Laying the Foundation for Motivated Dancers - Part 2 – Apolla Performance Wear

Laying the Foundation for Motivated Dancers-Part 2 with Ashley Mowrey

Yes You Can Written in the Sand

Laying the Foundation for Motivated Dancers-Part 2

by Ashley Mowrey

Last month, in my Apolla for Dance Studio Pro blog article, I explored two of my five key areas for laying the foundation for motivated dancers. You can check it out here. Today, we’ll dive into the final three key areas, including exercises to use with your dancers.

After all the dance community has been through the past year, you may be noticing some differences in your dancers. I continue to hear from parents and teachers how, although their dancers are excited to be dancing and performing, they often seem unmotivated, unfocused, low energy, and just not as invested. Can you relate?

Personal development and mindset skills are always needed to help dancers thrive. But they can be especially beneficial right now as our dancers (and ourselves!) are adjusting back to a bit of normalcy. Just like building structures, humans need a solid foundation to withstand changes and challenges. These five key areas can help lay that foundation for motivated and engaged dancers.

  1. Building Connection and Psychological Safety
  2. Detaching from Praise and Criticism
  3. Nurturing the Inner Guide
  4. Teaching and Modeling Flexible Expectations to External Factors
  5. Focusing on Purpose and Process Over Outcome

Key Area 3: Nurturing the Inner Guide

We can think of our inner guide as inner wisdom or our inner compass, helping us navigate challenges and setbacks. Helping our dancers discover and tap into theirs can help them with decision-making skills, motivation, focus, self-trust, and self-awareness...all important aspects of being a dancer.

Before we see how we can nurture the inner guide within our dancers, let’s touch on what can get in the way of it. First is the inner critic. The inner critic is our internal voice that is harsh, critical, rude, anxious, and self-deprecating. It speaks up when we’re vulnerable to physical or emotional harm, even if it’s hypothetical or perceived harm. For example, many dancers hear their inner critic during auditions or right before performances, as they compare themselves or fixate on the possibility of failure or embarrassment. If our inner critic is loud and speaks up often, it can be hard to hear our inner guide. Take a look at my past article for Apolla Performance to learn more about the inner critic and how to help your dancers quiet it.

A second factor that often gets in the way of nurturing the inner guide is controlling teaching methods and environments where students are lacking autonomy. According to the Self-Determination Theory, by researchers Deci and Ryan, autonomy is a crucial part of motivation (Ackerman, 2021). In this context, autonomy-supportive environments are defined by teachers who encourage choices, see their students’ perspectives, and teach in ways that lessen pressure and demands (Quested & Duda, 2011). Controlling environments are described as ones where there are fewer choices to students, teachers dictate the full learning process and plan, and where “pressures, rewards, and punishments are typically employed to coerce a behavioral outcome that is not in accordance with the dancers’ preferred choices and desires”. (Quested & Duda, 2011, p.3).

Further research on dancers has shown that dancers in environments where autonomy is supported and encouraged will be more inclined to engage in class due to intrinsic motivation, which can lead to greater satisfaction and psychological well-being (Quested & Duda, 2011). On the other hand, controlling environments where autonomy isn’t supported are more likely to lead to dancers “with a sense of helplessness and a lack of self-determination with regard to their dance participation” (Quested & Duda, 2011, p.11). The researchers also note that less autonomy-supportive classrooms result in dancers who are a-motivated (not motivated by internal or external sources) and may be more likely to experience physical and psychological shortcomings (Quested & Duda, 2011).

Putting it into Action

Tips for creating an autonomy-supportive environment:

  • Offer developmentally appropriate choices throughout class. When and how can you give your dancers options on exercises, tasks, and creative choices?
  • Communication is key. When students display undesired behaviors, there is typically a root cause underneath the behavior. Instead of reflexively reprimanding or asserting your authority, can you facilitate an open and safe conversation with the student? Can you provide space for them to express their thoughts and feelings and dig deeper into what’s going on? An important reminder that it isn’t our job to “fix” our students, but rather see their perspective and provide empathetic support. If a student is struggling to understand or verbalize the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, here is a great exercise to develop self-awareness.
  • Engage students in their own learning and growth by collaborating on corrections for themselves and asking open-ended questions. Get them thinking and interested in figuring out what’s not working and what could help when training technique and skills.
  • Be open to feedback from your dancers. Open and respectful dialog between teacher and student develops a psychologically safe environment. When dancers feel that their thoughts, feelings, and opinions are valued, they feel a greater sense of ownership of their training, which creates more autonomy.

Classroom exercise: Setting personal core values

A great way to help your dancers turn inward and develop their inner guide is to facilitate this exercise to set their individual core values. Values can light our way, especially in hard times. They’re what we believe to be important, the standards and principles we use as a compass to navigate our lives. When we identify our values and keep them front of mind, we can use them to guide our thoughts, behaviors, choices, and relationships. Values can help us tune in to what’s going on inside of us and what the next right choice is. Click here for the full exercise to use with your dancers.

Key Area 4: Teaching and Modeling Flexible Expectations to External Factors

Raise your hand if you or your students struggle with unexpected schedule changes, cancellations, and uncertainty? (I’m raising both hands!) This rigidity to external factors (i.e. things out of our control) can really get in the way of motivation and hard work.

But instead, when we can teach and model flexible expectations to those external factors, we can help our dancers:

  • Re-frame the situation
  • Practice problem-solving skills
  • Respond intentionally
  • Realign with their values and their “why”, which can result in greater intrinsic motivation

Putting it into action

Mindset Skill to teach your dancers: Control Circle

You can do this in your mind, but it's most effective when written down. After you draw the two circles as pictured above, list all the things out of your control in the outer circle, and all the things you can control in the inner circle.⁠

Once you do this, take a look at the inner circle. What can you focus on right now from that inner circle? Anytime throughout the day when you shift back into the outer circle, try a mantra to bring you back to what you can control. "This is out of my control. I choose to be flexible right now and focus on what’s in my control" is one of my favorites.⁠

You can teach this to your dancers in class and have them practice with a recent time where they struggled with unpredictability or changes. From there, you can help dancers remember this skill and implement it as needed.

Key Area 5: Focusing on Purpose and Process Over Outcome

When dancers are focused on outcomes such as awards, scholarships, roles, etc., it can lead to burnout, stress, and pressure. Instead, we can help our dancers find their purpose and value the process, which will also lead to more sustainable motivation. As educators, it’s important that we do this internal work too so we can model it for our students. As you implement these exercises with your dancers, try them out yourself too. Studio and company culture happens from the top down so wherever your focus is, your dancers will follow.

Putting it into action

Classroom exercise for purpose: Journal prompts for finding your “why”.

Materials needed:

  • Notebook or journal
  • Something to write with


  • Set aside classroom time to facilitate this exercise with your dancers. This can be used with ages 10+.
  • Explain the connection between purpose, process, and motivation.
  • After journaling, you can use this to open a discussion and hear about your dancers’ why.
  • Help dancers refer back to their why and purpose anytime they are struggling with motivation or focus.

Journal prompts:

  • What was the first thing you loved about dance?
  • What value do you bring to the dance community and your class/team?
  • What about dance makes you light up?
  • How does your soul feel when you dance?

Classroom exercise: Daily journal check-in to help dancers focus on process:

Materials needed:

  • Notebook or journal
  • Something to write with


  • Great to use with any dancers age 8+. You can adjust the questions and wording for younger dancers as you see fit.
  • Use this as often as possible at the beginning and end of class. I know it takes time away from typical training, but it will be worth it. You could even schedule a 30 minute, once-a-week class that is specifically designed for these check-ins and mindset skills.
  • You can use all prompts daily, or pick a few and change throughout the week. I recommend that every prompt gets used at least once a week.
  • These check-ins can be a great way for you to see how your dancers are doing and where they are in their individual process.

Pre-class check-in prompts:

  • What do I need to let go of before class today?
  • What’s my “why” today?
  • How am I feeling physically today?
  • How am I feeling emotionally and mentally today?
  • What do I want to remember from last class as I go into class today?
  • What’s my intention for class today? (Here are a few questions to use to help your dancers set their intentions)

Post-class check-in prompts:

  • How am I feeling physically now?
  • How am I feeling emotionally and mentally now?
  • Without judgment, how did my intention go today?
  • What are 3 things I learned today? Either about dance, myself, or my craft.
  • What are 2 things I will change next class?
  • What is 1 specific thing I am proud of myself for today?

Taking the time to lay a solid foundation within your dancers using these five key areas is going to help your dancers thrive physically, emotionally, and mentally. Your dancers are so lucky to have a teacher to invest in their personal development and mindset skills! If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work or scheduling a workshop for your dancers, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.


Chat soon!


Ashley Mowrey is a Mindset Coach and Educator for dancers.  She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach and Whole Person Certified Coach through Coach Training World, a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program, a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcoming Embody Dance Conference, coming Summer 2021 in Connecticut where she will lead workshops for all ages, including parents and teachers, on mindset skills. She is also a Team Member of Dancer, 360, and is a contributor to their upcoming book. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community to foster mental health and wellbeing. She sees clients in person and via Skype/Zoom all over the country as well as travels (mostly virtually these days) to studios for customized group workshops. Ashley has also been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to her website for more information, or her Instagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.


Ackerman, C. E. (2021, February 15). Self-Determination Theory of Motivation: Why Intrinsic Motivation Matters.

Quested, Eleanor & Duda, Joan. (2011). Perceived autonomy support, motivation regulations and the self-evaluative tendencies of student dancers. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. 15. 3-14.


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