That old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is one of the biggest misconceptions offered to us as children and young adults. Once used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying, we now know better than harsh language can be as damaging (if not more so) than physical injury.
I speak to this often as I feel it is such an important element of what we do. In dance training, the verbiage is sometimes not used as cautiously as it probably should be, and as an Educator, I feel it is important for us to examine how we are speaking to those under our guidance a bit more closely. If we are able to get the same, if not better, result from words and methods that will not be damaging, then it is in our and our students’ best interest to take the moment for ourselves to dive into how we choose to speak/teach/share in our classrooms (and everywhere).
The wounds caused by words are deep-seated and often are triggered in unexpected ways. This quote from an article in Psychology Today, “Women who were victims of “just” verbal abuse often commented that they wished they’d been hit so that “their wounds and scars would show” feels so relevant to how dancers often exhibit signs of having been trained via tactics that border very closely to verbal abuse. “There’s evidence too that exposure to verbal abuse in childhood actually alters the structure of the brain. That was also borne out in another study by Martin Teicher M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues called Hurtful Words. What the researchers found was that especially during the middle school years, when the brain is actively developing, exposure to peer bullying and verbal abuse caused changes to the white matter in the brain.”
I can no longer count how many times I have the pleasure of a talented young dancer in my classroom who is clearly holding something back in their dancing, and more often than not I will ask them why? “What is your hold back and why is it there?” I ask them so I can hopefully help them, and because I can empathize with the feeling. Far too many times the response has been because someone along the way in their training has told them they were bad at something, or too much of something, or insert any number of other horrible things that could have been addressed differently. I share from experience the damage that being told you are bad at something does… a teacher in my formative years of training told me I was a ‘bad turner’, and it took one of my mentors here in NYC years of helping to rebuild my mindset towards all things pirouettes. I was never actually a bad turner (no one is), but I wasn’t given enough information at the time to understand how to actually do them proficiently. A pirouette is a science, and a teacher willing to explain that to me taught me how to turn (thank you).
I often wonder if a bit more patience when a dancer "doesn’t get it" right away would actually enable us to get what we’re hoping to get out of them faster, and I do firmly believe the language we choose in these moments of training will be defined in their work for many years to come.