Dance parents, your role matters
The dance world can be an intimidating place for a parent with or without personal experience as a dancer. Dancers who pursue a pre-professional track may train up to 20 hours per week, if not more. For dance parents, managing time between school, dance, family, and friends becomes a balancing act largely reliant on a parent’s ability to coordinate tight schedules.
Aside from the logistics of managing a busy schedule, parents and guardians play a role in helping young dancers develop strong mental and emotional relationships with both themselves and with peers. As a parent of two children, I know how challenging it can be to navigate a child’s social life. And while I have personal experience as a former dancer, many parents do not. So for this article, I decided to chat directly with three dance parents. My goal is for them to share their experiences with navigating the rigid world of their child’s dance careers.
Please describe your child’s current path and/or dance schedule.
Hilary from Dublin, Ireland: My daughter was a late starter (12 years old). We live in Ireland and there is no full-time training for ballet dancers so if you are serious about pursuing a career in ballet you have to go abroad to train.
Aslı from Istanbul, Turkey: My daughter is almost 14 years old and dances approximately 18 hours a week during school time.
Abraham from the United States: Over the past two years, our daughter has shown an increasing interest in dance—especially classical ballet. She dances 5 days a week and teaches 1 day for a total of 20-25 hours, including rehearsals.
What is the most challenging part of your child’s dance career?
Hilary: …Getting the right advice has been extremely difficult. Making the right choices about classes and training (i.e. quality over quantity)… I made the decision to take her out of school to concentrate on ballet… this was a difficult decision to make as it is frowned upon in Ireland to take a child out of school, but it was impossible for my daughter to cope with school, homework, studies, and ballet.
Aslı: Injuries have been the MOST difficult part, both mentally and physiologically.
Abraham: We have been very cautious about balancing her passion for dance and avoiding burnout. As such, we have felt it was vital to maintain some “normal teenager” types of activities. We make sure that she eats properly, rests, and gets enough sleep. We also insist that school comes first, so she knows that she must maintain her grades in order to continue her dancing schedule.
What has been the most rewarding part of your child’s dance career?
Hilary: …when my daughter auditioned and got into [the program] it was lovely to see her surrounded by like-minded girls who had the same goal to dance… she really came into her own.
Aslı: Mentally, my daughter grew much faster than her peers, and she is taking the hold of her dance career in her hands.
Abraham: Undoubtedly it has been to watch her grow as a young woman. Dance has given her the confidence and poise that is rare in today’s society. We are certain that the discipline, hard work, and dedication she has learned through dance will be a lifelong asset…
Are you supportive of your child’s pursuit of dance long-term?
Hilary: I totally support my daughter’s pursuit of dance as a career. However, I worry that it is a difficult career, the competition is so stiff and there is always the worry of injury. As a parent you would like a plan B and want your child to get the best possible education… ballet makes this extremely difficult if not impossible with the time and energy it commands.
Aslı: Of course, I am supportive all the way. She will continue professionally if everything goes well.
Abraham: Yes absolutely, but with limits. As a former collegiate athlete, I am well aware of the limited career of individuals who use their bodies in careers such as dancing. When you factor in the few professional positions open to dancers, the competition for those positions is intense. Add the possibility of injury, changes in styles or just plain bad luck, and the odds of becoming a professional are daunting… we are supportive of her dreams while also cultivating options for her to pursue if that dream does not happen.
Have you ever thought about your child’s nutritional needs as a dancer?
Hilary: My daughter follows Nutritionists on Instagram who suggest nutritious recipes… she never just follows people who post recipes for the sake of it; they must have proper qualifications.
Aslı: I see that my daughter is growing into a young lady, and her body changes fast; so we try to be clever about the choices. Instagram is a good source for seeing better choices, but a personalized program would be more useful.
Abraham: We are constantly thinking about our dancer’s diet and ensuring that she has the proper dietary intake for her output. She indicated two years ago she wanted to be a vegetarian. We were concerned… But again, with open and honest communication, we found out that she felt sick whenever she would eat meat. So we explained the need to have a balanced diet and we’re comfortable that she supplements her protein loss from meat with other sources such as eggs, nuts, and beans.
Has your child experienced episodes of disordered eating?
Hilary: My daughter is aware of the dangers of an eating disorder… It is of course very difficult as you have teenagers who are in leotards eyeing each other up. The lady she trains with advised her about steering away from certain schools that are too obsessed with weight… it was a blessing.
Aslı: Not my daughter, but two of her peers. Some schools weigh the kids every month and warn them. When the child is 10 or 11 [years old], weight monitoring never makes sense since the [child’s] bodies are yet [pre-pubescent]… it [weight monitoring] becomes a mental pressure on the child. Social media is also a negative influencer… since body comparison becomes very easy.
Abraham: One of her dance peers had disordered eating habits. I believe there are multiple factors that led to her condition. Certainly, the child themselves, the parents, and the school all had some level of contribution.
5 Steps for Parents to Raise Healthy Dancers
#1: Navigate a Busy Schedule:
- Encourage organization around tasks. Keep a communal calendar to help prevent miscommunication at home.
- Prepare in advance: create balanced meals and snacks on weekends or when time permits. Pre-portion ready-to-eat containers for busy weekdays.
- Prep your dance gear. Pack your dance bag ahead of time, fill your water bottle, and organize your dancewear appropriately.
#2: Model a Healthy Mindset:
Caution with the parent-to-parent competition. Despite coming from a meaningful place, a competitive attitude creates an atmosphere that risks social isolation for your child. Also, assess YOUR relationship with food and body image. Children model the behaviors of their elders. Restrictive eating and obsessive body weight checking can risk the development of disordered habits.
The best part? I work with many dance parents in The Healthy Dancer® program. Each year, I also host 2 workshops for parents: The Healthy Dancer® Mastermind Series. Whether you’re joining with your dancer or not, my program will help to support you in the following areas:
- Performance Nutrition
- Your relationship with food
- Career goals
- Modeling a supportive body image
- Formulating interests outside of dance
You’ll also want to model downtime. The disciplinary nature of a rigorous dance schedule teaches young dancers about the importance of a diligent work ethic. While consistent training is important, make time for movies, games, and social events to encourage a balanced lifestyle.
#3: Listen and Respond
- Ongoing dialogue. Check-in with your dancer’s experience. Is it positive? As Abraham suggests, “…listen to and be available to talk. For us, that time happens right before bed when our daughters vent all of their stress, concerns, joys, and fears.”
- Encourage realistic body expectations. Address the risks of striving for impractical body types. Remember, parents, are role models. Model a non-restrictive relationship with food and body.
- Show interest and get involved. Your child likely spends much of his or her time at the studio. Simple tasks like volunteering backstage, typing performance programs, or packing group snack bags are examples of when time at work restricts your schedule.
#4: Encourage Food as Fuel
#5: Model A Supportive Body Image
Don’t worry… you do not have to master body image just yet! Modeling the work toward building a supportive body image is key. Here’s a complete guide to doing this.
Dance Parents: What About a Plan B?
Dance is a highly selective and competitive environment. When coupled with the risk of injury, a professional performance career can be daunting. Parents often question whether or not their child needs a “Plan B.”
If the opportunity presents then the pursuit of one’s passion is largely rewarding. Realize, however, that dance offers a world beyond the stage, the leotards, and the pointe shoes. The pursuit of dance opens doors to endless opportunities. Dance Education, Dance Science, and Dance Journalism are just some of the many routes a dancer can pursue. Abraham explains, “…while a professional dance career may be plan A, we have attempted to keep our dancer’s mind open to other careers around dance [including] physical therapy [and the possibility of owning] her own company designing and selling leotards and other dance clothing.”