Letting Kids Be Kids in The Dance Studio

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 son. He’s almost two now, and I’m constantly fascinated and delighted by the silly walks he invents, by the sweet melodies he babbles to sooth himself or pass the time, and by the vibrant scribbles he produces when he wants 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 his innate creativity and the joy he takes 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.

preschool dance

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 professional 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 girls can be is sassy.
  • Youth and teen dancers are being asked to tackle mature themes in performance without proper direction and support.
  • 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 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.

All of this results in, and at the same time is the result of, a culture of dance training that holds little regard for students proper 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 reality? What will happen to the young dancers who grow up in such a toxic atmosphere?

As we start a new dance year, 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 the studio 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 for students throughout the choreographic process as needed.
  5. 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 genuinely.
  6. I will never objectify my students with sexualized movement, choreography, or music, whether they are minis or seniors. Full stop.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
Help your students set and achieve goals safe and healthy growth in dance technique, artistry, and overall wellbeing with The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancers. 
Inspire your students’ love of dance and help them take ownership in their training with The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Dance Students. 

Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching practice. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.

4 thoughts on “Letting Kids Be Kids in The Dance Studio

  1. Shannon,

    I appreciate your content and expression. You are a gem to the dance world. I agree with everything you have stated in this article. We are like minded and it’s good to know there is someone else out there battling for the same things that I have. You are quite eloquent. So, I enjoy reading your blog. Please continue to poor your ideas out. Thank you for sharing and just being you!

    Andrea Wood

    1. Andrea, thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. I really appreciate the time you took to leave a comment on the post. Let’s keep up the “good fight” and provide our students with the best possible experience! Please keep in touch, and best of luck to you in the new dance season.

  2. Hi Shannon! I love this article and I plan to share it with my staff. It means so much to have someone else who has Christ-like standards in the dance world. 🙂 Will you help clarify this portion of your statement?

    “I will introduce the serious study of dance technique only when the students are physically and cognitively ready for it.”

    This has been something I’ve thought about in the past… I want to build up the dancers to be knowledgable, but I also don’t want to give them material that they aren’t ready for, just to try to hurry them along. How do you fully know when they are ready for it?

    1. Hi Mary! Thank you for getting in touch! I am so glad that we connected. As for your question … it’s a good one! I am still figuring it out, I think. I do believe that is it highly individual. Each student will be ready for more serious training at their own pace based on their personality. natural facility, and level of interest. In general, I would say around age 9 or 10 is a safe bet. I have recently been introduced to the ABT National Training Curriculum for ballet, and I think it provides a nice model. The youngest students are still getting a solid technical foundation, but in a way that is playful and fun. The transition to a more rigorous training program is then easier because the foundation is there, but so is the genuine love of the art form. I hope this helps – would love to know your thoughts!

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