From toddlers to teenagers, tears are something that every dance teacher contends with and, as a teacher, your approach can make all the difference.
During one particular summer intensive as a teenager, a friend was admonished by our very “old school” ballet teacher and, try as he might, my friend couldn’t hold back the tears that slipped down his cheeks. He continued to dance in spite of the emotion, as did all the other teenagers in the room, me included, when the teacher suddenly stopped the music, raised his cane in my friend’s direction, and shouted: “There’s no crying in ballet class! Get out!”.
I wish I could say that I had stormed out after him, as a more mature me would have done, but I didn’t. We lived in fear of this teacher who told us we weren’t good enough to be in his class, we didn’t know how to plié correctly, we would never be real dancers. And while I didn’t storm out, I did see the aftermath of this outburst. Even an hour later, my friend was still shaken, still teary, and dreading the eventuality of returning to this teacher’s class. (In fact, he never returned. There were only three days of intensive left, and he avoided this teacher at all costs over those 72 hours).
As teachers, we’re faced with tears on a regular basis and need to know when to step in and when to step back. Although it’s hard to fathom, one interaction may be all you get with a dancer so handling it the right way the first time is imperative. Here are a few thoughts on dealing with crying in your classes:
Two and a half through six year olds: The bulk of the crying in this group is related to separation anxiety. (Yes, all the way through the six year old year!) As a teacher, you have to know how to deal with it. The biggest steps you can take are preventative: e-mail parents in advance to explain separation anxiety, let them know that it is normal, that it will generally abate within 3-4 weeks (usually less), that quick goodbyes are always better than long goodbyes, and that opening the door of the dance room to comfort their crier is counter productive. You catch more flies with honey so make this the most comforting email possible. I liken separation anxiety to standing at the edge of a cold pool of water. You know that you have to jump in, but the longer you wait the harder it gets and the more your anxiety is heightened. It’s the same with separating from a grown-up. Even with all the prep work in place, some dancers will still cry once you enter the dance space, so what do you do?
- I advise strongly against sending them out to their grown-up. (Unless a dancer is distraught to the point of making themselves ill, your long-term success will be much improved if you keep the dancer in the dance space.)
- Try to distract the dancer as much as possible. If you find that your dancer likes cats, add cats into any imagination based movement you can.
- Little tears are often pacified by holding on to a prop. Keep enough beanie babies or small stuffed animals around to give one to each dancer for a few minutes.
- Comfort your dancer without making a fuss over them. Here are some ideas: a quick rub on the back, a hand on the shoulder, a few deep breaths taken as a class together
- Don’t worry too much if your dancer isn’t dancing the first class or two. As long as they are staying in the space with you, they will start to participate in their own time and as your imaginative movement draws them in to the class.
Ages seven through eleven: In my experience, this age group tends to have the fewest tears in class. However, their hormones are starting to flood through their bodies, even if those changes aren’t showing on the outside yet, and these waves of emotion can sometimes send them for a loop. Often the tears with this age group are coming from outside the classroom. Something happened at school, they had an argument with mom, or they are feeling stressed out by upcoming events. When outside emotion rears its head in your class, it can be beneficial to take a couple of minutes to explain the benefits of leaving your bad day at the door. These dancers are also old enough to understand the basics of how their bodies work, so let them know that exercise and movement release positive chemicals in their brains that work to make them feel better.
As patterns and steps become more difficult, this group can also shed a few tears out of frustration. What once was easy has now become very challenging and the best student in the six year old class may be struggling as an eight year old. Teach them about perseverance and tell them that you’ve seen how hard work pays off in the end. Personal examples carry great weight with this group so don’t be afraid to share your experience.
Lastly, this group is dealing with a lot of physical changes so make sure that you’re talking about healthy bodies, rather than thin bodies, and reinforcing that differences in body structure and type are normal.
A brief hand on the back on the way out the door or an arm around the shoulders can make an enormous difference with this group, especially when accompanied by a positive message from you.
Teenagers: Teenagers can usually control their tears, swallow them down when they start to well up, but not always. They are dealing with all the same issues as your seven to eleven year olds: hormones, body changes, outside stressors, and more difficult ballet classes. Most of your teens have already learned that moving can make them feel better, and they’ve embraced the idea. Most often, I find that teens cry out of frustration when they are unable to make their body do what they want it to do on a particular day and as a coping method for dealing with the grown-up stress of life outside the dance studio. My advice with teens is to draw attention away from them rather than towards them. See the tears and keep teaching until the teen is able to get a bit of control back, then a kind word, whispered while the others continue with class, can make all the difference. I don’t recommend a big hug during class time (unless there are extenuating circumstances), as this usually makes the tears come fast and furious. If you need to confront the crying, do it with compassion.
As a final note: Of course, crying is also associated with pain. None of the above advice applies to an injury. Take injury that results in pain seriously, and make sure that you have a plan for how to handle these situations.