This video has been circulating on the web, and I’ve got a problem with it.
On Facebook and other sites, the little ballerina is lauded for her technical skill and ability at such a young age. However, there are some serious issues at play in this little girl’s training. First, at age 8 (or maybe 10, it’s a little unclear), she simply is not old enough to be on pointe, and most dance teachers would agree with me there (just read the comments section under the video, or check out this article). The bones in such young feet are not yet fully hardened, and the muscles in of the core, back, and ankles need more time to be strengthened and fully developed. Even if she is 10, which some teachers accept as a reasonable age for pointework (I disagree), it is still widely accepted that her training at that stage should be limited to repetitive barre exercises for strength and perhaps a few short center combinations to focus on balance.
But there is another, deeper level: I firmly believe that developmentally, this material is not appropriate, on pointe or not. Dancers of that age should be working on developmental movement skills to strengthen their physical and mental patterning; building up the appropriate coordination and muscular conditioning through repetition of specialized exercises at the barre or in the center; and growing their critical thinking abilities, creative skills, and expressive capacities through problem-solving and creative movement. (Creative movement, btw, is far more than running around the studio flapping your arms like a butterfly. Let my pedagogy hero Anne Green Gilbert tell you more here.) Forcing advanced technique at such a young age is not healthy, or safe. Perhaps their are some prodigies who are capable, physically, of more advanced dance skills within a particular genre of movement at a young age. I think it is fine to challenge these students, but to push them into difficult, strenuous movement when they are young could do some serious, lasting physical damage as their bones and muscles are still developing. Then, there is the related issue of cognitive understanding. Repeating complex, physically challenging movement sequences without fully understanding the underlying coordination, skeletal alignment, or muscular support needed to do such exercises in a safe way can lead to persistent bad habits (which become much harder to break as the student gets older) and chronic injuries. I’ve had plenty of young ballet students who can make their bodies do what they think I’m doing with mine – who can jam their feet into 5th position, suck their stomachs in, and keep their knees straight with a smile. But even though I begin teaching about how the body works and explaining safe anatomical practices as young as age 4, by 8 years old my students still struggle to understand and more importantly to embody ideas like rotation from the hips (supported by the deep rotator muscles, abductors, and core), engagement of core muscles (as opposed to “pulling up” or “sucking it in” – my two least favorite dance-related terms), and lengthening through the joints without locking them into place. These are just a few of the principles the dancer in the video would need to master in order to safely perform the variation over and over again.
And those are just the physical consequences that could arise from pushing students too hard and too fast. I can only imagine the emotional and psychological strains has this little girl faced in order to perform in such an advanced way at such a young age. Even more than that, however, I worry about her future: What will happen if an injury ruins her career before it even starts? Or, how will she deal when the other girls in her age group inevitably “catch up” and she is no longer the adored baby ballerina? (She is human, after all, and the body can only do so much. At a certain point she will peak, and chances are it will be devastating.) Or perhaps she will go through puberty, and no longer have the sleek, sought after “ballerina” look. I was certainly not a prodigy, but all three of those issues (injury, puberty, and reaching my “peak” before others in my class) all had a major affect on my career, and the way I thought about myself. I’m lucky to have had a string of awesome teachers and mentors, as well as supportive family and friends to see me through those ups and downs. I hope she is as richly blessed.
I am disturbed by this and related trends I have been seeing in the dance world. I fear we are training a generation of robot technicians, capable of amazing tricks but little else, who will burn out or injure themselves before their career even begins. The pop culture “dance boom” of our time, fueled by SYTYCD and Dance Moms, is grooming a generation of dance audiences that only want to see gymnastics and over exaggerated gestures of pseudo-emotion, set to pop music, laced with competition, and performed by dancers not old enough to drink. (Even ballet is not immune to these trends.) The dance community needs to stand up against this sort of thing, whether it is in the ballet realm or the competition scene. Let the art of dance thrive by exposing audiences to work that is real, passionate, beautiful, aesthetic, emotional and most of all original – not just rehashed sequences of jaw dropping technical feats. Let kids be kids and learn at a pace that is healthy physically, mentally and emotionally so that they have a long, fulfilling careers – and lives.