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6 Reasons Dance Training Makes Us Better Human Beings

Kat Wildish leading a class in New York. Photo by Kyle Froman

Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:


Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time

In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.

But dancers know that even when you have aptitude, there's no substitute for hard work and perseverance. Acquiring any skill of value takes time. It's the way we learn to dance, to play music, to speak a foreign language, to succeed academically, to change social norms and to break down barriers. We lace up our shoes day after day, week after week, year after year and learn how to dance. Commitment over time is the very antithesis of modern living and is at the core of dance training.

"Failures" Are Opportunities

At the foundation where I work that gives low-cost dance lessons to underserved kids, we do assessments to place students in the appropriate level. Every year we remind the kids that in academic schooling not moving up to the next grade every year is seen as a failure but in the arts, it is normal to stay in a level for multiple years as you perfect your skills. Every year there are kids who don't move up and are upset. But they soon realize that moving to the next level comes with mastery of a certain set of techniques and mastering those techniques takes hard work.

Steve Zee at the Big Apple Tap Festival.

You Don't Get Something For Nothing

In dance class you are only entitled to what you earn. And what you earn doesn't even necessarily have to be perfect dance technique. Some of my favorite students over the years have not been the best tap dancers but they've been magnificent students. They show up on time and are prepared, they work hard, they sweat and they persevere. Maybe they don't become the most skilled dancer in the room, but they often reap the most benefits. And here is the beautiful part: those kids have worked hard exactly because they don't have a feeling of entitlement.

We Are Accountable to Ourselves and Each Other

At the foundation where I teach we have a very strict wardrobe policy. Any student not properly dressed sits and observes class that day. It may seem overly harsh, but there's wisdom behind it. There might be a time that a dancer or their family forgets the uniform, but it doesn't happen again. Over time, as the dancer matures, they learn to be responsible without the parents being involved, and you no longer hear "My mom forgot my shoes."

Students at Dancemakers of Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Dancemakers of Atlanta

Dancers also become responsible for learning the material. They learn that the teacher is not a puppet master who can make a body do the correct thing; it is up to the student to learn the material. They learn that they are responsible to the rest of the class, and that being absent lets down their classmates because other dancers can't get in a good practice without everyone in the room. Missing class, coming to class unprepared or not focusing on executing the steps properly, they learn, affects everyone else.

Cutting Corners Isn't An Option

My younger students will invariably ask me when they can move to the next level and my answer is very frustrating to them, I'm sure. I say that there is really only one level: beginning. If everything goes well in the beginning, improvement will flow. If any corners are cut, it will be hard to become advanced. I distill advanced steps down to the same words I use for a person's first tap lesson. Anyone with an aptitude for dance who excelled a little too quickly will tell you that they eventually go back to fill in the gaps.

Ballet class at the Art of Dance Studio. Photo courtesy of Art of Dance

What Other People Think Doesn't Matter

In a world that is so concerned about appearances, dance teaches you that what others think is not the most important thing. I try to explain to my young students that they can't let their experiences get derailed by what they think someone else may be thinking. If they stand front and center in class and make a mistake, what does it matter what another student thinks? Stand in front, get that correction, improve because you want to and let someone else's view be damned. Let those too lethargic to meet their potential stand in the back and watch you strive to be better. If you can't do it today, there is always next class and you are already on the way because you have begun.

This article was originally posted on Dancemagzine.com

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

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