Seeing Red: What Dance Teachers Can Do to Keep Their Tempers in Check
June 22, 2023

The job description of a dance educator goes far beyond what happens in the studio. Dance teachers are also called on to be artists, choreographers, casting directors, customer service managers, career coaches, employees, or employers, and the list goes on. Each of these duties is rife with opportunities for frustration and anger to creep in. “We have passion for our work, and also great responsibility,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School faculty member Christine Schwaner. “It can be frustrating when it feels like others don’t share it.”

Whether it’s anger when a student isn’t putting in the effort you want to see or a parent is demanding or meddling in their child’s dance education, or whether it’s frustration with colleagues or bureaucracy at the institution you work for, it is important to recognize that the feeling is telling you something important. We spoke to experts about how to manage—and even benefit from—the experience of seeing red, while still keeping your cool.

Recognize the Signs

From elevated heart rate to trouble focusing to headaches, feelings of anger take a physical toll on our bodies. Left unchecked, an excess of anger can cause increased blood pressure, rises in blood glucose and fatty acid levels, and lowered metabolism and immunity. Chelsea Butters Wooding, a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and former dance teacher, says that anger releases stress hormones in our brains and can make us feel a lack of control because “when we are in the emotional center of our brain, the logical parts of our brain are not in the driver’s seat.”

“Anger is an emotional response to an unmet expectation,” adds Wooding. And while mismanaged anger can be harmful, like all our emotions, anger serves a purpose. “Anger is information,” she says. She cautions against labeling anger (or any other emotion) as “bad.” “It is not an excuse for bad behavior,” she says, “but you are not broken for being angry. You are not wrong for being angry.” For Schwaner, managing strong emotions like anger requires that she separate herself, and her worth, from the feelings she is having. “I may be feeling sad, but I am not my sadness,” she says. “You don’t have to act from that feeling.”

Get ahead of big emotions by doing what you can to support your well-being. Leigh Skvarla, a licensed professional counselor who works with dancers, says that attending to the small daily things that are in our control can go a long way in helping us to manage strong emotions when they arise, and generally better supporting our mental health. Check in with yourself: Are you hydrated or have you had too much caffeine? Did you get enough sleep? Are you taking any medications as prescribed? Are you focusing on intentional breathing? “These things may not feel important, but they are the building blocks to making good decisions,” she says.

To avoid anger-inducing relationships with students, parents, and even other teachers, communication is key. “Some of the onus is on you to put your expectations in writing, articulate them in person, and give people an opportunity to voice concerns,” says Skvarla. With students, this can be done during an in-person orientation meeting and included in a syllabus or student handbook. For parents, it can be communicated in a letter, email, or document they sign at registration. Among peers, it might be following up via email after staff meetings to highlight your takeaways and expectations.

So You’re Really Mad. Now What?

When you are experiencing anger, Wooding says you should take a moment to name the unmet expectation. If you are upset that your dancers look sloppy in rehearsal, you may be angry because you had an expectation that they would have practiced more on their own. “Then ask yourself: Was this expectation reasonable? Was it communicated clearly?” Upon reflection you may realize that it was not reasonable to expect that these dancers would rehearse outside of the scheduled time because they are in the midst of finals at school. Or that they didn’t have access to the studios at off times to do so. Or maybe they didn’t even know that you had such an expectation.

Skvarla suggests that teachers align their expectations with their students using a simple acronym: WIN (What’s Important Now?). Continuing with the example above, you and your students may have benefited from you communicating that you feel there is not adequate rehearsal time to get the piece where it needs to be for performance, and you need them to take time on their own to practice. Ask the students if they feel they can meet that expectation.

Anger is seeking action. “Your emotion is telling you something, so what are the next steps of things to do rather than feel?” asks Skvarla. Perhaps you are frustrated with the administrator of your school because they scheduled a class for 6-year-olds that doesn’t start until seven in the evening. You are met with a bunch of hyper, exhausted, too-close-to-bedtime kids and it is making your job harder. “Your anger with the administrator isn’t fixing anything,” Skvarla points out. What actions can you take? “Turn that anger into curiosity,” she says. There may be reasons the class was scheduled that way, and there may be solutions you can present to solve the problem.

Lead by Example

Often our anger is triggered by an unmet expectation we teachers have for ourselves. How you handle a less-than-perfect moment with your students is as important as the technique you teach them. “You don’t need to apologize for being human,” says Skvarla. “In fact, your mistakes can be validating. Prepare for what you will do when you make a mistake. Educating is about the process.”

As a dancer yourself, you may have spent time imagining how you would handle it if you fell onstage, or if your costume ripped mid-performance. Teaching is a performance in and of itself, and you should prepare for missteps in this role, as well. “Have a plan for what you will say when you make a mistake,” advises Skvarla. It might be simply saying “Wow, that did not go as I had planned” or suggesting that everyone take five minutes to get a drink of water and collect themselves.

It is unreasonable to expect that you will never get angry, or that you will handle it perfectly every time. “Give yourself the same compassion that you give others,” says Wooding. “Adding guilt and shame does not help.” One of the gifts dance educators can give their students is the model of their authenticity. Schwaner recognizes that even as the person at the front of the room, she can’t expect to be perfect. “I am a work in progress,” she says. “At the end of the day we are all doing our best.”

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