Cultivating self-care: Nurturing tips for dance teachers, and anyone in dance


Written by Elsa Urmston MSc PGCAP FHEA

There is no doubt that the last year or so has been hugely challenging for us all, as we navigate our dancing lives amidst a global pandemic, in a context which has seen huge political, economic and social upheaval during an ever-more startling climate crisis.  So many of us have adapted to new ways of working in this context, responding to the need to keep dancing by shifting our teaching online during periods of lockdown or isolation, dancing face-to-face when circumstances allow and continuing to find creative solutions to ensure that those who usually attend our classes can continue to do so safely, inclusively and socially. The dance teaching profession’s agile responses have been nothing less than inspiring. And whilst there is no doubt that we are all living through a period of immense social, personal and professional change which for many has been refreshing perhaps, it has no doubt tested our reserves of innovation, empathy, perseverance and resilience to the max.

With such a dramatic backdrop, as teachers, we often find ourselves making sure that everyone else is OK. But how often do we find time for ourselves? For professionals like us, where caring for other people’s health, wellbeing and engagement in dance practice is key to what we do, self-care becomes an even more essential tool to be able to keep going (Cardinal and Thomas, 2016). There are endless websites and books promoting self-care strategies, often responding to a deficit model of health and wellbeing which seeks to address a person’s weaknesses. The field of positive psychology takes a different perspective and is the focus of this blog post on the positive events and influences in our lives as tools to help us to flourish, especially in times like these.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is a growing scientific field which focuses on studying human thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and describes the value of our subjective experiences: “wellbeing,

contentment and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (in the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)” (Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, 2000, p. 5). Positive psychology perspectives build on Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness (the idea that when we feel we have lost control over what happens to us, we learn to become helpless). In tackling this, Seligman’s focus shifted from treatment to strategies for preventing learned helplessness, including an emphasis on the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspects of life that can build resilience and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity.

Research in positive psychology

Research in positive psychology suggests that one of the most significant outcomes of practising positive psychology lies in making relatively small changes to our perspective on things, by including optimism and gratitude in our lives (Carr et al., 2020). That’s not to say that we should ignore the negative experiences we have at all – balance is vital. But equal focus on the positives in life can bring about remarkable shifts in wellbeing and quality of life amongst many different kinds of people in many different circumstances (e.g. Salces-Cubero et al., 2019; Kwok and Gu, 2019; Kardas et al., 2019).

What is the PERMA model?

Seligman (2012) proposed five dimensions which constitute the elements of wellbeing from a positive psychology perspective, called the PERMA model; he discusses it in this film, and we briefly summarise the principles below:

The PERMA Model, Seligman, 2012.

  • Positive emotion places an emphasis on optimism, viewing our experiences from a constructive perspective, particularly when our enjoyment is an outcome from tasks which we find stimulating or creative, and we feel satisfied by our completion of those tasks. This type of positive emotion is different from pleasure (which is more connected to satisfying physical needs for survival). It helps us enjoy the daily tasks in life and persevere in the face of challenge because we are able to remain more optimistic about what will happen.
  • Engagement is sometimes described as flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997), a state when we are fully engaged and immersed in activities for their own sake. You can learn more about flow here.
  • Relationships are crucial components of our basic psychological needs (Ryan and Deci, 2000), and for many, it is this dimension of PERMA which has been missing during the pandemic – the opportunity to connect with others is limited as we minimise face-to-face contact with others to protect public health. From a PERMA perspective, positive relationships with others mean we are reciprocally heard, seen and supported, building positive emotions and cementing our sense of self-worth.
  • Meaning refers to building a sense of purpose, particularly in contributing to others’ lives and our wider communities. It includes our values and how authentically we live those values.
  • Achievement is not just about success, but refers to how much we challenge ourselves positively, and how this helps us develop our strengths in practical and emotional ways.

In more recent years, the model has been extended to include health, so you may see this model as PERMAH. The health dimension was added because researchers felt that our overall feelings about physical and emotional health were crucial in understanding the elements of wellbeing (Norrish et al, 2013).

So, what does this all mean for self-care?

Self-care can mean different things for different people and certainly taking care of the big things like eating well, exercising and resting is vital. Bush (2015) also emphasises the importance of micro self-care, the things we can do which are easy to fit into our lives, are not costly, and can cause positive changes in thinking and outlook.

Micro self-care strategies to try

  • Stay connected: without a doubt, staying connected with friends, family and colleagues is much needed now. It’s a matter of prioritising this as part of our self-care routine. Carving out the time is the priority here so fixing a date and time in the diary to reach out to others to help us build connections, is the key.

And there are endless ways to connect. Chatting with friends and family, writing letters to people we might have lost touch with, making a phone call rather than sending an email, saying hello to people in the street, even if we don’t know them (when we are able to safely be out and about, of course), joining online groups that share our interests or reaching out to neighbours to see if they need anything, amongst numerous others.

  • Three good things: Although we are hard-wired to focus on the negative things in life (it’s called negativity bias), by making a small effort to focus on the good things, research suggests that wellbeing and mental health can improve (Rippstein-Leuenberger et al., 2017). The aim is to pause and notice something that is good, and build this into a habit. These things do not need to be big; they might be as simple as the sun is shining or lunch tastes delicious. Equally they might be dance-specific – we’ve achieved a new skill, or can see improvement in something we’ve have been working really hard on. But by aiming to pause and notice in the moment, and then at the end of the day reflecting on the good things, we can overcome a preoccupation with things that seem to have made the day worse. It’s a simple strategy, but it does work.
  • Practising gratitude: Research tells us that focussing on what we are thankful for has a significant and positive impact on our wellbeing, for ourselves and those around us (Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, 2000). In the context of student learning, expressing gratitude has shown a positive qualitative impact on resilience, contributing towards volitional behaviour, improved ways of coping and inspiring a sense of hope for the future (Mason, 2020).

Starting a gratitude practice does not have to be a huge undertaking and starting with small activities is a great way to begin. For example, starting the day by thinking about a gratitude statement for the day based on something to be thankful to have for that day – we might have slept well, or be looking forward to a nice meal, speaking with a colleague or taking a class which inspires us.

We can extend this gratitude practice to gratitude journaling as confidence in this practice grows too. Gratitude journaling then becomes more of an end-of-the-day activity. We’d recommend buying a nice notebook that motivates you to write in the things, people, events and achievements to be thankful for that day.

  • Developing mindfulness: Teaching is increasingly viewed as being particularly stressful (Lomas et al., 2017). However, recent studies suggest that mindfulness has a positive impact on teachers’ mental health, both in normal circumstances and during the COVID-19 pandemic (Matiz et al., 2020; Emerson et al., 2017). The idea of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment, as a way to bring about control over situations and find ways to cope in adversity. But staying in the moment can be tough when we think about things in the past, worry about past behaviour or feel anxious about the future and what is to come.

Slowing down and focussing on the breath is a really tangible way to bring ourselves into the present moment; it calms the physiological system and can help psychologically too (Hopper et al., 2019). There are lots of ways to focus on breathing, simply by bringing attention to breathing in and out, deepening the breath or practising the three-part breath that comes from yoga practice. Our friends at the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) have this great blog post about the breath and ways it can be incorporated into a dancers’ and teachers’ daily work, particularly as a way to reset.

A focus on breathing is one way in, but it is possible to engage in any tasks more mindfully if we choose. Focussing on one thing at a time, noticing the sensorial experience of that one thing in the present moment can bring a self-care emphasis to our actions in a way that doesn’t require any more time than normal.

 These approaches are one way to help care for ourselves during this time. Taking time to focus on our own needs, as much as the people we care about is a vital first step in ensuring we too can continue to flourish, even in the toughest of times.

Further Reading and References

Bush, A.D., 2015. Simple self-care for therapists: Restorative practices to weave through your workday. WW Norton & Company.

Cardinal, B. J. and Thomas, J. D., 2016. Self-care strategies for maximising human potential. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 87(9), 5-7.

Carr, A., Cullen, K., Keeney, C., Canning, C., Mooney, O., Chinseallaigh, E. and O’Dowd, A., 2020. Effectiveness of positive psychology interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, pp.1-21.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1997. Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Seligman, M.E., 2000. Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist55(1), pp.5-14.

Emerson, L.M., Leyland, A., Hudson, K., Rowse, G., Hanley, P. and Hugh-Jones, S., 2017. Teaching mindfulness to teachers: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Mindfulness8(5), pp.1136-1149.

Hopper, S.I., Murray, S.L., Ferrara, L.R. and Singleton, J.K., 2019. Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI Evidence Synthesis17(9), pp.1855-1876.

Kardas, F., Cam, Z., Eskisu, M. and Gelibolu, S., 2019. Gratitude, hope, optimism and life satisfaction as predictors of psychological well-being. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research82, pp.81-99.

Kwok, S.Y. and Gu, M., 2019. Parental suicidal ideation and child depressive symptoms: The roles of optimism and gratitude. Journal of Social Service Research, 46(4), pp.1-10.

Lomas, T., Medina, J.C., Ivtzan, I., Rupprecht, S. and Eiroa-Orosa, F.J., 2017. The impact of mindfulness on the wellbeing and performance of educators: A systematic review of the empirical literature. Teaching and Teacher Education61, pp.132-141.

Mason, H., 2020. Towards a learning mindset: First-year university students’ qualitative perspectives on gratitude in the context of learning effort. Journal of Student Affairs in Africa8(2), 87-104.

Matiz, A., Fabbro, F., Paschetto, A., Cantone, D., Paolone, A.R. and Crescentini, C., 2020. Positive impact of mindfulness meditation on mental health of female teachers during the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(18), p.6450.

Norrish, J.M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M. and Robinson, J., 2013. An applied framework for positive education. International Journal of Wellbeing3(2), pp.147-161.

Rippstein-Leuenberger, K., Mauthner, O., Sexton, J.B. and Schwendimann, R., 2017. A qualitative analysis of the Three Good Things intervention in healthcare workers. BMJ open7(5), pp.1-6.

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L., 2000. The darker and brighter sides of human existence: Basic psychological needs as a unifying concept. Psychological inquiry11(4), pp.319-338.

Salces-Cubero, I.M., Ramírez-Fernández, E. and Ortega-Martínez, A.R., 2019. Strengths in older adults: Differential effect of savoring, gratitude and optimism on well-being. Aging & mental health23(8), pp.1017-1024.

Seligman, M.E., 2012. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.


Elsa Urmston MSc PGCAP FHEA

Elsa is a colleague at Safe in Dance International, working primarily with SiDI as a Quality Reviewer.  She is also currently a freelance researcher at London Contemporary Dance School, exploring the application of periodization to vocational dance education from pedagogical and psychological perspectives.  She is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, in the UK.  Elsa sits on the Expert Panel for Children and Young People for One Dance UK and was previously Chair of the Dance Educators’ Committee for the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science.  Elsa has worked in community dance settings, and mainstream and higher education for over twenty-five years. She has consulted on participatory projects with organisations such as Dance Umbrella, Made by Katie Green, BEEE-Creative, English National Ballet and East London Dance, amongst others and worked at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance as a Lecturer in Dance Science. Elsa was the Manager of the Centre for Advanced Training at DanceEast from 2014 to 2017.