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Prioritizing Your Dance Students’ Mental Health





An attendee at this year’s DTW conference recently asked me where we as a dance industry should collectively be headed in the near and far future. I thought this was an extremely poignant and timely question as there is always room for vast reflection, improvement, growth and progress in our field as dance educators. And while there are many, many things I’d love to see unified and us moving towards, the one I currently prioritize most is the mental health of our dance students and youth as a whole. I find this urgent, necessary and essential.

With the likes of elite athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles kicking open the door to shed a light on this very thing, it’s now time we also turn more of our attention to, not just training dancers’ bodies, but their minds and spirits as well. The thing to keep in mind is, ultimately, we are nurturing a growing individual, not just the dancer. We are there to shape and mold healthy, happy, confident human beings. We are there to educate them and train them on their passion for dance, but we also need to be mindful of the world in which they are living in….the current stresses, pressures and how to self-manage and be vocal about them. We need to be providing an environment which is positive, safe and open for them to learn about themselves and how to navigate the situations and feelings that arise.

With adolescent and youth anxiety, depression and suicide on the rise, young dancers are learning who they are not only as artists but as growing individuals as well.

There is a distinct difference in how we can “push” our dancers in a healthy and non- healthy context. We can challenge them, yes and we should be. Having expectations is not a bad thing. But, there is a positive way to do it. We should be providing effective tools which set the tone for students to recognize their own physical and mental boundaries and how to speak candidly with us about them so we can work together as a team. The support we provide is essential and can set the ground work for them to own their mental and physical health and have a positive relationship with it.

So, how do we do achieve this shift in the dance studio? For me, it was about developing a specific yoga, movement and wellness program to bring to my students, fellow dance studios and school districts to teach youth how to be present and own their own mental health and wellness (*See ‘Be Well’ Program at For you, it may be providing mental health training for yourself and your faculty, learning breath- work techniques to teach, offering yoga and meditation classes, having an open door policy for touch-bases for causal check in meetings with your students, having someone come in to guest speak, etc. There are endless avenues you can take to make an impact and prioritize your dance students mental health and well-being. Without a healthy mind, body and soul, the dance steps seem arbitrary. When nurturing the student as a whole, we gain to help develop happy, healthy, confident and passionate dance students with a keen self-awareness about themselves and their present state.
Good luck to all!
Be well.

See you in the dance studio,

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Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford is a native New Yorker and graduate of NYU Steinhardt's Dance Education Master’s Program; with a PK-12 New York State Teaching Certification. Her double-concentration Master’s Degree includes PK-12 pedagogy and dance education within the higher-education discipline. She also holds a BFA in dance performance from the UMASS Amherst 5 College Dance Program where she was a Chancellor's Talent Award recipient. Jess now works extensively with children, adolescents and professionals as choreographer and teacher and conducts national and international master-classes specializing in the genres of modern, contemporary, musical theatre and choreography-composition. Jess’ national and international performance career includes works such as: The National Tour of Guys & Dolls, The European Tour of Grease, West Side Story, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Salute to Dudley Moore at Carnegie Hall, guest-dancer with the World Famous Pontani Sisters and IMPULSE Modern Dance Company. Jess has been a faculty member for the Perichild Program & Peridance Youth Ensemble & taught contemporary and jazz at the historic New Dance Group and 92nd Street Y in NYC. She was Company Director at the historic Steffi Nossen School of Dance/Dance in Education Fund and in 2008 traveled to Uganda where she taught creative-movement to misplaced children. The experience culminated with Jess being selected as a featured instructor at the Queen's Kampala Ballet & Modern Dance School. She has conducted workshops for the cast of LA REVE at the Wynn, Las Vegas and recently taught at the 2011 IDS International Dance Teacher Conference at The Royal Ballet in London, UK. She is also on faculty for the annual Dance Teacher Web Conferences in Las Vegas, NV. Currently, Jess is a faculty member at the D'Valda & Sirico Dance & Music Centre and master teacher & adjudicator for various national and international dance competitions. Recently, she has finished her NYU Master’s thesis research on the choreographic process of technically advanced adolescent dancers and is the creator of “PROJECT C;” a choreography-composition curriculum for the private studio sector. Jess is also faculty member, contributing writer and presenter in the choreography and “how to” teaching segments on the celebrated For more info, visit her website at

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