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,
The first person I’d like to honor with my Hometown Heroes Series is my high school gym teacher, Mr Edwin Swartwout (I know…I know…it’s “physical education”). I’m sure that many–even people who know me very well–are shocked that Mr Jesse-Who-Hates-Sports would choose his high school gym (ok, ok…PE) teacher among his heroes, but here it is and indeed deserved.
I first met Mr Swartwout when he was a long-term substitute for about six weeks when I was in fifth grade. I remember him as being a nice, warm, and dedicated teacher. In fact, even though he had been studying to become a PE (see? I got it!) teacher, he saw that all of us 10-11 year olds were struggling with reducing fractions, so he went back into his old college textbooks and prepared a lesson for us on how to tell when a fraction could no longer be further reduced. It worked and it helped us. More importantly, it showed on his part that he was always thinking about his students and trying to help us understand. His lesson worked and I never forgot it, not even 18 years later (wow, can that really be?!).
But perhaps more importantly, Mr Swartwout was hired as the permanent high school phys ed (is that what they call it?) teacher when I was in eighth grade. I felt comfortable with him since he had been our long-term sub three years prior, so PE was no longer something I dreaded as a horrible class full of personal embarrassments as a result of my athletic aversion and indisposition. Rather, Mr Swarwout, focused on assessing us in terms of our “attitude,” our willingness to TRY. And at that, I was quite good. I tried everything and I did so happily. I even had a few good times. I was good at riding a bike. I was more flexible than most guys in my class. And I won at darts! I never gave him a hard time and I never appeared reluctant. If I had been assigned any other teacher, I probably wouldn’t have been as inspired. But, Mr Swartwout had the gift of being an educator who knew how to get the best out of his students. I’ll always remember one day when he–probably unknowingly–revealed his ultimate philosophy: “I just really enjoy people.” I believe him and I decided that day that I was going to live according to that philosophy, too.
Mr Swartwout was also a beloved softball coach, a position that I believe was his dream come true. He loves athletics, he loves teaching and coaching, and my sister, a dedicated athlete, loved being coached by him. He played a major role in many of her successes. And, perhaps, one of the most interesting and extraordinary things about Mr Swartwout is that he knew both my sister and myself. One was a gifted athlete and one was a “princess dancer.” I’m sure you can guess which of us was which! He treated us both extremely well, and I always felt like he valued us for our unique talents and on our own terms. Certainly, such a rare and undervalued characteristic, but one that this world would benefit from.
Years later, when I was elected to the Board of Education, I was again impressed many times over by Mr Swartwout’s genuine devotion and commitment to the position to which he had risen by that time: athletic director. He always fought for opportunities for kids and remained steadfastly committed to the notion that athletics are important because of what they can offer to young people. I supported him the best that I could, and I made it a point to praise him for his efforts, by which I was extremely impressed. Mr Swartwout is one of those people who was born with certain interests and certain abilities and who found his true calling. I admire him for finding the unique path that led him to fulfill his potential as a person–the same path that has bettered the lives of countless youths in our community.
Mr Swartwout stands out in my memory as someone who was always kind, always understanding, and took the time to figure me out. He knew sports weren’t my thing, but he made me feel like that was okay. And because he did that, I was able to grow and learn from him.
Who is the miraculous person that could actually inspire Jesse Katen to actually try at sports? Only Mr Edwin Swartwout, “Coach,” could do that. 🙂