In close to two decades of teaching, I have always known the power of words. With the influx of social media growing more and more, I feel the importance of what we say hang even heavier on our young students. Eating disorders, suicide, and anxiety is the on the rise in our next generation. What can we do to positively impact our youth? This Summer, Mather Dance Company held a Teacher Intensive, and I was one of the Faculty members. At the end of one of my classes, I sat the teachers down and asked them about any issues they wanted help with back at their studios. A lot of them have self-esteem and confidence issues with their students and wanted ideas to help. I immediately thought about words, and the weight of them. How negative words hang on us like an albatross. What if there was a way we could read out loud positive words others thought? What if instead we could wear those words like jewels, highlighting the best of the beauty we offer the world? Years ago, I was judging a dance competition, and there was one number where the students each had a negative word written on their skin "fat", "ugly", etc. It started me thinking, it's time to cover our skin with words of hope, when so often we use our appearance with words of shame. My mom graduated in linguistics, and always spoke to me about the power of words, and how we use them. They can be weapons, or lights of hope. In that moment I felt incredibly compelled to create this exercise that had been in my heart for so long. How powerful could it be to open your eyes and see beautiful thoughts so many others see on you every day.
I was inspired by these issues and the power of words to create a team building exercise, to shine a light on the beauty of kind words. Each company member gets a turn, and they are blindfolded, while their peers write with soft lip pencil/ eyeliner positive words that they “see” in that dancer. Then I took the blindfold off and the dancer stood in front of the mirror to read each word out loud. It started some great personal conversations about self worth, and how we see ourselves vs. how others see us. Very powerful!
It’s easy to forget, that our body is our “tool" in dance. We are initially judged on the way we look and how well we move, and that plays every day into our self worth. Because of this vulnerability, there’s a lot of emotional and mental abuse that can unfortunately occur in our Dance World. I have seen the self esteem hits, the insecurities, and the mental health and eating disorder issues and they can be devastating. I also know dance can be amazing, and I have seen it be the hope someone needs in their life. I feel God has put me in this position as an educator and motivator, to share my love and passion for ballet in a positive and constructive light. Dancers do not have to be humiliated to be motivated. It can be done, and the longevity is greater! I was very fortunate in my early training. My teachers at Texas Ballet Theatre School, Dallas and my mentor Mignon Furman from my Summer Intensive training were so uplifting and encouraging, it shaped who I am as a dancer and teacher. I also choose to surround myself with fellow educators and choreographers that want to lift their students and dancers up, including my boss Shannon Mather, who inspires me every day in the way she positively runs her studio and the way she builds her students up. We purposefully instill a no drama zone. Our society has become obsessed with “drama” and negativity. My dream for our Industry is to make positivity more popular. This isn’t just about dance or “likes", it’s about shaping and molding future generations of adults.
We had some huge breakthroughs! Lots of good tears, and insecurities shed. I asked each dancer, which comment made them the happiest, and which comment was hard for them to believe, and why. I felt I gave them a voice for their feelings, and I felt an emotional weight lift off them. Every year, students come to our studio from all over the US, and even Hawaii, Argentina, and the Czech Republic! I wanted our new students to know, they have already made an impact to those in the classroom. It’s easy to feel lost in a new place, but when they saw the whole class write powerful words of the impact they made, it really was an incredible moment.
It really put me in the shoes of my young dancers. The pressures they face daily, both as young men and women in this new “social media” world that didn’t exist when we were young. I felt their pressure and I wanted them to know this studio is a space to work hard, and it’s also a safe space to express and grow. It also delighted me to see the kindness and thoughtfulness these young dancers created. They really put thought into each word they wrote, and it was unique and meaningful to each student.
One of the greatest things, is that the majority of the compliments were deeply meaningful and about who they are as a person, not just what they looked like. I also teach this in my dancing “Let them see YOU, all of you. Not just the surface.”
TIPS for creating the exercise...
I only used my Senior Company and "Bridge Into The Industry” Company members. They range from age 15- early 20s. I feel this exercise was best for the older age range. I also left it up to them if they were comfortable in participating. We can’t force this type of thing, and I always want my students to feel they have a say when it comes to their bodies. Some were only comfortable using arms and legs. I left it up to each dancer. Another alternative, would be to use a white T-shirt for the students to write on.
Thank you to Colleen Werner, and the Huffington Post, for initially giving this a voice and a beautifully written article. You can read my interview with Colleen and her article for the HuffPost here: HuffPost Article
Also, we call the exercise “Body Love” in honor of Shannon Mather’s incredibly powerful dance piece about loving yourself from within. Here’s the link to that work: Mather Dance Company