Whether you are a dance teacher, a professional dancer, or a dance student, you are likely–at one point or another–to wonder if what you do is important. Despite the seriousness with which we take ourselves and our chosen art, we can’t help but wonder if what we do matters. After all, we are not performing surgery to save lives, or rescuing people from burning buildings, or negotiating world peace. It doesn’t help either that as dancers, we are hopelessly prone to self-doubt and insecurity. We constantly question ourselves and the quality of our work, so it’s no wonder that we are likely to perpetually feel the need to justify what we do and who we are to the people in our lives and to the world as a whole.
Certainly, our work is less urgent than some others. Our problems and challenges are not matters of life and death–although they may feel like it at times. But our work and our achievements do not have to be urgent to be important. We are in the business of pursuing excellence, of incessantly aspiring to reach our next goal, of attempting desperately to move, touch, and hopefully transform our students and our audiences. I believe that we inspire and motivate–we remind the world of its own beauty. And we remind ourselves of ours. We explore what it means to be human. We make life a richer, more fulfilling experience for both ourselves and for others. And that is something certainly worth doing.
We don’t study dance simply because we love the act of dancing, although the joy we get from it may be reason enough. We study dance because of the deep wealth of experience, wisdom, and humanity that it gives us. I’d like to share with you some of the powerful and transformative lessons that dance has taught me and that I hope I somehow impart to my students.
Aspiration: Always reaching for new heights
Dance is a gateway art form. When a young person begins studying dance, they are immediately exposed to the brilliant and scintillating world of not only the arts, but all of human achievement. Dance is the perfect point of departure for limitless discovery. I owe my lifelong affinity for French language and culture to my first exposure to the French terminology used in my dance classes. The dance world is only a step away from drama, music, musical theatre, opera, and every form of performance imaginable. Dance can provide access to cultural exploration, broadening horizons and contributing to the development of a young person’s vision and perspective. Young people who grow up in the dance world tend to be comfortable around those who are different and maintain a worldly and open view of the world.
Discipline: Mastering oneself
I tell my students that they are so lucky to have the nicest dance teacher in the world! While they don’t believe it’s true, my point is that dance teachers are notoriously demanding and no-nonsense educators. They tend to be serious and driven perfectionists who are as hard on their students as they are on themselves. Dance teachers are a special breed who don’t mess around and command respect without ever having to ask for it. As a result, dance students grow up with a sense of respect–both for their teachers and themselves. This respect and unique brand of classroom decorum translates into young dancers who are disciplined, mature, and eager to learn. I learned from my teacher to always view class as a special opportunity to learn and that we should eagerly march to the front of the room and take full advantage of what the teacher can offer us. This active and grateful approach to learning is one of the fundamentally unique aspects of dance education. Dancers grow to be active learners, which can only be beneficial in their educational futures.
Commitment: Achieving growth over the long term
Everyone agrees that the demand for instant gratification has become a hallmark of life in the twenty-first century. Today’s young people have grown up with media on-demand. Television, movies, music, games, information, and communication are available consistently and instantaneously. Dancers, however, learn the value of seeing one’s own growth and progress over the course of the long term. Since there is no such instant gratification available in mastering fouetté turns or executing a flawless grand jeté, dance students learn the value of patience, persistence, and dedication. Dancers spend months in class and rehearsal to develop their skills and polish their routines to spend a mere few minutes on the stage. It is those few minutes on stage, however, that make the tedious and repetitive drills and rehearsals worthwhile. Dancers learn this lesson early on and understand the value of committing to a goal even if the resulting accomplishment is months or years away.
Confidence: Dealing with doubt and being your best
We so often think of being nervous as a bad thing–something unpleasant that we should talk ourselves out of. Dancers learn from a young age to embrace their nerves and their fears. If you are nervous, if you are afraid of not performing well, then that means you truly care–you desire deeply to be at your best because the experience of performance and the act of sharing your talent with others is such an important achievement. When you’re a dancer, you know that those nerves will remain with you throughout your life . In fact, you actually HOPE that they do because once the nerves are gone, it may be because you no longer care about doing your best. Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time being nervous. I get nervous about speaking on stage, I get nervous for my dancers, I get nervous before important meetings, and I get nervous when I travel. In fact, I even get nervous if I’m NOT nervous. It’s unpleasant at times, but those nerves remind me that what I’m being asked to do really matters and it’s important to me to do it well. I’m grateful that I know what I do is important enough that I feel that pressure.
Passion: Loving what you do
I have never met a dancer or dance professional who wasn’t madly in love with what they do. Ours is not a profession people unhappily fall into on the way to something else. The amount of work, discipline, and skill that are required to survive, yet alone thrive, in our world preclude anyone from success except those who are driven by what I consider to be the greatest gift of all: a profound love for what you do. Passion for our art is the motivator that makes the discipline and hard work a joy rather than a chore. This is not to say that dance is without sacrifice, exhaustion, frustration, discouragement, or other unpleasantness. But it is our passionate love for what we do that sustains us through the difficult times. To many of us, giving up is simply not an option; it is a preposterous absurdity. Dancers tend to be wholly invested: mind, body, and soul. We work because we must. And that work gives us everything. As a result, dancers tend to demand that joy from everything else they might encounter in life. We know what it is to perform a labor of love and we know that that is us at our best.
As always, please feel free to comment or write to me! I’d appreciate your thoughts, questions, and dance topic ideas!
With much dance love,
Is Dance Important?
If you are a serious devotee of the art of dance in any capacity, you have probably experienced the frustration of discovering at various points in your life that the general public, perhaps even people close to you, might not understand your world or the depth of its importance to you.
It’s common and we all experience it. I recall back in high school being told by an athlete–who was actually trying to be helpful in his own way–“Dude, you gotta do something besides dance.” I remember, very clearly, thinking to myself, “No, this is it for me. This is all I want.”
I’ve also been told, perhaps more offensively, by a dance parent, “Well, we really only want her to dance when she’s little until it’s time to do sports.” At which I smile and set my judgmental thoughts aside (or try to) and realize that they probably didn’t realize how offensive such a statement could be. What I heard was “dance is only supposed to be fun and cute and disposable and something to do before we can do the really impressive and more serious activities.”
Or, perhaps more subtly, I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached by people in social settings who begin the conversation with almost giddy excitement, “Jesse, you’re a dance teacher?! That’s so cool! I’ve been trying to get my boyfriend to do ballroom dance with me. Can we take lessons from you?” Of course, when I reply honestly, “Well…I don’t do ballroom dance.” The look on the person’s face always hovers somewhere in between disappointment and confusion as if they are debating whether not to ask out loud: “Well, then what on earth DO you do at your studio?” As if concert dance, or classical dance, or traditional dance–there really is no completely useful or inclusive title for what we do–is so unheard of that it’s not what they imagined when meeting a dance teacher for the first time.
I’m not enraged by these misunderstandings. . . most of the time. Rather, I just find myself feeling truly astonished that this world of dance–this stunningly beautiful, impossibly demanding, and so satisfying ancient artform doesn’t mean the same thing to the public at large that it might mean to me or to the dance people I love and respect.
When I say with both humility AND pride, “I am a dance teacher,” I imagine all the years I spent spending hours at the studio every day growing up, all those competitions and travels; I imagine all the dreams I’ve held since I were little, acting out the entire Nutcracker by myself in the kitchen after I was given the score on audiotape; I imagine how dance is what I spend my days working on–that I have created and built a business and career on it. I imagine the young students who are just starting to develop enough traction to progress really quickly as a result of my efforts. I imagine all these things and so it feels like a slap in the face when I realized the person with whom I’m speaking didn’t imagine any of those things, but rather thought of someone like Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing. Of course, I don’t entirely object to that image either! But I’m sure you get my point.
So back to my original question. . . Is dance important?
To us it is. And so it is.
Tune in for my next topic: What does dance offer us?
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated 🙂