It’s Time to Prioritize Dancer Wellness in University Dance Programs
March 14, 2022

A few years ago, I attended one of the top ballet-focused dance programs in the country, which was a truly transformative experience for me. The training was top-notch, and I felt like I was really being prepared for the professional world. But in hindsight, I realize that the training (when I was there nearly 15 years ago) had some missing pieces, especially when it came to providing holistic wellness support to its dancers. And while some of these gaps in support have since been addressed, there are still lots of opportunities for development.

As a health, nutrition and lifestyle coach for aspiring and professional dancers for the last seven years, I’ve been in conversation with dancers who are currently attending the top 10 university dance programs about their experiences of what’s being offered, which has further solidified my belief that while the approach to well-rounded dancer wellness is improving, it’s still lacking at most schools.

Through my experience, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that holistic support can have on a dancer’s trajectory. And I believe that university dance programs that lead the way in creating fully integrated wellness-support programs for their dancers are the ones that will end up seeing the greatest success in their schools, and in the career success of their alumni.

Many university dance programs offer physical therapy, nutrition seminars or ongoing dietary support, and cross-training resources like Pilates, weight training or yoga. But lately, more dance schools have come to see the need for mental health support from sports psychologists or counselors. Still, while dance programs have addressed the fact that mental health resources need to be offered and dancer mental health needs to be prioritized, these offerings are mostly sprinkled in rather than ongoing and fully integrated into the program’s structure.

So, let’s look at making changes. It’s time for university dance programs to lead the way in the dance world and create an ongoing, structured program for dancers that covers whole-dancer wellness.

Creating a Dancer Wellness Program at Your School

Most programs are now beginning to offer sessions with sports psychologists for those who decide their students need this support. But rather than having these one-off sessions, why not look at your overall dance-major programming and make some changes? A professional development class, for instance, could be a great way to help dancers build confidence and resilience for their dancing.

Your dancer wellness program could also cover nutrition in practical ways. Instead of bringing someone in to tell them what they should be eating, find a health coach, nutritionist or dietitian who supports dancers in building empowered relationships to food so they feel confident in their food choices. This goal won’t be achieved by having a single class on nutrition, so why not look into providing a workshop series instead? When you provide ongoing coaching or support around healthy food choices within your dance department, you’ll be helping your dancers make sustainable progress.

If you’ve already started offering access to mental health resources and sports psychologists, then you’re already ahead of the curve. Why not develop this offering by having those support providers present a workshop series? Most dancers face rejection, disappointment or performance anxiety at some point in their careers, and preparing them for these challenges will only increase the likelihood of professional success.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to put a program into place that integrates into an existing program, you have to think big. Over the last seven years, I’ve seen the impressive shifts dancers have experienced with a holistic, integrative approach to their health and wellness—not limited to just their physical health, but their overall mental well-being, routines, relationships, nutrition patterns, spirituality and lifestyle outside of the studio.

Now, you might be thinking that’s a lot to consider, and it is, but let’s face it: You’re preparing your students for a career in an extremely physically and mentally demanding field. So an integrative wellness program that goes beyond just technique and artistry training is what they’ll need to succeed.

Supporting the Staff

Don’t expect an already overburdened faculty member to take on the task of creating and implementing your dancer wellness program. If it’s within your program’s capacity, you might want to look into hiring someone for this role, even if they’re able to work part-time or at a contracted arrangement.

My dream is for all university dance programs and pre-professional programs to have a “dancer wellness coordinator” on staff—someone who has a close connection and experience in dance at the university and professional levels and a deep understanding of holistic and integrative wellness support. The coordinator would be able to design the programming and see it carried out, and pay attention to student schedules and find ways to prioritize meals and snacks for the dancers, especially during performance seasons. This individual would also coordinate the workshop series and make sure that messaging is aligned with what aspiring professional dancers need.

Many dance programs need to support their professors to make adjustments to their teaching styles, as well. Ineffective and problematic teaching styles in dance are still much too prevalent, so programming for teacher development needs to be the cornerstone for any dancer wellness program. Plus, there should also be ways for students to provide feedback to teachers anonymously on an ongoing basis, although anonymity shouldn’t be the only way for dancers to express themselves—they should also be encouraged to be more vocal and to advocate for themselves.

Have a Referral Network

For anything that you aren’t able to provide to your students on campus, offer plenty of resources instead. Have a robust list of trusted mindset coaches, health coaches, nutritionists, dietitians, physical therapists, sports psychologists, doctors, Pilates instructors, meditation services and alternative therapy providers. If you can negotiate student rates with your referral list, you’ll make it even more feasible for students to get the support they need.

As you start to map out a wellness program for your university, let your current students be part of the process. The exact needs of each university might vary, but you have to be honest with yourself about the starting point. Ask yourself: Is the environment at your school already supportive or are there issues that needs to be addressed? It’s important to assess the nature of things in your department before you begin to create a fully integrated, multipart holistic wellness program.

Remember: You can play a significant role in shifting dance culture towards a more positive place within your university dance programs to nurture mature, mentally and physically resilient dancers who become valuable assets to the dance world.

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