by Janet Neidhardt
Dance is such an amazing medium and practice because it allows us to be challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a dance educator it is easy to feel successful (or unsuccessful) based on how well my students improve in their physical technique. Days when I see my students finally spot a turn or find their balance on one leg, I give myself a pat on the back because they finally got it! But what that physical accomplishment gives students is so much more than coordination. It provides for them a challenge to try, fail, try again, and succeed. At the end of the day what I really want my students to leave my class being able to do is feel confident and love their individuality a little bit more.
I recently received an amazing thank you letter from a senior student whom I have had the privilege of teaching dance to this school year. This letter did not say thank you for teaching me to do a perfect (insert any dance move/trick here) instead it was a thank you letter that talked about personal growth and discovery. My student wrote about making new friends in my class and what it felt like to be a part of a team. I often refer to our class as a team to help build a safe environment for risk taking.
The greatest section of the letter stated: “One piece of advice that I am always going to remember is you telling me not to judge myself based on peoples dance skills and focus on myself. This stuck with me because for a long time I always focused on other people and how to be like them. You taught me originality and to stop comparing myself to other people and I am thankful for that.”
This wonderful thank you letter was a great reminder to me that what my students leave my class with is so much more than new found physical ability. To be able to teach students self confidence, the ability to take chances, and to not give up when things are challenging is a wonderful gift. Dance offers the opportunity for students to learn these life lessons so easily because they embody movement challenges, emotional challenges, and internalize personal growth.
When I approach teaching movement, giving corrections, coaching performance, etc., I keep in mind how I go about doing these things because I know that my words hold great weight in effecting how my students feel about themselves and their abilities. I try to be encouraging and emphasize effort most of all. Yes, it is important that my students grow within their physical abilities, but I know that everyone will grow at different rates and what is most important to me is that they have fun and embrace the challenges posed to them and do not feel defeated.
We walk a thin line as teachers between challenging students and overwhelming them with difficult objectives. As teachers we too can get caught up in competition of who does it the best in class or whose class has better dancers. We must keep in mind that we set the tone for what is most important in our class, be it work ethic or something else.
It is essential, no matter if you teach in a studio or school, to always remember that as a dance educator we have the ability and responsibility to teach dance in a way that will strengthen our students’ characters. I have never had a student thank me for teaching them a pirouette or tricky movement combination but I have had many thank you’s regarding emotional self growth. I hope this inspires you to see yourself as more than a teacher of dance movement.
I know I will hold on to this thank you letter forever as a great reminder of what I can and should be teaching beyond technique.
Contributor Janet Neidhardt has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.
Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.
When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.