Cultivating self-care: Nurturing tips for dance teachers

by Elsa Urmston  MSc PGCAP FHEA

The last year has been 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. Many of us have adapted to new ways of working, keeping dancing by through teaching online and dancing face-to-face when circumstances allow and finding creative solutions to ensure that people attending classes can do so safely, inclusively and socially.  Dance teachers’ agile responses have been nothing less than inspiring.  Whilst we are living through a period of immense change which may have been refreshing perhaps, it has no doubt tested our reserves of innovation, empathy, perseverance and resilience.
With such a backdrop, as teachers, we often find ourselves making sure everyone else is OK. But how often do we find time for ourselves?  For professionals, where caring for other people’s wellbeing is key to what we do, self-care becomes an essential tool (Cardinal and Thomas, 2016).  Endless websites and books promote self-care strategies, often responding to a deficit model of health and wellbeing which seeks to address people’s weaknesses.  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 focussing on 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).

Research in positive psychology
Research suggests that one of the most significant outcomes of practising positive psychology lies in making 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 our negative experiences – balance is vital.  Seligman (2012) proposed five dimensions of wellbeing called the PERMA model:

  • Positive emotion emphasises optimism, viewing 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.
  • Engagement is a state when we are fully engaged and immersed in activities for their own sake.
  • Relationships are crucial components of our basic psychological needs (Ryan and Deci, 2000).
  • Meaning refers to building a sense of purpose, particularly in contributing to others’ lives and communities.
  • Achievement refers to how much we challenge ourselves positively and how this helps us develop our strengths in practical and emotional ways.

What does this mean for self-care?
Self-care can mean different things for different people; taking care of things like eating well, exercising and resting is vital.  Bush (2015) emphasises the importance of micro self-care, things we do which fit easily into our lives, are not costly and bring about positive changes in thinking and outlook.

Micro self-care strategies to try

  • Stay connected: staying connected with friends, family and colleagues is always needed.  It’s a matter of prioritising this as part of our self-care routine.  Carving out opportunities by fixing time in the diary to meet others, helps build connections.
  • Three good things: 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 good and build this into a habit.  These things might be as simple as the sun shining or a delicious lunch, achieving a new skill or seeing improvement in something we have been working really hard on.  By aiming to pause and notice in the moment and reflecting on the good things, we can overcome a preoccupation with things that seem to have made the day worse.
  • Practising gratitude: Research suggests 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).  Starting a gratitude practice does not have to be a huge undertaking and small activities are a great way to begin.  For example, start the day by thinking about something to be thankful for, for that day – sleeping well, speaking with a colleague or taking a class which inspires us.
  • 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, bringing control over situations and finding ways to cope.

Slowing down and focussing on the breath is a tangible way to focus on the present moment; calming the physiological system and helping psychologically too (Hopper et al., 2019).  Ways to focus on breathing include simply 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 for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) have this great blog post about breath and ways it can be incorporated into teachers’ daily work as a way to reset.

A focus on breathing is one way in, but it is possible to engage in any task more mindfully. Focussing on one thing at a time, noticing the sensorial experience in the present moment can bring a self-care emphasis to our actions and not requiring any more time than normal.

These approaches give us a few ways 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.
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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.