Teaching Adolescent Dancers

Sunday 19th July 2020

If being a teenager is hard, teaching them is harder.

Bradley Busch in The Guardian, 2015.

Adolescence can be a challenging time for students, teachers and parents alike. It is a time of change, growth and development – and it is not without its hurdles. The onset of puberty means that the young dancer will change physiologically, psychologically and socially. Dramatic increases in height and weight combined with decreases in flexibility, balance and co-ordination, and fluctuating hormone levels may be overwhelming for a young dancer (IADMS, 2000). What’s more, this may be considered untimely for a young dancer who is becoming more serious about their training. In that, such changes tend to coincide with: an increased number of training hours, increased difficulty and complexity of classical ballet vocabulary, and for girls, the commencement of pointe work. As a result, there are likely numerous factors ballet teachers should consider when teaching adolescents.  

For this blog entry I would like to discuss the changes and challenges that adolescence brings, but also how these impact teaching practice. I hope to offer positive and practical strategies so that ballet teachers are able to promote healthy adolescence in young dancers, while continuing to disseminate their comprehensive knowledge of ballet. For the sake of brevity, I will subdivide this blog into three: the physiological challenges of adolescence, the psychological challenges of adolescence and the social challenges of adolescence.

The physiological challenges of adolescence

During the adolescent growth spurt, physiological changes include increased height, increased body mass, increased arm and leg length, and changing proportion of limb to torso length. As the nervous system struggles to keep up with these muscular and skeletal changes, the dancer experiences fluctuations in coordination and balance… Since the muscles often do not lengthen as fast as the bones, strength and flexibility can decrease. Growth plates at the ends of bones can be vulnerable to injury, particularly in areas such as the knees…

IADMS Resource Paper, 2000.

As a result of the aforementioned changes learners experience a ‘relearning period’ in which previously learned motor skills need to be reconditioned, because of the new biomechanical challenges (Phillips in Bowerman, 2013). Not only is this frustrating, it also makes leaners more susceptible to injury. Therefore, the primary implication for teachers is in ensuring safe dance practice is at the heart of their delivery. Teachers should be willing to adapt the movement content of their lesson to prevent injuries. Teachers should try to limit movements that overload the knees, such as grand pliés (particularly in 4th position), pointe work and allegro. Indeed, adolescent dancers need to practice this vocabulary, but teachers should be vigilant about the number of repetitions they are setting.  This is particularly relevant if a student is suffering from Osgood-Schlatter Disease. In which case, the teacher should differentiate for this student by modifying the focus of the exercise. For example, they could: replace a grand plié with two demi-pliés and mark the allegro/pointe enchaînement with a focus on the co-ordination of the Ports de Bras.

In consideration of the learners’ needs it may also be helpful for teachers to acknowledge growth spurts and discuss how they may impact dancing (Buckroyd, 2000). The teacher should stress that this will be a temporary phase and that fluctuations in technical ability during a period of growth is normal. They may wish to offer feedback such as:

“I can see you are working on x and I appreciate it must be challenging as you growing” or ask “Those of you who have grown a lot in the past year, can you say how that has affected your dancing?”

Julia Buckroyd in The Student Dancer, 2000, p.54.

In addition, teachers can work with individual students to design personal action plans that will help navigate them through this challenging time. For instance, the teacher may wish to offer alternative non-weight bearing conditioning exercises, as may be seen in a floor barre. That way students will reap the benefits of improved strength and proprioception, without overloading the joints or over-stretching the connective tissues.

Ultimately:

the teacher’s responsibility is to the whole class

Julia Buckroyd in The Student Dancer, 2000, p.78.

… and so the challenge will be in accommodating every individual’s physiological changes. Teachers should be willing to adopt creative methods, that allow them to steer away from what is considered a conventional ballet class. They may wish to incorporate elements of somatic practices such as floor barre, Pilates, Franklin, the ‘Progressing Ballet Technique’ programme to promote control and help enhance technique. An alternative, yet equally important approach, is to focus on the artistic aspects of ballet. Teachers should concentrate on the musicality and artistry during this period. Both of these strategies may help reduce learners’ frustration during the ‘relearning period’.

The Psychological challenges of adolescence

Research suggests that how a young dancer copes with pubertal changes is a key determinant to their subsequent psychological wellbeing (Ackard & Peterson, 2001; Summers-Effler, 2004; Tremblay & Frigon, 2005; Tremblay & Lariviere, 2009; Yuan, 2012 in Mitchell, n.d.). Since ballet teachers are influential figures in young dancers’ lives, it follows that they have a great responsibility to promote their healthy emotional development.

Understandably, the physical changes experienced during adolescence may have a significant impact on a learner’s psychological state. They may feel anxious, uncomfortable, and perhaps even stressed about their body image, have low self-esteem and become sensitive and acutely self-conscious. Such feelings will only be amplified in the ballet class environment in which learners…

are seen, in mirrors, by teachers, by [their] peer group, and dressed in a minimum of clothing so that [their] body is revealed without possibility of disguise

Julia Buckroyd in The Student Dancer, 2000, p.56.

Furthermore, if it evolves that a young dancer no longer possesses the ideal body physique that is required of classical ballet at a vocational level, they may likely become distressed. Such dancers are particularly susceptible to acquiring eating disorders, as they may attempt to reverse the physical effects of puberty:

… research demonstrated, not surprisingly, that those dance trainees most vulnerable to eating disorders were those whose natural shape did not conform to the requirement to be very thin.

Hamilton cited in Buckroyd’s The Student Dancer, 2000, p.54.

Therefore, the teacher has an enormous responsibility in safeguarding young dancers from such disorders. It is imperative that teachers are sensitive, compassionate and conscientious about their use of language. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

A young dancer’s self-consciousness may be further compounded by…

dramatic hormone fluctuations [which] … make this an emotionally challenging time

IADMS Resource Paper, 2000.

They may even become so overwhelmed and unable to cope that they drop out of ballet altogether. To prevent student attrition, teachers should promote growth mindset, praise effort and focus on the enjoyment of ballet. This is of particular importance to the learner whose motivation to attend class may have changed since the onset of puberty.

In managing and guiding adolescents’ emotional development teachers must be understanding, remain patient and offer positive reinforcement and encouragement. Other practical strategies that teachers may employ to help alleviate young dancers’ distress include:

  • Asking for permission prior to offering hands on feedback.
  • Facing the class away from the mirror.
  • Educating young dancers about appropriate uniform and if necessary, being flexible about this – educate: female dancers about leotards that flatter their body shape/offer chest support and male dancers about dance belts.

The social challenges of adolescence

Just as adolescents’ emotions become more complex as do their social relationships. They will expand their social networks, create intimate bonds with a peer group, and try to establish some degree of separation from significant adults – this may primarily be their parents but could include dance teachers. They may rebel or act out as a means to create this degree of separation. Although this may be irritating to deal with, it is important to realise that this is an essential part of growing into an autonomous young adult. Therefore, teachers should try to be as understanding as possible, whilst also considering how they can give their learners autonomy and responsibility. Some strategies could include:

  • Having students arrive early to class to warm themselves up – perhaps they peer teach and lead a warm up and/or cool down at the end of class.
  • Provide learners with choices – differentiate options for exercises and allow students to choose the content/focus of an enchaînement.
  • Incorporating self-check, practice, explorative and guided discovery teaching styles into classes.
  • Asking students to assist with younger children’s ballet classes if appropriate.
  • Working with students to set SMART goals.
  • Providing opportunities within class for student choreography.  

What’s more teachers need to ensure that their relationship with adolescent dancers is collaborative, as opposed to coercive. As a result, students will have some sense of ownership of their own training.

During this pivotal phase, it is important that teachers act as good social role models. To elaborate, they should always model how to positively regulate emotions, demonstrate positive ways of resolving conflicts and show empathy and respect to learners at all times. Teachers may also use adolescents’ need for peer interaction to their benefit. To illustrate, peer teaching is a particularly useful strategy for this age group. Not only will this promote social development, but also a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Conclusion

Adolescence is a pivotal time in a young dancer’s life and, as influential figures, teachers have a huge responsibility to promote a healthy adolescence that positively fosters development and allows learners to flourish into securely attached adults. Teachers must remain patient during this time period and…

acknowledge, accept and manage the changes that are occurring…

Julia Buckroyd in The Student Dancer, 2000, p.54.

by adopting the suggestions I have outlined here. 

To conclude, I would like to reference Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, whom believes that adolescence offers a:

fantastic opportunity for learning and creativity

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in TED Talks, 2012.

With this in mind, ballet teachers should aim to provide adolescent dancers with the best ballet education possible in an understanding, patient and nurturing environment.

Bibliography

Books and Journals

Buckroyd, J. (2000). The Student Dancer: Emotional aspects of the teaching and learning of dance. London: Dance Books.

Mitchell, S. et al. (2016) The role of puberty in the making and breaking of young ballet dancers:   Perspectives of dance teachers. Journal of Adolescence. Vol. 47, January, pp.81–89.

Electronic Sources

Blakemore, S. (2014) Matching Adolescent Education with Brain Development. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cId5BEiSXns

Bowerman, E. (2013) Risk factors for overuse injury in elite adolescent ballet dancers. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56363965.pdf

Busch, B. (2015) Secrets of the teenage brain: a psychologist’s guide for teachers. Available at:     https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/dec/09/teenage-brain-psychologist-           guide-teachers-classroom

IADMS. (2000) The Challenge of the Adolescent Dancer. Available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/resource_papers/adolescent-dancer.pdf

Mitchell, S. (2018) The Adolescent Dancer. Available at: https://theadolescentdancer.com/         

Mitchell, S. (2017) Physiological perspective on puberty in dance. Available at:   https://www.iadms.org/blogpost/1177934/284145/Physiological-perspectives-on-puberty-                in-dance

Mitchell, S. (2017) Psychological perspectives on puberty in dance. Available at:                  https://www.iadms.org/blogpost/1177934/283262/Psychological-perspectives-on-puberty-                in-dance [Accessed: 9th April 2019].

Mitchell, S. (n.d.) One Dance UK The Growing Dancer – Physiological Challenges. Available at: https://www.onedanceuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/One-Dance-UK-The-growing- dancer-Physiological-challenges-by-Siobhan-Mitchell.pdf

Mitchell, S. (n.d.) One Dance UK The Growing Dancer – Psychological Challenges. Available at:     https://www.onedanceuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/One-Dance-UK-The-growing- dancer-Psychological-challenges-by-Siobhan-Mitchell.pdf

Press Association. (2016) Bio-banding could cut risk of injury for ballet dancers, says study. Available        at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/19/bio-banding-could-cut-risk-of-injury-                for-ballet-dancers-says-study

TED Talks. (2012) Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVS8HIPUng