The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
You are here:> Home > Developing Practice > Animated magazine > Searchable archive > Winter 2008 > We can nurture self-esteem, but... how?
Animated Edition - Winter 2008
We can nurture self-esteem, but... how?
When we dance, our medium is 'our-self', so surely community dance has got to have unique ways of nurturing self-esteem. Joke Verlinden looks at what these could be
Self-esteem - as an aspect of the phycological self concerned with judgements of self-worth(1), is often mentioned when we discuss the impact of community dance on well-being. Stakeholders such as Dance United(2) and Rubicon Dance(3) have stated that community dance can develop it, and evaluations of East Brighton Dance Development Programme(4), Out of Reach(5), and NRG Youth Dance and Health(6) have shown increased levels of self-esteem. As a psychologist and dance practitioner, the complex processes behind these results fascinated me.It seems community dance has something unique to offer, but what exactly? Based on literature research, interviews, and professional experiences, I suggest here some answers and specific attention points.

Attitudes of the community dance practitioner


When we imagine ourselves into the inner life of another (with some degree of accuracy) we are empathic, and this empathy helps to foster psychological & emotional growth(7). Others feel recognised and valued when they are empathically listened to, so we can assume that community dance artists need to have an open, empathic attitude if they are aiming to nurture participants' self-esteem.

Developing participants' potential
People who gain self-esteem through personal competence can develop their self-esteem by cultivating "talents for personal accomplishments that bring self-satisfaction"(1). Consequently, community dance practitioners who are aiming to enhance self-esteem should find out what participants would like to learn in a project, and which self-satisfying talents they would like to develop, keeping in mind the many ways in which dance can develop competencies.

Realistic standards of achievement
Those with a low self-esteem due to their very high standards can become more self-valuing if they are encouraged to adopt more realistic standards of achievement(1) and to combat self-criticism(8). In line with sports psychological research, I can suggest that self-esteem can be nurtured by taking small steps towards the ultimate goal and by rewarding each successful step. The level of task difficulty should be built up gradually, based on the knowledge of key dance elements necessary to guide people to a next level. It is important to: provide participants with optimal challenges (i.e. attainable challenges that are not too difficult and not too easy)(9); differentiate where appropriate; and clearly communicate realistic expectations to participants.

Valuing all participants
A low self-esteem caused by certain social evaluations requires humane treatment by others that affirms one's self-worth(1). This implies that community dance practitioners can enhance self-esteem by creating a respectful and accepting atmosphere and by modeling a respectful and non-discriminating attitude, e.g. supporting and encouraging each participant. It is essential to praise participants where appropriate and to make people feel they can do it. Destructive criticism can destroy confidence and self-esteem.

Democratic leadership
When participants are brought into a project as equal contributors, they can gain experiences that provide them with problem-solving competences they can use in all areas of life, and for a lifetime. Practitioners can develop self-esteem by valuing everyone's voice and involving each individual in decision making processes.

Observation skills
The skills and attitudes above require an ability to assess group and individual processes. Openness, objective perceptiveness and focus will help us to monitor well, and to intervene where needed.

Dance activities

The medium of dance is the body and this body can transform, along with the embodied self(10). Body techniques are an active means of facilitating aesthetic changes, but can also initiate experiential transformations in the body-self. Changing someone's movement patterns, for example,can have resonance on the well-being, emotional and spiritual life(11).

Contemporary dance-based movement, Contact Improvisation, and relaxation exercises involving active imagery and touch appear to be particularly effective to nurture self-esteem(12,13,14). Dance styles that celebrate(sub)cultures such as hip-hop, Indian dance, and Greek folk dance can also be effective as they often instill pride in participants' characteristics and identity.

Creative dance
The whole self is fully involved in any creative process, but particularly so in creative dance where the moving creator IS the creation. Creative movement allows participants to find their own voice via embodiment, to fully be, and to show themselves. If the process is well facilitated,creative dance can enhance self-esteem. Particularly during the initial phase of creative dance activities, which can often be risky and cause people to feel vulnerable, community dance artists should support and encourage participants in their creative process. It is crucial that each outcome of creative dance sessions is received in a safe,supportive and encouraging climate (see dance appreciation below).

Inline with Lindenfield's approach(13) to building self-esteem: 'my strengths'; 'what I like about myself'; and 'what I am proud of', seem recommendable stimuli for creative work.

Dance performance
When young people get the chance to perform on stage, the effort they put into a dance project is valued and recognised. Each performer is watched and receives the message that he/she is important and 'good enough' for an audience. This can nurture self-esteem, particularly with adolescents(15), but we do have to keep in mind dancers should feel ready and confident to perform.

Dance appreciation
When dancers appreciate each other's work, a respectful and encouraging atmosphere should be created, e.g. by using Lavender's 'ORDER' (observation, reflection, discussion, evaluation, recommendations for revision) approach to critical evaluation of choreographic work(16). The approach encourages them to include praise/appreciation when offering criticism and to develop objective aesthetic responses rather than subjective judgments. There is an indication that self-esteem can also be nurtured through the viewing and appreciation of professional dance works(7). Certain professional dance works address social evaluations and or cultural stereotyping, and can therefore be used in projects that aim to address self-esteem. Examples are Strange Fish by DV8 (1994) and Aeroplane Man (2002) by Jonzi D. It is up to the dance practitioner to determine which dance works are most relevant to a specific group of participants.

It is certain we can do a lot,but more academic research is needed to determine the extent in which each of the suggested methods are effective with specific age groups and within a variety of settings.

Joke Verlinden is a clinical psychologist and freelance dance artist who trained at Laban.


(1) Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. W.H. Freeman and Company
(2) Dance United. (2002). Edge: a project in partnership with HMP-YOI Styal [Video recording]
(3) Rubicon Dance. (2005). Rubicon dancing [DVD]. Arts Council of Wales
(4) Wheeler, H. (Animated, Spring 2005). Fit to dance
(5) Birchall, J., Pheerboy, D., & Smith, A. (Animated Autumn 2001). Out of reach
(6) Redding, E., & Quinn, E. (Animated Summer 2007). We all know that dance is good for you, but can we prove it?
(7) Press, C. (2002). The dancing self. Hampton Press
(8) Taylor, C. & Taylor, J. (1995). Psychology of dance. Human Kinetics
(9)Weiss, M. R. (1995). Children in sport: an educational model. In S. M.Murphy (Ed.), Sport psychology interventions (pp. 39-69). Human Kinetics
(10) Parviainen, J. (1998). Bodies moving and being moved. Tampere University Press
(11) Steinman, L. (1995). The knowing body: the artist as storyteller in contemporary performance. North Atlantic Books
(12) Kaltenbrunner, T. (1998). Contact improvisation. Meyer & Meyer
(13) Lindenfield, G. (2000). Self-esteem: simple steps to develop self-worth and heal emotional wounds (2nd ed). HarperCollins
(14)Wexler, D. B. (1991). The adolescent self: strategies forself-management, self-soothing, and self-esteem in adolescents. W. W.Norton & Company
(15) Garrett, R. (1994). The influence of danceon adolescent self-esteem. In W. Schiller & D. Spurgeon (Eds.),Proceedings of the 1994 Conference of Dance and the ChildInternational: Kindle the Fire (pp. 134 - 141)
(16) Lavender, L. (1996). Dancers talking dance: critical evaluation in the choreography class. Human Kinetics.

The content of this site is proprietary to the Foundation for Community Dance and any access to this site or the use of any content made by any person is expressly subject to these terms:

Unauthorised copying of any material (including artwork) on this site and the reproduction, storage, transmission or the distribution of any content, either in whole or in part and in any medium or format, without the prior written consent of the Foundation for Community Dance and, where appropriate, the author or artist, is not permitted.

Please read our website terms & conditions by clicking here

Animated: Winter 2008