Every time Deidre Kellogg Ketroser held a “girl talk” with her ballet class, a few of the young students would giggle and cover their faces with embarrassment once they heard it was about periods and what they could expect as dancers. But by the end of the sessions, students were more confident speaking about the topic, and some even thanked her for bringing it up.
For most preteen girls, it’s mortifying to talk about menstruation and other body changes of puberty. Young ballet dancers have additional concerns: You have to wear revealing tights and leotards. What if you’re bloated and you’re not allowed to add layers like shorts or a skirt? What if you don’t know how a tampon works? And, heaven forbid, what if you have a male teacher when you get your period during class?
“Our periods affect us as dancers and how we feel in class,” says Kellogg Ketroser, who held girl talks every few years over the course of teaching ballet in Minneapolis for nearly three decades. “It was important to me to have a safe place for my students to talk and have someone they could come to who understood what was happening.”
Dance teachers have the unique opportunity to teach young students to be in tune with their bodies, and speaking openly and honestly about what to expect during puberty can demystify a scary subject and help dancers feel safe coming to you with questions.
Kellogg Ketroser structured her talks as informal, 15-minute chats before class. She’d start by asking dancers if they wouldn’t mind raising their hands if they’d gotten their periods. Usually about half of the 11- to 13-year-olds would, timidly. As they looked around at their peers, they could see that they weren’t alone—either in getting their periods or in still waiting for it. “Everybody gets their period at a different time,” Kellogg Ketroser told them, “and that’s OK.”
Then, she would open the discussion to dancers’ questions. Though her advice was basic common sense, it helped dancers, she found, to hear it from a trusted adult: It’s a personal decision about choosing tampons or pads, but most dancers prefer tampons. Bloating? It feels worse than it looks. And as for having a male teacher: “If you feel like you are getting your period during class, ask the instructor to please excuse you to the bathroom. If he demands more information, you can say you have a personal emergency. That should suffice.”
One key point she always made was that the typical period is not a reason to skip class. If you suffer from cramps, she advises, “it is completely acceptable to mention this to your teacher before class—not as an excuse, but as a reason why you might not be at your best today.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher and has an MA in dance education from New York University.
Dr. Kerry McGee, a pediatrician with Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh, co-teaches a two-hour workshop at the clinic called “Puberty. Seriously?” for 9- to 12-year-olds to attend with a trusted adult female. “Young dancers are going to have questions and concerns, and while they have friends and Facebook, it’s so much better if they have a trusted adult female role model they can go to,” she says. Here, she shares a few tips for a period talk for dancers.
- Acknowledge that puberty is uncomfortable to talk about, but use real vocabulary. Slang or silly words seem secretive and shameful if students have serious questions.
- Tell your students that athletes and dancers tend to get their periods a little later than average. Everyone has different timing, and that’s OK.
- Be open about your own experiences and reinforce that puberty is universal.
- Don’t assume what the girls know; they may know less than you think.
- Consider having students write down questions and put them in a box and use them as anonymous conversation starters. —HMH
Brush up on your puberty facts with Dr. McGee’s recommended read, which she gives to everyone who takes her class: The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls, Revised Edition, by Valorie Schaefer.
According to Dr. Lorraine Chrisomalis-Valasiadis, a gynecologist in New York City, dancers and other athletes often have light periods and minimal cramping because they are so active and often have low body fat. But if a student’s period is a pain, she recommends these steps for relief.
- NSAIDs like ibubrofen or naproxen go a long way when easing day-to-day pain from cramps. (However, many doctors recommend against taking NSAIDs right before class, because the dancer may not feel it if she injures herself.)
- When a dancer is at home or relaxing between classes, the fetal position is best for taking the edge off period pain.
- During her downtime, a dancer can rest a hot water bottle on her abdomen for a soothing sensation.
- If cramping persists every month, a student might consider talking to her parents or doctor about getting a prescription for low-dose birth control pills. A low, regulated dose of estrogen will reduce the thickness of the uterine lining, which can mean a lighter period and less cramping.
*If cramps are so bad a dancer can’t make it through class, she should see her doctor to make sure she isn’t suffering from an ovarian cyst or another medical issue. —Andrea Marks