Many years ago, as a young teacher, I was afraid of parents. Most of them were older than me at the time and I didn't know how to deal with their expectations and demands. Some of them I felt were extremely difficult. I had to learn how to communicate with them, how to set the ground rules and boundaries in order to protect the quality of my work and create a healthy learning environment for the dancers.
Competitive dancing requires the body of an athlete and the soul of an artist. In order to achieve the highest possible quality level, dancers have to start with a well guided education and training process at an early age and carry it over two or three decades. Parents and teachers who are involved in this process need to understand the specifics of their role and contribution.
Without parents being supportive of their children and cooperative with the trainers, the entire dance education cannot be complete and meaningful.
A parent is not the teacher and the teacher is not a parent. These are two very different roles which need to be merged into effective service and care. Dancers are not our property, but they are our responsibility.
A lot of dialogue is necessary before all involved understand their tasks and contribute their best without interfering with each other's role but maintaining a high level of mutual respect. Regular meetings with parents can make them more aware of their indispensable value. Parents not only provide the financial base, which is over the years a huge investment into a dancer's growth, but most importantly, parents can give to their children feelings of safety, love and understanding, encouragement, trust and belief in the beauty of dance expression.
Patience, discipline and commitment are necessary during this long journey. And what truly matters is the quality of the journey as such and not only the final goal, often blinded by desire of success, the glory of winning. Parents and trainers need to be aware that young dancers are not fulfilling their dreams and ambitions, but they have the right to develop at their own pace and follow their own vision.
Setting ground rules and boundaries for working together
Ground rules apply for everyone involved in the dance education process - dancers, their parents and teachers. They refer to being on time for the lessons, payment and cancellation regulations, taking care of personal hygiene, being respectful to studio maintenance regulations and so on.
Boundaries are something that you set for yourself, your basic principles regarding the degree of tolerance towards others. Clear boundaries contribute to the feeling of trust, they teach you how to respect yourself and at the same time teach others how to treat you.
Boundaries range from simple ones, like whether you allow parents to observe the private lesson you have with their child to more complex ones, such as management of emotional issues and confidentiality. A lot is on the plate here and if others don't like the way you set your own boundaries, that just shows you how needed they are; a lack of boundaries leads to a lack of respect.
Parents and teachers may have a different view, be it regarding the amount of private lessons, costumes, teaching pace, even choreography or selection of competitions. As a teacher you need to be clear with parents regarding your conditions. Parents need to be informed when you can give them extra time in case they need a consultation.
When it comes to a conflict, dialogue is the only way out. Certain problems cannot be resolved immediately. Difficult situations require a soft approach and introspection. If you have anything to say, say it to protect rather than damage somebody. As a coach or a parent you have to mediate difficult situations, searching for solutions.
When the situation is delicate, let's say some bad results in a row or an attempt to change the dance partner, teachers and parents may react without filters. Reactions come from past experiences, they are automatic and unfortunately taken personally. Reactions tend to attack and normally lead to a fight.
When you are more aware and you learn to respond to the situation, rather than just react to it, you are more conscious and more capable of finding the appropriate solution. You take a breath first, think carefully, create some space and then proceed.
Mind which hat you are wearing in relation to the task at hand. Don't go in directions that are not your department and don't take sides. Stay above the situation, join forces and consult with each other. Try to save everyone in the situation. I've learned a lot over the years from wise parents who taught me the value of the "repair principle". Every mistake, every next lesson or a competition can be seen as a repair and upgrade of a previous one. We can always do better.
If there is too much on the plate, just stitch it up for a while, take small steps as difficult situations are often very complex and require some time to heal. Everyone in a difficult situation needs to be heard and understood and the safety of all involved can only be working with the right boundaries.
The dancer can be a victim
Most dancers just want to dance, enjoy and explore their abilities and, of course, they want to be the best possible.
Intrinsic motivation (interest and joy for the dance itself) is driving them strongly as they are playful and curious. Extrinsic motivation (result, success) is often a layer added by parents and teachers who have their own ambitions.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Our mindsets are simplified assumptions and core beliefs, influenced by upbringing, culture and media, other people (friends, other teachers and parents), our own degree of consciousness. Our mindsets also shape and impact our children's and student's mindsets. For example, if you see life as a competition, if you believe that a gold medal is the ultimate goal, your child or student will follow your vision.
A dancer's mindset, when in the process of growing, connects motivation and cognition. Their motivation is driven by their specific thoughts, ideas and ideals. Dancers love their parents and teachers and want to be accepted, therefore they will do anything to please them, even giving up their dreams.
So be aware of your demands and expectations towards your children, let them discover life their way and try not to live your life through them. Putting pressure on your children normally goes hand in hand with putting pressure on their teachers; be it wanting extra attention, additional lessons, faster improvement, better results...
But also some teachers have unreasonable expectations and demands. Nowadays couples are nearly a teacher's "property", like goods to do business with. Teachers speak about "my couple", place them on the market and negotiate their value with judges, with an excuse that they have to "protect" them. In a system where dancers have to attend numerous camps in order to be "protected" and "recognised" and be judged well, dancers may be victims.
"Milking" dancers and their parents became a norm in certain environments. Too many different teachers, too many competitions, all to achieve the greatest possible success. You have to ask yourself if this is normal.
And what happens if you don't play the game? What if the family or dancers themselves do not have enough money to pay for all promotion lessons. As a parent you have to wisely set your boundaries. You are responsible for your child's wellbeing, mental and physical health and development of their balanced motivational profile.
Balanced motivational profile
Motivation is a central driving force, which determines direction and intensity of any effort. You have motivation for what you are passionate about, for anything that contributes to the meaning of your existence.
In dancing the trick is to find motivation also in something that is not of your prime interest, but it is a part of a final product. For example, practicing technique, practicing alone, doing hard things like dancing many rounds, physical preparation, stretching on a daily basis - to go beyond boundaries, to do more than what is required, to empower yourself because you want it, not just need it.
How to help your child or yourself if you are an adult to be more self-motivated? How to balance requirement versus opportunity or fear of failure versus seeking success? How to balance the desire for quality with the desire for the best possible result?
To start with, you have to acknowledge what success is for you.
You can focus on mastery, you can be ego-oriented or you can merge mastery and ego into a high drive to improve your quality and win at the same time.
For mastery focused dancers success is improvement. This orientation is beneficial for a long-term improvement and performance as these dancers tend not to give up and train harder when not under surveillance. These dancers have vision, they are persistent and can train alone. They are still speeding up their skills even later in their career, always introducing new skills.
I had the privilege to be involved with some top amateur and professional couples who were mastery focused until the very end of their careers. They, for example, attended the Cuban Experience project with me in Havana, learning and exploring new, unknown areas when they were about to retire. And they continue learning to be teachers now.
Elite dancers have a mastery focus, they love to compete with themselves, most of them understand humility and replace attitude with gratitude.
A few tips to stimulate intrinsic motivation
Teach dancers to compete with themselves, help them turn the focus inward to see how much beauty is there to be pulled out. Engage them, let them discover on their own.
Listen to them, recognise their vision and dreams. Help them take a hard and slow path. Prepare them for a marathon, not a sprint.
Provide them consistent feedback about their improvement. Be careful here to not attach your comments to their identity, but to the effort itself. Reward the effort, not the person. Feedback words should be verbs (not labels) of effort - like "try again", "do it with another feeling", "sense more", "intensify", "engage", "persist a bit longer". Why does rewarding or praising the effort matter? If you praise them with labels like:"You are great!", "You are the best", You are my winner!" and so on, those labels will shape their identity. In the long term that kind of labelling causes weakness in performance. By praising and rewarding the effort as such they will grow stronger, more persistent and more realistic, as no one is always a hero. Be aware to give them only effort praise, as effort focus and attention to the task are the best intrinsic motivation. It is sincere engagement in the task that matters.
Every dancer is unique and the task of parents and trainers is to recognise all specifics, abilities and particularities of young dancers and accordingly provide all necessary conditions for best long term outcome.
We need to stand by their side and support their attempts to grow into artists who understand the importance of a healthy sportsman spirit.