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“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind, run on the top of the disheveled tide, and dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
—W. B. Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire”
On a recent family vacation, we had just put on some music after dinner when my 3-year-old niece exploded from her chair, twirling unselfconsciously about, her smile sweeping and lighting up the room. The little angel had dance in her soul and the music had sparked her joy. I was excited for her and for me, as I thought back to the time when I first experienced the exuberance of dance.
Children are born movers and dancers, the natural masters of play and improvisation. Across cultures, they physically express themselves even before they can talk.
Whether you are an aspiring professional dancer, a young child seeking the joy of moving to music, a friend of someone who is about to start class, an adult seeking after-work recreation or a retiree determined to try something new, dance can enrich your life as it has mine.
Dance Improves the Mind as well as the Body
In the 1980s, Howard Gardiner elevated movement to the level of an innate intelligence: people were said to have Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence, or to be Body Smart.
My first dance teacher Joan Lucas helped her young students join mind to body when she placed ballet slippers in the middle of the floor to simulate a river, and then challenged us the leap over it without falling in. As Dance to EvOLvE (San Diego and Chicago) would describe it, our teacher had helped us form a cognitive link that required us to extend our legs, transfer our weight, maintain our balance and recognize the space around us.
Albert Einstein used imagery to describe his theory of relativity, so why not use it to master the pirouette? Until I began to appreciate the important role of mental process and concentration in maintaining my position in a dance phrase, I fell over a lot as a young dancer. Things got better when I realized that I needed to focus my mind on parts of my body that were falling out of balance. I visualized what my body would feel like when it was all working together.
According to Thai Nguyen, self-mastery in any endeavor begins with controlling the mind such that we learn to make deliberate responses to challenges. The irony was that by focusing my mind on the mechanics through visualization, I would grow to a place where I could dance free from thinking about mechanics.
Dance technique training is an ongoing lesson in success and failure — of mistake and correction, two steps forward and one step back. At times, it seems we live in a world where mistakes are not valued as they could be. Dancers, like others, experience disappointment and come to a better, more resilient place.
Dance Teaches Relationship Skills
In dance class, we learn about respectful communication and ensemble movement. If we don’t respect others and maintain an attitude of forgiveness, we trip over each other — whether on stage, on the soccer field or in a marriage.
The confidence among peers that can come from routine participation in a dance class opens doors to getting close to others. According to the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), “Dance promotes psychological health and maturity. Children enjoy the opportunity to express their emotions and become aware of themselves and others through creative movement.”
Dance Can Create a Safe Emotional Space
Dance provides an emotional outlet. When life gets to be a bit too much, how many of us have gone for a run or turned to playing a piece of music, or walked our dog to clear the emotional cobwebs?
My preschool movement class is one of my earliest memories of how dance was a positive presence in my life. It was a time when things were strained between my parents. Though my sister had ceased whacking me with her metal cup when mom wasn’t looking, I was only beginning to find my place in the oversized world of family and townhouse backyard community. Somehow, from the beginning, dance class felt like home; something felt different about the way I connected with my parents when they visited class and cheered me on. I felt it would all be okay.
Because dance class is a place where we celebrate our unique responses (to music, for example), there is something in the mindful moment that is healing. Each student hears the same music differently and is stirred in a particular way: one by the romance of a violin, another by the power of a drum section, and still another by the surge of a tightly woven lyric.
Dance Teaches Skills Useful in the World of Work
Watch young children on the playground as they work through problems together. Tony Wagner in “The Global Achievement Gap” lists collaboration as one of seven survival skills for the 21st century.
For the dance student, collaboration is a way of life. John Clifford, choreographer and renowned guest artist at The Portland Ballet, recounts, “At a very young age, [dancers] have learned how to work with other people. … They must take turns, work as a group, cooperate, share, understand space, form lines, watch and support one another, perform and interact. They learn that communication can occur through immediate and effective movement to express an idea.”
Todd Chen in “Dance Advantage” reminds us that the collaborative and creative sensibilities of the dancer are valuable to businesses that must innovate to survive. Even landing the job in the first place can be a hurdle. Who has not appreciated the job candidate with poise, posture and presence? Though he has not necessarily had training in dance, the applicant slumped in the seat almost surely has not.
Choosing a Dance Studio
Our city features exceptional dance studios. You don’t have to aspire to perform with The Portland Ballet (TPB) or Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT), though each has fine programs for such ambition. There are fantastic classes throughout Portland for all ages, styles and levels of experience and ability.
What is the feel of the studio you are visiting?
Are the students and parents happy with the studio? Does it have sprung floors — a kind of flooring that absorbs shock, enhances performance, and greatly reduces injuries? Is the facility clean? Are instructors friendly, supportive and interested in the safety of students? Is the number of students in each class reasonable for the kind of instruction you seek? Does the studio offer performance opportunities such as “The Nutcracker” or a spring performance that provides another kind of ensemble experience?
Is the studio vibe respectful, not only interpersonally but also aesthetically? Ask questions and glance at photos of past performances to determine whether the studio’s guidelines for music and costuming meet yours. In your judgment, are they respectful of your child’s age and stage of development? Will your dance student feel comfortable?
Though the ideal class might be one where students of similar abilities are grouped together regardless of age, this is not always feasible in smaller studios where ability levels are mixed and instruction is excellent. Be alert for the instructor who will help you find the right level of challenge.
Do teachers have the appropriate experience?
If your young dancer is drawn to a professional career, choice of program is important. Training in ballet is essential, even for the dancer who has sights set on a contemporary dance career. Safety and match are key. The days of snapping at children are hopefully in the distant past, as they should be. Discipline and motivation can be achieved with love and respect.
Find out what kind of class your dancer is interested in taking, then see what matching professional experience the prospective teacher has to draw on, and try out a class. Good dance teachers have experience understanding children and their physical and emotional development, as well as experience in teaching dance after having trained as a dancer themselves for many years.
The requirements for teaching a creative movement class for children differ from those needed to guide pre-teen girls into their first pair of pointe shoes. Here, teachers must have the experience to determine if legs, feet, and core are truly strong enough to support the activity (see http://theportlandballet.org/support). Priscilla Nathan-Murphy of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy feels it’s generally unsafe to start pointe before age 11 or 12. Skilled teachers will help with this decision.
How do teachers communicate with students?
In tone and content of conversation, do teachers encourage students, understand that mistakes are integral to progress, build each student’s confidence, and invest the time to forge a relationship with each student, regardless of ability? Is there any obvious favoritism, a tactic that is certain to demoralize struggling dancers?
A word about boys and dance class
The elephant in the dance studio is the boy! What about boys and dance? Some won’t do it because it is seen as feminine, at just the moment in development when their gender sense is forming and insecure. Dance class can be a stretch for a boy, depending on how the men at home view it. Yet I have worked with many a fella for whom dance provided an avenue to express an artistic sense not found through school sports, not to mention a relaxed opportunity to be with girls, free from the competition of other boys.
There are many athletes who take ballet to help with body control and timing; perhaps the most notable is NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who credits his graceful performance in games in part to his ballet training. NDEO confirms these cross-training benefits: “Dance involves a greater range of motion, coordination, strength and endurance than most other physical activities.” And in the Dance Magazine article “Leveling the Playing Field,” Emily Macel Theys reports on a competition that “pits … dancers against University of California athletes to see who is faster, stronger and more agile. Competing against basketball players, the water polo team and track-and-field athletes, the dancers won.” Dancers are definitely athletes!
No matter what your age, gender or goals, go ahead and give it a try and experience the exuberance of dance. Visit Dance Wire online for a list of studios in the Portland area. As Martha Graham noted, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”