Laying the Foundation for Motivated Dancers with Ashley Mowrey

Mindset Coach and Educator Ashley Mowrey offers five key areas teachers can implement to lay the foundation for motivated dancers.
This feature image show a group of dance students practicing with a dance teacher.

We’ve made it to May, teachers! You did it! After what was likely one of the hardest years of your career, you’re here. Through all the unpredictability, cancellations, restrictions, virtual teaching, and so much more… you showed up, stayed steady, and provided a safe space for learning and growing that your students so desperately needed. Take a minute to celebrate all you’ve done!

Throughout the past year, I’ve often heard concerns from teachers and studio owners that although students appeared to be thrilled to be dancing again, motivation, focus, and energy in class seem to be at an all-time low. It makes sense, right? Think of all that these kids have endured recently. How do we, as educators, make room for the residual effects of the pandemic, while still providing excellent training and encouraging growth in our students? 

The Answer: We must first lay the foundation for motivated students through personal development tools and exercises. Think of your studio building and the foundation it’s built on. A solid foundation means your building can likely withstand the elements, time, use, and other unforeseen factors. With a strong foundation, you can trust that your building will stay standing tall and firm. It’s the same for humans. In order to weather the storms, we must first lay a sturdy foundation.

Years ago, in my first year of teaching, I logically understood this metaphor, but I struggled with putting it into action. It felt like there was so much to do in the classroom; how could I possibly stop technique or combos to make time for what I thought were such frivolous activities? I felt pressure from myself, the studio owner, and parents to produce dancers with quality technique and stage-ready performances. But I often felt frustrated when my dancers came to class unprepared to learn, lacked motivation, or were distracted by other aspects of their lives.

Looking back at my younger self, I’m reminded of a quote from Brené Brown, in which she says, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” (Brown, 2021). 

Ah, yes. Back then, I didn’t understand the value of investing time into the personal foundation of my dancers, and therefore, I ended up wasting a whole lot more time trying to coax them into working hard. 

5 Key Areas to Lay the Foundation for Motivated Students

Now, as a Mindset Coach for dancers, there are five key areas I focus on to lay the foundation for motivated students, all of which you can implement with your dancers:

  1. Building Connection and Psychological Safety
  2. Detaching from Praise and Criticism
  3. Nurturing the Inner Guide
  4. Teaching and Modeling Flexible Expectations to External Factors
  5. Focusing on Purpose and Process Over Outcome

Key Area 1: Building Connection and Psychological Safety

Research has shown that students who feel connected and psychologically safe perform better and are more motivated to work hard and tackle challenges (Kaufman, 2021). When students are emotionally connected and have positive relationships with teachers and peers, they are more engaged and more likely to participate. Check out this article for more of the brain science behind connection and motivation. 

Creating an environment that is psychologically safe for all students is a crucial part of teaching and plays an important role in developing motivated students. A psychologically safe environment is one in which students do not fear being humiliated, yelled at, or punished for mistakes (Tjan et al., 2017). It’s possible (and favorable) to have high expectations of students while still maintaining a psychologically safe classroom. For more on this topic, as well as ways to create psychological safety, this article from Harvard Business Review is a great starting point. 

Far too often in the dance community, we fall into old-school teaching methods that use fear tactics and demand perfection. Not only are these methods not effective long-term, but they’re not a sustainable motivation for dancers, often leading to burnout and mental health struggles. Instead, we can unpack our own emotional baggage from our training years and get intentional about the environment we’re creating. This article I wrote for Apolla Performance Wear on Teaching with Empathy, as well as my self-reflection on mistakes are great resources to help establish psychological safety in the classroom.

Putting it into Action

Classroom exercise for building connection: Mirror of Encouragement

This exercise builds connection, belonging, trust, understanding, cooperation, empathy, and promotes a supportive and encouraging environment. It can use with any age group 8+.

  • Provide a piece of paper for everyone in the class. Have dancers write their names at the top.
  • Next, dancers will take turns passing their papers around. Have them write something they love, admire or respect about the person whose name is at the top. You can either have dancers write their names under their message or do it anonymously. Continue until everyone has written on every paper.
  • After everyone is done writing, give the paper back to each dancer and have them read through all the kind things their fellow dancers wrote about them.
  • Next, have dancers spread out to improv. In front of where they’re going to dance, tape their paper on the mirror.
  • Have dancers improv while the words of encouragement cover the mirror.
  • After, have dancers reflect on the experience of writing words of encouragement, reading kind words about themselves, and then dancing in front of those words. Do this either written or through group discussion.

Key Area 2: Detaching from Praise and Criticism

As dancers, feedback is a fundamental part of training. Our students need both praise and corrections/criticism to excel and develop to their fullest potential. However, problems arise when students are attached to praise, attention, and approval, or avoid criticism and critiques. 

When dancers are dependent on praise or rewards as motivation and validation, it can get tangled with their self-worth and have many negative effects such as burnout, loss of identity, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Meanwhile, if dancers avoid criticism or corrections, not only are they going to hold back in class, but they’re also likely motivated by fear of rejection or humiliation, which is not a sustainable or healthy motivator. 

Instead, we can help our dancers explore their relationship to praise and criticism and practice tools to detach from it. Below is a summary of tools, from my training in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Method, that I shared in my recent article for Apolla Performance Wear. You can read the whole article here.

Putting it into Action

Praise and Criticism Journal Exercise based on Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Method

Use students’ dance journals or have them bring a notebook from home to explore the following prompts as an exercise in class. Have dancers journal independently, then you can open it up for group discussion on takeaways and what they learned about themselves. This is great to do yourself and with the studio faculty as well. This exercise is best for dancers ages 12+. For an extended list of journal prompts from Tara Mohr, click here.

  1. When, where, and from whom do you seek praise? Do you ever avoid praise?
  2. What is the praise you most want to hear? What criticism stings the most? Gently reflect and write about these and if they’re clues to any limiting beliefs you hold about yourself.
  3. What behaviors do you do mainly to get praise or attention? Explore and write about your behaviors in several environments such as class, rehearsals, competitions, performances, auditions, and on social media.
  4. What behaviors do you do to avoid criticism? Explore each environment.
  5. How would your training and performance be different if you weren’t dependent on or motivated by praise? How about if you were less affected by criticism? What would be possible?

Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Method Tools to Detach from Praise and Criticism:

These tools can be introduced to dancers ages 10+. Take time out of a class to teach these tools and then facilitate their use as needed when dancers are struggling with criticism or fixated on praise. For more guidance on these techniques, please reach out with questions, book a session with me, or schedule a virtual group workshop with me for your dancers. For an extended list of tools from Tara Mohr, click here.

  1. Re-frame as information about the person giving it: Look at the feedback you’re receiving as information about the person giving it. What does it tell you about their personality, priorities, preferences, mood, likes/dislikes, etc? How can you use this information to support your craft? What, if any, actions do you want to take to more effectively reach that person? The key here is to re-frame the feedback as information about the giver and that it’s not a reflection of you personally.
  2. Mirror of self-beliefs: What criticism do you most fear hearing? What praise do you most seek? What limiting self-belief is it mirroring? What do you need to hear from yourself right now regarding that belief?
  3. Align with your intention or core values: What is more important than getting praise or avoiding criticism? What behaviors would reflect your intention or values right now? If you need help setting your core values, check out my March Apolla article where I’ll walk you through it.
  4. Connecting to your self-worth and practicing self-compassion: Your worth and value as a human are not determined by praise, criticism, feedback, awards, social media likes, etc. Remind yourself of this often and reflect on what makes you you without all that other stuff. Practice self-compassion by talking to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.

Tips for Teachers on Praise and Criticism:

  • Practice a pause: I know firsthand how incredibly frustrating it can be when students are unmotivated or continue not fixing corrections. But giving feedback with that frustration isn’t healthy or sustainable. Instead, we can practice finding a pause. Counting to 10, getting a drink of water, deep breathing, or other grounding techniques help activate the relaxation response and bring us back into the present moment instead of the downward spiral happening in our mind. 
  • Delivery is everything: When giving corrections and criticism, delivery matters. That’s not to say to lie, avoid corrections, or sugarcoat it. But when we use fear, shame, or screaming, it not only decreases the psychological safety in our classroom, but can also trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, which results in a physiological response that affects concentration, creativity, and problem-solving skills (Cuncic, 2020). Instead, we can get clear on our core values (here’s a great exercise for that from my March Apolla article), and practice teaching methods that are in alignment with those values.
  • Praise progress and effort more often than outcome: We’ll get to this more in Key Area 5, but to increase internal motivation and decrease attachment to praise and awards, we must focus our praise on progress and effort instead of the outcome (awards, scholarships, a “perfect” performance, etc). 

With these first two Key Areas, you’re ready to begin laying the foundation for motivated dancers! For the last three Key Areas, look for my June article with Apolla Performance Wear coming out next month. I’ll cover nurturing the inner guide, teaching and modeling flexible expectations to external factors, and focusing on purpose and process over outcome. You’ve been there for your students through their toughest year, and with these tools and exercises you’re setting them up for reaching their fullest potential for years to come. 

 If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration. Chat soon!


Ashley Mowrey is a Mindset Coach and Educator for dancers.  She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach and Whole Person Certified Coach through Coach Training World, a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program, a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcoming Embody Dance Conference, coming Summer 2021 in Connecticut where she will lead workshops for all ages, including parents and teachers, on mindset skills. She is also a Team Member of Dancer, 360, and is a contributor to their upcoming book. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community to foster mental health and wellbeing. She sees clients in person and via Skype/Zoom all over the country as well as travels (mostly virtually these days) to studios for customized group workshops. Ashley has also been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to her website for more information, or her Instagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.

References

Brown, B. (2021, March 8). Workbook, Art Pics, Glossary. Dare To Lead. https://daretolead.brenebrown.com/workbook-art-pics-glossary/.

Cuncic, A. (2020, June 16). How to Prevent and Cope From an Amygdala Hijack. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack-4165944.

Kaufman, T. (2021, April 1). Building positive relationships with students: What brain science says. Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/for-educators/empathy/brain-science-says-4-reasons-to-build-positive-relationships-with-students.

Mohr, T. (2014). Unhooking from Praise and Criticism. In Playing big: find your voice, your mission, your message (pp. 89–121). essay, Gotham Books.Tjan, A. K., Walker, C. A., & Renner, S. D. S. and D. (2017, August 24). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it