Dance teachers are some of the most compassionate and patient individuals on this planet. It is my great honor to remind you that you are doing the BEST. THAT. YOU. CAN.
Quite honestly, this week’s post for our Self-Care Series for Dance Professionals was going to be about handling the effects of social media on an artist, teacher, and business owner.
Then a 64-year-old accountant opened fire on Las Vegas and I was driven to address something that requires a discussion more immediately.
As an artist, and a teacher of the arts, how do we handle these situations? Mass shootings, mental health, politics - uncomfortable topics for all of us. Painful. Devastating. Frustrating. Infuriating. How do we handle?
First, we must process them personally and take action how we see fit, whether that be calling legislators or donating to families affected by these tragedies.
But what about the rest of our professional lives? The day to day activity of teaching, choreography, parental interaction, networking?
If staying silent makes you feel like you are going to spontaneously combust, or you are harboring feelings of resentment and anger build toward those around you with different viewpoints or educations, I feel you. I am you.
Because of these feelings, stirred up almost daily right now, we all need to hone in on our self-care regimen. Our students, our families, our communities - they are depending on us now more than ever. Handling national tragedies, or just the day to day heartbreak in the news, affects everything that we do in some way. There’s no getting around it.
Acknowledging this, is self-care.
I feel that addressing current events falls under the self-care category because I know that when I feel like I’ve done nothing, or that I must be silent because I work with children, it eats at me and it stresses me out. Taking action in a professional way that paves the way for discussion and awareness is something that makes me feel I am being authentic to myself, which in turn, helps me improve my self-care regimen.
Acknowledging that you need to be authentic to yourself and your beliefs, is self-care.
I am here to tell you that it is very possible to be sensitive to the development of our young students while also incorporating lessons of tolerance and diversity into our teaching.
I have offered suggestions below to appropriately address current events in our field of work, specifically focusing on mental health - considering our most recent events. I am not perfect. I am processing everything in real time just like you are. But it’s a start. And I can tell you that it’s working for me.
My personal opinion is that we as dance teachers have great responsibility to teach diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. That is my personal opinion. It is why I am an artist and it is why I am a teacher.
As dance educators, we are expected to be strong, diplomatic, and considerate when children have questions about current events. We are expected to be unbiased but handle the situation with grace. We are expected to leave our opinions at the door while also supporting children in the classroom with parents whose opinions are very different than ours, which may affect the way a child interacts with others. And then we’re supposed to teach dance amidst all of it.
Maybe Jimmy’s parents watch the news 24/7 and he knows all about the event.
However Tina’s parents don’t believe she needs to know about current events. She has absolutely no clue anything happened.
Jimmy may have a question.
“Why did that man shoot all those people?”
Tina might ask, “Who shot the people? What people?”
And now the whole classroom is involved as three students try to tell Tina what happened while five others look dazed and confused.
On paper, an outsider might tell us to ignore the questions and just put the music on. Just do your job. Just teach dance. Leave current events out of the classroom altogether.
If they were there in the room though, they would understand how that’s not as easy as it sounds, nor is it morally in line with our missions as artists and educators. If a child has a question, we don’t ignore it.
But how do we answer it?
We are expected to be unbiased, but as artists we are extremely intuitive and emotional beings. We interact daily with parents who may have very different opinions than us regarding gun control and politics in general, and we have to handle that with grace and respect if we are to continue working with their children.
As dance teachers, we may not be able to talk about gun control at the studio, but we can still do our part to create an environment that encourages growth and awareness for our students and their families.
This week I aim to focus on openly discussing mental health in a diplomatic way.
I am not about to ask you to discuss bipolar disorder with your Creative Movement class for three year olds. However, you can and are encouraged to be open about your thoughts and experiences on mental health when the opportunity arises with parents.
Most dance parents respect us as the dance teacher. They respect our expertise and trust that we are always aiming to do what’s best for their child. I know that there will always parents who give us a hard time or are suspicious of our every recommendation, but let’s focus for a second on the ones that respect our opinion and are open to what we have to say.
Personally, I have battled with addiction for half of my life, and I am extremely open about it. While I don’t start a tap class talking about my latest panic attack, I also don’t hide it if my well being comes up in a conversation or a parent opens up the door for discussion. Depression and anxiety run in my family, and I am also in recovery for an eating disorder. I post about this on my social media that many dance parents follow and I openly discuss it with my teenage students.
I have never been asked by any of my employers, ever, to keep these things to myself because I have always handled sharing my experiences in a professional and appropriate way. Figuring that part out does take tact and practice. At this point in my life, I don’t see myself ever accepting work with an employer who would make me feel ashamed of sharing my experiences, and I encourage you to consider this boundary for yourself as well. If your employer is uncomfortable with you sharing your mental health history with studio parents, I suggest having an open and honest dialogue with them about a compromise on communication. Express that your purpose for sharing is for education and awareness. Perhaps together, you can come up with ways to share your story when appropriate for the purpose of decreasing stigma around mental health.
In openly talking about mental illness, as experts in our field and educators who are respected by these studio parents, we may have a greater chance of being heard than a stranger or a criminal they see on the news. These studio parents come to know us and love us, and by openly sharing our experiences, we are demonstrating that people can be good, and generous, and responsible while also dealing with mental illness. We are destroying the stigma that mental illness equals bad, or criminal, or dangerous. We also present the idea mental illness needs to be taken seriously because we’re standing right in front of them; we’re not on a TV screen or in the news. Our discussions inherently trickle down to the children, who can then grow up in an environment where acknowledging mental mental illness is not shameful. Getting help for mental illness is not shameful. Getting help is healthy, responsible, and something to be proud of.
Let’s put it this way. If your student fell in class and sprained their ankle, you would be sure to talk to the parent after class about ways to take care of the ankle and possibly recommend they see a doctor. Mental illness is no different. Should we hear that a teen is having suicidal thoughts or a child’s behavior changes very suddenly, talking to the parent about solutions and recommending they see a doctor is equally and immediately necessary. If the parent thinks the student is acting out of a need for attention, that in itself is something to be addressed by a psychiatrist or by a family member, very seriously.
We do not have control over a lot. Costumes don’t fit. The flu goes around. Full moon turns our classroom into a zoo of wild beasts. But it is in our power to openly discuss mental health with parents and give them a perspective they may have never thought about before. I do think it falls under our job duties, as educators, artists, and role models, to take responsibility for that.
You may be wondering how to take action if you do not have a personal history with mental illness to share. You can still help.
As dance teachers, we can take action by removing ableist comments from our vocabulary and from our students’. Using words like “crazy”, “insane”, and even “dumb” are further placing a negative connotation around disability and mental illness. We often use these words to describe greatness, such as describing a pirouette as “insane” to express how amazing it was. I’ve also caught myself referring to myself with these terms, when I forget choreography and I call myself a “spaz” or “dumb”. We are doing our students a great disservice by continuing to use this language when referring to another person or ourselves. Below is a list of common ableist words or phrases to remove from our teaching language. There are more here if you’d like to do further research.
- Losing it, or “I lost my mind”
Try these non-ableist replacements to describe things in class instead.
- Incomprehensible (i.e. that leap was INCOMPREHENSIBLE! rather than “that leap made me lose my mind!")
It takes time to break old habits. Give yourself some wiggle room as you become more and more aware of your language. Your conscious efforts will greatly affect the children you teach and their families. As you and I both know, kids love to mimic their role models, and I would much rather have my students going home describing their day as “wild” than “crazy”.
If any of the things mentioned here make you feel uncomfortable, that’s absolutely normal and to be expected. However let me remind you that if we can’t work through our discomfort, we will never set an example for our students. When we make them stay in that beginner hip hop class despite their intense fear of trying something new, and we remind them of the power they have in vulnerability, we are preaching to them that out of discomfort comes growth and improvement. How can we preach that if we don’t live it ourselves?
Sharing your personal history with mental illness is a vulnerable and courageous thing to do. Observing your ableist language and accepting that it is harmful is a humbling place to be. However I believe you are strong, creative, and tenacious, and that you can do this.
I want to acknowledge that you are enough. You do enough. I hope you are able to recognize that before you move on from this article. You do so much for our young artists and I want to make sure you are also taking care of yourself at the end of the day. Your mental health, your drive to educate, your political passion - whatever is keeping you fired up right now - let’s be sure to acknowledge how hard you are already working while you are speaking up, standing up, growing up on top of that. I truly believe that together, we have the power to make change through these small but mighty actions.
That’s what I’ll be holding onto this week to get through my classes and continue to be strong for my students. Action is what we have in moments like these. Let’s take it wherever we can.
Thank you, for all you do.
More next week! Stay tuned for Part 3 - when we really will address all that social media stuff!
Amanda Trusty currently serves as the Artistic Director for Kona Dance and Performing Arts, a nonprofit performing arts center on Hawai'i Island. She studied musical theatre at Shenandoah University and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and currently studies tap dance under Gregory Hines' protégé Andrew Nemr. With a decade of professional performance and choreography credits from theaters both inside and outside of New York City, Amanda is passionate about using her artistry as a vehicle for change, with a sharp focus on empowering the next generation. As a freelance writer and activist, Amanda was recognized in 2015 by the Huffington Post as one of nine women bringing body positivity to dance. Follow Amanda on Facebook and Instagram