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Helping Nurture Friendships and Belonging in Ballet Class--Introvert Edition

cover of "Dance and Belonging" by Crystal U. Davis

It's really important for students to feel like they belong in ballet class, like they have friends. It makes class a place they are excited to come to. Have you ever worked a job where you had no one who would talk with you? I bet it was awful. It is a very human need to crave a sense of belonging and connection.

Ballet doesn't naturally offer connection opportunities during class. Traditionally students are silent and the teacher is the sole source of information. (We can talk about better teaching approaches another day.) Sure, students talk before and after class but that doesn't always ensure that everyone feels included. And their conversations don't usually lead to a sense of pride and belonging specific to your studio. Positive emotions (like feeling welcome and like you belong) associated with your studio are important for more than word-of-mouth advertising. Students learn better when they feel seen and valued.

There are lots of ways to build this sense of belonging in your studio: sleepovers/late-overs, pizza parties, holiday parties, team-building days . . . and all of those ideas make me cringe. I am deeply introverted. Sure, I like talking with people but I prefer them in small, quiet groups. I make an effort to be actively outside my comfort zone when I teach so that my extroverted students feel connected with. I don't mind doing this; it's part of the job and I love this job. But it's draining. And the idea of chaperoning a studio sleepover is just a hard pass for me. (For the record: I also deeply disliked team-building exercises when I had a corporate day job. Just give me the afternoon off, thanks.)

So. Knowing that making sure students feel like valuable and unique individuals in class is important, and knowing that I am the worst possible choice for a party chaperone (unless it's a read-a-thon with only other book-lovers there) how can I and my fellow introverts create that sense of community that is so important? Daniel Coyle (who I have referenced before) and Crystal U. Davis both have great ideas.

  • Students need opportunities to talk about their outside-the-studio life.

    • Try asking a different question each day as you take roll, like "What's your favorite thing to do on a Saturday?" or "Do you like sweet or sour candies?" and having students answer instead of just saying "here" is one way to give students this opportunity.

    • Ask students to fill out a short questionnaire asking things like "What is your favorite subject in school?" and "What is your favorite thing to eat for dinner?" Assign barre spaces or partner work where the kids have something from the questionnaire in common. Students who figure out the connection by the end of the month get a small reward. Bonus points for partnerships who find other people in class who share the same interest.

  • Students benefit from feeling like they contributed to class in a meaningful way.

    • Find out what your students' favorite songs are (all genres are welcome). After checking lyrics for appropriateness, use their favorites during class. Students light up when they realize that you are using "their" song and it reinforces that class would not be the same without them!

    • Use student-generated imagery and phrases whenever possible. As the teacher, you are responsible for introducing new material and concepts but as students process the information, they often phrase questions or double-check their understanding using different words than you did originally. By incorporating their words into your class you are demonstrating that you listened to and valued what they had to say. And be sure to credit your source--this approach loses all effectiveness if the students forget that they came up with the phrase and think it came from you.

  • Avoid comparing students. Comparing sets up a hierarchy and means that someone has to be the "worst." It's really hard to feel confident that you belong in a class if you are always worrying about whether or not you are "good enough." I am a big believer in publicly complimenting students but I am careful to make sure that everyone gets complimented. And even when your intent is to compliment, it's very important to be careful with your phrasing. I still remember the teacher who told me "From the back, you look just as skinny as Penelope!" She thought it was a compliment. I didn't feel so great about it.

  • Thank students for their attendance, hard work, and contributions. Being thanked creates feelings of safety, connection, and motivation. That sounds like an ideal classroom culture to me! I once worked at a studio where the #1 most important thing was to thank students for coming at the beginning of class. The studio owner was adamant that we absolutely must thank them, no matter what. Their parents sacrificed to bring them, the kids skipped a playdate to be there, tights and a leotard can be uncomfortable, traffic can be miserable . . . even if the dancer was several minutes late and their hair looked like a messy bun from the 90s complete with butterfly clips, we thanked them for coming. And you know what? It worked. Every fall we started with nervous newcomers and within weeks they were walking into the studio like they belonged there. They weren't just comfortable in class, they were proud to be a part of the studio. Find a reason to thank every student, every day.

    • Bonus points (and an extra book in your Amazon or Barnes & Noble cart) if you can thank every student by name in a single class. It takes a lot of energy and attention, and I don't do it every day but I do make this a semi-regular practice.

These are just a few ideas that can be applied without a huge amount of energy from you. It's really important that students feel comfortable in class but it's just as important that we find a way to accomplish this in a way that is authentic to ourselves and is sustainable.


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