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Growing up in Dance: What have we learned and how can we better support young people?

I'm delighted to have another guest blog for you! In this comprehensive and informative post, Dr Siobhan Mitchell, Research Fellow in Child and Adolescent Health from the University of Exeter, discusses the benefits and challenges of adolescence for young dancers, and offers some practical tips to help support young people growing up in dance.

Many of us are aware of the challenges that come with growing up; physical changes in body size and shape, as well as psychological changes such as increasing focus on how we look compared to our peers. What we are starting to learn more about is how these challenges are experienced for young people growing up in dance specifically. We know that growing up in dance can mean that the challenges of puberty and adolescence are amplified and that we can feel greater pressure to adapt to physical changes quickly with minimal disruption to our dance training. What is less widely talked about are the potential benefits of these changes for our dance practice, such as increases in strength and power (post-puberty) and cognitive developments which make the mid-late adolescent period a fantastic time for learning.

As we grow and change, there are lots of different factors to consider – everyone grows in their own time and at their own pace. The environment in which we grow and develop also has implications for what those changes mean and how we perceive them, which in turn can have implications for our mental health; whether it’s the timing of these changes, or how well they fit into the perceived requirements of a particular style of dance. For example, going through the physical changes of puberty earlier than average (aka early maturation) for young people who are training in sports like tennis is welcomed: gaining strength, power and size at an earlier age is viewed as beneficial. In dance styles such as ballet however, we tend to see the reverse of this, whereby earlier physical maturation, particularly for girls, is viewed more negatively and the characteristics associated with later maturation, such as longer legs relative to a shorter torso, tend to be more highly valued.

In my PhD research I explored how adolescent female ballet dancers perceive puberty, the specific changes, such as breast development, and its timing (early, on time, or late). Three key findings stood out for me:

1.       Adolescent dancers described a conflict between normal pubertal change and the (perceived) expectations of the ballet training environment

Young people describe a conflict between the ballet body and the normal changes of puberty. Similar to many stories in the media recently (e.g., the BBC’s Panorama programme, The Dark Side of Ballet), experiences speak to the conflict between developing bodies and the perceived requirements of the ballet world; where normal pubertal changes such as breast development and widening of the hips are perceived by young people to be negative, or to move them away from the ideals they feel their wider environment values.

2.       Experiences of growing up in dance varied by maturity timing

The qualitative experience of young people in dance varied in relation to whether they had gone through puberty early, on time, or late. Contrary to previous research, but in line with what dance teachers have told us, we found some benefits for early maturing dancers, such as having more time to adjust to physical changes and “getting the growing out of the way” relatively early on in their pre-professional training. Late maturing dancers described challenges such as going through their most rapid period of growth during a crucial point in their training.

3.       The dance teacher was nearly always mentioned as central to how they experienced puberty in the dance context (in a positive or negative way!)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dance teacher was central to the lived experiences of young people in dance. The teacher was central to how they experienced puberty; what their expectations were (“right/wrong” ways to grow); how they perceived pubertal changes (positive/negative); and how they coped with those changes.

A lot of the challenges for young people arise from the impact which physical change can have on them psychologically. These also intersect with the psychological changes happening during adolescence and the environment in which change is happening, both of which can amplify these challenges. Some examples are illustrated in the figure below. For instance, physical changes such as breast development or menstruation may lead to greater self-consciousness or anxiety, during a time where young people are more sensitive and are predisposed to have greater preoccupation with perceived physical differences. The environment in which dancers train can also exacerbate these feelings, such as the fact that physical change is highly visible due to form-fitting dancewear, and use of the mirror can facilitate peer comparison.

This can be a bit of ‘perfect’ storm for young dancers, and as a sector we need to be equipped to support young people with these challenges. My PhD findings pointed to some key areas to consider in order to begin addressing these challenges:

  • A drive for better data so we can more fully understand the challenges facing young people growing up in dance

  • Education for dance teachers, students, and others who support dancers such as parents

  • A push to raise awareness across the dance sector

With the support of some key collaborators from within the dance sector, the GuiDANCE project helped us to take some initial steps towards these aims and provided us with an opportunity to: develop a better understanding of data collected on growth and maturation in dance; evaluate education provision across the sector; and co-create a vision for best practice in supporting young people growing up in dance. The below illustration shows some of the learning we took forward from the GuiDANCE project and our initial ideas for what best practice might look like in dance.

If you are reflecting on your practice with young people in dance, here are some top tips to think about to get you started:

  • There is a very wide range of ‘normal’ during childhood and adolescent growth.

There can be differences in timing (when you go through puberty), tempo (how quickly you go through puberty) and stage (what stage of pubertal development you are in). Chronological and biological age can vary by 5 years – so a 12-year-old can look like a child or an adult, and this variation is normal.

  • Adolescence is tricky but a good thing! Consider and raise awareness of the benefits.

Adolescence encompasses not just physical development, but a whole host of other things like social, emotional and cognitive development, which is why it spans such a long period of time. A lot of these changes are challenging, particularly for young people in dance and it’s easy to contribute to the negative stigma that often surrounds events like puberty – but there are positives! For example, once we have gone through the most rapid period of growth we can realise some of the benefits of that growth, such as improvements in strength and power. There are also lots of positive things happening psychologically, such as increasing ability to evaluate strengths and weaknesses. We can facilitate and harness this to support teaching and learning.

  • Perseverance is key – many of the challenges associated with pubertal changes are temporary.

Things to look out for include loss of flexibility, balance or coordination – these are all normal and temporary changes, usually related to the growth spurt, which will settle down and improve. Consider training load and time for rest.

  • Think about the physical and mental – physical changes often have a psychological impact.

For example, the growth spurt may have implications for flexibility and a knock-on impact upon confidence or motivation in the dance studio; or changes in body shape and proportion may conflict with a young person’s perception of being a successful dancer or their aspirations in dance.

  • Be practical in support.

Think about how you support young people in your dance studio e.g., providing sanitary products for male and female students (pads, deodorant, towels, etc); having spares of everything (tights, leotard, underwear); considering uniform and cover up options and respecting the need for additional support and comfort (e.g., bras).

  • Adolescence is a process.

This is a significant period over which change is happening and the nature of your support will change across this time e.g., more autonomy as adolescence progresses. Think about your approach during the different ages and stages of adolescence.

We have founded the GuiDANCE Network , a collaborative of dance sector organisations, researchers, dance teachers and dance students working to better equip the sector to support young people in dance. Through the GuiDANCE Network we are now working to put our guidelines for best practice into action. We are doing this through:

  • Research and practice – what is currently being done? How can we do better?

  • Training and education – empowering teachers, parents and students to nurture developing bodies and minds

  • Network – a network of people passionate about supporting young people in dance and supporting each other to do this well

  • Resources and repository – creating toolkits and resources to better equip dance teachers, parents and students (check out the repository here)

We welcome anyone who would like to support this work or learn more about how to support young people growing up in dance to get involved with the network. Click here to find out more about becoming a member of the GuiDANCE Network.

References and further reading:

Brown, K.A., Patel, D.R., Darmawan, D. (2017). Participation in sports in relation to adolescent growth and development. Translational Pediatrics, 6(3), 150-159.

Brooks-Gunn, J., & Warren, M. (1985). The effects of delayed menarche in different contexts: Dance and non-dance students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 14(4), 285-300. doi: 10.1007/BF02089235

Dahl, R. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities - Keynote address. Adolescent Brain Development: Vulnerabilities And Opportunities, 1021, 1-22. doi: 10.1196/annals.1308.001

GuiDANCE Project Team (2022). GuiDANCE Project Co-creation Workshop report.

Gay, J. L., Monsma, E. V., Smith, A. L., DeFreese, J., & Torres-McGehee, T. (2014). Assessment of growth and maturation in female athletes at a single point in time. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 22(2), 76-82.

Mitchell, S. B., Haase, A. M., Malina, R. M., & Cumming, S. P. (2016). The role of puberty in the making and breaking of young ballet dancers: Perspectives of dance teachers. Journal of Adolescence, 47, 81-89.

Mitchell, S. B., Haase, A. M., Cumming, S. P., & Malina, R. M. (2017). Understanding growth and maturation in the context of ballet: A biocultural approach. Research in Dance Education18(3), 291-300.

Mitchell, S. B., Haase, A. M., & Cumming, S. P. (2020). Experiences of delayed maturation in female vocational ballet students: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 80, 233-241. DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2020.03.005

Mitchell, S. B., Haase, A. M., & Cumming, S. P. (2021). Of Grit and Grace: Negotiating Puberty, Surviving, and Succeeding in Professional Ballet, Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 29(2), 127-138.

Mitchell, S. B., Haase, A. M., & Cumming, S. P. (2022). On-Time Maturation in Female Adolescent Ballet Dancers: Learning From Lived Experiences. The Journal of Early Adolescence42(2), 262-290.

Myburgh, G. K., Cumming, S. P., Coelho E Silva, M., Cooke, K., & Malina, R. M. (2016). Growth and maturity status of elite British junior tennis players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(20), 1957-1964.

Pickard, A. (2013). Ballet body belief: perceptions of an ideal ballet body from young ballet dancers. Research in Dance Education, 14(1), 3-19.

Stark, A., & Newton, M. (2014). A dancer's well-being: The influence of the social psychological climate during adolescence. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 356-363.

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