7 Simple Ideas to Improve The Culture of Your Dance Studio

The dance industry has changed dramatically since I was a professional in the 90’s. At that time, professional dancers worked with no hopes of ever being recognized or well-known...or even being paid well. We did it for the pure passion and joy of our art.

In 2018, dancers of all ages, professional or not, can be famous. Dancers of all ages and ability levels are bombarded by images and performances of exquisitely beautiful technical perfection to measure themselves against. And our dance competition industry is booming with hundreds of thousands of competitors vying for coveted awards to take their Instagram pic with as we become an image-obsessed culture that receives a sense of validation through likes, comments and follows.

The addictive effects of technology have vastly changed the experience of the student dancer today in contrast to the professional dancer’s experience of 20+ years ago.

Social media has exponentially increased the negative effects of competition, critique and judgement and made it increasingly difficult for children to understand how to cultivate a healthy self-image and develop strong communication and relationship skills. And the dynamic of our industry and everyone in it - dancers, teachers/choreographers, parents - has completely changed. Forever. 

Luckily, the concern for the mental health of our next generation is finally reaching the mainstream - and the dance industry.

We aren’t living in the world we grew up so we can’t teach the way we were taught.

Families, organizations and experts all over the world recognize our solution may lie in improving the culture of our communities by cultivating stronger social/emotional skills in the next generation.

Denmark: Denmark, the world’s “happiest country”, is also known for being a leader in teaching social and emotional skills.  

China: The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, believes we need to reconsider how we see the role of being a teacher, what we are teaching our children and to focus on the “soft skills”; values, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others and the arts to succeed in the future.  

New York: Cornell University has a Diversity and Inclusion certificate program stating that, “An organization is only as good as its culture...make your organization a more supportive and engaging place to work by understanding the perceptual, institutional and psychological processes that impact the ways people interact with each other.”

A dance studio's culture can be defined as:  "The atmosphere created by the behaviors and attitudes of everyone involved in your studio family".

Your studio culture includes dancers, dance parents, staff, teachers and the studio owner. If any one of those individual groups is struggling with their behaviors or attitudes, the whole studio culture struggles.

You don’t need a certificate from Cornell to create a positive culture of compassion, empathy and inclusion in your dance studio. We’ve got 7 simple ideas right here to get you started...

  1. Establish Core Values

Your dance studio community (teachers, staff, parents, dancers) will know what your studio culture expectations are if you create a visible, understandable and achievable set of positive values and character traits that are important to you and are non-negotiable. What are your studio's non-negotiable core values?

Here are the Wingman Core Values as an example:

  • Winning Isn't Everything 
  • Include Everyone 
  • Never Shut Anyone Down 
  • Go Above and Beyond 
  • Step Up and Take the Lead 
  1. Cultivate & Encourage Positive Behaviors

Children are consistently told what not to do. When they are given the opportunity to define their own boundaries, they tend to have a greater sense of responsibility and ownership for those boundaries.

In the Wingman for Dance program, we call this “The Us List”, and it can be used with dancers, your staff and even your dance parents! Have your competition dance team create a list of positive behaviors they can all agree with and commit to for the following dance season.

Gently guide the group by using examples that put them in other people’s shoes but let them lead the discussion. For example, “how do you feel when you’ve worked really hard to learn choreography and another dancer doesn’t try as hard to learn it?  What kind of positive behavior does that imply?” We are hard-working. Add “hard workers” to the Us List. 

However, let them do all of the work to decide and come up with the list on their own. When they've completed their list together as a group, have them sign the list to show their agreement and commitment. 

  1. Be Present

We are all busy, often mentally projecting ourselves into the next activity, event, class or meeting. We often look without seeing. Hear without listening. Touch without feeling. Three simple ways to practice being present with dancers, teachers, staff and parents:

  • Look: Simple, purposeful eye contact is an immediate way to connect with a someone. This activity benefits both the giver and the receiver. It's hard to feel important to someone that cannot keep their eyes focused on you. 
  • Listen: As you listen, before you speak, pause. Most people are uncomfortable with silence during a dialogue so they often just keep talking to fill the space of silence - whether they are genuinely listening or not. Enjoy the silence in the middle of a conversation. Most importantly, listen to understand not to reply.
  • Feel: One the easiest ways to connect to the present moment is to stop what you are doing, close your eyes and just purposefully breathe. Four slow, deep, focused breaths. Inhale for 4 counts. Exhale for 4 counts through your nose four times. Notice the energy and tingling sensation in your hands. Notice the calm you can access in under 20 seconds at any time you need it.
  1. Emotional Intelligence

Before we can be genuinely empathetic, we need self-awareness; the ability to understand the wide range of our own emotions, as well as being able to observe and identify other’s emotions. Being able to genuinely verbalize “how I am feeling today” is helpful in linking the concept and practice of empathy for both adults and children & teens.

  • Personal level: Start journaling. Not public social media journaling. Personal, private, vomitous, purging level of journaling. Get every word, thought, feeling out onto a page. As my Grandma would say, “better out than in”. Write it all out and use the information to come to solutions. Sometimes we can't understand what we are thinking until we read what we've written. And none of this journaling should ever be public or we risk censoring ourselves...or worse, allowing others opinions of what we wrote to have an influence over how we value our thoughts, emotions and opinions.
  • Professional level: Encourage private journaling over social media vomiting for the same reasons above. Gift cute journals to dancers/ teachers/ staff and add a sweet note of support and encouragement, a favorite quote or a picture bookmark that has special meaning for your studio. 
  • Creative movement exercises focused on emotional expression will help develop emotional self-awareness in your dancers. Dancers should not only be able to convey an emotion through dance but the audience should also be able to identify the performer's emotions. With younger dancers, a simple “entrances & exits” activity with emotions is a great beginning. Write down five or six different simple emotions (angry, sad, happy, confused, scared) on pieces of paper. Pick students to randomly choose an emotion - without anyone seeing what it is - and have them leave the room (or start on the opposite side of the studio). The rest of class is “the audience”. Have each dancer with a piece of paper enter the room with their specific emotion shown in how they walk (no words/sounds allowed). The audience must guess which emotion dancer is demonstrating. In the Wingman for Dance program we include many different ideas for creative movement that explore emotional expression and story-telling for all ages. 
  1. Gratitude

It is incredibly difficult to be discontented and grateful at the same time. Keeping a positive and humble attitude in your dance studio starts with gratitude. And gratitude is more than just words. It requires action:

  • Collaborate, create and display a gratitude wall with staff, teachers, parents and dancers. Allow everyone to participate and add to the gratitude wall. Create a format and guideline that reflects the heart and soul of your studio.
  • Role model through action: how many different ways can you demonstrate gratitude for your staff, parents and dancers?
  • Who, in your community (firefighters, police officers, school teachers), can you show gratitude to, and how? How can your dancers demonstrate gratitude and give back to your community?
  1. Reflection & discussion

Just like adults - children don’t know what they don’t know. And even what we think we know still needs processing and reflection. Take time out to reflect upon and discuss the activities above after you’ve completed them.

  • How did taking part in the journaling/gratitude wall/creative movement make them feel?
  • What did they learn about themselves and other people?
  • What changes might they make as a result of what they learned?
    1. REPEAT repeatedly.

    Just like any other skill, developing social/emotional skills takes repetition. Communication, compassion, empathy, generosity and having the courage to go above and beyond for others need action and reflection repeatedly.

    Do you have families that are already teaching and practicing good social and emotional skills at home? Great, you have a wonderful opportunity to assist these parents in enforcing and validating what they are doing.

    Do you have families that are not as engaged in inspiring strong social and emotional skills? Great! Your studio may be the only place this child learns them and that will be a big game changer for that dancer’s individual little life.

    And... 8. Wingman for Dance

    Is a social and emotional learning skills program of experiential activities and reflection/ discussion topics designed for the dance industry that inspires dancers to be more compassionate, empathetic, courageous and inclusive young leaders that go above and beyond for others. We’ve put it all together for you right here in Wingman for Dance! Register for Wingman for Dance, and get tools to take your studio’s culture to the next level.

    Jessica Michaels, July 2018