company by Jim, The Photographer is licensed CC BY 2.0

What is challenging the advanced dancers?

In the advanced level, a “company” consisting of dancers in grades 9-12 who auditioned for placement, the difference naturally feels most obvious. Yes, there is a gap between the philosophy of their studio experiences that the philosophy I offer, mainly rooted within concert dance but for the most part we’ve been navigating that quite well. I think it is the stress that is holding us back the most.

The students I see now have incredible pressure to perform at the top of their game, in every game. They are expected by their parents, their teachers, their counselors, and themselves to have high test scores, high G.P.A., and high achievement in whatever “activity” they participate.

In the dance class, I see them putting a lot of energy into the movement they already do well and the movement they like. If challenged beyond those comfort zones, the effort shifts as well as the engagement.

  • Their body language tells me they will tolerate the class but are really just waiting for it to be over.
  • Their writing tells me they feel vulnerable and fear judgement.
  • Their bodies tell me they need corrections and when I give them, their faces tell me they are afraid of being told they’ve made a mistake.

I know the kids well enough now to know they aren’t lazy and they aren’t searching only for compliments. They are under a lot of pressure.

So, how DO I challenge advanced dancers?

I explain that…

Also, I dim the lights. I use a soft voice. I explain why we do what we do.

I invite them to focus on who they are and not always on how they perform.

I hope they start to think beyond themselves. I structure group experiences that feature physical thinking, collaboration, and humor.

What it means to be an advanced dancerI request they make some mistakes intentionally so they develop skills on how to handle mistakes made unintentionally. I point out my own mistakes. I put them in scenarios they can’t plan for.

I push them to think and speak and write and make, then think and speak and write about what they made.

I show them a lot of videos and interviews that expose them to real artists working in dance, speaking about taking risks. I give them permission.

I ask them what they learned instead of how they did.

I try to make them laugh instead of cry. I ask them to share what they are reading.

I remind them that life is happening right now, not when they get their scores or their college acceptance, and it is happening as we are together. We may as well enjoy our time together and make something with it. Rigorously.

As it turns out, it isn’t so different from what I do with my beginning dancers, though the “advanced” dancers tend to feel more uncomfortable.

There are days they’d rather I “just clean” the choreography. As a teacher, that discomfort makes me feel the lessons are urgent and the learning is critical.

For my at-risk kids, the work felt urgent because I wanted to give them an “out”. For these kids, it feels urgent because I want them to have a way back “in”. To be and not just do.

Kindness in the Classroom: Moving, Discussing, and Being Our Best

Students of the Kansas City Ballet School

Kansas City Ballet – Upper School. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.
Copyright Kansas City Ballet

As you know, I am all about critical and creative thinking in the classroom. This fall I am ready for some new practices. This is my list of potentials as I start the new school year, along with some tips I swear by.

Setting Up for Success

This summer I started offering some workshops on empathy-based pedagogy and emotionally intelligent teaching. In other words, I am helping educators identify messages they are sending not only in what they say, but in how they structure their classes and organize the people and movement within them.

Tip #1: Start moving before settling into lines. Begin class with a “free walk”- stylize it, add rhythm, add step patterns, with music or without- it hardly matters. What matters is getting the students and the energy moving, passing, shifting. Give a quick four counts to start warm-up.


Of course we need to organize our students in a way that we can see them and manage traffic. If we allow our students to set themselves day after day, there are subtle but powerful signals that will impact the community and the culture of your room.

Spatial organization tends to turn into a power struggle with certain students claiming areas of space, leaving others “pushed” to parts of the room they may not be happy with. Usually this is determined by social structures but sometimes it is about a sensed hierarchy of who feels they deserve to be in the front.

Everyone deserves to be in the front

Which brings me to….

Tip #2: Keep moving, shifting, passing- as in YOU.

If we always treat the front of the room as the front of the room, habits settle in. Apart from “the front line”, there tends to be mirrors in the front and they aren’t always the helpful tool we want them to be.

Consider the benefits of students sensing movement and initiating movement from an internal place rather than relying on the external image to inform their dancing.

Consider the power of turning the tables of the social hierarchy as everyone gets to be seen and commended for their work.

Mill around the room as you are talking dancers through patterns and provide personal feedback. Give sweep of positive observations, “I am noticing your scapulas are engaged nicely.” “I am noticing you are more aware of your instep.” “I am noticing you have placed more energy in your arms.”

When you are at the head of the class again, ask students to contribute things they learned as they were dancing. If no one immediately volunteers to speak, safely call on dancers that you spoke to while dancing to offer your observations.

“Jane, what did I observe in your dancing?” (she answers) then follow up with “Did you feel that before I mentioned it? I wonder where you’ll direct your attention next time, any thoughts?”

Not only will students have something to say that may spark others to think and speak too, they are voicing positive things about their own work that have been validated by you. They are the ones saying it out loud. And soon they will be able to find more improvements in their work without your help. How empowering!

Keep ‘em talking, reflecting

Tip #3: Pass the Yarn.

To break the awkward silence when starting a class discussion, use a ball of yarn to spin the information web and visually represent the value of communication and contribution.

Sit in a circle. Invite students to ask questions about a movement experience, about something they have seen or about the field of dance. Offer the skein of yarn to a student, or model this yourself. Hold the loose end and when the response has been concluded, roll the yarn to someone across the circle. This continues until everyone has communicated.


In the old application, I have used this in potentially heated dialogues in which several people may want to talk over each other. Only the person who holds the ball is permitted to speak.

In the new, I think I will do this in the first couple days to build community with a conversation about perspectives in dance and if that goes well, I may use this semi-regularly to support the effort of making sure everyone in our community is contributing.

Inviting questions offers an opportunity to hear students think while taking the pressure off of having an answer. Soon, you will be able to pose the thought-provoking probes and they will take on the answers.

The result is a web of communication that continually brings the group back to how they are connected as well as the responsibility of being a contributing member. It is harder to be mean to someone if they are seeing you, as in a class circle, than it is when you can turn your back.

As an educator, you are able to see more of the social dynamics when you are in the circle with them and are willing to be seen as well.

Practicing success

In the end, through these steps, we will have practiced kindness from within ourselves, one on one, and as a whole – we have shared empathy.

But don’t forget about yourself!

Treating each class as an experiment helps me stay connected and helps me stay engaged. Treating my teaching as a practice and a process has allowed me to more authentically share myself and my journey of learning while teaching with my students.

In demonstrating to them that I am operating from a place of trial, error, and reflection we all feel less pressure to “perform” in the negative sense and instead “process at my best”. Isn’t that what it is all about?

How do you practice kindness in the classroom?

Setting Kids Free To Move and Play in the Classroom

Have you seen “The REAL reason children fidget”article from

Have your friends shared and re-shared and commented that they feel this is speaking about their child, their students, their neighbor kid, well, all kids? Yeah, me too.

Here is what I am seeing in society at large:

Movement needs are ignored.

Movement is undervalued.

Movement, for many, is painful- physically and/or emotionally.

Yes, as we know and tout regularly, movement is the key. Movement unites, it unlocks, it communicates.

When Young Children Hate School

Photo courtesy We Come To Learn

Here is what I am seeing in my school and in my own classes:

(Now, I should mention that apart from a middle school gym class, our school no longer offers physical education classes with a specialist (same with library). This, I would like to believe, was not an easy decision on behalf of our district, but one that was done nonetheless. But this article isn’t about that….)

As a movement facilitator, my job is getting harder and harder.

Even in a building in which dance classes are offered since kindergarten, and even in the 3.5 years I have been teaching in this building, I have witnessed a steady decline in students’ ability to control their bodies in class. I see elementary classes for 30 minutes, once a week.

For a while, I was concerned it was my curriculum.

I still reflect on this daily. But the classes that are buying in are REALLY buying in. And my emphasis within the curriculum is sensitive to the kids I have in front of me. So there must be more to it…..

For a while, I was concerned my classroom management skills were somehow in decline.

I still reflect on this daily. But the classes that are functioning well are REALLY functioning well. And my management strategies are sensitive to the classes I have in front of me. So there must be more to it….

At the beginning of the year, all teachers were asked to spend time in other classrooms during what had been “planning time”. (This goes back to the district’s decisions that this article is not about.) This time, though, gave me an opportunity witness how movement was organized in the general classrooms. It was eye-opening.

The classrooms that had practiced procedures for how and when to move around the room, happened to also be the classes that maintained their composure when they entered the studio.

These classrooms also seemed to acknowledge that learning improves after rigorous activity were more apt to follow through on their physical education expectations and less likely to take away recess when behavior was less than ideal.

And then there were the other classrooms.

I noticed that in the classrooms that had little organization of how to move through the space, also had little organization in how dialogue flowed. Kids moved at random and spoke at random. This led to larger issues over the course of the year. These were the classes, that at concert time, performed lecture-demonstration examples of what happens in a “typical”dance class at our school rather than learning a dance that incorporated the skills they had embodied.

So here is how I adjusted my own role in facilitating movement in my building this year and it is what I propose we all do.


  • talk about how to organize movement to ease transition in general classrooms. This is something I think all teachers are now being held accountable for as it leads to a significant loss of instructional time when the minutes are added up!
  • promote the critical thinking skills developed through creative movement, even for upper grades. We will call it physical problem-solving.
  • push rigor in all ways we move students- physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It will require we do things differently than others and even from the ways we have taught before.
  • not be afraid to rethink what is “performed”in front of an audience. We can’t function at the “it is what is always done”mode anymore. (Should we ever do that, anyway?)

While creative movement (creative problem-solving) is widely accepted for young children, it is equally important for older grades, yet challenging socially in the tween grades. Believe it or not, even the middle schoolers enjoy PLAY!

Let’s set the guidelines and set them free to move and explore.

 Tip: Clear, thoughtful prompts, not often used in traditional “dance”contexts will be important here. Neutralize the territory and think of it is a math-integrated dance class, for example

Using more creative movement in your classes will likely impact what students will be able to present on-stage. There are a million different ways this could “look”, each of them exciting. Take some risks and if worried, include all the positive “whys”this program might look different from years past in your program note or curtain speech. It might just become the new norm for your program- how exciting for audiences to not know what to expect each year and what a good education for them, too!

And you know what? It was more fun for me, too.

What are you seeing in YOUR classrooms and studios?

How are you using structured and non-structured movement to help the fidgets?