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  • Writer's pictureElla Turner

Trauma and Success - Training Young People Within the Arts

"If we remove fame from the definition of success altogether, how will we know if we have 'made it', at all?"


In my relatively short time as an FE dance lecturer, I have seen huge progress in the support that young people are provided with. The students are able to speak about their feelings, identify their worries and communicate these with their tutors. We are navigating a brave new world where, for the first time within the Arts, we are allowing space for shifts in mood and temperament. Does this take time away from technical development? Yes. Is it essential to maintain the mental health of young people? I believe so. Is there any point in having the highest kicks if you can barely get through a class without feeling overwhelmed?


We know the effects of rigorous training on young dancers, as evidenced in the latest expose about the top ballet schools. But if you have danced, you don't need to read these articles to know the truth. As well as the lasting effects that these comments can have. Unfortunately, everybody has a story related to their discipline, a teacher and being teased about eating too many Easter eggs. When I was training, ten years ago, these worries were not spoken about, you would not leave a class, probably not even to go to the toilet, in fear of missing a phrase, a correction, a count. Teachers were almost entirely free to say whatever they liked, no matter how personal or rude. I loved my teachers, all of them. And their voices chime in my head as I teach today, reminding me of 'concrete pants' or 'turn out from the hip' or 'no kippers for feet, please!'. This is how dancing is passed down through generations. I wrestle with the balance of 'good old-fashioned' teaching and a more trauma-informed approach. I believe the two can co-exist. Furthermore, I think the skill of the teacher is what earns the respect and that when students feel safe, they will be able to be focused on the art form and distracted from their worries for a while. Not to say that I have never offended a student or said the wrong thing! Payton Kennedy (She Recovers Dance creator) says that: "The case for movement as a recovery tool has never been stronger." Movement provides an amazing outlet for emotions, and I hope that the issues that dancers need relief from aren't originating in the studio. I hope that taking class can provide healing and self-expression rather than perpetuate shame and negative self-talk.

In a vocational setting, where professional credits are accepted as well as or often times in place of teaching qualifications - a certain level of regulation is required from the school. Frequent observations and feedback pathways are essential to maintaining the wellness of staff and students. Safeguarding and Prevent training modules are mandatory in the UK, however a trauma-informed teaching course isn't included, yet. It seems that a few dancers move into Somatic therapeutic methods to aid dancers and non dancers alike. But the importance of the integration of these methods from the start of a dancer's training hasn't caught on. Will we always be trying to undo the dance trauma that, with the right training, could have been prevented in the first place? Or will the next generation of teachers pioneer a more nurturing approach?

Molly W. Schenck, a somatic practitioner, delivers an interesting virtual seminar on: The Language of Trauma-Informed Teaching in Dance. The preamble to the course content demonstrates her work well, with an energetic check in and a grounding exercise for the online participants. Hopefully, employers within the Arts begin to make a conscious effort to look after their staff so that they can then enjoy the inevitable, knock on effect on the student's well-being. My question is whether success can be achieved as quickly by training students in a trauma-informed way. For so long, self-hatred and fear have been the driving force behind hard work. Is it more of a challenge to motivate yourself to work hard, if you feel comfortable with who you are? Or is feeling mentally well the key to success? Society deems success in the Arts as being in a West End show. Whereas Saturday teaching work is looked down upon, despite it keeping most creatives afloat financially. I realised that the audience of 10-year-old's staring at me with wide eyes whilst singing with eager voices, is one way of me feeling successful. Here, I am desperate to list other things from my CV, to prove my accomplishments. But for whom? Teachers eager to speak of ex-students that have reached the top of 'Stagey Mountain'? Parents that have invested thousands of pounds? If you manage to quiet those voices and tune into your own, what can you hear? If we remove fame from the definition of success altogether, how will we know if we have 'made it', at all?

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