This video has been circulating on the web, and in my opinion, it raises all kinds of concerns about current trends in dance training.

On Facebook and other sites, the little ballerina is lauded for her technical skill and ability at such a young age. However, I find there to be there are some serious issues at play in this little girl’s dance training, in my opinion at least. 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 comment section under the video, or check out this article). The bones in such young feet are not yet fully developed, and the muscles in of the core, back, and ankles need more time to be strengthened to support the body en pointe. Even if she is 10, which some teachers accept as a reasonable age for pointe work, 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. Rather than mastering variations meant for adults, I believe that dance training for children should take a more holistic approach. Dancers of that age should be working on things like:

  • 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;
  • Growing their critical thinking abilities, creative skills, and expressive capacities through problem-solving and creative movement in addition to codified dance techniques.

The dance industry seems to increasingly be focusing on early specialization, which is defined as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age” (in the case of dance, I consider early specialization when a student only studies one genre of dance intensely at a young age), and overtraining, which occurs when a dance ignores, or is forced to ignore, the signs of overreaching and continues to train, facing a great risk of injury. Early specialization and overtraining often leads to the introduction of advanced dance technique at younger and younger ages, which is simply not healthy, or safe. There are some prodigies who are capable, physically, of more advanced dance skills within a particular genre of movement at a young age. Of course it is fine to challenge these students in a safe and appropriate way, but to push them into difficult, strenuous movement when they are young can be harmful to them physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Overtraining in dance technique could do some serious, lasting physical damage to young dance students as their bones and muscles are still developing. Research in sport and exercise science has shown early specialization and overtraining can lead to serious injuries that may plague students for their entire lives. 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, which can last a lifetime. 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, ab/adductors, 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.

Those are just the physical consequences that could arise from pushing students too hard and too fast. There are also lasting emotional and psychological consequences  associated with early specialization, overtraining, and forcing advanced technique onto young dancers. What will happen if an injury ruins their career before it even starts? How will they deal with burnout and exhaustion? What happens when other dancers in their age group inevitably “catch up” and they are no longer the child prodigy? These young dancers are only human, after all, and their bodies can only do so much. At a certain point even the most talented dance students will reach their peak, and it could be devastating if it happens before they can reach their professional goals (or the goals put upon them by parents and teachers!). What happens when puberty changes their bodies, especially if their physique no longer matches the aesthetic preferred in the industry?

I am disturbed by early specialization, overtraining, 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 at an early age 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 want to see gymnastics, contortion, and over exaggerated gestures of pseudo-emotion, set to pop music, laced with competition, and performed by dancers not old enough to order a drink at the local bar – and dance students who believe that this should be their ultimate goal. I fear we are losing our individuality, originality, expression, and artistry in the process.

I believe that the  dance community needs to stand up against these trends, whether it is in the ballet realm or the competition scene. In our studios, companies, schools, and communities, we must put the art back in the art of dance. We must help our students see the value of age and developmentally- appropriate training that helps them grow as dancers, artists, and individuals. We must encourage them to value their creativity and expression as much as they value their ability to do front ariels and fouetté turns. We must educate dance parents and families about the dangers of early specialization, overtraining, and other potentially dangerous trends in dance training. We must create choreography that shows our audiences that dance as an art form can be are real, passionate, beautiful, emotional, and most of all original – not just rehashed sequences of jaw dropping technical feats. We must let our kids be kids and learn at a pace that is healthy physically, mentally and emotionally so that they have a long, fulfilling careers – and more importantly, healthy and holistic lives outside of the studio.

I invite you to learn more about The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach, which incorporates safe and appropriate training in dance technique, artistry, and overall well-being through social and emotional learning. You can find ready-to-use resources that help you easily implement The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach in my Shop.

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