Trauma, Development, and Functionality: Prosocial Strategies for Humane Teaching in the Ballet Class

Presenter: Luc Vanier, School of Dance Director University of Utah; Elizabeth Johnson, Assistant Professor University of Florida


Developmental psychologist Dr. Phillipe Rochat asserts the fundamental human need is to be seen and valued by others as fully human: “the recognition and acknowledgment of self by others,” “being affiliated,” and “feeling safe” from being rejected. In this presentation, we consider traditional and current Ballet teaching practices alongside this important question: What is humane teaching?


In many typical ballet classes, there is a degrading capacity for even “trained” bodies to skillfully adapt to environment and culture. Student sensitivities to stress and trauma can be inevitable characteristics of ballet class yet the historical format provides clear opportunity to witness mind/body behaviors that interfere with meaningful learning. Frequent affects are students’ excessive muscular tension and anxious hyper-vigilance.


In describing his term neuroception, author Dr. Stephen W. Porges asserts “the detection of a person as safe or dangerous triggers neurobiologically determined prosocial or defensive behaviors.” When students unconsciously perceive the environment, teacher, or fellow students as threats, two possible neurobiological paths are present. One readies the student for fight, flight, or freeze strategies, while the other navigates social cues and awareness of bodily sensations to connect and adapt to the environment instead of fleeing it.


We link neuroception to Alexander Technique principles of Inhibition (non-reactivity) and Faulty Sensory Awareness (mis-calibrated proprioception/coordination). Applying examples of these somatic concepts to familiar ballet class “moments,” we aim to provide teachers tools that address student stress responses and support a class community that can counterbalance the habits of trauma.


Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson, BFA (George Mason University), MFA (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) is a performer, choreographer, educator, Laban Movement Analyst, Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique (M.AmSAT), and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT200). As an embodied academic, her research seeks to integrate somatic, developmental, and feminist perspectives into her dance teaching/pedagogies and creative work. Her written research is often spurred by her intense experience at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where she trained in classical ballet with Balanchine ballerina Melissa Hayden as well as former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre dancers. Her contemporary dance company, Your Mother Dances, has featured her choreography as well as produced national and regional guest artists; her choreography has been seen in New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and beyond. Also as a professional performer, she has danced with David Parker and The Bang Group (NYC), Sara Hook Dances (NYC), and Molly Rabinowitz Liquid Grip (NYC). Johnson teaches and presents workshops nationally and internationally and continues to invest in her ongoing studies, currently in Dr. Martha Eddy’s Dynamic Embodiment-Somatic Movement Therapy Training. She has served on Dance faculties at the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University North Carolina-Greensboro, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Texas Tech University. She is an Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Florida.

Luc Vanier

Luc Vanier (MFA, MAMSAT) is the Founding Director of the School of Dance at the University of Utah. He received his MFA from the University of Illinois and certified as an Alexander technique teacher in 2001 and became a training course Director in 2011. A Principal Dancer and company choreographer with Ohio Ballet, he danced pivotal roles in the works of company founder Heinz Poll, Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Kurt Jooss, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Laura Dean among others. His choreography has been produced at the Joyce Theater in New York City and toured nationally. Vanier has lectured and presented his research extensively nationally and internationally and his co-authored book “Dance and the Alexander Technique” was published by University of Illinois Press. He founded the Integral Movement Lab, which combines the Alexander Technique within product and curriculum designs and his collaborative research with neuroscientist and physical therapist Dr. Wendy Huddleston was recognized with a two-year $50,000 multidisciplinary grant. He co-created Framework for Integration, a movement analysis system anchored in the way babies and animals move that helps all movers make new, healthier movement decisions and encourages more coordinated and integrated bodily use.