Creating an emotionally safe space in the dance studio

Cultivating Happier Dancers

January 27, 2022

 

Michelle, Susanne & Kristin connect this week over events in their lives as artists and the science behind the art. Creating space with the intention to shine a light on dark corners with the hope to support you. Come join us with no judgment. We are holding space to learn, laugh, and downright pointe at ourselves.

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Cultivating Happier Dancers with Michelle, Susanne & Kristin |

Creating an emotionally safe space in the dance studio

Susanne:

Today, we are diving deep into creating an emotionally safe space in a dance theater. There will be a PDF in our show notes for this episode. Go and download it. It’s an exercise that you can do by yourself, maybe with your students. All you have to do is put your email address in there and it will be in your inbox. So in case I forget, at the end of the show, here it is. Remember, write it down. So today we’re going to have two stories for you to share because we wanted to bring also something positive to this whole arena.

 

Kristin’s definition and real-life experience of an unsafe dance studio

Kristin:

I’m the negative example. So strap yourselves in. We’ll end this on a sweet note. So safe spaces in the dance studio. What does that mean? That means a lot of things for a lot of people, but here’s been my experience with it. It started probably when I was 9, 10. My dog, Schatz, which is German for sweetheart. She was a Rottweiler and my first dog that I ever had, you know, like little kids and dogs are very, very close. And she died. And I did not take it. Well, I don’t know that a child does. And it was really hard. I knew that I wanted to go to dance, though, because it would be like a nice place. Like I still was not as jaded yet with my relationship with ballet.

So I wanted to go, and I was, of course, sad. And I was there. And I think I, at one point, it’s like I blacked out most of it. But at one point, I think I had a little bit of a breakdown in the studio, and I just was maybe not really fully there. And rightfully so. I was grieving. I think it was the next day. And my teacher stopped the whole class and just said, this space is sacred. And whatever we have happening does not belong in this room. And we need to get our minds right and focus on the task at hand.

Now, were they wrong? Not necessarily because sometimes that is true. Like you have to focus on the task at hand. You have to be able to focus your mind. That’s not the problem. The problem was the way that it came out. It was like there’s no space in here for anything else. It wasn’t what’s going on? Are you okay? How can we help you? Do you need to sit down? Do you want to be here today? Is this the best thing for you. It wasn’t a show, and even if it was a show, like maybe just someone asking me how I was doing or why I was upset would have been enough for me to be able to refocus. And that’s the thing. It was like, you don’t get a voice. And then from there on, just various experiences I had reinforced my belief that I don’t get a voice. I’m a body. I’m a robot in a room to be perfect, to do as they ask, and nothing else matters. Doesn’t matter if I feel sick, it doesn’t matter if I feel sad, it doesn’t matter if my knee hurts, it doesn’t matter if my leg feels like it’s going to fall off. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t eaten in two days, I’m there to be perfect. Period. And if I’m not, I’m going to hear it. And so I would define that as unsafe. That’s me. Being in that space for so much of my life really defined my own sense of worth and my relationship to myself, and I hold myself to those standards. I don’t have time for feelings. Who has time for feelings? I have things to do. Who has time to mess up? I have to get it right the first time. So that space has a big effect on a young dancer’s mind, their relationship to themselves, and they carry that through the rest of their life. But that’s not how it has to go.

 

Michelle’s real-life experience with a safe dance studio space

Michelle:

I have definitely had many experiences. I think many of us have. Our negativity bias as, as people I think we tend to remember the more negative but one of my favorite experiences in the dance studio happened when we were creating Mary Poppins for the original Broadway cast. And Matthew Bourne was the choreographer. And he is just the most kind, fantastic person. And we were creating Jolly Holiday, and there were three female statues, literally statues that came to life and started dancing. And Matthew walked in with this big stack of books for the first rehearsal, and just put them on the ground, and laid them out and said, ‘Hey, you’re all going to be these Rubenesque statues. Look through these books and come up with some poses and put the poses together and we’ll create this dance together.’ And we’re all like, ‘What? Like, you’re not going to give us a 5, 6, 7, 8?’

So we started looking through and getting to know these beautiful, famous ruinous statues, and like copying these poses and becoming part of the creative process, which was cool, because we all got this ownership of like, we’re going to become these statues together, and we’re working together and we are creating together. Eventually, we put everything together and we put all the choreography together. And then we saw the costumes. Now, these costumes, because they were the modern-looking dancers to make us look like if you if you haven’t looked up what ruinous statues look like, they are very curvy.

So our costumes were padded unitards. So I had padding on the outside of my hips, I had padding on my boobs. I was wearing the unitard to make me look much more curvy than I already was, which if I hadn’t embodied that I’m going to become the statue would have been just terrifying. Can you imagine, like dancers, do you want to put on a unitard that has padding in all the places that you kind of don’t want the padding? But I was never worried about it because I was brought into the creation of this cool thing that had nothing to do with you do this. And then you have to do this. And you have to do this. It was a collaborative effort. And that made me feel safe to create and be part of the creation process. I think that’s so important to include dancers in the process because otherwise it becomes, I tell you what to do. You do it no matter what. And no matter how you feel about it. So shout out to Matthew Bourne, who’s fantastic, and I would work with him every day forever.

 

“Can you imagine, like dancers, do you want to put on a unitard that has padding in all the places that you kind of don’t want the padding? But I was never worried about it because I was brought into the creation of this cool thing that had nothing to do with you do this. And then you have to do this. And you have to do this. It was a collaborative effort. And that made me feel safe to create and be part of the creation process. I think that’s so important to include dancers in the process.”

-Michelle Loucadoux

Allow the people you lead the freedom to feel and express emotions

Susanne:

This is such a beautiful example, Michelle. I can see that in the rooms that I’m going into. I can see that emotional safety in the relationships that I have built now. But it never existed really prior to me actually starting to work on myself. So with that being said, the science on this one is deep, so super deep, that I’m just going to keep it very even-keeled and very short so you understand that if you don’t let your people, your kids, your company members, whoever it is that you are leading feel the emotions, you are telling them that they are not worth of even being them. You’re stifling their creativity, you are taking away their freedom to collaborate, you take away their ability to dream. Everything that makes us special and that will set us apart and that lets us be us is taken away by inhibiting and telling your dancers that they cannot feel. Therefore, you are not creating the safe space. You’re telling them that I really don’t care who you are and what you do; I just need you to work.

 

“If you don’t let your people, your kids, your company members, whoever it is that you are leading feel the emotions, you are telling them that they are not worth of even being them. You’re stifling their creativity, you are taking away their freedom to collaborate, you take away their ability to dream. Everything that makes us special and that will set us apart and that lets us be us is taken away by inhibiting and telling your dancers that they cannot feel. Therefore, you are not creating the safe space. You’re telling them that I really don’t care who you are and what you do; I just need you to work.”

-Susanne Puerschel

And that is something that we have fostered in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and even ‘90s quite a bit. That was very common and not just in the dance industry. It was very common in any kind of industry. And with the new century coming in when leadership actually started changing a little bit when thought leaders started to rise up and say, hey, there are better ways on how we can communicate and see each other and really bring the best out of each other. It not only creates an environment where you actually feel and see more productivity blooming; it also creates ownership. Meaning that when your dancers in the studio or in a company really stand behind what you’re doing and what your vision is, when your students stand behind you as a teacher and go through fire for you, then you have created a really true emotional safe space. And I think that always, before anything else, should be the vision and the mission.

 

If your students don’t feel safe, they aren’t capable of learning

Kristin:

The added sad part to all of this is if your students don’t feel safe, they aren’t capable of learning. So you think you’re teaching, but you’re not at all. They’re not absorbing anything you’re teaching because they’re in a mode where their brains and their ears and their eyes aren’t processing information the best way that they can because they don’t feel safe. So then it’s a waste of everybody’s time, and it just is creating negativity. It’s not actually helping anybody, even the educator. That’s not a great environment for them to be in, and half the time, Susanne, I think these things are happening, as you said in a previous episode, unconsciously. People aren’t really thinking about what they’re saying or the environment that they’re cultivating, with the exception, of course, of Matthew Bourne who really thought about it and it sounds amazing. That’s a big deal, but like he gave you a book and said, look through this. Come on this journey with me look at this cool stuff, get inspired. That’s amazing, right? It doesn’t it doesn’t take a whole lot to create a better environment. I’ve got four more ways you can do it, if anybody’s wondering.

“If your students don’t feel safe, they aren’t capable of learning. So you think you’re teaching, but you’re not at all. They’re not absorbing anything you’re teaching because they’re in a mode where their brains and their ears and their eyes aren’t processing information the best way that they can because they don’t feel safe.”

-Kristin Deiss

Susanne:

I think it is so important that this divide that has been created between you the two chairs that are sitting in front of the studio and everybody else learning in the studio. There should not be a divide that’s come with me on this journey is setting you apart worlds from it doesn’t make you weak. It just shows your students and your dancers and your artists that you’re here with them, for them. You want to create with them, you want them to learn with you. It’s not that you know everything and they know nothing. It is this fixed versus growth mindset again.

 

A misconception about leadership

Michelle:

I think it’s a gross misconception of leadership as well. People think they need to go into the front of the studio and command and strike fear in the hearts of their dancers because then if they’re afraid, they’ll do what you tell them to do. But what happens in our brains is that fear triggers our amygdala which we all know about the fight, flight, or freeze situation. If we are encountering a tiger in the wilderness back when we were cave people, then we would be afraid of it. So what happens when we get into that space of fight, flight, or freeze is that our body reallocates the energy away from other things to the things that could help us run away from a tiger. So literally, we cannot learn in a space where our amygdala is firing because our body is taking all those resources and getting us ready to run from a bear. And that’s a very sad space because it’s really the opposite of leadership. Good leadership in the front of a classroom is collaborative and creating a safe space, a place where students are not afraid of you. They’re not afraid to fail, again, growth versus fixed mindset, and they are learning and enjoying the learning process while they’re growing.

“I think it's a gross misconception of leadership as well. People think they need to go into the front of the studio and command and strike fear in the hearts of their dancers because then if they're afraid, they'll do what you tell them to do.” Click To Tweet

“Good leadership in the front of a classroom is collaborative and creating a safe space, a place where students are not afraid of you.”

-Michelle Loucadoux

How to create an emotionally safe space in the dance studio

Kristin:

#1 Set an accepting tone for the space

Number one, set an accepting tone for the space. One easy way to do that is to start each class, go around the room. In one word, how is everyone feeling today, and it doesn’t have to be good word. Tired, hungry, sad, frustrated, worried, anxious, happy, joyful, full, whatever it is, and explain to your students why you’re doing this because when you enter this space, your full self is coming with you. I want you to acknowledge where you are right now. And it’s not to shame someone into saying you should be happy to be here. It’s just saying, check in with yourself, how are you feeling? And let’s dance where you are, start where you are. And we’ll see where we can get to. That is simple, right? It takes five minutes at the beginning of a class. That’s one way to do it.

 

#2 Be aware of at-risk youth

Number two, being aware of at-risk youth as an educator. So what I mean by this is students who because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, socio-economic status or race or ethnicity have been historically underserved or disenfranchised. So if you have youth in your room that may fit in that category, hold space for them. How do you do that? Ask your students, what are your preferred pronouns. Stay away from gender language, and just know that everyone in that room is going through experiences that you might not be able to connect with or they might be different than yours. Just knowing that I think will change the way that you approach your students and the way you speak to them and the way you understand them. And again, it puts you in a more conscious place. When you’re really aware of everyone in the room, then you’re more aware of the things that you say, and how it could be taken by your students.

 

When you're really aware of everyone in the room, then you're more aware of the things that you say, and how it could be taken by your students. -Kristin Deiss Click To Tweet

 

#3 Admit when you don’t know the answer

You don’t have to know the answer. It’s not your job to know the answer. No one is perfect, fixed mindset people out there. You’re not perfect. I’m talking to myself, too. So when you are teaching, you’re also teaching by example. And if you get everything right and you know everything and you’re perfect, and that’s what your students are aiming for, but when they see their teacher not knowing everything, not being perfect, and they’re like, oh, I don’t have to be either. And they feel like it’s okay to make a mistake. And if your students are making a mistake, they’re not learning because they’re not even taking the risk. And that goes for me, too. I have to remind myself of that. If you’re not falling on your face, literally or metaphorically, then you’re not actually taking the risk that it requires to learn something. So when they see their teacher mess up, then they feel okay. We don’t have to be perfect in here.

 

“If you’re not falling on your face, literally or metaphorically, then you’re not actually taking the risk that it requires to learn something. So when they see their teacher mess up, then they feel okay. We don’t have to be perfect in here.”

-Kristin Deiss

#4 Empower your students

Lastly, and this goes to Michelle’s story, empower your students in any way that you can. Sometimes it’s as easy as what’s your favorite step today. We’re going to do it. How about you three, you make a petit Allegro, you three, you come up with an Adagio, or ask everybody, we’re going to dance to pop music today. Give me some music examples. Have them record themselves on their phone and give themselves feedback, like anything you can do to make them feel not just on the receiving end of this relationship, but more collaborative in that space, in that room will make them feel much safer to learn and express their creativity.

Michelle:

And those are simple ways. It doesn’t take a half hour of your hour and a half class. Literally five minutes can create a space where students can spend the next hour and 25 minutes learning instead of being afraid or being in a fixed mindset.

Susanne:

If you’re feeling resistance right now listening to us, if you feel like you want to go through your phone and come here into the recording room and tell us why you think we’re wrong, then this is exactly what you need to do. Because that resistance shows you exactly that there is something for you to learn, there is something for you to uncover, perhaps, in yourself as well. We really encourage you to take that next step, not only for yourself, but for every single person that you’re touching that is coming through your studios, that you are having contact with, in which ever way because that is how we are going to make a difference.

 

If you feel a passionate response, it’s worth investigating

Michelle:

If you’re feeling passionate, I think that’s so important. So insightful that if you are feeling a passionate response to this, then it might be something you really need to investigate in your classroom. And good or bad, I know when I feel frustrated or angry about something, there’s usually some fear or hurt that lies underneath it for me. If there is a passionate response, then it’s worth investigating what’s underneath that?

Kristin:

At the end of the day, just even walking into a space with the intention of creating safe space, you’re doing it right. And then how it happens, don’t get caught up so much in the details. Just believe that you have the ability to do that because you want to do that. Like that’s the first step is like I want to create a safe space for my students. And then little by little you can experiment. But really, I think we all do. At the end of the day, why are you a teacher? Because you want to teach. And how can you best teach? By creating a space where your students can actually absorb what you’re teaching. I don’t know that anyone would be like, No, my students shouldn’t be learning from me. We can all agree there that they should be learning. And so really think about how they can learn best because that’s why you’re there. That’s why we’re all in that room.

Michelle:

And if you’re listening to this, chances are you are one of the people that is part of the solution. You have chosen to listen to this podcast, you’re learning about being a more effective educator and caring for the mental wellness, cultivating happier dancers, and that’s important. So you’re already halfway if not all the way there. And if you know another educator that could use this, encourage you, share it. Share the PDFs, share the podcast, share the YouTube link, and let people know that there are resources out there and that we can make an improvement in creating a safer space in the dance studio.

 

A call to action

Susanne:

What you can do right now as you go into the show notes. There is the language reframing exercise in there that you can just put your email address in. It will be in your inbox, print it out. Go through it. It will put you miles and miles ahead. We would love it if you could leave us a review, share it with somebody who needs to hear this message. And for everybody who is really active on social media, share your biggest takeaway because that’s how we know what really resonated with you, and let us know if there’s something that you’re not agreeing with, whatever triggers you, whatever speaks to you, we want to know about it. Okay, guys, till next time, we’re sending you so much love.

Okay, we’re sending you so much love. Thank you for being here. Thank you for always listening and till next time.

So much ❤ Susanne

GIVE AWAY

  • Important Links to Danscend:

  • About Danscend

    Hi. We’re Kristin & Michelle.

    Kristin Deiss and Michelle Loucadoux have a shared sixty years in the dance industry. Both have worked extensively as professional dancers and are well-versed and experienced in the realm of dance education.

    After working together in the education field for seven years, the idea of Danscend was born because of an overwhelming need that Deiss and Loucadoux observed in their students. No stranger to the need for mental health awareness, both creators wrestled with various issues in their professional dance careers as well.

    In Danscend, Deiss and Loucadoux have created a resource that they wish was available when they were beginning their dance careers, a resource that will benefit not only their students but also the dance industry as a whole.

 

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Past Episodes 

There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe. 

THE POINTE TO RISE MANIFESTO