The dance world is often viewed as something beyond the toils of day-to-day living. When dancers walk into the studio, they are expected to be totally focused, exercise self-discipline and work hard towards perfecting their craft—and leave whatever occurrences happened outside the studio behind.
“Leave your problems at the door” is a phrase that most if not all dancers have heard at some point in their training or professional careers. Of course, there is merit to the ability to switch gears and dedicate oneself entirely to an endeavor, without being distracted by past conversations or events. It’s one of the reasons behind the success of dancers and other elite athletes. But the phrase, which essentially means to keep your life outside the dance studio entirely separate from your training, can be problematic.
The Real Problem With Leaving Problems at the Door
While there is validity to not having your students’ dance lives saturated with issues from the “outside world,” there are times, despite how dedicated a dancer may be, when life’s trials simply cannot be put aside. Whether that’s feeling hurt from a fight with a friend or anger about the world’s injustices, these raw emotions cannot always be repressed—and they shouldn’t be. Instead, teaching students to form a relationship with the emotional spectrum of human existence can actually serve them as dancers.
As we know, the best dancers express a depth of emotion in their dancing, ranging from depression to pure joy, in addition to showcasing great technique. And while technique is certainly learned in the studio in an often-unforgiving environment, experiencing the array of human emotions usually comes from life events outside of the studio. By encouraging students to acknowledge the emotions they bring to class and express them in a productive way, teachers can begin to cultivate dancers who are not just athletes but artists.
What Teachers Can Do to Support Their Students
Steering away from the phrase “Leave your problems at the door” and showing genuine interest and curiosity about your students’ lives and emotions can promote mental well-being in the studio and cultivate a healthy, caring relationship.
Rather than letting strong emotions derail their focus, help your students recognize the tangible power of their emotions within their bodies, and encourage them to feel that energy and channel it to positively fuel their dancing. This can prepare your dancers to face situations where they are likely to encounter heightened emotions, such as during performances, auditions and competitions.
One way that teachers can start to bring this idea into practice is to check in with a dancer one-on-one before the start of a private rehearsal or class. This is a good time to connect with the student away from other classmates, especially if a student is looking troubled or distraught. If the student is willing to open up about what they are experiencing, the teacher can use this emotional context to suggest ways to proceed with the lesson in a productive manner, while being mindful of the student’s feelings. When dealing with unpleasant feelings, one common reaction is for students to retreat within their bodies, wishing to be free of the feelings they are experiencing. But rather than waiting for the feeling to disappear, teachers can suggest that students tune in to this internal sensation—the physical quality of it, as well as the emotional manifestation. Instead of trying to minimize the feelings, teachers can suggest that students embrace them in their entirety and accept them fully, pleasant or unpleasant. In essence, there are no “bad” emotions on the spectrum of human feelings, just different forms of energy, and a dancer can use any of these emotions as the fire behind their movement.
Creating Progressive and Holistic Training Environments Is Key
In an industry that upholds traditions, uncomfortable issues can often be brushed aside. But teaching students to not disregard and bury their emotions is a necessary step to bringing difficult matters to light. As the world of sports increasingly embraces mental health each year, hopefully the dance world will follow suit and acknowledge that in order for dancers to train and perform at their best, both their emotional and physical needs must be cared for and discussed openly.
It’s important to note that while bridging the gap of emotional communication between students and teachers is certainly beneficial in building a strong bond, dance educators should be wary of becoming a student’s therapist in the process. Sports psychologists, while extremely underutilized in the dance community, are the best professionals to step in when addressing mental or emotional issues at a deeper level.
Dance teachers have the power to create progressive and holistic training environments for their students—instilling in them the teachings that will shape them into professionals. So consider not making a firm divide between the two parts of a dancer’s life—in the studio and outside of it. Instead, encourage your students to live vibrant lives outside of the studio, not just for the sake of more expressive dancing but also for cultivating an enjoyable, well-rounded life. By acknowledging a diversified way of living, educators can better address students as sensitive, multifaceted beings, rather than simply technical machines. And who better than dance teachers to communicate that dance and life are not mutually exclusive, but in fact derive value from one another?