Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Zee at Big Apple Tap Festival
But dancers know that even when you have aptitude, there's no substitute for hard work and perseverance. Acquiring any skill of value takes time. It's the way we learn to dance, to play music, to speak a foreign language, to succeed academically, to change social norms and to break down barriers. We lace up our shoes day after day, week after week, year after year and learn how to dance. Commitment over time is the very antithesis of modern living and is at the core of dance training.
"Failures" Are Opportunities
At the foundation where I work that gives low-cost dance lessons to underserved kids, we do assessments to place students in the appropriate level. Every year we remind the kids that in academic schooling not moving up to the next grade every year is seen as a failure but in the arts, it is normal to stay in a level for multiple years as you perfect your skills. Every year there are kids who don't move up and are upset. But they soon realize that moving to the next level comes with mastery of a certain set of techniques and mastering those techniques takes hard work.
You Don't Get Something For Nothing
In dance class you are only entitled to what you earn. And what you earn doesn't even necessarily have to be perfect dance technique. Some of my favorite students over the years have not been the best tap dancers but they've been magnificent students. They show up on time and are prepared, they work hard, they sweat and they persevere. Maybe they don't become the most skilled dancer in the room, but they often reap the most benefits. And here is the beautiful part: those kids have worked hard exactly because they don't have a feeling of entitlement.
We Are Accountable to Ourselves and Each Other
At the foundation where I teach we have a very strict wardrobe policy. Any student not properly dressed sits and observes class that day. It may seem overly harsh, but there's wisdom behind it. There might be a time that a dancer or their family forgets the uniform, but it doesn't happen again. Over time, as the dancer matures, they learn to be responsible without the parents being involved, and you no longer hear "My mom forgot my shoes."
Dancers also become responsible for learning the material. They learn that the teacher is not a puppet master who can make a body do the correct thing; it is up to the student to learn the material. They learn that they are responsible to the rest of the class, and that being absent lets down their classmates because other dancers can't get in a good practice without everyone in the room. Missing class, coming to class unprepared or not focusing on executing the steps properly, they learn, affects everyone else.
Cutting Corners Isn't An Option
My younger students will invariably ask me when they can move to the next level and my answer is very frustrating to them, I'm sure. I say that there is really only one level: beginning. If everything goes well in the beginning, improvement will flow. If any corners are cut, it will be hard to become advanced. I distill advanced steps down to the same words I use for a person's first tap lesson. Anyone with an aptitude for dance who excelled a little too quickly will tell you that they eventually go back to fill in the gaps.
What Other People Think Doesn't Matter
In a world that is so concerned about appearances, dance teaches you that what others think is not the most important thing. I try to explain to my young students that they can't let their experiences get derailed by what they think someone else may be thinking. If they stand front and center in class and make a mistake, what does it matter what another student thinks? Stand in front, get that correction, improve because you want to and let someone else's view be damned. Let those too lethargic to meet their potential stand in the back and watch you strive to be better. If you can't do it today, there is always next class and you are already on the way because you have begun.