When I tell another mom that I am a professional dancer two things happen. First, she takes a surreptitious scan of my body and makes a quick mental calculation involving our comparative height/weight/age ratio. Then she asks where I have Olivia studying ballet.
Then I say, “She doesn’t.”
Because, let me be very clear on this: pre-ballet is boring.
It’s boring because they don’t dance. They stand on those little spots. They are not allowed to touch the barre. They wait their turn. They sit on the spots. Maybe they get to jump over a pair of moldy old pointe shoes! That is, if every kid in the class succeeds in following the rules. And woe be unto you if you get a class with one rebellious child, for your kid will never get to jump over the shoes.
Olivia was 3 years old when I enrolled her in such a class, at considerable expense to my wallet and my soul. How my soul clenched during the interminable 45 minutes of parent visitation day! The children were bored. The instructor (a professional dancer and younger colleague of mine) was trying heroically to hide her boredom. The parents, successful and ambitious professional people all, were reduced to infantile smiling and waving and clapping just to fill the void of sticky, despairing malaise permeating the room. Right. We never went back.
Should she even dance? Is it a benefit or a curse to have a parent (two, in Olivia’s case) in the arts? My husband jokes that we should push her into the arts so she will run kicking and screaming in adolescent rebellion toward math and science. But because I have made a career of this art form by the skin of my teeth, I can’t enter into the conversation lightly.
Here’s the thing: dance is a performing art form. It is inherently expressive, even in the most abstract choreographies. It does not exist for purposes of fitness, though fitness may certainly be a secondary benefit. Paradoxically, it does not exist for the purpose of discipline, which you wouldn’t know from the typical pre-ballet paradigm. A performed dance is fundamentally an expression of an idea, just as a microchip might be the best expression of a Silicon Valley mogul’s idea (albeit a more well-remunerated one). But when taught to children in the absence of an idea, ballet is just a bunch of steps. Steps that very few people can perfect. Boring.
And yes, ballet is the foundation of all western forms of dance. But I am not convinced it the best first course of dance study - one of the best contemporary dancers I know studied tap exclusively until college. And in our increasingly global society, dance, much like politics, needs to rethink the Eurocentrism we have held so dear. This is beginning to happen at the university level, where Dance of the African Diaspora is becoming an increasingly legitimized course of study. (Yesss!). But what about our children?
I want to see a little expressive context included in the early study of dance. And more importantly, let’s make it an empowering experience for our girls and boys. I want to see my daughter emerge from a dance class with words, gestures, and exuberant full-bodied physicality. Not a list of her insufficiencies.
So no. I don’t have Olivia in ballet.
I have her in Flamenco.
Details available upon request.