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Choreographing With Kindness

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A shot of the costumes and shoes ballerinas wear in class.

As a lifelong dancer, Jessica Burkholder is passionate, experienced, and patient. If she’s not dancing in the kitchen with her kids, she’s preparing lessons for the kids she teaches in her community. Between all of that, Jessica is also a social worker. Her caring heart carries over into her dance classes where she creates an inviting and inclusive environment for all who learn from her.

Jessica always wants to make sure she is providing a safe environment for her students and letting parents know their kids are safe under her care. That is why being insured is so important to her. When Jessica heard about Insurance Canopy, she was pleased to see our coverage was designed for dance teachers like herself. We bring the customizable coverage, while Jessica brings the customizable classes, so we were thrilled at the opportunity to hear more about the work she is doing in Washington.

A collage of three photos of Jessica at different stages in her dancing career.

Q: Can you share some more about your teaching style and routine?

A: Right now I just teach part-time, and I teach a variety of basic dancing styles. My classes are on Mondays in the afternoons and evenings. I mainly teach a range of toddlers and kids, so anywhere from 18 months to 9 years old. It’s really great because at the moment I’m teaching at our local community center. I have the freedom to choose what dance classes are happening and the age group I work with.

You don’t always get that kind of customizable experience when you work in a studio, so I love being able to focus on having fun and reinforcing positive mindsets about dance. However, my classes are shorter than what you may see at a studio. You get kids coming in and out, so sometimes I only have a few weeks with them. It pushes me to make the most of my time with each of my students, because I don’t know how long I will get to be their teacher.

The way I teach allows me to be very flexible and truly tailor it to my students. Sometimes I’m working with the same group of kids, so we have the ability to learn a routine. Other times I’m working with a wide range of experience levels, or a group of first timers, so we may only focus on learning a couple of key things. I get to play around with how I set up our class for that session and work in a way that’s best for me and my students.

Like any job, you have days where you don’t want to work or you feel so stressed and busy. But showing up to those classes and seeing how happy and excited the kids are just puts a smile on my face. Their joy is infectious. Sometimes I can tell they’ve had a hard day, so I might forgo the lesson I had planned and focus more on deep breathing and stretching. Or I have little props I like to incorporate into a class to brighten up their day.

Q: When you look to the future, what are some of your goals as a dance teacher?

A: I know how much work goes into running a studio, and I really love being a social worker, so I don’t know if I’m at a point in my life where I want to open my own dance studio. I think I would love to combine both my passions into something that allows me to help people.

I know dance is very therapeutic and a great outlet for people. Being able to offer free or low cost dance classes for people would be incredible. I think the possibilities are endless, because I could travel and take these classes anywhere I wanted to; whether that’s a school, a community center, or even an elderly care center. There’s just so much light and healing dance can bring into our lives, and I want to share that gift with everyone.

Some more current goals I have when teaching dance is to change the atmosphere around dance classes. Usually dance is very strict and known for having a very intense environment. Which is great for teaching some very specialized dance styles. But dance is also very fun!

I want to create a space that is fun and welcoming and enjoyable for everyone. I call myself a strict-fun teacher. I will occasionally have to create order from chaos, but I say things with a smile and will speak in a way that is relatable and friendly to the kids I teach.

A group of ballerinas pose with the help of their dance teacher.

Q: From what you’ve shared, it sounds like your students really love learning from you. What unique approach do you bring to dance that has helped you achieve this?

A: A big thing for me is meeting people where they are at. I feel like my background in social work has really helped me with this because I’m able to pick up on things I might not have noticed before. I feel like I have a good sense of when something might be hard for them and I’m willing to take the time to work one on one with them so they are comfortable.

There was one time where I had a little girl who used to cry every time she came to class. It took three months of once a week classes for her to finally adjust and get used to a classroom environment. So many studios would’ve asked her to leave or recommend bringing her back when she was older, but now she comes to class each week super excited. All it took was a few months of patience and kindness to help her get comfortable.

Occasionally you get kids who are struggling to focus and learn, or they aren’t the nicest to other kids. Usually in those moments I will ask if they want to be my special helper in class or if they just need a hug. For some kids, their parents just sign them up and maybe dance isn’t something they want to be doing at that time. It’s just something they need to check off the list in their life that day. So at the very least, I can make it a fun time and be a caring person.

I know I have had moments where I’ve struggled with the negative side of dancing, or dealt with teachers I don’t favor too much. I’ve tried to learn from those experiences and make dancing an inclusive activity for kids of all backgrounds to enjoy. I really try to paint the picture of just trying to do better today than you did yesterday. It’s about getting back up if you fall down, and sometimes showing up is the best you can do and that’s okay.

Sometimes it’s about giving someone support and holding their hand through the hard times so they can later have the confidence to do it on their own. If I can be the teacher who does that for a kid, then it makes me feel happy and fulfilled in my work.

A shot of posed legs of dancers on stage.

Q: If you were starting over as a dance teacher, what advice would you give yourself?

A: If I were starting over, I would tell myself to trust my gut. It’s so important to believe in yourself and don’t forget your passions. When I was younger, I always wanted to work with kids and be a school teacher. But I also had this passion for dance and a passion for helping others. Plus I wanted to be a mom. Now I get the chance to have all of that!

I never let other people tell me who I should be or what I should do, and I’m so happy doing what I’m doing now. It just feels so fulfilling. I think it’s also important to be able to look back on the highs and lows. Life is not easy, and I think knowing things will get better is a great motivator in those tough times.

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