Your Words and Shaping Healthy Dancers

My relationship to my body has been, like most women – let alone dancers, quite a journey.


Heather Vaughan-Southard teaching a master class at Dance in the Annex. Photography by Tim Motley

My body, when training as a young dancer, seemed to be a determining factor of what I should do with my career and dance interests rather than a celebration of what I can do and how that joy could inform my path.

At 5’2” and weight ranging as a teen at 115 pounds to an adult at 135 (and up), I was first made aware of the disadvantage of my height, then the roundness and over-development of muscles (I had some gymnastic training as a youngster), then gently pushed to generally lose weight, and ultimately try to fit the mold of whatever company for which I thought, or someone thought, I might be a candidate.

Now, as an adult, I still carry the “shame” of my body not living up to the ideal image but my attitude is changing. I still hear the hurtful words from instructors 15 or 20 years ago but I am starting to be able to see the criticisms don’t still apply. Even if they do, it is up to me to determine how much control they have in my life and practices. I finally feel ready to take care of myself and to make choices that are good for me and not just my career. What might have happened if I felt this way 15 years ago? [Read more…]

Happy Slips: Using Competition to Internalize Good Habits?

It is fair to say I spend a decent amount of time presenting alternatives to competition dance.


Photo by State Library of Queensland, Australia

I readily admit, though, that competition has a certain value in any type of dance classroom. We may not be facing off against other dance programs and focusing our time and energy in beating the competition, but we do challenge ourselves to dance our best with the movement and methods we choose to explore, and to drive our own progress by improving upon our work consistently.

Here is an example of how this has been done in my K-5 classes recently:

In my program, the elementary program meets for 30 minutes per week. During my first year in this school, I found management of the classes was touch and go. This was mainly due to the revolving door that seemed to usher teachers in and out during a challenging transition, as well as the drastic change of curriculum from previous experiences.

As such, I started issuing “happy slips” to the students that had worked hard during our time together. Basically, the slip of paper [Read more…]

Setting Goals in Dance

Nothing gets in the way of reaching my goals like a few misplaced priorities.

My “plan to do’s” take a hit if I don’t draw lines in the sand when it comes to what’s important to me. If you’re a people-pleaser like me, you may find it hard to say “later” or “maybe” or even “no, thank you.” This priority pyramid, however, helps me make better snap decisions about what’s important in the grand scheme and when taking action day-to-day.

IMAGE The Priority Pyramid IMAGE

To make sure what belongs on top, stays on top: Stop making more “cuts” than you should in the Personal category (things important to you – like exercise goals or date night with the husband) and slacking on the Necessary commitments (like laundry, or homework, or business) to avoid cutting anything in the Obligations category, which along with the Fluff Stuff, should be the first place to look when something’s gotta give.

This doesn’t mean you should make a habit of backing out of commitments, rather be encouraged to reflect on priorities before making them in the first place.

If putting others so close to the bottom of the pyramid seems selfish to you, consider this: you are rarely the only one capable of getting a job done but there is only one you. The commitments you make to others can easily take over your time and energy for the things, people, and tasks in your life that require the one and only, you.

Friends in the Circle Discuss Setting Goals:

The Dance Buzz

Cait teaches you how to chart and prioritize goals in every aspect of your life. Her method is wonderfully useful for those visually minded souls who like to keep things organized. Sound like someone you know? Check it out!

Setting Goals: One Step At A Time

Maria’s Movers

What I love about Maria (who is our newest DA columnist, by the way — yay!) and her blog, is that I always learn, or at least remember something left behind, from the example she sets as a teacher. In this post, she shows how she sets goals for her own students, leading them to success with none the wiser.

6 Goals To Set For Your Littles: AKA My Hidden Agenda

Dancing Smart

Deborah Vogel asked if I thought her latest video would suit our circle of posts. Yes, a thousand times, yes! No one sets goals hoping to be unsuccessful and in this video Deborah talks about the Inner Dance of Success — how to overcome faulty thinking and old habits so that you can get out of your own way. If you’re already struggling to hold on to your 2012 resolutions, watch the video at The Body Series blog.

5 Success Principles

Terry Finch on Suite101

Are you familiar with Terry’s blog on Suite101? If not, you should be. She’s the Ballet/Tap/Jazz editor there and is doing superb work. She writes in this post about SMART goals and how to apply them to your dance training. What’s so smart about them? We’ve talked about them before but in case you missed it, they’re Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Framed. Learn more:

Goal Setting For Dance Students


Gabriel presents three crucial steps for making this your best year yet. I said, “Yes!” when I saw the first one because lots of folks forget it when setting their goals, but it’s so important, I even put it right at the beginning of our 4 for 40 course here at DA. Better go check this one out!

Tips on Setting Goals for 2012

Access Dance for Life!

Jacqui’s penned another take on SMART goals but this time with the inclusion of Action Oriented (under A) which is an element I find pretty crucial. She explains the benefits of goal-setting for students and what role parents and teachers can play in encouraging the practice. Don’t miss the wise words in the linked newsletter, either!

Empowering Progress


Our own Lauren Warnecke has been blogging about her creative side with our friends at 4dancers. In this submission, she shares a new online tool she’s using to keep her goals (both big and small) in a friendly, organized space that works the way her brain does… in list format! Maybe it will work for your brain too!

The Curse of Being Creative (Why WorkFlowy is Amazing)


Dave looks back at last year’s resolutions to see how he’s done and sets his sights on some new goals for 2012. What does this adult beginner resolve to accomplish? Be more confident (in ballet class), watch more ballet, stretch every day, and 7 more auspicious objectives.

New Years Resolutions: Old and New

Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins by Sheena Jeffers

Sheena returns to childhood and some lessons her mother passed along. She shows you what it takes to transform your beautiful ideas into reality.

Setting Goals

Contemporary Dancing

Melissa (LoverofDancexox) shares her goals for blogging, for dance, and for life. This teenager has some big plans and reveals a possible giveaway in your future!

2012 Resolutions!

Dancing Tales

Sasha talks about SMART goals, too, and how she plans to apply them the year ahead. She includes inspiring others as a goal for herself – how cool is that? I’m honored that Sasha cites Dance Advantage as a source of her own inspiration and motivation. Music to my ears!

New Year, New Resolutions, New GOALS!

Leotards And The Buns In Them

This may seem like a classic ChrisGo brain dump (and by classic, I mean mischievously irreverent with surprising twists and turns) but look closer… ok, not that close! There are some real gems in this list and you’re bound to nod your head and say, “me too!”

What Might Be: 2012

Find even more on goals and the new year at Dance Advantage:

and, as mentioned, our 4 for 40 E-course is filled with goal-setting techniques and journal writing!

February’s New Topic!

Thanks to all for participating in January’s Circle Time. For February, let’s discuss:

The (Dance) Things I LOVE!




How Much Dance Should My Child Be Taking? – The Equation

I’ve been asked this question a lot.

Usually it is from a parent but sometimes it is from a teen or adult asking for themselves.

My answer is another question.

… To do what?

The word ‘should’ implies there is a goal, a dream, a desire behind your question. With no knowledge of what your child’s goal, dream, or desire is, neither you nor I will be able to answer your How Much Dance Should…? question. Begin at square one and continue play on your next turn.

My child has a defined goal, a dream, a desire. Now can I ask the question?

You can, but

  1. I don’t have an answer. You and your child do.
  2. There is no right answer. There is no magic number of hours to be clocked. No student or dancer is the same, no flirtation with or pursuit of dance is alike.
  3. The answer changes because the destination is not a fixed one.

Conclusion: Your answer to the above question will be unique to your child.

What is the appropriate amount or extent of training for my child at this time?

Ah, that’s better. Here are some questions that will help you find your answer…

“What are my child’s interests?”

Look for opportunities in which your child can try and gain insight into different styles without adding another class to the schedule. It’s a great idea to find a studio which offers the chance to “taste” different dance forms during workshops, via visiting teachers or master classes, conventions, or going to see dance performances. This will help your child make decisions about where he would like to increase his commitment level.

“What and how deep are my child’s motivations?”

If your child is asking, investigate the reasons she wants to take a new or additional dance class. Costume style, choreography, musical accompaniment, or maintaining friendships may be no less valid or less important to her than the desire to enhance her skills. Dance should be fun, too! Do not devalue or brush away these motivations, they are part of the equation.

BUT, the investment of weekly classes is significant enough that it pays to know if it is the desire for improvement and mastering skills that is motivating her, or something else. If your child’s motivations are all superficial, what she learns is likely to be too.

Do weigh and consider all of her reasons and include your child in the process. This is the only way to be clear about her motivations.

Is my child ready for more?

She’ll ask for it when she wants more. But is she ready?

If you’ve taken the time to go through the process above, your child is less likely to find themselves overworked or underprepared for an increased level of commitment or activity.

Do be willing to reevaluate, though, if your child is showing signs of stress physically, mentally, or emotionally and cut back if necessary. Things happen, environments change, people change.

“Has my child established a good foundation on which to build?”

His foundational class or two, whether creative dance, ballet, jazz, or tap should offer good, quality technique and training of appropriate skills. Good training is possible in any of these forms but not necessarily happening in every class at every school.

What is quality training?

In short, good training offers classes and curriculum which are designed to develop the tapestry of skills needed for dance – control, body awareness, strength, flexibility, musicality, artistry, and more.

Whether curriculum is based on a set syllabus or backed by other forms of teacher training, education, or experience, it is important to find a teacher who has a method to his/her madness.

No matter if yours is a recreational student, or on a professional track, or has the desire to change his track, if the teacher is not teaching with any real direction or reason behind the exercises, then you want to find someone who does.

If he has received quality training from instructors who also care about his well-being, allowed him to discover the rewards of self-motivation, rejoiced with him in his successes, encouraged him when he has struggled, and instilled respect and enthusiasm for the art of dance, he’s got a strong foundation on which to build.

The Equation

Interest + Motivation + Preparedness = Hours + Diversity + Challenge

Hours is the number of hours spent on the activity.

Diversity is the range of dance styles and dance activities.

Challenge is the level of difficulty of the class or activity.

When there is equilibrium between these two sides of the equation, the amount of training is right where it should be.

How to work out the equation

When you work out for fitness, you go at a pace or a level of challenge until this becomes easy and then you step it up with more repetition and more challenge.

Similarly when the interest, motivation, or preparedness on one side of the equation increases, the values on the other side should increase to match.

The equation is really very simple and logical, yet it takes communication with your child (on whatever level they are capable of discussing it with you) and requires observation and some homework on your part.

The investigation may raise more questions.

How Do I Balance My Time and Money Expenditure With My Child’s Dance NEEDS?

What if he/she wants to be a PROFESSIONAL?

You know your child’s desire is to be a professional dancer. You know that it is his/her desire and not your own. And you want to know if this changes anything about what I just wrote above.

Hint: It doesn’t. But I know you want the nitty-gritty on what it takes to get your child from point A to B.

Did the above article answer at least some of your questions?

Does the equation make some sense in a universal way?

What else do you want to know?

Mustering their Motivation: Strategies for Engaging and Inspiring Students

Photo by Missy S.

Photo by Missy S.

What do you do with an unmotivated student?

Ignore them and hope they’ll go away?

Scream or threaten until you’re blue in the face?

Let’s face it. These students have a way of either zapping or absorbing much of your time and spirit. It can be hard to want to pour more of yourself into inspiring these lackluster learners. But, as a teacher, you feel compelled to instill a passion for dance. So, how can you motivate students in a way that won’t deplete your energy reserves?

1. Build Confidence

Frequently, when kids start refusing or resisting something it is because they believe or are afraid they can’t do it (no matter what kind of attitude or brave face they put on). Do your best not to skip over essential building blocks in technique, performance, and artistry and don’t hesitate to take a step or two backward if necessary. Taking things apart or breaking them down into parts allows students to put the puzzle together one piece at a time, slowly building their confidence through things they can do.

2. Just Ask

Sometimes just changing your approach to students can make a difference. Try asking, in a genuine manner, what you can do to make class better for them – “I’ve noticed you don’t seem to like barre very much. Is there something I can do that will make it more fun?” Their ideas may surprise you! Maybe they’d like more upbeat music, maybe they get tired of doing the same exercises all the time, maybe they get frustrated with too many corrections. Consider also offering choices: “Would you like to do pirouettes or jumps today?” Be willing to compromise and open the lines of communication in a non-threatening and inclusive way.

3. Go Figure

Photo by Missy S.

Photo by Missy S.

Generally if a student is in your class they like something about dance! Make an attempt to discover what that one thing is. This may or may not be directly dance-related. Perhaps it is a portion of class, maybe it is the thrill of performing, it might even be socializing with friends.

  • If there is a portion of class the student enjoys, give him/her positive attention and feedback, especially during this part of class.
  • If the enjoyment does not come directly from movement, try to remind yourself  that not everyone will feel as youdo about dance, and then find ways to allow your student(s) to enjoy the aspects of dance they are most fond of.
    • For instance, if it is socializing they want, make it a point to encourage socializing outside of class if possible (dance studio slumber parties, pizza parties when students earn enough points for behavior in class, etc.)
    • Or, occasionally in class (quiz days where the students can work together on a vocabulary game, 5 minutes to socialize at the end of a productive class, etc.).

Be Crystal Clear

Be clear when giving instructions and be explicit and firm about what you expect from students. Let students know exactly what you are looking for and/or why you are doing certain exercises. If you expect them to get through a class without leaning lazily on the barre then say so when you set your ground rules. If you expect them to work hard for the 60 – 90 minutes they are in class, discuss the rewards for doing so.

Be dependable so that students know what to expect from you. If they are not meeting your expectations, be consistent about not letting them compete, or perform, or remain in class for the day. If you are not sure you have the power as a teacher to enforce these things, talk it over with the studio owner.

Encourage Critical Thinking

Instead of presenting students with conclusions and then offering examples to back it up, try presenting the examples first and let your students draw their own conclusions. “We have a dress code which requires you to wear a leotard, tights, and proper shoes. Why do you think we ask you to adhere to this code?” Or, “I know practicing the same exercises each week can seem boring. Why do you think we do it?” This engages students and allows them to feel like a participant rather than one who is being lectured. As a bonus, this encourages analysis and synthesis skills.

Make Class Sensational

Dance may seem like it is already a very sensory activity, however, watching videos, looking at diagrams of important bone and muscles, manipulating objects that increase students’ understanding of certain concepts or images, using touch or auditory cues — these things make the class interesting and can ignite curiosity and a desire to learn.

Emphasize Mastery of Skills

Designing a method or methods of assessing skills helps students to set goals for improvement. When these goals are focused on clear levels of mastery, students feel less personal risk throughout the learning process. Their self-worth is at stake when their sole measurement is based upon placement in the front row of a dance, medals at a competition, or comparison to others. Many students will give up before risking making a mistake if they feel their value is dependent on these external evaluations of their abilities. Skill-based assessment encourages self-evaluation and motivates from within. (Click here for more on encouraging self-evaluation)

Perhaps you are thinking. Wait a minute, this sounds like an awful lot of work!

Yes, I suppose if you suddenly tried to do all of these things at once it would be. What’s great about all of these approaches to learning and encouragement is that there is no right or wrong way to get started. Change occurs with gradual steps in the right direction. I often have to remind myself of these core philosophies when dealing with uninspired students. Have patience with yourself. Pick one to try with your classes and take note of how students respond.

Shouldn’t students just do things the way I want them to?

Sometimes I think teachers are inclined to believe that changing tactics for certain students or classes is akin to “caving” or “letting them win.” However, these strategies do not require that you relinquish your principles. In fact, they often allow students to see more clearly the reasons certain standards and ethics are important.

Meeting students where they are is much more efficient than wasting your energy trying to drag them along with you. Though these strategies do take effort, they won’t drain your energy, they may even invigorate you! And in the long run, you may find you no longer need to beat your head against a wall, go hoarse from yelling, or waste time threatening or bribing unmotivated students. Class will be easier for you and your students – you’ll all enjoy the process a lot more!

A Note on Playing Detective in Severe Cases

Photo by Missy S.

Photo by Missy S.

Sometimes lack of motivation can be a product of even deeper issues than lack of confidence. In severe cases, I try to play detective and get a sense for what is going on. Different tactics work for different kids. Sometimes a talk with the parents is needed. Maybe a one-on-one chat with the student. Perhaps it requires comparing notes with other teachers. Occasionally it’s all of the above.

Find out what they’re afraid of or insecure about and try to remove or alleviate the fear factor. Are they feeling bullied by other students? (yes, girls bully too) Are parents putting pressure on them “from the sidelines?” (also see our life as a dance mom guest post – friend or fanatic?) Are they comparing themselves to other students?

Obviously, as a teacher, you may be limited in your ability to help. Sometimes, accepting that there is nothing you can do and suggesting that a negative or severely unmotivated student move on or try another activity is the best thing you can do for yourself, and for others around them.