Ballet instruction practices have often resulted in severe emotional and physical damage to classically trained dancers. New York Times reporter Jennifer Dunning (1997) and Australian researcher Suzanne Abraham (1996) are among many who have documented and reported throughout the years the negative effects of ballet training. Does ballet instruction have to be damaging? Not necessarily! Ballet teachers can produce emotionally and physically healthy dancers if they break away from debilitating pedagogical practices that have been historically ingrained in dancers. In order to turn ballet instruction around, ballet teachers need to adopt a supportive communication (SC) approach, the essence of which is self-awareness of one's implicit and explicit communication. This commentary discusses the process of implementing such an approach in the hope that ballet teachers are able to begin a new journey, one that will make them nurturing educators.
The author developed SC after having gone through rigorous classical ballet training as a teenager and young adult. She has since implemented SC not only with dancers in the Washington metropolitan area, but also with elementary public school students to whom she teaches reading and writing. To her surprise, she has found that SC can be easily implemented in different settings and for the purpose of teaching not only dance, but a variety of curricular subjects.
In ballet, SC comprises implicit and explicit messages that teachers send their students both during and away from studio practice. Supportive communication recognizes and acknowledges students' efforts, their need for recognition and nurturing, and their ability to take ownership of their issues. This approach empowers students both as performers and as individuals, because it builds their self-awareness, confidence, and self-esteem. It makes them full participants in shaping their own future. Implementing SC requires teachers to distinguish between feedback that is relevant during studio practice and feedback that is appropriate to be shared outside the dance studio.
The need for SC stems from young classical dancers' fragile emotional state. During their training years, they spend the better part of each day in the studio attempting to reach their life goal (i.e., being offered a professional performing contract). Their commitment to perfecting their performance and physical appearance is extreme. This is where ballet teachers' implicit and explicit communication plays a major role in affecting their students' emotional well-being. The language and vocal intonation used, the proximity to students, the body language, and various combinations of these actions can either build or erode dancers' self-esteem and confidence. Following are two examples of common communications between a ballet teacher and a student. The discussion explains the perspective from which such communication needs to be analyzed and thus revised.
The ballet teacher enters the dance studio. She approaches her student to stand less than three feet away, proceeds to take a long, careful look at her body, touches her behind slightly (all implicit messages), then comments in a disapproving, loud voice, "It's time to do something about your diet!" (explicit message). Imagine for a moment that you are that student. You have just spent two hours getting ready for this class. Your hair is gelled to a perfectly pulled back bun, your breakfast consisted only of a banana because you watch your weight and want your stomach to be as flat as possible in order to impress your teacher. You wear flattering makeup and your muscles are nicely toned, having been stretched for the past half hour. But before you are given the opportunity to start practicing, you are publicly humiliated in front of your classmates. Now everyone knows that your weight is an issue and that your teacher …