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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
Hands on... Hands off
Teaching through touch is a delicate matter. Rachel Rist and Jeanette Siddall consider the issues for both pupils and teachers
To many dance teachers, the mere idea of trying to teach dance without touching a student is impossible. We use touch to guide and facilitate without even thinking about it. But we should think about it. In our own minds our intention is clear - to help a pupil understand precisely what physical change or correction we are suggesting by putting hands on a leg muscle or giving feedback in a postural correction. However, in the mind of the student the intention may be less clear - and may sometimes be misinterpreted. In order to protect ourselves in what is increasingly a litigious society, we may do well as dance teachers to follow good practice in sport and athletics by developing a code of conduct for ourselves. Saddening as it may be to some teachers, there are others who do not follow basic good practice and a code of conduct, as a form of 'defence in anticipation', can help protect teachers against unfair accusations.

Consider how vulnerable teachers are to the emotional outburst of a child not chosen for the lead role in the school show, or failing to gain high marks in an examination. People want someone to blame when things go wrong, and the teacher may be an easy target.

As teachers we must be totally objective in our professional lives. In its publication Professional Conduct for Teachers of Dance, the Council for Dance Education and Training states that 'teachers should recognise and respect the uniqueness, dignity and potential of each student irrespective of their ethnic origin, religious beliefs, personal attributes or any other factor'. These are the professional standards that we would naturally expect to uphold, but it is useful to he reminded of them and to communicate them to the parents who pay our salaries. It can only be good practice to be seen to have considered these matters and then to have done something about them in a professional manner.

Like it or not, society is now changing in a way which means that even totally harmless actions can result in lawsuits. Legislation is already in place to protect the child: the Children's Act of 1989; the Protection of Children Act, 1999; the Human Rights Act, 2000; the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child; the Home Office guidance for the prevention of the abuse of trust, Caring for the Young and Vulnerable, 1999. It is of course entirely appropriate that the law is doing more to protect children and young people. Many people can remember horror stories of abuse. It is also useful to consider what sorts of abuse we are talking about. Abuse can be physical, sexual or emotional, and it can take the form of neglect or bullying. Needless to say, none of these should ever happen in a dance studio.

And yet ... Consider 'physical abuse' for a moment. The British Gymnastics Association's Child Protection Procedures includes the phrase: 'inflicts a type and intensity of training which exceeds the capacity of the child's immature and growing body'. There are two issues here. The first is that major sports are already well ahead of the dance industry in producing booklets outlining what is appropriate. Research for this article produced many examples of published codes of ethics in dealing with young people from many forms of sports and athletics. The second issue is about the similarity between training elite gymnasts and training dancers. How many young dance students have willingly bought pointe shoes when they were too young to be doing pointe work? The willingness of some teachers and parents to allow their charges to be subject to a 'type and intensity of training' which may ultimately be harmful is worrying.

Good practice in dance teaching is based on the child or student's right to a safe environment, competent teaching and being treated with respect. In considering the concept of teaching dance, it may be useful if each teacher could examine his or her own personal philosophy of teaching. In attempting to answer the question 'Why do we teach?', we can see our own motivation. Do we teach to share enjoyment of dancing? To pass on skills? To develop understanding of ourselves or others? To promote lifelong enthusiasm for dance? To take a starring role in the studio or a supporting role? One's own philosophy will inform all aspects of teaching behaviour - it is a starting point for the tools that are available to us in our own teaching environment. If each child is encouraged to take personal responsibility even from an early age, dependence on the teacher/coach is decreased. The British Gymnastics Association's guidelines for promoting good practice include the following principle: 'All children have the right to be safe and to be treated with dignity and respect. A good and caring coach will continually reflect upon their own coaching style, philosophy and practices to ensure the safety and well being of the gymnasts at all times.'

It is useful to compare some comments from The Responsible Football Coach Code of Conduct:

  • Coaches must place the well being and safety of each player above all other considerations, including the development of performance
  • Coaches must ensure that the activities they direct or advocate are appropriate for the age, maturity, experience and ability of players.

Here lies the difficulty for teachers. Dance training is often physically so demanding that it can be damaging. In addition, given recent developments in dance medicine, we now know a lot more about the body and how it can work best. To give an extreme example; it used to be forbidden to take a drink of water even 30 minutes after an exhausting class, and certainly never during the class. Now we know better, and it is commonplace to see water bottles in class, in exams and being used to supply essential hydration. Many contraindicated movements are now only rarely seen, although at one time it was commonplace to see forceful twisting of the spine to 'warm up'. Both the above examples could be cited as 'abuse' and would now possibly be hard to defend in a court of law.

The point is that as our knowledge improves and we understand how the body works, our teaching changes. We constantly have to update our knowledge and devote ourselves to continuous professional development. Lack of knowledge is hardly a defence of bad practice. Court cases have resulted from teachers asking students to perform inappropriate movements. When large sums of money can be awarded in 'damages' it behoves every dance teacher to do their utmost to show publicly that their work is regularly upgraded with professional courses and that a code of practice is prominently displayed.

So we come on to 'touching'. In a medical or clinical environment, the practitioner may use touch to diagnose or treat. This touch is (one hopes) totally professional and the intention is to give help. So it should be with the dance teacher. It is useful to consider such questions as: When do we touch pupils and students? Why? Are there any other teaching tools that could be used, such as giving images to convey understanding? What are the benefits of touching? Is this the only way that a message can be given? Let us also be clear that touching is an important and valuable tool and irreplaceable in many circumstances. When teaching posture and correct placing, it may be entirely appropriate to use physical touch to cue the correct pattern of movement. In these cases, we should consider how we approach someone.

Treating young people with respect and dignity would suggest that permission should always be sought before we touch. Obviously there is a world of difference in taking a class of five-year-olds and a class of 15-year-olds. Young children often vie with each other to hold the teacher's hand and for whatever reasons it may be necessary to give a quick cuddle or pat on the back if a child is upset. However, in a class of mixed adolescents who are subject to dramatic hormone changes, touching may cause acute embarrassment and loss of dignity. Asking should therefore be age-specific and take account of the maturity of the individual. In crossgender classes (female teacher/male student or male teacher/female student) extra care must be taken. The teacher must consider carefully the desired outcome of touching the student and be very aware of the potential for misunderstandings.

A general permission might be sought from parents at the start of the year or the term. Something along the lines of. 'Dancing is a physical skill. In order to help and facilitate the student's learning, the teacher may occasionally physically guide a movement by touch. This will be in a professional manner and the intention of the contact will be made clear.' Every individual teacher must decide how important parental response to this statement may be, and some may consider that written parental consent is the best form of defence. After all, permission protects the teacher as well as the child.

In many everyday situations, a simple 'may I?' could be used when approaching a student. Alternatively, a more clinical explanation could be given: for example: 'I would like to show you physically how your posture could be improved with better alignment. Is this all right with you?' Consider if you should always ask before touching a child, and, importantly, how you might recognise a child who does not want to be touched.

Other complex factors to be aware of could include specific cultural implications of touching, invasion of personal space and having an awareness of an individual's background. A child who shrinks from touch, however kindly meant, may have a history of abuse or bullying. Here is the delicate side of the whole issue; it may be the dance teacher who sees a bruised child, frightened by the approach of an adult, who may be in urgent need of help. The teacher is then faced with the difficulty of what to do with suspected cases of abuse. However unpleasant, if evidence of abuse is seen, action must be taken. In the words of the Football Association's Child Protection Procedures: 'Non action is not an option in child protection'.

Personal boundaries vary with each individual. This is influenced by their past experiences, age and maturity. Touch invades our personal space and it can feel very intrusive if unwelcome. A young girl experiencing her first menstrual cycles could feel very threatened and embarrassed by totally innocent touching. Similarly, young boys just getting used to wearing jock straps and tights may he acutely aware of how vulnerable they are if aroused. Teachers should be especially aware of corrections close to the pelvis and should try to keep this to a minimum.

Having agreed that touch can sometimes be inappropriate or misinterpreted, it is nevertheless still one of many teaching methods that we can use to enhance the process of learning to dance. We need then to review precisely what manner of touching a child is appropriate. First of all, the intention behind the physical contact should be professional and unambiguous. In an almost clinical fashion, the teacher should touch in a manner that is firm, direct and necessary. There is nothing worse than trying to correct by prodding with fingertips or lightly brushing a part of the hand. Both of these methods are likely to be misinterpreted. It should be with the whole hand and be firm and precise. Think about the type of pressure. Some teachers do not know their own strength and can cause pain when being too firm. Pulling someone's bun upwards in an aim to lengthen the spine is inappropriate. There are other methods of teaching good posture without resorting to hair pulling

Check also if 'hands on' is only used to give negative feedback. Do you ever give a literal 'pat on the back'? If touch is to be a part of teaching, it can also be used to reinforce the positive. By ensuring that touching is not only used to give corrections, but also used to give personal praise, a more relaxed atmosphere is perceived by all concerned. Maintaining good eye contact with a child when giving hands-on feedback is often very useful. In this way the teacher can monitor what the child is experiencing and if necessary modify the contact. In establishing eye contact, we are also giving reassurance and showing a confident professional manner. Use of the child's own name is important here too - it is the person and not the body that is being given attention.

Ultimately, physically touching a dancer is all about giving kinaesthetic feedback. In order for most dancers to learn precisely how to perform a complex movement, the body has to physically learn the best way to do this. Kinaesthetic awareness comes internally from the student dancer. It is an awareness of the shape of a movement, an awareness of pressure, relaxation, contraction and physical positions. By touching a dancer we are aiming to encourage kinaesthetic response. In physical therapy, clever machines have been invented to give instant feedback to the patient with biofeedback mechanisms that are small and responsive enough to allow the body to programme good muscle patterning of any particular movement. For example, when sustaining a correct pattern of muscle contraction, the patient is rewarded by seeing a prescribed set of lights or sounds. As dancers, we have to be our own bio-feedback machines. By developing good kinaesthetic awareness in our students and encouraging personal responsibility, the learning takes place faster. Checking that learning has occurred is fundamentally good teaching. How has the correction/ feedback been perceived? Is that what you intended? How much was the student involved in making the change?

Equivalent professional bodies in the sports world have already developed codes of conduct and ethics for coaches who deal with young children and students. In promoting a professional image of integrity and respect for the young and vulnerable individual, these sporting organisations are well ahead of the dance world. Yet the whole issue of touching is an important one for the dance industry. It is time that we discussed these issues openly and with professional objectivity.

Dancing can be a life-enriching process of self-discovery, of artistic, intellectual and physical development. It is often necessary to touch a pupil or student to make that person become a better dancer. We need to ensure that we use touch well and wisely, by asking permission, making our intention clear, using appropriate touch and checking that learning has occurred. We do need to be aware that other professions are ahead of us in making codes of practice explicit, and that there are real issues of legality, duty of care and child protection that we cannot ignore.

Reflecting on our methods in the light of growing knowledge and changing expectations is necessary, valuable and good practice. For many teachers, writing their own code of practice and sharing it with parents and students is a simple matter of describing their beliefs, values and methods. However, in changing times like the present this can also protect teachers - leaving them free to concentrate on teaching young people how to dance.

Rachel Rist MA FRSA, director of Dance, the Arts Educational School, member of the Royal Academy of Dance Executive Committee and chair of the Educational Committee.
Jeanette Siddall MA FRSA, director of Dance UK and a member of the Royal Academy of Dance Education Committee.

First published in Dance Gazette, the magazine of the Royal Academy of Dance.

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Animated: Spring 2002