Why learning the art of dance is underrated and misunderstood

Originally published in Dance Writer as “Why learning the art of dance is underrated and misunderstood”
Two dancers showing the importance of technique. Photo by Stagelit Studios

Dance bags are packed with leotards, shoes and spotless new tights, costume bags are hanging at the front door, music is triple-checked and a couple of props are safely stowed in the boot of my car. With her gorgeous wavy hair restrained in an immaculate ballet bun, and stage makeup carefully applied, my daughter is ready for her first dance of our incredibly busy weekend at Follow Your Dreams regional competition.

Between them, my girls performed fifteen dances over two days—solos, duos, trios, and troupes. Back when I was a new dance mum, the thought of this was overwhelming. How do they remember so many routines? Surely that’s too much pressure and too high expectations? But during the past three years, I’ve realised that what they learn in dance class prepares them for the challenges of competing and performing. They acquire abilities beyond dance steps, skills they carry into the rest of their lives.

Melbourne clinical psychologist, Courtney Fry, shares her explanation of how dance lessons positively impact young brains.

“Children and adolescents have a very high degree of neuroplasticity; their brain neurons and synapses are preprogrammed to learn and absorb information quickly and effectively. Basically, the more we utilise a range of different cognitive functions, the more patterning occurs in the brain.” Ms Fry continues, “The cognitive demand of mastering new choreography allows young brains to experience different problem-solving opportunities, forming maps in the brain and reinforcing their neurological development.”

Academically, there’s a strong correlation between music and mathematics. A 2012 university study exploring ‘Mathematics in the World of Dance’ discusses the ‘interplay’ between dance and mathematical concepts such as rhythm, patterns, shapes, angles, and symmetry. A young dancers’ exposure to these concepts heightens their understanding of mathematical models in real-life situations.

Teaching the values of dance and life.

Dance naturally involves geometry and spatial awareness. Dancers show particular shapes and angles as they move; they practice tirelessly to ensure they create the correct shape through specific placement of every part of their bodies. In the words of Transit Dance lecturer, Tania Robins, “Executing a dance step is a formula, a science or mathematical equation. One wrong angle or weight transference and the step is incomplete.”

Further to this, young dancers will experience how these principles play out on a stage. While recently adjudicating, Spectrum Dance Principal Trish Squire-Rogers encouraged more dancers to work in duos and trios to ‘practice learning partnership and spatial awareness’. Good choreographers possess an innate understanding of the need for balance on stage, revealing shapes and patterns within a dance to generate light and shade, and create interest for their audience.

Much in the same way as schools teach English comprehension, a dancer listens to music, analyses it, then conveys their understanding of the emotion through their dance. In recent years, there has been a huge increase in younger children performing lyrical dances, in which the choreography expresses the words of the chosen song. To do this, a dancer has to feel, think and express their interpretation. They communicate and connect.

Dancers also learn how to accept feedback and constructive criticism. In class, their teachers correct their technique, explain the theory and help them develop an emotional connection, both with music and themselves. When competing, they read or listen to their critiques, discovering where they can improve, what they need to work on. Their ability to self-assess and desire to improve is often beyond their years.

Kids involved in dance learn discipline and persistence. They understand the need to practice, to work hard to achieve the results they desire. Teachers expect students to take responsibility for their learning and belongings. They are naturally encouraged to develop self-motivation to achieve their best.

Ms Fry explains, “Persistence has been identified as a more critical indicator of academic success than IQ.” She clarifies, “Children can find it hard to be persistent in something they are maybe not very good at, maths, English and so on. If they are doing something they are really passionate about, or love, like dancing, music or sport, that’s where they are going to learn how to actually be persistent. That persistence will then carry on to problem-solving in other aspects of their lives.”

Late in the afternoon at Follow Your Dreams, Emma tiredly asked: “What dance is next?” Stepping into her costume, she took a deep breath, completely refocusing her body and mind. ‘Okay,’ she said, grinning happily, “I’m ready.” This is what dance teaches—courage and commitment, memory and motivation, strength and persistence.

Dance is an enduring education.

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