StEPS: Dance Education and Parenting: Creating a Safe Space for Commun – Apolla Performance Wear

StEPS: Dance Education and Parenting: Creating a Safe Space for Communication

Jennifer Milner Apolla Performance

How can we support our children emotionally by creating a safe space for them to inhabit outside extracurricular activities?

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS

We are discussing ways to emotionally support our children by providing them with a secure environment outside of their extracurricular activities. With kids today being so overbooked, we are experiencing this issue personally as well. Our two active and involved children keep us constantly busy, and we are trying to figure out how to establish a safe space for them at home. We are thrilled to welcome Jennifer back! Jennifer is a former ballet performer and now a certified Pilates instructor and ballet coach. She has worked with renowned dance companies such as the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet, and more. Jennifer is also the co-founder of the Bendy Bodies podcast, which is dedicated to supporting athletic artists with hypermobility issues. In addition, she is a member of various organizations, including the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, Dance America, and Doctors for Dancers. Jennifer also serves on the Advisory Board for Minding the Gap. With all of these accomplishments, we're amazed at how she manages to find time for everything! 

Jennifer: I often ask myself that question several times a week, but when you have a deep passion for something, it doesn't feel like a chore or work. Instead, it becomes a joy to do. I focus on finding things that I'm passionate about and enjoy doing them.

You do a lot of work with performance athletes. In your experience, how instrumental an athletes support system to their overall success?

Jennifer: I believe that a healthy support system is incredibly important, especially in the Triad of a dancer's life - the dancer, parent, and coach. This is especially relevant when we are talking about pre-professional dancers who are typically underage. Regardless of whether we are talking about dance, sports, or ice-skating, this Triad needs to have a healthy relationship. Emotional stress is common for young dancers, and finding a support system is crucial. Being a kid is hard enough, and going through puberty and competitions can add an additional layer of stress. Therefore, having a reliable emotional support team or system is essential for success, in my opinion.

You're absolutely right, and unfortunately, not all children are lucky enough to have a healthy support system. That's why it's crucial for parents to figure out how to foster their child's passion for their health and wellbeing. However, there's a fine line between pushing a child to reach their potential and pushing them too hard to the point of burnout. This threshold varies with age, and it's important to recognize the signs when this line has been crossed. What are some of the signs that parents or guardians have pushed too hard?

Jennifer: To begin, it's important to note that I am not a medical health professional and do not provide medical advice or claim expertise in this area. However, as someone who has been in the parental and dancer roles and worked as a private coach, I am an advocate for finding a healthy balance in supporting children's passions. When considering the signs of pushing a child too hard, a reluctance to attend dance class or constant complaints of tiredness or injury can be red flags. It's important to examine what might be causing these issues and find ways to make the experience more sustainable for the child. If there are psychological factors at play, it's important to give the child space to have conversations about their feelings and not judge their responses. Rather than taking a confrontational approach, it's helpful to problem solve together and find a solution that works for everyone. 

There is a fine line with pushing your child to reach their potential and burning them out or even pushing too hard/too much.  What are some signs that line has been crossed by parents/guardians? If there’s a parent out there listening that knows they have crossed that line already, is it too late to minimize the damage. What do you suggest they do immediately?

Jennifer: I don't have an answer on how persistently you should push, because as a parent of two teenagers who are also dancers, I've probably made more mistakes than you have. As a parent, one of the most important things for me is to apologize to my kids and acknowledge when I have made a mistake, whether it was due to carelessness or not considering their thoughts and feelings. It's important to remember that parents are not only in a relationship with their child, but also with the teacher and the dance studio. This relationship can be delicate, as parents hire the teacher but also submit to their authority. Some parents may hesitate to express their concerns to the teacher for fear of repercussions on their child, but it's crucial to prioritize the parent-child relationship over the teacher-student dynamic. Giving your child space to talk about their concerns without fear of punishment or negative consequences is essential. If you feel you've crossed the line, it's important to let your child express themselves and listen to their concerns. This can help you understand what's going on and how you can support them better. It's important to approach these conversations with humility and the willingness to admit when you've made a mistake.

As a parent, ego can also come into play because we are concerned about how others perceive our parenting. We worry that if we don't make our kids show up to dance, for example, we will look like we don't have control over our household or our children. We may prioritize meeting society's demands and expectations over the health and well-being of our child. It's important to remember to prioritize our child above all else and recognize when we are letting our ego get in the way. As parents, we love our children more than anything, but sometimes that love can get lost in the demands of society.

Jennifer: I believe it's important to find a balance between honoring commitments and allowing room for honest communication with your child. If the commitment has been made and there are no immediate physical threats, it may be appropriate to encourage your child to see it through and have a conversation about it afterwards. However, when the next opportunity arises, it's important to reflect on your child's experience and have an open dialogue about their interests and expectations. For example, if your child enjoyed the classes but not the conventions, or vice versa, it's important to consider these factors when making future commitments. Ultimately, it's about finding a healthy balance between honoring commitments and allowing your child the freedom to explore their interests and communicate their needs.

I once knew a parent who had a great handle on their household and children, and while it wasn't always perfect, I admired the way they approached things. At the end of every competition year, they would gather as a family to reflect and discuss how each child felt, taking their temperature and not assuming that they wanted to do the same thing the following year. They would then establish a renewed commitment for the family and the child. I thought it was a simple yet significant way to empower the children to make their own decisions.

Jennifer: Absolutely, I believe it's important to have these conversations right after the season ends. As a studio owner, I would send out an anonymous survey to get feedback from parents and students on what they loved about the year, what they felt was too much, and what was not enough. This information can help improve the program for the following year. Similarly, talking to your children about their experience right after the season ends can be helpful. Asking them how they felt and what they enjoyed can help you make an informed decision about whether to continue the activity and what changes to make.

Now let’s talk about what an emotional safe space looks like for a performance athlete…describe that for us.

Jennifer: As a parent, my goal is to create a space where my children feel heard and can openly communicate with me. I provide them with opportunities to explore their interests, but sometimes they may ask for something that I initially refuse without fully understanding why they want to try it. Therefore, I learned to listen carefully to my kids' requests and understand their underlying motivation. By doing so, I can provide opportunities that fit our time and financial budget while aligning with their interests and goals.

It's important to choose appropriate opportunities that make the best use of our time and money, especially when we have a tight financial budget. For instance, we may have to choose between attending one competition or convention over another or selecting a summer program versus private lessons. When making these decisions, we need to understand what our kids are looking for, such as a summer camp experience or advancing their skills through private lessons.

While it can be challenging to balance our busy schedules with our kids' interests, it's crucial to make these opportunities fun and enjoyable for them. We don't want them to view these activities as a burden or a chore. Instead, we want to create an emotional safe space where they can explore their interests and develop a love for the activity. For instance, we can host a pizza party with their dance friends or watch a ballet performance together to expose them to new experiences.

We also want to emphasize effort and improvement rather than just achievement. Praising our kids for their hard work and dedication builds their confidence and motivates them to continue working hard. When parents focus on their kids' accomplishments only, it creates undue pressure and stress, which can be detrimental to their emotional well-being. Ultimately, we want our kids to enjoy what they do and feel supported in their endeavors.

I have had parents come to me and say I'm not pushing hard enough and that their child performs best in an environment that is high pressure and or high stress. I'vd even had parents suggest that I cut back on the positive reinforcement because it "made her feel like she had nothing to learn".  Is that a thing? Is that ever a safe environment? 

Jennifer: Certainly, we often observe children thriving in competitive environments, but eventually, they need to release their pent-up energy somewhere. These are the children who usually excel early on in competitions at ages 9-11 and retire by the time they reach 14. Later on, around the age of 22, some of them may even write books about their experiences. While short-term success can be achieved through this method, we need to remember that we are not only molding excellent dancers, but also shaping human beings. Therefore, the key to long-term success for dancers is to provide them with exceptional guidance and positive reinforcement. We can hold dancers to high standards of excellence without resorting to negative feedback. For instance, we can say, "This is not where it should be, but I know how to get you there. Let's work on it." I often provide feedback to my pre-professional and professional students, but I never judge them harshly. If a combination goes awry, I might say, "That was terrible, let's talk about it," which makes them laugh because they know that I am not attacking them personally. I prefer to ask them, "What do you think went wrong with it? And what did you think was right about it?" This way, I can point out areas that require improvement while simultaneously acknowledging their strengths. It is essential to tailor our approach to the class's developmental level, but I have yet to see negative reinforcement yield long-term results. Research supports the idea that too much positive reinforcement, or a "participation trophy" mentality, can be detrimental. However, we can still praise children's progress and hold them to high standards by saying, "You guys are beautiful and amazing. Sophie, I love the way you did that pirouette. Natalia, your Adagio looked fantastic. Now, let's talk about the things we can improve upon." So, in short, we can provide positive feedback while also setting and maintaining high standards for our dancers.

How do we hold ourselves accountable as parents to be able to maintain that space for them?

Jennifer:I believe it comes down to the relationship between the student and their coach or teacher. If the student trusts and likes their teacher, but is struggling, it's important to have a conversation with the teacher to address the issue. However, if the student doesn't trust or like their teacher, it's worth reevaluating why they are there in the first place. As a parent, it's essential to support the teacher and not try to coach the student, unless the teacher is not meeting the student's needs. In such a case, it's crucial to approach the teacher and ask how you can help or provide additional support.

As a dance teacher and a parent, I have noticed that sometimes kids just need to talk and process their experiences without needing a solution. When they express their frustrations, it's important to reflect back on their feelings and validate their experiences. As parents, we often want to fix everything for our kids, but sometimes all they need is someone to listen to them without judgment. So, it's important to give teenagers space to talk and process their emotions without jumping in to solve the problem.

 Do you think it’s problematic that often we see parents being kept on the outside of what’s happening in training? How important is it to being parents into the fold?

Bri: I believe it is extremely important to involve parents in the dance studio rather than exclude them. It can be controversial, as some conventions may try to discourage parents from attending by implementing fees for parent observer passes. I've noticed that some dance networks on social media also complain about parents and strive to keep them as far away from the studios as possible. While I may have previously agreed with this mindset earlier in my career, I now recognize the importance of including parents. Although it may not always be easy to navigate, involving parents in the dance studio is essential. What are your thoughts on this?

Jennifer:It is a highly debated topic and I always prioritize the protection of the child. The documentary "Athlete A" exposed the horrific abuse in gymnastics, which stemmed from parents being excluded and a great deal of trust being placed in those in charge. As a teacher, I understand the need for space to teach without interference, but at the same time, transparency is crucial. Recent events in the convention world have highlighted the prevalence of mental, physical, and sexual abuse in dance. While it's understandable to limit the number of parents in the room, we should examine why we're hesitant to allow transparency. Perhaps cameras and streaming would be useful, allowing parents to observe and listen. Communication is key, and the best teachers know not to be alone with a student during a private rehearsal. We need to be able to explain casting decisions without fear of hurting the parents' feelings, and parents need to respect teachers' boundaries. We can find a balance where parents are involved, but not interfering, by having clear communication and mutual respect.

Bri: I believe that having both transparency and clear expectations is achievable and it's something that we did well in my previous program. We had an open-door policy and also held meetings multiple times a year to lay out expectations and decisions for the good of the whole group. While we welcomed dialogue and questions, ultimately the decisions were made by me as the instructor. It's important to set boundaries while also allowing students and parents to feel heard. It's not an easy task, but it's crucial, especially in today's climate where many issues are being brought to light. It truly does take a village and we need to work together towards creating a positive and safe environment for everyone involved. I completely agree with you.

Melissa: As a teacher, I often find myself in the competitive world on a daily basis. While an open-door policy and transparency with parents sounds great, it is much harder to implement. As Jennifer pointed out, the first response from parents is often, "I pay you, so you do what I say." This is ultimately why I transitioned from teaching to a director's role, as it required a lot of effort to maintain that aspect of the job.

Jennifer: I believe there is a significant amount of pressure in the competition world, and as a teacher, I experience it almost every day. While an open-door policy, transparency, and communication with parents sound ideal, it can be extremely challenging to maintain. Often, parents think that the more competitions a school participates in, the better their child's chances of success, leading to a cycle of competition between schools, which results in overbooking schedules and added pressure. It can be daunting to handle such situations as a teacher, especially when parents believe they have a say in how their money is being spent. In my experience, it's the reason I transitioned from teaching to a director's role, which was more manageable. I understand that it can be hard for dance educators to navigate these situations, particularly when dealing with Studio Hoppers who change schools every year. One parent's actions can lead to a chain reaction, resulting in a significant loss of students.

It's crucial to note that communication is key, and regular meetings with parents, even if it's just twice a year, can make a significant difference. At the start of each semester, laying out the plans for the year, explaining the rationale behind certain decisions, and presenting research to back them up can help parents understand why changes are being made. For example, cutting back on routines, reducing the number of jumps and turns classes, and replacing them with conditioning classes can be more beneficial in the long run. Additionally, demonstrating the value of investing in a conditioning expert and the added cost can help parents see that their money is being well-spent. By presenting a united front and emphasizing that everyone is working towards a common goal, parents may feel more willing to trust the educators and go along with the changes.

I think it's important to delve deeper into why some people may find it challenging to communicate with parents. Is it because they feel that they shouldn't have to answer to parents? Or is it because they fear conflict and the potential backlash from parents? Perhaps there is a sense of wanting to maintain a separation between themselves and the parents. It's important to examine these motivations and try to identify what steps can be taken to overcome these challenges. For example, if the issue is a fear of conflict, steps can be taken to minimize potential conflict while still maintaining open communication with parents. Ultimately, it's important to address these challenges and find ways to overcome them in order to foster positive relationships with parents and support the success of students.

Clear communication is essential, and I emphasize this in my dance teacher mental health series workshops. In one of the sessions, we focus on understanding the type of communicator you are and how to communicate effectively with parents. Additionally, we provide strategies for managing conflict and difficult conversations. Ultimately, both parents and coaches fear making mistakes and strive to make the best choices for their children. However, perfection is unattainable, and we need to extend grace to one another and assume that people have good intentions.

What are some of the biggest challenges if a child does NOT have an emotional safe space outside of their extracurricular activities?

Jennifer: As a private instructor in Pilates and ballet coaching, I have noticed that dancers who don't have a safe space to talk to often express their fear and pressure through making excuses or talking about their parents being too hard on them. This fear prevents them from expressing their true feelings and can lead to negative outcomes such as eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. It's essential to provide emotional support to these dancers as they may seek an outlet elsewhere that could be more self-destructive.

As you may be aware, we like to assign homework to our viewers as a means of encouraging progress on the topic at hand. So, what is your challenge for our audience to accomplish within the next seven days?

Jennifer: My advice, whether you are a dance teacher or a parent, is to try to ask more open-ended questions and create a safe space for your kids to share their thoughts and feelings with you. As a dance teacher, I have sometimes made the mistake of not giving my students the opportunity to express themselves and have just expected them to respond in a certain way. As a result, I have learned that it's important to ask open-ended questions, such as "How are you feeling today?" or "What did you think of the dance?" rather than closed questions like "Was the dance good?" By giving your kids the freedom to express themselves and being patient with their responses, you can create a safe space where they feel comfortable talking to you. Managing our own expectations is not easy, but it is crucial in creating a positive and open environment for our children. 

Instagram @jennifer.milner. 

Watch the full episode below!

*Jennifer Milner

Jennifer Milner is a ballet coach and certified Pilates trainer.  After a successful performing career, Jennifer became certified in Pilates. She has trained dancers from New York City Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet, and more. Jennifer is a co-founder of Bendy Bodies, a podcast devoted to athletic artists with hypermobility issues. 

She is a member of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, Dansemedica and Doctors for Dancers and serves on the advisory board of Minding the Gap.


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1 comment

  • Michelle

    Thank you! Great post!

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