At times like these, why dance?
For a little while now I’ve been questioning why I do what I do for a living. The doubt is actually a huge part of the reason I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection, but not the kind that is easy (or pleasant) to put on paper (or screen). First, there is the ego to consider: I turned 31 a few months ago, which for me has meant that everything hurts all the time and I’m officially too old to be considered for any of the hip “top people under 30” lists that occasionally pop up on the internet. (Side note: I never really gave them much thought until I was no longer eligible, but man does it bruise the ego not have even been considered.) I haven’t had the illustrious performance career with American Ballet Theatre that I had so boldly predicted at age 12, and my choreography, while not bad, isn’t exactly attracting the Paul Taylor-esque attention I had hoped it would by this stage in my life.
At this point, most of my work time is spent as an administrator, enabling genius practitioners on my best days and wrestling with copy machine on my worst. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate every single opportunity that has been provided to me, and I have been incredibly lucky to work for the largest dance education advocacy organization in the country. But with all that has been happening in the world, lately it feels like – why? What’s the point? Beyond the considerations of ego, there is just this nagging feeling that the efforts are fruitless. There is so much that needs fixing in the world, and frankly right now dance feels pretty trivial next to what happened in Orlando and Israel, not to mention the everyday violence and suffering that happens everyday in our communities. The hopelessness only gets worse when check I Facebook and see the people I love and care about resort to screaming and meme-ing over one another instead of actually communicating. It’s like I can see the humanity evaporating before my eyes every time I log on or turn on the news.
Dance education can shape the future
But sometimes, Facebook comes through. I was scrolling the other day and came by a quote from Frederick Douglass that rang truer than anything I’d heard in quite some time:
“It is easier to build strong children, than repair broken men.”
It was one of those almost-cheesy epiphany moments, one in which the ego and the altruistic come together. “This,” I thought, “This is it.” This is why dance, dance education, and the behind the scenes admin work that supports the field, is important, even as it feels like the world is crumbling around us. In fact, dance might even be more important now than ever before. Because the answers to what troubles us – what really troubles us, even more than guns, access to mental healthcare, foreign policy, and the embarrassing state of our political discourse (although all of these things are pretty super important and in desperately need to be addressed) – the answers to what really trouble us can be found in the dance studio. The answers are everything I’ve learned from dance: cooperation, communication, teamwork, empathy, perspective, and compassion, just to name a few.
What students really learn through dance education
I don’t claim to be sophisticated about the ways of the world, and I’m sure what I’m about to say will be considered naive. But maybe a little naivety is what we need right now. Every time I watch the news I feel like I lose a little more innocence. The atrocious acts that people commit against one another – have committed, for ages – are beyond comprehension. But maybe the solutions, the answers don’t have to be. Maybe, it is as simple as raising the next generation to be better than we are: to be less self-absorbed, less dogmatic in their beliefs, less isolationist, more community oriented, more empathetic, more willing to listen and share. Maybe it’s as simple as raising the next generation to be whole, to be grounded, to have less need for the kind of fear that leads to hate. Maybe, it’s as simple as guiding them toward the dance studio.
The benefits of dance are applicable far beyond the studio’s walls and mirrors. When we teach dance, we are shaping future generations in very tangible and intangible ways. Here are just a few:
Dancers learn how to be part of a team.
Dancers learn how to be part of an ensemble, a company, a community. They learn how to connect with their fellow dancers onstage (their own group) as well as with others (an audience, whether it is one person or one thousand), in a way that is meaningful and real.
Dancers learn how to support others.
Dancers learn how to be an audience member themselves, whether it is in the wings cheering on their castmates or in the director’s chair giving feedback, and to know that being receptive and supportive in these situations is just as important as being in the spotlight all the time. It’s not always about them.
Dancers learn how to hold multiple perspectives.
Good dancers can not be overly dogmatic. Through the course of their training with many different teachers, they learn how to hold on to multiple perspectives. Each dance teacher has their own unique way of teaching, and successful dancers realize that each is valuable in its own way. Each teachers’ perspective can all serve a dancer well at the appropriate time, even if those perspectives contradict one another at times.
Dancers learn how to think for themselves.
Dancers learn how to make sense of the sometimes conflicting lessons they learn from different teachers. They figure out how to work through the contradictions, figuring out which ones work best for them, and ultimately come to cherish their own understanding and principles without demonizing others. Moreover, they learn that what works for them may not work for the dancer next to them, and that there are multiple ways to achieve excellence in technique and artistry.
Dancers learn how to be present.
Dancers learn dow to relate to other people in real time and real space, by feeling, sensing, and seeing each other – not hiding in chat rooms or behind Twitter handles. As a dancer, you must be present in the moment, connecting with others and learning from them and respecting them for who they are and what they bring to the ensemble or to the creative process.
Dancers learn how to love themselves.
Dancers learn to be in their bodies and respect themselves and feel whole, to know that they are capable and strong and smart in many different ways. More than that, dancers learn to let themselves be seen, to be comfortable being noticed and appreciated by classmates and teachers and audiences, and to stop apologizing for their existence.
Dancers learn to how to embrace change.
Dancers learn how to grow, shift, and change over time, in accordance with their changing bodies and expanding understandings of how they work. In the creative process, they learn to let go of ideas they love when they aren’t the best fit for the artistic vision, and to defend them against criticism when they are – but only after careful consideration of, and reflection on, all possibilities.
How I can change the world as a dance teacher
I know this to be true, because these are the lessons that I, myself, learned from dance. And I am privileged to be able to pass it on to others, and to provide other teachers with the resources and support they need to do so. I can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but I can help the next generation develop the skills that will be needed in the process. I can help them feel whole and capable and loved so they don’t have to resort to fear. I can help them realize they are a valued part of a community, that they are vital to the success of the group, and that their actions matter. I can help them see others, respect others, value others, so that they can move past the ignorance that leads to hate. These are just a few of the deeply-felt and important benefits that dance has to offer, and I am fortunate to have experienced them and to pass them on to others.
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