Building Connection with Your Dancers
by Ashley Mowrey
Dance Educators, this one is for you! As we head back into the studio, you may notice some differences in your dancers. They might be less engaged, more emotional, less able to focus, and more exhausted. Their whole world has been turned upside down in the last 18 months. Although there are now glimpses of pre-pandemic life and, in some places, fewer restrictions, we will continue to see the impact on our students’ life, including their mental health.
During this transition back to dance, it’s essential that, in addition to teaching technique, skills, and movement, we also incorporate social and emotional learning and activities to build interpersonal connections. According to Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., social connection not only enhances our immune system but also has a positive effect on our mental health. She explains, “People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.”
Research has also shown that students who feel connected and psychologically safe perform better and are more motivated to work hard and tackle challenges. When students are emotionally connected and have positive relationships with teachers and peers, they are more engaged and more likely to participate. In addition, as explained in their Self-Determination Theory, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan suggest that relatedness (a feeling of belonging or connection to others) is a key factor in intrinsic (internal) motivation and being self-determined. For more ideas on boosting your dancers’ motivation, check out part one and part two of my articles on this topic.
Here are three exercises to do with your dancers to build connection and belonging to get you started. These are great for dancers ages 8+.
Exercise One: Create a Team/Class Manifesto
A team manifesto is a statement written by your dancers for your dancers. It’s a proclamation of what’s important to them, how they’ll work together, and their team vision. Writing a team manifesto promotes connection and collaboration while also giving them a visual representation of what it means to be a part of their team.
- Posterboard or large piece of butcher paper to write on
- Markers and pens
- Explain what a team manifesto is and why it’s important.
- Passout notecards and pens to each dancer.
- On the notecards, have the dancers write out bullet point answers for each question below, 1 question answer per notecard. This should be done individually and can be anonymous if you choose. You can display the questions by either printing them out for each dancer, writing them on posterboard, or writing them on the mirror.
- Once finished, collect the notecards and sort them so that all the answers for each question are together.
- Tape the notecards to the mirror or posterboard, making sure to keep the answers for each question together in either the same row, column, group, or however you organize it.
- Read through all the notecards with the dancers out load.
- As a group, circle the similarities.
- Now it’s time to write the manifesto! Get your posterboard or butcher paper, and at the top, write “In this team, we…”.
- Based on the similarities from the notecards, write out bullet points to finish the sentence, “In this team, we...:”.
- Have each dancer sign at the bottom.
- Discuss ways to put these things into action, check-in with the manifesto, and hold each other accountable compassionately.
- Hang the Team Manifesto somewhere the dancers will see it every time they’re at dance.
Questions to individually answer on notecards:
- What does it mean to be a supportive teammate? In class? At competitions or performances?
- How do you want to show up every time you’re in class or rehearsal? At a competition/performances?
- What are your needs from yourself? Physical, emotional, and mental
- What are your needs from your teammates? Physical, emotional, and mental
- What are your needs from teachers? Physical, emotional, and mental
- What is your vision for this team?
- What is your motivation to be on this team? What’s your “why”?
Exercise Two: Mirror of Encouragement
This exercise builds connection, belonging, trust, understanding, cooperation, empathy and promotes a supportive and encouraging environment.
- Provide a piece of paper for everyone in the class. Have dancers write their names at the top.
- Next, dancers will take turns passing their papers around. Have them write something they love, admire or respect about the person whose name is at the top. You can either have dancers write their names under their message or do it anonymously. Continue until everyone has written on every paper.
- After everyone is done writing, give the paper back to each dancer and have them read through all the kind things their fellow dancers wrote about them.
- Next, have dancers spread out to improv. In front of where they’re going to dance, tape their paper on the mirror.
- Have dancers improv while the words of encouragement cover the mirror.
- After, have dancers reflect on the experience of writing words of encouragement, reading kind words about themselves, and then dancing in front of those words. Do this either written or through group discussion.
Exercise Three: Practicing Empathy
Show your dancers Brené Brown’s short video to explain and illustrate empathy and why it is vital in relationships and groups https://youtu.be/HznVuCVQd10.
After the video and article, open up a group discussion about empathy. Some talking points include:
- What does empathy mean to you?
- How can others show empathy for you when you’re having a hard time? What’s helpful and not helpful?
- How do you feel when people don’t respond to you with empathy?
- Why is empathy important in a team?
To further practice empathy with your dancers, use these prompts. Have dancers sit in a circle, taking turns reading a prompt aloud and answering how they could show empathy in that scenario.
- Your teammate comes into rehearsal crying.
- Your teammate messes up in their solo at a competition, and they’re distraught.
- Your teammate is extremely nervous before a competition or performance.
- Your teammate just won first overall for their solo, and they’re SO excited! (We often forget we can show empathy in happy situations too!)
- Your biggest competition at another studio just got injured and is out for the rest of the season.
- A teammate you don’t get along with is having a hard time picking up choreography in rehearsal.
- You’re at competition, and someone forgot an important costume accessory.
- Your teammate missed rehearsal recently then messed up the choreography at competition.
Which one will you use first? Grab your planner and schedule it now! If you’d like support while you go through this process or are interested in my work, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.