Running on Empty
November 1, 2012

Protect yourself from burnout.

Lack of energy, emotional exhaustion, a weakened immune system and inefficiency at work: During extremely stressful times, you may find that you don’t even want to show up at the studio. New York City–based dance teacher Danielle Pierce experienced these symptoms in 2010. “It was an emotional roller coaster for me. My work plan for the upcoming year was a mess and my budget was really affecting my life at home,” she says. “I was regularly in tears and didn’t want anything to do with dance.”

Teaching dance—especially if you also direct a studio—can be a demanding job. A hectic schedule can push you to emotional and physical exhaustion, specifically during busy times like Nutcracker and recital season. Identifying what stresses you out and when it happens will allow you to help prevent burnout.

Debbie Rhea, associate dean at Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, says that burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, including scheduling too many classes or events, feeling insufficiently rewarded for your work at the studio, having poor social connections to friends or co-workers and having values that conflict with those you interact with.

Pinpoint the Stress

Robin Dawn Ryan, owner of Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts in Cape Coral, Florida, used to suffer from terrible migraines in the weeks leading up to recitals. After years of the same pain, she knew she had to learn how to manage the season earlier, before stress became a problem. She now focuses on setting realistic time frames and relinquishing some control to others. “You have to be able to step back and share the responsibilities,” she says. Every January, Ryan holds a meeting where she delegates tasks to parents and other volunteers to make spring recitals easier to manage.

Pierce eventually discovered that boredom from a mundane teaching schedule is what weighed her down. Her days of teaching mostly children’s dance rarely changed. Now, her class load depends on the season, and she schedules more fitness classes to break up her routine. From September to June, she is primarily a children’s teacher with just one Zumba class and a few Pilates clients each week. In the summer, she shifts gears to teaching more fitness sessions. “It helps me use different parts of my brain,” she explains.

Lauren Metts, owner of The Dance Dept. in Irmo, South Carolina, found herself burning out from the pressures that parents and students brought to the studio. She says that with the mature themes and tricks showcased on popular dance TV shows, customers sometimes approach her with suggestions about technique and artistry. “Parents are spending their very hard-earned money, and it gives them a sense of entitlement,” she says. For relief, she seeks the company and counsel of her professional peers. This summer, she attended a dance conference where she could clear her mind, discuss these studio issues with other teachers and make new friends in the dance community.

When It’s Too Late

Sometimes, burnout can’t be prevented. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the ideal solution would be to take some time off to relax. Unfortunately, this can be unrealistic, especially if you’re in the middle of your busiest season. “You can’t always remove yourself from it, so you just have to do the best you can,” says Ryan, who sometimes exchanges classes with another teacher when she needs to reenergize her schedule. Pierce shifted her routine by taking a yoga class whenever possible. “It provided the same endorphin rush that dance gives me, but it allowed me to take from a new teacher with new students in a different setting,” she says.

Sometimes, the biggest culprit may be your own personality tendencies. Do you beat yourself up for small mistakes? Rhea suggests trying to remember the big picture and relying on friends for help and support. Tasks seem less daunting when you check one item off your list at a time. Keep goals realistic so you’re not setting yourself up for failure. And think positive: Sometimes simply switching your negative conversational tone to a positive one can change your outlook on a situation.

If you still feel stressed, create a brief time-out for yourself. Perhaps you can take a morning to sleep in or relax. You may not think you have the time, but a break will help you truly concentrate when you return to work, making you more productive and efficient in the long run. Remember, your students can sense when you’re not at your best. “When I’m happier to be in class with them, they’re happier,” says Pierce. DT

Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas.

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