Outdoor concerts, bands playing at fairs, or free music at the Seattle Center or Crossroads Mall got my children up and bopping to the music. My daughter and I took a "dance class" at the local parks department community center when she was 3; we piled up milk cartons to jump over them and twirled around with scarves. At 4, she went through the "I want to be a ballerina" phase, wearing her tutu everywhere. As a young adult, she's a good ballroom dancer, continuing to take lessons in salsa and swing.
Dance does a body good at any age. Abbie Siegel, principal of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, cites the life skills common to many art forms or sports – discipline, commitment and working every day to make little improvements. Dance also helps young people "control their physicality" and develop poise, good posture, a healthy body and a strong self-image, she adds. "It goes beyond the benefits of flexibility and health; it's the pleasure of expressing yourself," says Sue Lidston, director of Alderwood Dance Spectrum in Lynnwood.
Whether your children enjoy dance as one of their extra-curricular activities or make it the focus of their lives, Siegel and Lidston – both lifelong dancers – share tips for nurturing a dancer.
Start early and make it fun. Community centers and dance studios have classes for children as young as 2, some shared with parents or caregivers. Many use creative movement – unstructured dance to a variety of musical styles with scarves and other props. The preschool classes at Alderwood Dance Spectrum combine tumbling for large motor skills, baton for fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination, tap for rhythm and balance, and introduction to ballet for learning dance positions. A "Fairytale Princesses" class for ages 3 to 8 combines dance with make-believe, costumes, stories and music. PNB's Children's Division classes for ages 2 to 7 emphasize rhythm, music, movement and fun, as well as group interaction and the joy of expression. The always-full "Boys Class" for ages 5 to 7 includes plenty of large motor movement, plus "pirate" and "cowboy" make-believe. "The main idea is to have them enjoy it," Lidston says.
Don't push children younger than 7 or 8. The competitive nature of TV shows like Dance Moms notwithstanding, most dance experts stress that children should not begin to specialize in ballet, tap, hip-hop or other dance genres until they are 7 or 8. This is especially true for ballet, which requires students to have a level of control over their bodies' centers and abdomens and a high degree of focus, Siegel emphasizes. "To be put at the bar before that age would hurt their bodies; their tummies are too soft to train that way," she adds. Lidston is careful to match the physical requirements of her classes to children's developmental levels to prevent injury.
Choose the right kind of school. If children are interested in pursuing dance as a major activity, there are two kinds of studios. "My school is basically a recreational dance school," Lidston says. "We give great technique and good content to students who want to do other things, not just dance." Recreational dance studios may offer ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip-hop, hula, tap, lyrical/modern dance, improvisation, world/cultural dance and combinations of two styles. The PNB School, on the other hand, is pre-professional, meaning that children ages 8 and older learn progressive levels of ballet technique on eight levels based on age, physical strength and development and skills. The length of class sessions and the number of classes per week increase as students progress; by high school they may be at the school five or more days a week. "Take it year by year," Siegel advises. "Some kids should go to a more recreational school – they have to sacrifice a lot to come here (to PNB)." UNITY, a nonprofit coalition of dance educators, publishes a helpful guide on "How to Choose a Dance Studio" at www.unitydance.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Choosing_A_School.pdf.
Let children lead the way. Most experts, including Siegel and Lidston, agree that some training in ballet with its emphasis on body control and mental discipline is the foundation of all other types of dance. Beyond that, Lidston encourages students to "pick their passion and follow it." By the time students get to the rigorous high school level, "ballet is their thing," Siegel says, and they decide whether they are willing to give up the time and energy to stick with it to a pre-professional level. "Parents need to follow their child's lead.
Encourage them to be the best they can be. Competitive dance shows like Dancing with the Stars and movies like Step Up foster interest in dance, especially among boys. But they can raise unrealistic expectations: "They think they should dance like that in a few weeks," Lidston says. "We're not crazy into competition; dance is an art form, and so it's subjective," she adds. Students can work toward parts in winter and spring performances. "There's a certain healthy competition you see in our classes," Siegel says. "You see someone whose leg is extended more or who can jump a little higher, and you try to do it as well. But it's not the nasty kind of competition. Most of the students' competition is with themselves." In other words, the love of dance can prompt students to stretch themselves a little more each time – and that's a life skill they'll never outgrow.