A quote from Phylicia Rashad has been on my mind for some time now: “Before a child talks, they sing. Before they write, they draw. As soon as they stand, they dance. Art is fundamental to human expression.”
I see this quote in action every day raising my kids. They are 4 and 2 now, and I’m constantly fascinated and delighted by the silly walks they invent, by the sweet melodies they babble to sooth themselves or pass the time, and by the vibrant scribbles produced when they want to make a “tick-ter fa dada.” (That’s a “picture for dada,” if it’s been a while since you’ve interpreted toddler speak.) I am in awe of their innate creativity and the joy they take in it.
It was my love of creativity, and the joy I felt in movement in particular, that lead me to become a dance educator. Helping a child develop their natural propensity for creative and joyful movement, and turn it into an outlet for expression, a tool for social and emotional learning, a lifelong passion, or even a potential career is the most rewarding career path I can imagine.
And yet, so often I see children’s natural tendencies squelched in their dance training. Instead of welcoming kids as the wonderfully imaginative, wildly joyful, weirdly creative little humans they are into our studios, we try to mold them from younger and younger ages into little versions of the elite pro dancers we hope they some day will be:
- Three year olds are asked to stand in straight lines and mimic plies and shuffles for an hour straight.
- Mini dancers are constantly directed to be “sassy,” or have more “attitude” when performing, as if all young kid can be is sassy. Even better, we get offended when they throw that “attitude” back at us through disrespectful behavior in class.
- Youth and teen dancers are being asked to tackle overly mature themes in performance without proper direction and support for their mental and emotional health.
- Sensual or overtly sexual movement, costumes, themes, and music are still an issue, despite objection and disgust from many corners of the industry.
- Young dancers face objectification and over-exposure on social media, as if Instagram likes and viral TikTok videos are the only way to find success in the field.
- Students are being forced into advanced training and overtraining from an early age, in spite of research from the realms of dance medicine, psychology, and education about the potential lasting harmful effects of these practices. (Read more about the dangers of overtraining in dance from a young age in this blog post.)
All of this can result in, and at the same time is the result of, a culture of dance training that holds little regard for students’ healthy and proper physical, social-emotional, creative, and artistic growth.
It sickens me to see the way dance is often portrayed in popular culture, and to realize that dancers, parents, and even dance teachers can be influenced by this portrayal. Dancers are shown as divas and drama magnets, while teachers are hard-hearted taskmasters. The only way to succeed is to constantly go bigger, harder, and more extreme, and it often starts almost the moment a student walks into the studio. The current popularity of dance in pop culture has the potential to be great for our industry, but what will the lasting impact be? How can we combat the potential public perception of the dance world as catty, mean-spirited, over-sexualized, ultra-competitive, and shallow? How can we fight the reality of a dance world in which this perception often is the truth? What will happen to the young dancers who grow up in such a toxic atmosphere? (Read more about the misrepresentation of dance in the media and how we can combat it in this blog post.)
With all this in mind, I’m calling on all dance teachers to create a healthy dance culture, and to start by letting their kids be kids in the dance studio. Honor the creative and joyful spirit that brings so many young dancers to our classes each year. Savor the precious years of their youth by protecting their bodies, minds, and spirits from overuse injuries, exploitation, and psychological trauma. Keep their imaginative spark alive throughout their training by encouraging creativity and expression. I’ve created 8 promises every dance teacher should make to honor their students’ childhood this year:
- I will embrace my students’ natural joy, imagination, energy, and enthusiasm. I will allow my babies to run, to play, to explore, and to grow through creative dance. I will encourage my older students to improvise, to create, to take risks, and to express themselves in movement and performance. I will introduce the serious study of dance technique only when the students are physically and cognitively ready for it.
- I will honor my students’ potential through safe and healthy teaching practices that acknowledge the entire person, not just the technician. I will not encourage overtraining, over-stretching, and other potential harmful physical practices. I will incorporate social-emotional, creative, and life skills into my classes.
- I will create a learning environment in which hard work is valued, but so are rest and play. I will give my students every opportunity to succeed in dance if that is what they desire, and I will support their personal growth as dancers. However, I will also balance their schedule to provide time away from the studio, and encourage them to explore a range of interests and activities.
- I will recognize the full artistic potential of my young dancers with choreography that tackles age-appropriate themes in a safe way. If there is a mature topic I wish to explore, I will do so only after careful thought, ensuring that it is only for students’ growth as individuals, not for a trophy or recognition. I will provide support and resources from qualified mental health practitioners for students throughout the choreographic process as needed.
- I will allow my students to explore many emotions, qualities, and experiences through movement, not just “sassiness” and “attitude.” I will use class, rehearsal, and performance experiences to help students grow into well-rounded, secure, and confident individual capable of expressing themselves authentically without fear.
- I will never objectify my students with sexualized movement, choreography, or music, whether they are minis or seniors. Full stop.
- I will teach my students to perform and compete gracefully, realizing that there is so much more to dance than a leading role or a trophy. I will not tolerate cattiness, rudeness, or pettiness on my team or in my company. I will encourage kindness, humility, and compassion among my dancers and in their interactions with their competitors.
- I will continue to learn and grow as an educator. I will reflect on my teaching practices, acknowledging and honoring my own strengths and weaknesses. I will invest in professional development to ensure that my teaching practices are safe and effective, and align myself with organizations that promote a positive dance culture, such as the National Dance Education Organization or Youth Protection Advocates in Dance.