Discipline, follow through, the ability to accept criticism and to experience opportunities to practice resilience—these are a few critical life lessons that just one year of classes offers students of dance.
For any parent wondering where to find a constructive path of physical and emotional rigor for his or her child (where the child will have fun as well), I encourage looking to the study of dance. And who knows—perhaps it could lead to a career, but even if it doesn’t, dance is a wonderful way to develop emotional intelligence, heightened cognitive abilities, friendships, etiquette and a connection to the joys of movement and achievement.
I didn’t realize dance would become my career until later in my teen years when encouragement came from established ballet teachers who had been professional dancers. I loved to dance and knew I wanted to be part of New York City Ballet. I followed that dream and enjoyed many remarkable experiences with NYCB. But, I believe that even if I hadn’t pursued dance as a profession, all that I gained in the classroom and onstage shaped my personality and work ethic.
I grew up at Richmond Ballet in Virginia, within a program much like the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory and the pre-professional track of Next Generation Ballet. Strenuous classes combined with multiple performing opportunities, especially for the rare young boy, instilled a determination in me to discover my own voice and strive for excellence, making corrections in the classrooms and during rehearsals as opportunities to grow. My scholastics never suffered. I aimed to finish my homework by the afternoon so I could focus on dance all evening. Because I was technically advanced for my age, I was often in the classroom with children older than myself. So, I learned how to socialize in a mature manner.
For dance students, no matter what they want to get out of their dance classes—a career or just a fun few hours a week with peers—there are rules that must be followed, including what to wear, the order of technique exercises, how to behave with the teacher and other students, how to form lines to move across the floor, how to listen, when to ask questions and the importance of waiting your turn. Ballet requires direct eye contact, both with one’s partner onstage and with one’s teacher in the classroom. That’s a lot to ask of a child, especially in the age of the iPhone where children can bury their faces into a screen and avoid human contact. However, making that human connection, knowing the expectation that dance is among people and for people, allows for children to blossom as they discover their own artistic voices and gain confidence as their technical abilities get stronger.
Dance, with artistic and technical components, is a measurable, concrete way for children to discover the best versions of themselves—or, at the very least, discover there is more inside of them than perhaps they knew before they learned to soar across the studio floor.
It’s been proven that dance can increase a child’s aptitude for learning. I’ve certainly experienced it. I’ve seen professional dancers excel in completely new jobs after retiring from the stage. I’ve also known dance students who do remarkably well in colleges and universities because they know how to focus and manage changing times and schedules. Their adaptability, willingness to get the job done and ability to see obstacles as ways to apply creative problem solving instead of barriers to success is a skill set provided by dance.
Year after year, I see shy children awkwardly mastering the five ballet positions in their first ballet class growing into confident young people who, though they know they aren’t destined for the professional stage, know they are destined for something.
Through their years of struggling to learn new techniques and dances, of sharing laughs with their friends as they learn together, from overcoming stage fright or realizing how much they love being onstage, they know they can handle whatever that something is. They’ve felt the exhilaration of triumphing in varying degrees, from getting more flexible to competing on a national stage. Once a dance student knows what it takes to triumph, even if that triumph may seem small, then they know how to apply it in other aspects of their lives.
So, if anybody ever asks a child, “do you expect to just dance your way through life?,” my answer is always “I hope so.”