I vividly remember a ballet class when the teacher stopped giving the combination to yell at me to stop biting my fingernails. The studio went silent and the blood rushed to my face as I looked down in embarrassment. I was already quite cognizant of my near-constant nail-biting habit that was often triggered by stress and anxiety, but I felt like I couldn’t control it. And rather than snapping me out of the constant “back-burner” panic I felt in class, the public criticism only made things worse both in the moment and in future classes.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in eighth grade—a common anxiety disorder that would affect my relationship with dance in varying degrees throughout my academic and professional careers. But before and after that diagnosis, I was always a nail-biter when anxious adrenaline spiked. And it wasn’t just nail biting—picking at the nail bed, crossing my arms, playing with my hair, fidgeting with my leotard and other physical signs of anxiety were common behaviors for me during times of stress.
Anxiety is a rising epidemic worldwide among young people, not just dancers. And anxiety levels in children and young adults in the U.S. have been on the rise for the past five years. The intense environment of the dance classroom can aggravate anxious feelings and spur coping behaviors like the ones I experienced.
For dance teachers charged with overseeing the education and well-being of their students, it’s important to be aware of the physical signs of anxiety that may manifest in the classroom—and to know how to address them appropriately. To learn more about the dance educator’s role in recognizing and handling physical signs of anxiety in their students, Dance Teacher spoke with psychologist Dr. Nadine Kaslow and University of North Carolina School of the Arts faculty member Laura Martin.
Fidgeting, Scratching and Other Telltale Signs
When looking for the physical indicators of anxiety in students, “fidgeting, hair or eyelash pulling, nail biting are some of the most common,” shares Kaslow. Picking at skin, swaying or rocking, slouching, and exhibiting self-soothing behavior are other signs, as are short, shallow breathing or general stiffness and a closed-in posture.
“Anxiety is physiological as well as psychological,” explains Kaslow. “Your heart will start racing; you’ll feel tense inside. People want to release the anxiety, so they do things like nail biting and hair pulling to cope.” She notes that dancers especially feel immense pressure to be “perfect” in the classroom, often resulting in high levels of stress and inner tension that may contribute to or exacerbate existing anxiety. “They’re so anxious to show the teacher or director they’re working their hardest, after all,” she says.
Frequent sickness and injury are also common indicators of anxiety at work in the body, as prolonged stress can cause fatigue and take a toll on the immune system.
Since most physical signs of anxiety go against traditional concepts of “classroom etiquette” in the dance space, addressing them can be tricky for educators. Martin suggests focusing corrections on the student’s dancing rather than the behaviors themselves to keep the tone constructive and deflect attention from the anxious action. “If you come near a student to give a correction and they wince or stiffen up,” says Martin, “you know something’s wrong.” And if there are cuts on their arms or other signs of self-harm indicative of a larger issue, contact a medical professional immediately.
Dance teachers should also look out for nonphysical signs of anxiety. Martin has found that students experiencing a particularly stressful time may suddenly make mistakes, lose their ability to keep track of combinations, express less motivation in the classroom or undergo personality or behavior changes in a short period of time.
Managing Student Anxiety
Dance educators play a significant role in their students’ lives. So in dealing with physical signs of anxiety, teachers often straddle a fine line between doing too little and overstepping boundaries. “It’s important for teachers not to shame or make fun of kids in class,” says Kaslow. “That’s really not helpful, and it’s much safer for the teacher to speak to the student after class.” Discretion not only provides privacy but encourages trust and respect in the student–teacher relationship, whereas public criticism can aggravate the underlying issue and cultivate an unsafe learning environment.
“Saying ‘Stop biting your nails’ or ‘Stop twirling your hair’ makes [students] more likely to do it,” adds Kaslow. “If you notice something concerning, say so privately to the student after class. You could say something like: ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been twirling your hair a lot and I’m just checking in to see if you’re OK. How are you doing?’”
Depending on the situation and age of the student, it may be more appropriate to check in with a parent or guardian, as well. But Kaslow notes that this requires a judgment call. Most guardians may already be aware of their child’s habit and are working to address the underlying issue, and in some cases talking to a guardian can actually inflame the situation. “If it seems like it’s getting worse and the child can’t really control it, then you might want to ask them if they’ve talked to their parents about it,” says Kaslow. “For all you know, there’s trauma at home and talking to their parents could make it worse.” Any signs of physical abuse, however, must be addressed immediately with the help of a professional.
Getting Professional Help
Both Martin and Kaslow emphasize that dance educators are neither doctors nor counselors and are not qualified to diagnose or treat their students. Unqualified advice, even with good intention, can sometimes end up doing more harm than good.
“It is not the teacher’s responsibility to be somebody’s counselor,” says Martin. “It’s more that if you’re a caring adult and you see a child is struggling, you want to check in with them.” She suggests school leaders have a list of reliable mental health resources or referrals on hand to offer struggling students.
“The advice I’ve been given from wellness professionals is that our students want to know we care. They want to be seen,” adds Martin. “So you have to reach out in ways that aren’t invasive—you never want to say anything about their bodies that could be misconstrued. It’s a line we all straddle; we need to approach our students with compassion.”
Martin recommends starting off the year communicating to students that the classroom is a safe space, offering additional reminders as needed throughout. “I’ll say, ‘If anything is bothering you, or if you notice something is bothering a friend, you can always come [to the faculty] for help.’ And if I don’t have the answer to their problem, I can pick up the phone and find someone who does.”
Creating a Safe Space
In the process of making the classroom a safe space, Martin reminds teachers to be aware of what they do when they’re anxious. Whether it’s becoming more irritable or distracted, toying with teaching props or exhibiting other common anxious behaviors, like closed-off body language or miscounting the music, those signs show too. “When we show our anxiety, it has an effect on our students. That’s something to be aware of as we deal with our own challenges.”
Recognizing anxiety in students takes nuance and awareness. Dance educators have the advantage of time and observation on their side, but it’s important to use them when it counts. Keep an eye out for the common signs of anxiety in your students, and use the advice here to address them with respect and tact so you can encourage as much safety and trust in the studio as possible.