We are talking to a dance educator and author about how we can help children build healthy habits.
Welcome to Beyond the StEPS!
We are delighted to have Gina** here to discuss this topic. She is the author of "Dancer 360: Practical Advice for Today's Healthy Dancer" and is a certified holistic life, career, and executive coach, as well as a registered yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance. She has also performed professionally with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Boston Ballet school, and New Jersey Ballet school.
So much of your work is focused on creating healthy dancers inside out, head to toe and we love that. When we talk about a healthy dancer in today’s world, what does that mean to you and how is that different from
I believe it's important to reassess our perception of what constitutes a healthy dancer. Nowadays, there's a remarkable movement towards dancers as complete individuals, emphasizing a holistic approach to maintaining a healthy, resilient mind and body, as well as nurturing the soul aspect. This approach helps prevent the burnout trap that many dancers fall into. To describe what constitutes a healthy dancer in this new and dynamic approach, we need to focus on taking care of the soul, disconnecting from screens, spending time outdoors, and nurturing our inner artist. In the past, some people still believed that a healthy dancer had to be skinny, flexible, and perfect, but this notion is no longer acceptable. Instead, a healthy dancer is now defined as someone with a strong mind, body, and an effervescent soul, capable of enduring and not burning out in any final area.
Initially, we should establish the attributes that distinguish a healthy habit from an unhealthy or toxic one. Furthermore, could a behavior that constitutes a healthy habit for one person be feasible as a healthy habit for others?
As with anything related to real health, it's crucial to personalize the approach. Each dancer has unique nutritional and physical needs. For instance, hypermobile dancers have different requirements from those who possess great strength and flexibility. It's vital to focus on your habits and not compare yourself with other dancers or parents. Unfortunately, the dance industry often fosters a "keep up with the Joneses" mentality, which makes this approach challenging. Parents may want their kids to do what they see other kids doing, but that may not be the best approach for their child's unique needs. This challenge is compounded by social media, where you can see what everyone else is doing and compare yourself to them. However, what works for one dancer may not work for another. It's essential to recognize that what you see on social media may not be the healthiest or best way to warm up or approach dance. For example, a particular warm-up routine might work for one dancer, but it might not be the best choice for another, as only a physical therapist can determine what is best for each person's body.
What do you think is the biggest difference in how we define healthy habits for dancers today vs. 5/10/20 years ago. Do you think everyone is starting to catch on to the changes that need to be made?
I believe that as an industry, we are becoming more knowledgeable and informed. There are articles and contributions from experts shedding light on proper warm-up techniques and ways to avoid burnout. While we haven't fully arrived yet, I'm optimistic that we're headed in the right direction. My hope for 2023 is that we will have even more accessible resources for younger dancers to develop healthy habits. We are having conversations now that we never had before, and this is a big deal. However, the challenge is executing what we learn. We consume so much content daily that we don't always put it into practice. As an industry, we need to have more of these conversations to keep reinforcing the message. In business, they say it takes at least 21 touch points to reach a consumer before they make a purchase. Similarly, we need to keep reinforcing the message of healthy habits to dancers until it sticks and they start practicing it consistently.
In your experience, what age is appropriate to really start teaching/incorporating healthy habits that stick? How young is too young?
I believe that establishing good habits should start from a very young age, and parents can play a critical role in helping their children develop healthy habits. As long as the habits are age-appropriate, the earlier we start, the better. Based on my coaching training, I learned that people are more likely to stick to something if they have a genuine interest in it. So, when it comes to helping a child develop good habits, it's essential to tap into what motivates them and help them take ownership of the process. For example, if a child wants to be a strong dancer and not run out of energy during a performance, we can ask coaching questions and involve them in the process of figuring out the steps needed to achieve their goal. Even if the habits don't stick right away, consistency is key, and it's crucial to keep trying and fostering these conversations with children, even when they're young. Eventually, the habits will stick.
We know consistency is key when developing healthy habits and it takes a village to raise a child. What are the healthy habits we want to see children strengthening more when they’re training, performing, etc?
I believe that establishing a positive mindset is crucial for dancers, as many tend to view mistakes as failure. Instead, we should encourage our children to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow, which will ultimately lead to improvement over time. This habit of focusing on progress rather than perfection will help them become amazing dancers in the long run. Additionally, it's important to establish habits that promote overall health and well-being, such as staying hydrated, proper warm-up and cool-down routines, and eating a balanced and colorful diet. By instilling these habits early on, we can help our young dancers avoid injury and dance well beyond their teenage years.
What practical steps can dance educators/directors/teachers take to encourage and support children in developing healthy habits?
I collaborate with a talented dancer and while we work on her physical skills, I also employ coaching techniques to help her develop mentally. When she encounters difficult situations or has an off day where her neck feels tense and affects her performance, I have her do a simple exercise where she wiggles her neck to release the tension. I make sure to keep the atmosphere light-hearted and focus on the physical aspect of it, finding a way to infuse fun and lightness into the situation. This approach helps to redirect and refocus her energy, rather than simply telling her to change her mindset or pointing out something negative. By providing a refreshing and beautiful distraction, she is able to regain her focus and approach the situation with a fresh perspective.
I am currently engrossed in an excellent book called "Habits" by James Clear, which I believe would be beneficial to anyone, including teachers, parents, or anyone else. This book provides practical advice on how to establish positive habits and eliminate negative ones. I'd like to share some insights from the book that could be particularly useful in our lives.
The first principle is to make the habit you desire obvious. Instead of having a vague goal like "I want to be healthier this year," specify what you want to achieve. For example, as a dancer, you may want to establish a habit of drinking a glass of water as soon as you wake up in the morning. By identifying the specific time and place where you will perform the action, you increase the chances of making it a habit.
The second principle is to make the habit attractive. It's essential to choose a habit that you will enjoy, as it makes it easier to stick to it. For example, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables, you can make them more appealing by pairing them with delicious dips like ranch dressing.
The third principle is to make the habit easy to do. If you want to drink more water, you can fill a glass and place it on your bedside table to make it convenient. Similarly, if you want to encourage your kids to eat more fruits and veggies, you can pre-cut and store them in see-through containers.
Finally, the fourth principle is to make the habit satisfying. Using a habit tracker to check off each day you have completed the habit can be a great way to motivate yourself. Seeing progress and feeling a sense of accomplishment can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying.
By following these principles, we can reinforce positive habits and make them more likely to become part of our routine.
I know making these changes can be frustrating and people, especially young people can get discouraged. Does it typically take longer to break or change a habit than it does to build a new healthy one and how do we push through discouragement?
I believe it's important to remember that setting achievable goals is crucial, especially in the context of dance. For instance, aspiring to do 32 fouettes right away is unrealistic and overwhelming. Instead, breaking it down into smaller chunks, such as achieving four pirouettes, can be a more manageable and sustainable goal. This approach is similar to how runners train for a marathon, gradually building up their endurance. By focusing on getting just one percent better every day, dancers can achieve significant progress over time. It's also important to give ourselves and others grace when we slip up or miss a day, and to teach our kids that it's okay to start again tomorrow. By modeling these habits ourselves, we can inspire our dancers to develop healthy and sustainable habits.
Let’s switch gears to the parents because they’re the other side of the coin and can often be the “make or break it” factor. What are the healthy habits that you think they should be focusing on at home or which habits mentioned above do you think should be continued at home?
One must acknowledge and bring attention to what is needed in order to make a habit consistent and satisfying. The beauty of a habit, as previously mentioned, is that although it may require effort upfront to ensure it is noticeable, appealing, effortless, and rewarding, it eventually becomes automated. So, by investing in the initial stages of creating a habit, such as determining how to provide immediate gratification, one can establish a routine that requires little to no conscious effort in the future.
What advice would you give a young performance artist whose home life is not supportive of the healthy habits they are trying to build? I know that can be hard when you are really in control of major parts of your life?
As someone who grew up in Mormon households, I empathize with those who have parents that may try their best to stock the fridge with healthy options but may fall short. If you have established your goals and know what you need to support them, one option is to respectfully communicate your needs to your parent or seek help from a mentor, older sibling, or someone outside of your immediate family circle who can guide you towards healthier options. Remember, you are not alone in this journey and finding a supportive adult or mentor can make all the difference. As a dancer, you are capable of doing hard things, and while it may take some effort and thought, finding ways to incorporate healthier habits into your life is achievable.
Is habit-building a skill that can be developed and applied across many areas or is it very situational? In other words, is there a formula that can be applied to all things or is it based on what you are trying to do?
Research has shown that there is a specific method for establishing habits, which involves four key principles that we have discussed. These principles have been studied in both animals and humans, across various age groups and backgrounds. The four principles include making the habit obvious, attractive, easy to do, and satisfying. By following these principles, we can create healthy habits that become automatic and effortless over time. For instance, I personally aimed to drink water before coffee, and initially, I had to consciously set out a glass of water. However, with time, it became an automated habit, and I no longer had to think about it. It is important to note that this approach is scientifically proven, and if you delve into the research behind habit formation, you will find ample evidence to support these principles.
What is one action that you want our readers to take between now and next week to make progress in this area?
That's an excellent question, and since many of us are focused on our goals and resolutions, I believe that intentions are more effective for me than resolutions. My intention is to become a better artist this year by identifying the necessary actions and developing them into habits. For instance, I can set aside time for improv, and make it a habit to do it regularly. By focusing on the process rather than just the end goal, I can create a practical structure that will help me achieve my objectives. There is a useful free worksheet available on the website dancerdesty.com that dancers can download to help them with their intentions and resolutions.
Gina has recommended some valuable resources, including the book "Atomic Habits" by James Clear and her downloadable worksheet available on her website. To get in touch with her, follow her Instagram handle, Gina_McFadden_ , or visit her websites dancer-360.com and Gina McFadden on YouTube for her healthy habit tips.
**Gina is author of the upcoming book, Dancer, 360: Practical Advice for Today’s Healthy Dancer, is a certified Holistic Life, Career & Executive Coach and is a Registered Yoga Teacher through Yoga Alliance.
She performed professionally with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Ballet Pacifica, State Street Ballet and the National Choreographers Initiative. She has been on the faculties of Boston Ballet School, New Jersey Ballet School and Grand Rapids Ballet School as well as adjunct faculty at Grand Valley State University and Hope College.