PSYCHOLOGY IN THE STUDIO: A ballet teacher’s perspective

Recently I chatted to Hannah Jussli, a Ballet Teacher who trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, before studying for an MSc Dance Science. I asked Hannah about why she felt understanding psychology was important for her teaching practice, what she’s learned in her studies and how she thinks knowing about psychology can help other dance teachers.

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Hi Hannah :) First up, can you tell me a bit about why you decided to study dance science?

Hi Lucie! I decided to study dance science because it combines my passion for academics and research with dance. I had a dance science module during my undergraduate degree and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to learn more about how we can help dancers train safely and enhance their well-being and performance, but also how dance can benefit people who won’t pursue it professionally.

And as a ballet teacher, why do you think it’s important for dance teachers to know about dance psychology?

Dance teachers have to know a lot - about the dance style(s) itself, safe practice, anatomy, pedagogy, teaching styles. We all care about our students, so adding extra knowledge about dance psychology might seem just like another thing to do, and there are not enough hours. At the end of the day, yes, we are teachers, not psychologists, but psychological factors not only impact performance, but also the process of learning. So, by knowing about psychology, we can help dancers learn, perform better AND support well-being.

From your experience, how do you think dance impacts a person psychologically?

Dancers start to train intensely when they are young, and even more so when they decide to pursue it as a career. They spend their free time in a dance studio, so a lot of the experiences and the messages they receive (and potentially internalise) will happen in the studio. Dancers, especially ballet dancers, also spend a lot of time looking into a mirror, spotting mistakes and correcting them. But even for those students who just dance recreationally, what goes on in the dance studio experience can be a big influence.  And then there is the dancing itself - sometimes it is not the strength or the technique preventing a dancer from performing better. It is their mind.

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about applying dance psychology to your teaching practice?

We all want the best for our students. And of course, it is impossible to be an expert in all fields that affect dancing. But awareness can already go a long way. Knowledge of dance psychology can enhance the learning environment we create, and with that the learning experience and well-being. Secondly, it can help students achieve their best performance, which can be impacted by things like performance anxiety.  

One final question: can you tell me five things you have learned about psychology that you apply to your personal teaching practice?

Simple things like the classroom atmosphere can affect well-being and the feeling of competence. This includes the way we provide feedback and set tasks. Here are my five top tips:

1)  Praise effort over talent. Effort is within the student’s control, talent is not. This way, students feel in control of their learning, can have a feeling of accomplishment and get praised. This will also help them feel competent.

2) Provide clear and constructive feedback. Students should receive at least some positive feedback during class. This does not mean that things need to be sugar-coated or positive feedback be inflated. Students need to understand what they can do better, how they can achieve it, and what they have done well.

3) Focus on individual improvement. Let them focus on improving at their own pace and take themselves as reference point, not others. The focus should never be on outdoing others. Let students work at their level. That way, each student can feel like they achieve something, and neither be bored or feel frustrated because they cannot achieve.

4) Provide opportunities to make decisions, to have a say, and to understand why things are done the way they are done. What is the purpose of this exercise? Why do we insist on warm-up? If possible, let students make choices, let them be creative.

5)  Let them strive for excellence, not perfection (fun is just fine, too).

Those are all great top tips and I’ll be exploring more about feedback and autonomy in a future post. A massive thank you to Hannah for sharing her insight into dance psychology!