Beyond Expectations

How to cope with non-dance problems in the dance classroom

By Lisa Traiger

They come in with hopes and expectations. Enamored of the pink slippers and the possibility of someday wearing a tutu, these little girls glimmer with light in their eyes and dreams in their heads. Their parents, too, carry hopes and dreams. Maybe they secretly want them to curtsey at the Met or high kick on Broadway, or, more plainly, they just want their children to find a friend and fit in.

On the first day of dance class, teachers, too, hold high expectations. But then some worrisome facts emerge: Kayla seems more than just clingy, and in teen jazz Molly can’t seem to stay focused or look anyone in the eye. And then there’s Brandon, with two left feet and no sense of rhythm, muddling through a basic tap class. Are these kids simply clumsy and distracted, or is something else going on?

“In my 25 years of teaching I have encountered more problems than I can count: dyslexia, blindness in one eye, deafness, Asperger’s [syndrome]—all of which were either not disclosed by the parents or undiagnosed at the time,” says Lorri Goldman-Mendez, who directs Bodies in Motion Dance Centres in Sayreville and Middletown, NJ. “I find that parents are reluctant to disclose this type of information to us even though they do so with teachers in the child’s regular school.”

Many parents are reluctant to notify dance teachers and studio owners of potentially problematic conditions because they’re worried that their children will be discriminated against or singled out. Last summer a 13-year-old walked into the Sayreville studio on the first day of summer camp and Goldman-Mendez’s antennae shot up. “I realized right away that she had an obvious physical and learning disability,” she says, even though the child’s registration form said nothing. “She was toe-walking and would not look at me.”

After a phone call to the child’s mother, Goldman-Mendez learned that the child has Asperger’s, one of several autism spectrum disorders in which children have difficulty interacting socially and exhibit mild motor-skill challenges and obsessive routines and interests. As a dance teacher with experience teaching autistic and other special-needs populations, she phrased her question to the mother carefully: “Is there anything I need to know in order to help your child learn?” Why didn’t the mother disclose the information in the first place? Goldman-Mendez asked, and the mother replied that it was just a summer camp, so she figured it wasn’t necessary.

Helen Hayes, another 20-year veteran teacher at the Joy of Motion studios in Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC, had a tough year with one of her Youth Ensemble dancers. Jennifer (not her real name) couldn’t stay focused, and despite her gorgeous dancing Hayes was constantly reprimanding the girl because she would wander off during class and rehearsals. Not until the season’s final performance did Jennifer’s mother let slip that her daughter has attention deficit disorder (ADD) and takes medication. “Finally, a light bulb went off,” says Hayes.

The following year she met with the student and together they laid out a plan, which involved adding more classes, checking with her physician about adjusting the time she took her medication, and laying on the discipline. “I said, ‘Your mother shared this, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s really important for me to know because now I can work with you with greater understanding and compassion. Talk to me about what your day is like, what your medication makes you feel like, and how you experience things. Let’s figure out how we can help you succeed.’ ”

It worked. Hayes recommended more classes in hip-hop (Jennifer’s strength) and adding more structure and discipline to the dance menu. “So she was in the studio dancing seven days a week with two student companies. She figured out how to push through and the focus and discipline each and every day made her excel. She just soared. You should see her dance.”

But clinical psychologist and former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, PhD, warns teachers and parents against looking too quickly for an ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis every time a student’s attention wanders. “With young children you’ve got to expect that they’re going to be rambunctious. With ADD and ADHD there’s a difference between boys and girls: Usually the boys are more hyperactive and the girls tend to space out and become more dreamy, less focused.” Hamilton notes that it can take months of testing and evaluation to come to terms with a diagnosis. She advises teachers to develop strong relationships with their students’ parents in order to communicate both problems and successes in the studio. Without that bond, the children and the teachers could be lost.

And her advice for teaching students with attention disorders rings true for teaching all children: “You need to have a very interesting class, use lively music, bright colors. You have to be inventive.”

Many experienced teachers find that children with ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, and other problems function best at the front of the class, where their attention is less likely to stray. Wendy Rue of Centre Stage Studios in Mt. Vernon, IL, likes to use an assistant whenever possible with these students. “I found that as long as we maintain physical contact—hand holding, hands on shoulders—they could maintain themselves. It seemed we were their anchor or tether.”

Hayes has found some children with autism, though, who prefer no touching. “I did some reading on this, and it depends on the level of severity,” she says. “I’m a very hands-on teacher. I do manipulate bodies and put them into places, because kids don’t really feel where they’re supposed to be. I found that I could apply very gentle touch and engage with eye contact to get results.”

And as for how the rest of the dancers in class respond to children with learning disabilities and behavior problems, Goldman-Mendez notes that as long as she and her teachers set an example by treating all students equally and with respect, the children follow suit. Sometimes, too, she reports, kids even reach out and try to help a struggling student with a complicated step.

Other times children can lose their patience. Hayes had a 10-year-old boy diagnosed as high-functioning austistic in a class of high achievers.  As a perfomance neared, Kyle (not his real name) seemed to sabotage the group, tripping other students and willfully acting out.  A few dancers in the class approached their tgeacher and asked him to be removed from the dance. “I said to the group, ‘No, but let’s help him undertand why this is so important to us and hopfully help him see why we care.’ ”  Ultimately, the pressure of performing was too much and Kyle sat out. “You become,” Hayes says, “sol much more than a dance teacher. You become a psychologist.”

Other issues that dance teachers face are even more complex: Eating disorders, psychological disorders, family and personal disasters, and even teen pregnancy have forced dance teachers to deal with troubled students and their families, typically with grace and compassion.

Mary Smith (her name has been changed to protect her student’s privacy), a former studio owner of nearly 20 years, noticed some physical changes in one of her teen students and her radar pulsed. She saw that the dancer’s back curvature had changed and she was having trouble finishing combinations. “I had her costume measurements for the upcoming performance, so I compared her waist and chest to last year’s. She was 17, so most of her growing was done—unless of course she was pregnant,” Smith says. She privately inquired about the changes in her body, and the student denied being pregnant.

‘It is incumbent for the educator not to make the diagnosis, but to offer observations, note the data, and offer support.’ —Karen Bradley

After winter break, the girl was bigger. Smith decided that she needed advice, so she consulted the guidance counselor at the high school, where her own children also attended school. “He told me I had a responsibility to the child and the parent,” Smith says. “What if she did something to harm herself or the baby?” She called the student’s mother and told her what she had observed. It took two days, but the mother called back and thanked Smith, noting that her teenage daughter was seven months pregnant.

“It was,” Smith emphasizes, “one of the hardest things I ever had to handle.” The student left the school during a mono outbreak and when she returned, no one knew she had delivered a baby. “To this day, I am still friends with the family even though they moved away. When this student comes to town, she always visits me. I am sure she will be grateful to me someday down the line for how I handled it.”

Amy Burns-Cuozzo has seen several students over the years who relieved stress by cutting themselves. “It was very alarming to me to find out how many kids are doing this and how easy it is to go unnoticed,” says Burns-Cuozzo, who teaches at ABC Center for Performing Arts in Sidney, NY. She, too, discussed her concerns with the school guidance counselor to learn more about dealing with the issue. “It is a very scary situation for these kids to be in, and it needs to be taken seriously. I found that my students didn’t really know where to go for help or whom to turn to. I have helped one of my students tell their parents so they could get help.”

Most of the time dance teachers can’t solve their students’ problems, but they can provide a willing ear and a mature perspective on why the students need to seek help from parents or professional counselors.

Nancy Whyte of Bellingham, WA, had one student with a severe eating disorder. “I kept her in class until she grew so weak that I felt she was too frail; she was losing all her muscle tone,” says the 44-year teaching veteran at the Nancy Whyte School of Ballet. The parents, she said, initially denied that their daughter had a problem, though in the long run they sought help and the girl recovered.

“There is a protocol with eating disorders,” notes Karen Bradley, a visiting associate professor of dance at University of Maryland in College Park. “I call the student into my office and calmly state what I have observed about her dancing. The key is to give a very dry, unemotional recitation of what her behavior has been.” The same holds true for suspected drug use and cutting. “I ask the student what she thinks is going on.” The most excruciating part, Bradley says, comes next: Remaining silent as the student processes the information. “You have to shut up and not try to fix it right away. If the student gets defensive, I ask, ‘What are you protecting?’ ”

Next—and this is key—Bradley hands the student the telephone and the number of a counseling center. Because she works primarily with college students, she doesn’t always call parents, but she will if the problem is grave enough.

Such interventions can trigger anger, silence, and other unexpected reactions. Therefore Bradley emphasizes the role of a teacher: “It is incumbent for the educator not to make the diagnosis, but to offer observations, note the data, and offer support.”

Hamilton, the psychologist, recommends that when a problem necessitates a parental meeting, teachers should “approach it in a very positive and hopeful way with the dancer and the parents. You say that you only have their child’s best interest at heart and you wouldn’t want her to get injured.” Especially with eating disorders, a team approach to treatment is necessary, involving a physician, a psychologist, a nutritionist, family counseling, and the teachers. Hamilton notes that often the best incentive is not allowing a child back into class until she is strong enough and has a doctor’s written permission.

As dance teachers and studio owners find more challenges in their classes, many also find more rewards as well. Whyte had a young lady who developed Tourette syndrome, causing the child to twitch and whoop unexpectedly. But this condition didn’t prevent her from performing in the studio’s annual Nutcracker. “I would never have considered not using her. If people [in the audience] have hearts that small, they don’t need to come. I teach everybody the same, regardless.”

And after 25 years of teaching, Goldman-Mendez says, “I have found that teaching the tough students can be very rewarding. I love the hard ones the most.”

How to Cope With Behavioral and Medical Problems

Get needed information. Many studios ask for basic medical information on their registration forms. Studio directors might want to rethink how the question is worded so that it’s clear that learning disabilities and other physical and emotional challenges should be included.

Maximize the child’s ability to learn. With learning and social issues like ADD/ADHD and Asperger’s, some teachers have found that using a teaching assistant to monitor and keep a challenging child on task is helpful. Others place those children at the front of the line in the classroom. But keep in mind that all children, and their needs, are different.

Keep lines of communication open. Good communication with parents and students—especially older teens—is a must in order to understand a child’s special needs. Although parents are often reluctant or think it unnecessary to share information with an extracurricular instructor, dance teachers and studio owners must make it clear that doing so is best for the child.

Be proactive. Psychologist Linda Hamilton suggests handing out a parent handbook that spells out various issues, including eating disorders, drug abuse and alcoholism, and pregnancy in order to protect the students, faculty, and parents when these problems arise. The key is stating that the child’s safety comes first and if a child can’t be allowed in class because of medical, emotional, or physical problems, so be it.

Do your homework on emotional and behavioral problems. Two books by Hamilton may be helpful: Advice for Dancers: Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and the forthcoming (in 2009) The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind and Body. Hamilton also recommends browsing the website of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science at —LT


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