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Establishing Appropriate Student-Teacher Relationships


Teacher article



Dance teachers spend countless hours with students in the studio week after week and year after year. Sometimes, that familiarity has the potential to blur the lines of the relationship from dance teacher to student vs. friend to friend. In a sense you do become part of a second “studio-family” and role model whom they look up to. While building a relationship with students who feel comfortable enough to trust you, communicate and share with you is wonderful, remembering who the mentor is, who’s in charge and setting good examples all around should be your main priority.

Keeping in mind that like any child who looks up to an adult, what you do, what you say, what you know, how you act, etc, are all things children are going to emulate out of that admiration. In fact, sometimes they may feel so close to you that they maybe share too much information, talk to you as they would a friend and lose sight that you are there to train them, nurture them and foster their dance education. As with any well balanced authoritative adult- figure, awareness of setting boundaries and examples will only benefit your dancers in the long run. Here are some things to keep in mind…

Be interested in a student’s life, (i.e. school, events, etc,) but keep discussions to generalities. Ask questions and show enthusiasm or empathy for things they are sharing, but know where to draw the line when things get too personal. If they are however coming to you about a problem or decision they are grappling with, be their sound-board for sure but make the determination of what should be discussed with their parents. At the end of the day, remember there is a delicate balance in making sure you are providing a safe place to offer non-judgmental help but remembering you are not their friend sharing secrets in the school yard.

Conversely, refrain from sharing your personal problems with your students. Dance class is not the place to discuss the woes of a recent break-up or your financial problems, etc. It is not your hour of therapy with a captive audience. Again, stick to the main goal….training them to dance.

Be appropriate in all capacities. In class, dress appropriately. Appearance is important. Set an example of professionalism. Showing your students that you care for what you look like to teach them and dance with them demonstrates effort and a sense of style. Also, don’t bring your phone into the studio and text or take calls. Give them your undivided attention. Don’t chew gum.

Be prompt for class. Although everyone is human and things like traffic or train delays can’t be avoided, make every effort to be at the studio at least 15-20 minutes prior to your class; and if possible, be in the studio reviewing notes, playing around with new music or stretching and giving yourself a warm-up. Start class promptly as well. Taking the first five minutes to take attendance and greet everyone is great to get a good energy flow going, but after that, the door should be shut to let late-comers know you run a punctual class and want to give them the most out of their time with you.

Be an inspiration. Remember that these young dancers are aspiring to go where you’ve already been. Know your vocabulary words, anatomical terms, dance history, speak in dance terms, explain why things are what they are and where it comes from, move around the room and don’t sit for too long, demonstrate full-out when you can, improvise with them and take chances to creatively push yourself choreographically. Be energetic and praise them when it’s called for. In other words, “walk the walk.” Let students in on how and where you continue your own training and education and be an influence in reminding them that learning never ends, no matter how old you are or how much you’ve accomplished. Ultimately, the more you continue to learn and keep current with all the new, amazing things happening in the dance world, the more informative you will be for your own students. Be that source of inspiration for them and let them watch and emulate your knowledge, creativity and artistry as they progress and find their own distinctions.

Be nurturing, motivating, positive and patient. Speak to your students the way you hope they speak to one another. Have a good sense of humor and keep it light and reel it back in immediately when it gets out of hand. Always maintain that control over the class environment. Set precedence so students know who’s in charge. The dance studio is not a place for democracy! In the beginning of the year sit and review what your class policies are so that everyone is aware of your expectations in the studio. Remind them when they look like a dancer and act accordingly then they can call themselves dancers and dance like a dancer. It’s important to be specific and ensure complete comprehension and agreement of these expectations. Think of coming up with a contract for them to sign at the start of the year to avoid confusion.

Follow-through. Students need to see consistency and repercussions regarding their actions. Set a positive precedent and acknowledge hard-work, effort and good work ethic, but don’t waver when you need to deal with inappropriate behavior.  Other students will watch and see how you deal with that, so try not to feel bad, and know it is creating tangible boundaries for them; which they need in order to grow into self-accepting, responsible adults.

Be who you want them to be. As a dancer, as a teacher, as a choreographer, as an artist, as a human being. Guide them to make good choices for their health and well-being and be that mentor that they do look up to. Know when to be their friend, but more importantly know that you are always their teacher first and foremost; with their goals and future in mind as your first priority.



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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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