Dancing is often considered an activity for a select few, namely those who have a natural ability for creative movement, those who are graceful, those who gravitate towards music and have an innate sense of rhythm. In recent years, youth dance has also been portrayed in a certain way thanks to media exposure such as the popular Lifetime television series "Dance Moms." These platforms cast dance as a dramatic, competitive, even sexualized activity for children and youth, especially girls. Through my experience as a dancer and dance instructor for the last 15 years, I have come to see that these two basic understandings of dance--that it is for a select few and that it is largely dramatic and competitive--are misconceptions worth dispelling.
A Place for Everyone
Taking a dance class may not be on your parent-radar as a potential activity for your child. Perhaps it's not something you've ever taken part in or been interested in, or it's not something for which your child has expressed a desire. Because of the variety and versatility within the dance world, I believe it is something children can benefit from trying and exploring. There is truly a place for everyone in dance.
The Best Age
Parents sometimes ask me what the best age is for a child to try a dance class. Studios often offer classes for children as young as two or three, and this is a fun way for littles to get moving and get exposed to a sense of structure in a class. I have observed that ages four and five are great for introductory dance classes. Children of particular age are typically gaining the ability to focus and communicate in ways that are helpful when learning dance.
I have also heard concerns from parents of elementary-aged children that their child is too old to start dance, but I assure parents it is never too late to try dance. Dance can be a wonderful outlet for creativity as well as a healthy way to engage the body, no matter what the age. Knowing what skills children can gain from dance may provide a better framework for understanding that age and 'ability' are not factors that determine one's potential in dancing.
There are many skills woven into learning dance that are beneficial for children; it's far more than just learning certain moves for a competition or performance. The range of skills learned in dance includes the following:
Music Skills - Dancing is obviously about body movement, but it also involves an awareness of music. Young dancers learn to count music and move with it.
Physical Skills - Balance, coordination, stretching, flexibility, and strength are the primary physical skills children gain through dance. Even if a child does not seem particularly athletic or coordinated, dance can be a great vehicle for promoting these skills. Dance also provides children with a way to think about artistry and creativity with their physical bodies.
Language Skills - There are lots of terms and words used in dance that are unique to the sport. Most of these terms come from the French language, expanding even our youngest dance students' vocabularies and exposing them to a different culture and way of communicating. Deciphering terms like "plie" and "pirouette" can be a challenge for young beginning dancers, but it is one that they typically get the hang of quickly.
Social Skills - Though not necessarily viewed as a traditional team sport, dance is definitely a social experience. Not only does dance allow children to interact outside of their school environment and other familiar circles, but it also places emphasis on moving together as a unit. Learning to move creatively in sync with peers is a special social experience.
Another key social skill that children gain and sharpen through dance is the ability to listen, observe, and follow directions. Young dancers learn to focus their attention, using their eyes and ears, as they learn new movements from their instructor. This practice can serve to prepare a young child for Kindergarten, or bolster an elementary schooler's focusing abilities in the classroom.
Expression Over Competition
The U.S. is home to more than 56,000 dance studio businesses, a number that has steadily increased for the last decade. It's important for parents to understand that not all dance studios have the same structure and goals. There are competitive studios and then there are artistic studios.
Dance studios such as the one featured in "Dance Moms," are competition-oriented, often training young dancers for the sole purpose of learning moves and routines to compete in the next competition. Though the competitive nature of these types of studios has a certain appeal for some, they can fall short of providing a well-rounded dance experience for young dancers. They also do not provide as many long-term opportunities as the more artistic alternatives. The reality is that dance companies and university-level training programs tend to prefer dancers trained in well-rounded, artistic-focused environments.
An alternative to competitive studios is artistic studios. This type of studio often places a strong emphasis on performance and the foundational skills of dancing, rather than on competition. This allows young dancers the freedom to learn creative movement and be artistic as individuals without the pressure of competing. In a society that places greater and greater emphasis on competitive sports for younger and younger children, artistic dance is an alternative that is arguably healthier and more holistic for young minds and bodies.
Ultimately, it's important for our children to have a deep, comprehensive understanding that God made them. God gives us the bodies that we have, and they are a distinct expression of whom He made us to be. Providing this solid foundation of our Creator, and ourselves as expressions of that Creator, can have far-reaching effects on our identity, purpose, and the way we live our lives. Dance is one beautiful way to instill this in our children.