Break The Status Quo When Teaching Dance


I recently read the interactive transcript of a TED talk by Barry Schwartz describing wisdom as the point in which one asserts knowledge instead of following the rules.


Choosing wisdom when it comes to your dance students

Wise Owl by Rene Trevino is licensed CC BY 2.0; Text added

Choosing Wisdom

Last night, I met with a prospective student who had been referred to our studio by her current instructor. Her home studio is about 45 minutes from ours and her teacher referred her to us because this student is passionate about dance, beyond recreation. This student wants to become a dance teacher. Her teacher told her if she wanted a more technical foundation, she needed to come to us. For now, this has meant she has come to me.


Wise Moves: deviating from the standard– the usual, the status quo– to ensure impact


Wise Move #1: Know your strengths and stick to them

I don’t yet know her instructor, but I admire her efforts to honestly communicate where her strengths  (or interests) are and knowing where to send students searching for something else.

She has placed the interests of her student ahead of her ego and need to be everything to every one. In doing so, she has secured trust with this family (they aren’t planning to leave her studio, but rather to supplement the training she is able to receive there). She has also secured trust with us. We aren’t interested in stealing her student away, but we are interested in networking to provide a well-rounded experience.


Wise Move #2: Get specific

We can’t please everyone all of the time and we can sure make ourselves miserable in the process of trying. One example of choosing wisdom is being honest about with whom you do your best work and focusing on that.
For many years, I have served as a one-person department. This required I serve as a generalist. This was appealing through much of my career as I tend to see everything in connected ways- I valued leading my students to such conclusions as well through exploring concepts in multiple contexts.

Now, I am becoming more specialized in my interests and in the work to which I am drawn. I am realizing that my former strengths suffered when they were no longer my interest. This impacted my satisfaction in teaching and I am sure impacted the experience for my students. Just because I CAN doesn’t always mean I SHOULD. When I free time to do more of what I want to do, that time gets filled with precisely that.


Seize the opportunity like this osprey catching a fish

Osprey catching a fish by Jan Smith is licensed CC BY 2.0


Wise Move #3: Seize the opportunity

When I first met with this dancer, within minutes I knew I had a choice. We could spend our time on vocabulary and terminology (which had been the initial request), or I could help her understand her body. There is a lot going on there…lordosis, knock-knees, hyper-extension, rolling ankles, etc.

We spent time looking at her alignment in various positions, I moved her through some pilates-based and somatic dance experience and we revisited the positions and actions. Her eyes were bright. I explained the function of plié and how she needs to approach positions and actions based on her body. Afterwards, her expression told me she had never felt this way before. Her body was able to move in a connected way. For the first time, she was creating movement and not imitating it.


Wise Move #4: Keep them moving

For this dancer, with this body, I suspect there are instructors out there that would tell her she shouldn’t dance. No one has done that. I have opted to gain the knowledge needed to help such dancers. Her other instructor opted to know where to send her to gain that help.

It isn’t for us to decide a dancer’s fate. It is up to us to provide support and clear communication and allow them to make decisions. Natural consequences will occur. She will be accepted into programs, or she won’t. She will get the job, or she won’t. There is so much value in connecting with others, connecting with yourself, and letting the rest play out. We’re all about the process, right?


What are your wise moves?

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard

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