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

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


  1. Great suggestions for a very sensitive topic. I have found with teen students that they often don’t really know what they want. They can rarely be objective about their skills which is why it’s critical their teachers direct them properly. Specificity is important with teens. When I prepare students for auditions, I always tell them at least one specific thing they have as a gift (a high arabesque, a fast head spot, etc.) because when they get nervous or overwhelmed they need a specific positive image of themselves to hold onto.

    I think the *way* teachers talk about this with students reflects more of the teacher’s insecurities and anxieties. Some teachers are still competitive with their students – perhaps they are not yet ready to transition to teaching. Some never performed and overcompensate for what they perceive as a lack in their own resume. Still others care so much for their students that they worry for them because, let’s face it, the pro dance world can be crushing. If teachers look inward before answering a student’s question about potential, they might find a kinder and gentler response.

  2. Hi, I’m the mother of a ballet student (almost 13) and just wanted to say this: Two years ago she was identified as talented and offered private coaching for competition work. The (lovely and very experienced) teacher told me my daughter had ‘a ton of potential’. I was very excited, and she has made great progress since then. BUT I wish I had known back then what ‘potential’ meant. I hear proud mamas saying that their child has been told they are talented, could go far, etc etc. And I don’t know how to say to them “But do you want your child to have a career in dance?” I feel so cynical saying this, but I guess I just feel much more in touch with reality now as she approaches her teens and I see how many sensational ballet dancers there are in the world. (At the moment she loves her dancing, but wants to be an anaesthetist. I’m quietly relieved!)

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