It's no secret that adolescence is a difficult time. The changes that occur between ages 6 and 17 create unique mental, physical, and social challenges, and dancers are not exempt. While adolescence does bring about benefits for dancers as athletes and performers, it also has adverse effects that can be difficult to manage. It is helpful for dancers to understand these changes so they understand what their bodies are going through; as parents, dance teachers, and coaches, understanding the changes young dancers go through in adolescence, particularly understanding them in the context of dance, will help support them and reduce their risk of injury.
There are two categories of changes growing bodies experience: physiological and psychological.
The physiological changes are those that make up "puberty:" a hormonally driven process resulting in significant changes in physique, form, and function, like notable changes in height and weight, and thus changes in body proportions. This growth spurt has significant implications for dance and dance training. Dancers must learn to alter their movement patterns to adapt to their new proportions, leading to an increased risk for injury during and after the growth spurt. Additionally, the sudden change in body size often reduces flexibility, coordination, and balance, which also contribute to an increased risk of injury.
These changes inevitably lead to young dancers struggling with skills and techniques they had previously had no problem executing. While this increases the risk of physical injury, it can also have psychological effects like a loss of confidence and increased self-consciousness. However, it's critical for young dancers to understand that these effects are temporary. By altering the focus of training during this time, young dancers can feel they are still progressing with their dancing and takes the focus away from the challenge of adjusting to their changing bodies, which can easily become negative and frustrating. For example, rather than focusing on making their jumps more powerful or their clicks higher, emphasizing correct placement and perfect timing will allow dancers to gain confidence in their skills without feeling frustrated with a change in their abilities.
The psychological changes that occur are equally significant and are broken up into two areas: cognitive development (skills like planning, logic, and reasoning) and emotional development. Psychological development lags behind physical development, meaning a dancer may look more like an adult, and thus be treated like one, but lacks the self-control and the ability to regulate emotions of a mature adult. This disconnect leaves dancers vulnerable to behavioral and emotional problems.
One of the most commonly discussed issues surrounding young dancers' psychological development is that of self-confidence and body image. A study comparing adolescent dancers and non-dancers found that dancers had lower self-esteem and more negative body image than their non-dancing counterparts. Furthermore, while dancers of all genders are susceptible to this decreased body image, girls face much higher rates of negative comments about appearance and lead to a much sharper decline in self-esteem. This decline can result in dropping out of dance or physical activity altogether.
It is essential for coaches and instructors to create an environment in which young dancers can continue to thrive. Research suggests that teachers who adopted positive and adaptive teaching behaviors reported lower dropout rates, more enjoyment, and higher self-esteem from adolescent athletes. These positive teaching behaviors included:
Reinforcement (for effort as well as good performance)
Encouragement given to dancers following a mistake
General encouragement not related to mistakes
Corrective, supportive instruction
Emphasis on enjoyment and effort
Conversely, negative behaviors (punishment, failing to respond to good effort or performance, punitive instruction) have been shown to reduce enjoyment of dance and increase anxiety.
As teachers and coaches who work with adolescent dancers, it is essential to understand the physical and psychological changes that occur during this time to best support the athletes. Small modifications in training focus during growth spurts can have a huge impact on a dancers' physical well-being and reduce their risk of injury. Similarly, emphasizing enjoyment of dance and eliminating focus on physical appearance can boost dancers' self-confidence and body image. These modifications not only allow dancers to gain technical strength and improve dance skills, but helps them become more confident adults outside the studio.
Ella Pomplun is a lifelong Irish dancer with a passion for applying principles of exercise physiology and strength training to Irish dance. She has worked with Ellen and Target Training since 2018, and has been the Projects & Communication Specialist since 2019. In addition to her Bachelor's degree in Exercise and Movement Science from UW-Madison, she is currently a physical therapy student at the University of Minnesota.