Leave it at the Door

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked our members for their thoughts and experiences on overcoming loneliness as dance teachers, as well as how they champion positive mental health for themselves and their students.

Here, we feature Heather Shrimpton on her ‘Leave it at the Door’ programme aiming to embed mental wellness within the Alloa Ballet Company.

To give our readers a bit of background about yourself, how were you first introduced to dance?

I have been dancing since I was 3 and loved it. That was the beginning of my journey! I had the opportunity to train at Arts Ed, but came up to Stirling University to study biology. I found the Scottish Academy of Dance, and with the support of the principal, Jennifer Cummings, began to teach and train for my qualifications as a dance teacher. The rest is history, I started up my own school, and four years ago obtained my own premises. It feels like home.

What inspired you to become a dance teacher?

I love teaching. I am also a primary school teacher – but was teaching dance long before I retrained to be a primary teacher. I love inspiring children, creating memories for our students and sharing my passion for dance. I passionately believe that Alloa Ballet Company is more than a dance school, it is a family and that for me is what it is all about.

Why did you start the ‘Leave it at the Door’ programme?

I broke my ankle at the start of Christmas and was unable to do very much active work, and my brain just started thinking…

With COVID and the general increase of social media we at Alloa Ballet Company have seen the pressures and effects that these have caused our students both within and outside our dance studio.

We are noticing a higher proportion of students lacking in self-belief and who are worried/scared to let go and try new things in case they make mistakes. We have pupils that prior to COVID were lively joyful students, who are now suffering from panic attacks and have lost their way.

In their life outside the dance studio we are aware of students that are struggling with the pressure they place on themselves in terms of achieving, and how they are perceived by others rather than accepting themselves for what they are.

This is definitely something that we really wanted to help put right, not with a sticking plaster but with a carefully planned programme that was embedded and would extend throughout the year and encompasses our whole dance family.

We wanted our students to be able to explore their emotions, discuss their feelings and work towards improving their mental wellness. This will impact not only their dance performance but also give them skills and a toolkit to support them throughout the rest of their lives.

How did you go about deciding what would be included on the ‘Leave it at the Door’ programme?

It all started initially with the idea of having a wee notebook that the pupils from grade 3 upwards would use at the start of the dance class to journal their thoughts, acknowledging their feelings as they start the class and then leave them at the door.

However, as with most things, it grew arms and legs!

I contacted numerous mental wellness individuals and organisations who have offered to provide a short video on an aspect of mental wellness which pops up in our FB group. I have managed to schedule a whole year of FB lives which complement my own weekly Wellness Wednesday Facebook videos.

Reachout with Arts in Mind is a local arts charity whose focus is mental wellness and we have now scheduled four workshops throughout the year for our dancers.

A past pupil is now a registered counsellor we are organising a weekend of workshops for both our students and our dance parents – as I feel that we need to support our whole dance family in their mental wellness journey.

I am currently in discussion with a national dance agency to provide a series of mindfulness videos for our senior students and also a one day workshop

For our younger students aged under 12, we will be providing some yoga and mindfulness workshops – as we also recognise that these students need supporting too.

As you can imagine, it is still growing!

I have contacted local organisations and managed to secure funding to allow all our workshops to be free of charge to all participants.

What (if any) changes have you noticed in yourself or your students since starting the programme?

Personally, it has made me become more aware of my own mental wellness. I have always thought of myself as a strong person, but during lockdown, I realised that I am a social being and there were times that I found it hard to motivate myself. It made me understand a bit more about how our mental wellness can affect our whole being.  I am able to express and talk about how I am feeling and have a few more strategies to help me deal with things when there are setbacks.

My students have talked about how they are enjoying spending time thinking about issues that affect both their time at dancing but also life. They seem to be letting their ‘guard down’ and are becoming more able to share their thoughts and feelings within our studios.

I asked them to tell me how our programme is affecting them: (this was my grade 4 & 5 students)

  • “I think it helps me to challenge the way I think in class.”
  • “I think that it makes me more aware of all the negative thoughts that I have.”
  • “It helps to know people care how we feel and is doing something about it.”
  • “I like it because I can write down my thoughts before class.”
  • “I like it because it lets me know I am supported.”

If you are happy to share with other teachers, which resources (if any) did you find useful when starting the programme?

I have been using a variety of resources – but I cannot recommend Danscend – mental wellness for dancers. They have a huge resource bank which is so extremely useful for our journaling and discussion purposes.

I have also used One Dance UK resources, Youngminds, Place to Be, Danceedtip on insta, Heads Together, Mental Health UK  and there is a fabulous book called The Hidden Chimp which is great for all ages – even adults!

There are many organisations that are out there to support mental wellness; I look on Facebook and Instagram for inspiration.

What advice would you give to other teachers looking to foster positive mental health and wellbeing for their students?

Just go for it. There is no right way and there will be hiccups and barriers in the way, but embracing and being honest with your students will lead you on your journey.

If you are happy to share them with us, do you have any tips or practices you use for maintaining your own positive mental health and wellbeing?

Like most dance teachers, we tend to work, work, work, and find that downtime is tricky. I am trying to ensure that during the day I have a bit of ME time –  this could be possibly reading, or gardening. I also use the app CALM which has short meditations,

What does Mental Health Awareness Week mean to you?

It is a focus for what we are all doing throughout the year and gives us an opportunity to reach out to our students and families.

This year, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness. If at all, how do you combat loneliness in your practice?

I am lucky that I have a great team around me that I can reach out to if I need to. As I drive up to the dance studio for classes it always makes me smile. I can be feeling worn out, sad, tired, grumpy, lonely but entering the studio and teaching can’t help but lift my spirits.