by Sandi Duncan
“We are a family, like a giant tree./ Branching out toward the sky.”
These lyrics from the Dreamgirls song “Family” resonate with me. When I reflect on the many members of the dance family I’ve developed over years of teaching, and also of owning a studio, I feel love and deep gratitude.
Now I can’t deny that some families have pushed boundaries, and my patience, further than I ever could have imagined. But my positive dance-family experiences have far outweighed the negative ones.
As an educator, you may face daily struggles with your dance family. Most complaints posted on online teacher message boards are about difficult behavior from parents and students. Some of the experiences people share are quite extraordinary, to say the least. It’s comforting to know that we’re not alone on this journey.
In our homes, of course, the family dynamics between us and our partners, children, and other relatives aren’t always perfect either. There can be stress, disagreements, arguments, and power struggles. To create a harmonious home-family life, you need to invest time, energy, and daily work. To avoid chaos in your studio-family life, it’s important to do the same.
“In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” —Eva Burrows
Yet (at the risk of sounding like my parents) times have changed. Social media abuse, aggressive parents and students, mistrust of and disrespect for educators, clients who think they know more than we do—dance teachers face such challenges daily. To say it’s disheartening is an understatement. Many teachers have chosen to leave the field.
These behaviors got to me this year too. Then I had a realization: “Wait—this is my life and chosen field. This is the career I have adored for many years.” I decided to refuse to let other people’s energy affect mine, and, instead, thought about the world my clients inhabit, and how that world shapes the attitudes that they bring into the studio.
I also worked to shift my attitude by integrating Don Miguel Ruiz’s “Four Agreements” philosophy into my daily habits. The agreements are 1) be impeccable with your word; 2) don’t take anything personally; 3) don’t make assumptions; and 4) always do your best. I’ve noticed, as a result, that (though this shift is still a work in progress) I’ve become more relaxed in my approach to the negativity I encounter or feel.
Teachers are lucky. Each lesson provides us with a window of opportunity to connect with students, educate them in more than just proper technique and classroom etiquette, and create a family atmosphere. Yes, class time is for dance education. But stop and think about it—you have a captive audience. This is your time to encourage and empower positive, respectful behavior in your student population.
Studio owners shoulder the greatest responsibility for creating the studio atmosphere they desire. A dear friend declared recently, “It’s time to take back my studio.” Feeling a negative shift, she organized family- and community service–based projects; created human relations classes for students; and set clearer expectations of permissible behavior for parents, students, and staff, complete with consequences for breaking the rules. She’s seeing new energy as a result—and a return of the old family feeling, even better than before.
One of the best parts of this career is the dance family that we create—that giant tree, with branches reaching out in so many directions. So enjoy it, and don’t allow negative energy to break you and your love of dance. Keep watering and tending your tree so it continues to flourish.
Sandi Duncan is a senior staffer at Melissa Hoffman Dance Center. A certified life coach, she conducts team-building seminars and workshops for studios nationwide.