Midway through every semester at Indiana University Bloomington, contemporary professor Stephanie Nugent notices that her students aren’t quite as awake as they were the first week of classes. They’re tired from midterm exams and bring less energy to the studio. Nugent, too, feels the lull. “Teaching in academia is an arc with many peaks and valleys,” she says, noting that the repetition of exercises can get monotonous. “On days when it feels like we’ve been doing the same thing over and over, I give students an improvisational prompt, and it reignites all of our interests. It’s something to investigate, rather than something to repeat.”
Most teachers experience a moment of stagnation at some point. Maybe students aren’t progressing as fast as you feel they should, or you feel uninspired by the daily routine. Factors outside the studio, like administrative work, can also deplete your energy reserves. During these low and slow times, consider the following ideas to find inspiration and give yourself—and your students—a boost.
1. See more dance. Susan Hebach, teacher at the American Tap Dance Foundation and director of the Tap City Youth Ensemble and ATDF youth program, likes to reconnect with what’s happening in the dance world to get new ideas. “Observe other people’s classes and see live performances that will inspire you,” she says. Hebach also looks to the past, and she recently compiled a project for her youth program focusing on different generations of tap dancers. “There’s so much information readily available on YouTube, it’s staggering,” she says. If you live in an isolated area and you can’t see live performances or stop by other schools, you can find entire classes and ideas for specific combinations online.
2. Strike up a conversation. Hebach also suggests getting additional teacher training, like going to a class or a workshop, and swapping ideas with other teachers in your field. Find out what works for other people. “Reconnect with a mentor, or dance with a colleague,” she says. “Get things on a roll and introduce yourself to something new.”
Valerie Madonia, master teacher and former director of the Colorado Ballet Academy, suggests paying attention to other teachers’ language and how a correction could be said differently. Students might better understand the information if communicated in a new way. “I also talk to dancer friends from my past and have conversations about teaching,” she says. “We catch up and then just kind of share ideas.”
3. Get out of your comfort zone. Focus on a particular group of students and what they need to learn, then challenge yourself to meet their needs in a new way. “At one point, I wanted to explore dancing fast,” says Hebach. “I don’t like to dance to fast music, like double-time tempo, but I saw that the students I was working with really needed to do it.” She selected music that would fit the purpose and forced herself to create a dance that would work. “It was a good challenge for us, and everybody got better,” she says.
Nugent focuses on continuing education and doing her own research outside her usual work. “It’s crucial because it keeps me investigating my own experience and my own body, and then I can bring more information back to the students,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m doing the same things again and again, and losing the connection.”
Madonia, here with Colorado Ballet Summer Intensive students, observes other teachers’ classes to find new ways to communicate information. Photo by Sean Omandam, courtesy of Madonia.
4. Reassess your approach. When you’re feeling frustrated and not getting the results you want, it helps to take a step back. “It makes you a better teacher if you realize that a certain approach isn’t working,” says Madonia. “Think about how you can break it down, or offer a different way of thinking for the students.” Madonia, for example, might think of a new combination on the spot. Once, she created a jumping exercise traveling forward from the back of the studio that required landing in second position. “It forced them to hold the rotation, because the knees stayed wide and the heels stayed forward to propel the exercise,” she says. “We all have little gems that come to us in an ‘Aha!’ moment while teaching.”
5. Find what excites you. If you’re using the same music over and over, take the time to find at least 10 new selections that inspire you. Madonia suggests reading a dance-related book, like an autobiography of someone you admire, or revisiting the things that inspired you as a student or professional dancer. If you attend a workshop, don’t force yourself to memorize everything to take back to your students. “Go for yourself,” says Hebach. “Or even take a class on dance history, or art, or something that lets you be creative.”
Remember to take the time to nourish yourself as an artist and educator. If you’re not excited about what you’re doing, chances are your students won’t be excited, either. “When you realize you’re in a rut, take different steps to see what works for you and what will advance you forward in any way,” says Hebach. “It might not be just one thing.”