What Every Dance Teacher Must Know.

I spent my life as a ballerina sh*t scared of pizza, fearing sugar and trying every fad diet under the sun. Countless teachers told me to skip breakfast, never snack and oh my good lord, if you’re seen eating carbs, shut the front door and call your Mother, you’re out! 

Strength training was harshly frowned upon, endless stretching was strongly advised and being told to lose weight, tone-up or not have such ‘soft-muscles’ were daily nuggets of highly uneducated dished-out advice. My weight fluctuated just as much as my mood, my energy levels were constantly depleted and I found myself plateauing in class & putting on more and more weight. 

I was 15 when my parents sent me to Germany to continue my ballet training. I was all alone, on the other side of the world, in a new country, speaking a different language, eating foreign food. Personally, I found it invigorating. But the effects of lack of education on my part as well as my teachers, quickly began to have a negative impact on my physical and mental health. 

A majority of dancers get taken away from their support systems very young. They’re in the midst of puberty, battling body complexities, all the while standing next-to-naked in front of a mirror day in and day out and told to find the parts of their bodies that simply aren’t ‘perfect’. They’re surrounded by fellow hopeful prima-ballerinas who all have eyes on the exact same prize. They’re fighting against genetics, culture, society pressures and often hidden family agendas. It’s a high risk, high-reward, competitive, exhilarating, all encompassing battlefield. 

Yes, I said battlefield. Ballerina’s utilise their bodies as their instruments. They can’t simply place their trumpet back in its case upon day end. Their instruments are living, breathing, pulsating machines that must be so finely tuned, that at a drop of a hat they can complete 32 fouettes on pointe, changing direction, on a raked stage, in a tutu, tiara and pink tights.

So my question to you is: 
‘If ballerinas are the athletes of god, then what does that make their teachers? 

Throughout the career of a ballerina there is one person who holds the fate of these dancers in their hands, someone who is of utmost importance yet somehow forgotten on the path to a dancer’s greatness: their teachers. 

Dance teachers have an incredibly important job. 
A dance teacher is not simply a dance teacher, oh no. 
A dance teacher is a doctor, a dietitian, a physiotherapist, a psychologist and a mother or father like figure. In fact they spend more time with their students than most of their parents. They’re not only responsible for educating them correctly across multiple aspects of health and fitness but they’re responsible for raising them. 

So how can we ensure dance teachers are teaching our students correctly? How can we ensure the information they are sharing with the next generation of ballerina’s is accurate? 

Below are my top tips for dance teachers:

  • Actively seek out & build relationships with health professionals in your area. Including physiotherapist, dieticians, sport psychologists, podiatrists, massage therapists & strength & conditioning coaches. Create a list of these professionals so you have them at hands when dancers need them.
  • If a student asks you a question you don’t feel equipped to answer, just don’t answer it. Find a professional who does. You do not need to have all of the answers. Remind yourself that just because your dance teacher taught you how to do something when you were a ballerina, it does not mean it’s correct.
  • Talk with other teachers.
    Share knowledge. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions or your concerns. Ask for advice, ask for connections. Be a trailblazer that builds a community within your school, city or country that enables the nurturing and growth of ALL dancers. This non-competitive atmosphere that dance teachers facilitate will undoubtedly brush off onto the dancers but know it starts with you.
  • Talk with your students.
    There is often a barrier between teachers and students created by nothing more than a teacher’s ego. If a student fears you, how do you expect them to voice their concerns to you? I’ve often found it’s simple actions like coming to training a few minutes before and asking how students are feeling, or ending a class with an open discussion as to what lessons were learnt throughout. This enables the realisation to dancers that they are allowed to have a voice and that asking questions is applauded.
  • Be a shining example.
    You may not realise this but your students look up to you. They are acutely aware of if the guidance you’re giving is authentic or simply projection. If you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough about advising what foods to eat, then just show your fuelling your body correctly. If you’re looking for the best way to voice the importance of hydration, then drink enough yourself throughout the day. Is there rehearsal straight after an intense ballet class? Give them enough time to grab a snack and have one yourself. Show that it’s not only okay to eat through the day but essential.
  • Educate YOURSELF. Learn more about YOURSELF.
    I believe this is by far the most important aspect of being a teacher. Constant self-evolution and self-discovery. Read books, articles, sign up for courses, engage with health professionals. Reach out to them online. Connect to learn. Test theories on yourself. Question your learnings. Question everything. Never stop learning and never be afraid to fail or look silly when you don’t know the answers.

    The teachers I respected the most throughout my career were the ones that knew they didn’t have all of the answers but curated a team of professionals around them to raise their dancers correctly. They spoke openly about their struggles and promoted healthy conversation between dancers and themselves. But most importantly they had a high focus on ensuring the studio was a safe space.
    My hope is that if more dance teachers adopt this view we can not only nurture the next generation of dancers but live in a world where our teachers are thriving, healthy and happy too.

    By Louisa Paterson
    Founder of Train Like a Ballerina