I often get phone calls from parents wanting to enroll their child for a children’s dance class. The first question that I ask is, of course, is, “What age is your child” and often the child is around three years old. Like a proper bad-at-business person, my instant response is to tell them, “Please let your child play outside with other children in a park or other open space in an unscripted play mode. That is what he/she needs right now. And then bring them to me when they are about seven years old”. Sigh! There goes another needed piece of income!
The truth is that children do need this free playtime to develop. Children can sit cross-legged or in the lotus position without giving it a thought. They skip across a playground, jump up and down in excitement, climb trees naturally, hop over obstacles, jump on each other, wriggle through tight spaces, hang upside down, cross the monkey bars, slide down long water slides and sit on their haunches. These same movements become a constraint on them when at an early age you insist that they do something similar in class. Suddenly children who were skipping easily and happily outside, get their feet and legs all tangled up when inside four walls.
Of course, I have seen many classes being given for and to small children, barely two years old and proudly wearing their tutus and little ballet shoes. I see, too, the mothers in the room holding their child’s hand, helping them to cross the floor in the prescribed way. I have never agreed with this way of introducing dance to children. Again, a rotten business model…mine, that is!
I want you to look back at your own childhood and think about this. I do believe that the right age for children to start in a classical dance class is around seven; give or take a year, as each child is an individual and has a different personality. It is around this age that children can concentrate long enough to actually take a meaningful class and when the rigors of a classical dance style begin to make sense. If the dance style is introduced to them carefully, they will be able to hold on to that wonderful flexibility of childhood and take it with them into adulthood, retaining it for many years. By this age children’s bodies have the strength needed to start undertaking the hard work of dance without thinking of it as work, especially classical dance, without making undue demands on their systems. As they grow, the athletic prowess that dance brings, the agility, the mind-body connection, only enhances their development. They can actually enjoy the challenge of the dance and look forward to it’s excitement. For dance is about stretching your body to it’s limits while opening your mind to it’s own possibilities.
Now a days, children are being pushed earlier and earlier to specialize in some sport or art or athletics. I strongly urge parents to let their children explore various avenues without taking it to a competitive level well into their early teens, until they find that one sport or dance style that they really love. For when you love what you do even when you are exhausted practicing it, it takes away your stresses of life and helps you to focus, unwind and be happily challenged. It is the teacher or coach’s job to nurture that love and talent.
“Nurture” is a word and sentiment and belief that I do not see around me much anymore, whether it be dance teachers or coaches. With the delicate and tender nature of a child in our hands, it is absolutely essential that we treat the child with care ourselves, dampening their insecurities and boosting their confidence in their talent . Rarely does one see that anymore. Coach’s yell and want the chidlren to be as aggressive as possible so that they can win more games, and teachers push the children beyond their limits as if that is the way they will drum the love of that art or sport into them. Above all, quality dance should not be about competition; it has to be about saying something important in a beautiful way, telling the story of life in us, and around us, in a unique way.
In our dance salutation, we hold the Guru’s stature even above that of our parents: so choose carefully the person who will guides your child on the path forward. Make sure it is someone who will give your child love, strength and discipline while he/she is on her journey of discovery.