Hi, Tap Academy Online subscribers and tap teachers & enthusiasts everywhere!
Dance Magazine recently published an article I wrote. Perhaps you have already seen it on-line but I wanted to share the link. Dance Magazine was great throughout the process. The original piece, though, had some strong social commentary and those potentially controversial words and ideas were removed. I’m sharing both the published version and the original version with you here. I’d love to know what you think!
Here is the link (or click on the picture below) http://www.dancemagazine.com/6-ways-dance-training-makes-us-better-human-beings-2484888308.html to read the article as published by Dance Magazine.
Keep scrolling to read the original version that maintains the more controversial ideas.
Talk to you soon!
AND HERE IS THE PRE-EDIT VERSION:
6 Ways Dance Training Can Save The World From Unraveling
By Steve Zee
High-quality dance training can literally fix what is wrong with our society. In a world where veneer and appearance are valued, dance teaches what is real — commitment over time, hard work, responsibility to oneself and to others, that advanced things are built on beginning things. These are among the things our modern world is lacking at all levels of society and they are precisely the things that a strong dance education provides. Dance training has the power to mold our children into the kind of people we want in our society completely apart from creating future artists which is a wonderful goal all by itself. We arts educators must keep high-standards for ourselves and our students, not falling prey to the same mediocrity wearing away at society, or there will be no benefits to reap from the training.
Commitment Over Time
In my tap dance courses at the Cal State University where I have been on faculty for years I have come across every version of student. The student body is diverse, coming from literally every background you could imagine. However, they do share one major quality: They are shocked if they can’t learn something quickly. They are used to getting fast results. They need an answer — Google — bam. They need to talk to someone — text — bam. Everything is fast and that is wonderful for them. “Well, welcome to my world,” I say to them. “If you can’t tap dance well today, well, why would you? Acquiring any skill of value takes time. We lace up our shoes day after day, week after week, year after year and learn how to dance. Some things just get done the old fashioned way and I love that. I welcome you to my world.”
Learning to dance takes commitment over time. This is something that we have trouble sustaining in our society — our relationships fall apart, our indignation at a current event dies in time for the next episode of Game of Thrones to begin, parents and teachers abdicate their power to mold children because it’s just too tedious to be in it for the long haul. It’s easier to shrug as if to say, “You see what I have to deal with?” and let it go. We let things ride from a collective inertia.
Commitment over time is the way things happen. It’s the way we learn to dance, the way we learn to play music, to play sports, to speak a foreign language, to succeed academically, to change social norms, to break down societal barriers that were once believed to be permanent. Commitment over time is the very antithesis of modern living and is at the core of dance training.
Hard Work Pays Off
In a Kardashian reality where young people are watching YouTubers and their dogs doing all manner of stupid stuff and seeing that these people are “famous” for doing basically nothing and then turning on the TV and seeing celebrities who are famous for doing nothing, famous singers lip syncing their performances and politicians literally avoiding challenging work, young people might not get the lesson that hard work pays off. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be 5 minutes every day, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour. In dance, we know that these are all the words of snake oil salesmen. In dance, there is no lip syncing. You either do it or you don’t do it and the only way to do it right is with hard work. Even if you have aptitude, there is still the hard work.
At the foundation where I work in downtown Los Angeles that gives extremely low-cost dance lessons to under-served kids, we do assessments at the end of each summer to place students in the appropriate level for the beginning of fall classes. The assessments are run a bit like an audition. The kids arrive and we run them through their paces in each dance form and the teachers select the right class level for each dancer.
Every year we remind the kids that in an academic setting not moving up to the next grade every year is seen as a failure but, in the arts, not moving up every year is normal. It is normal to stay in a level for multiple years as you perfect your skills. Every year there are kids who, of course, don’t move to the next level. They are upset. Their family is upset. There are whispered conversations in the hallway. Sometimes a meeting is requested. The family of the child thinks the meeting is about having a heart to heart to discuss how the teachers have made a mistake and how the feelings of the child have been hurt. But what everyone soon realizes is this: Moving to the next level comes with mastery of a certain set of techniques and mastering those techniques will take hard work. Don’t be upset with the teacher. Don’t be upset with yourself. This is not about feelings. This is about technique. Just commit to working hard next year because hard work pays off.
Entitlement – You Don’t Get Something For Nothing
This is the lament we have for our young people — they are so entitled. So much has been written about the Millennials and how spoiled they are, how coddled, how everything needs to be wrapped in a compliment, how everything is a microagression damaging their feelings, how they think they deserve everything.
Well, this is what happens when everyone gets a trophy at the end of the season, when everyone is a genius, when everyone gets complimented every moment of the day, when parents and teachers don’t say the word “no” or “wrong” or deliver consequences for poor behavior. Why wouldn’t children feel entitled if they come to actually believe that they are as wonderful as they have been told they are?
But you don’t get something for nothing in the dance studio. In dance class you are 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 and spectacular human beings. They show up on time and prepared, they work hard, they sweat and persevere. Maybe they don’t become the most skilled person in the room but they might often be reaping more benefits than the best dancer. These are the students that are entitled to things in my view because they’ve earned it. And here is the Entitlement Catch-22: those kids have worked hard exactly because they don’t have a feeling of entitlement.
Responsibility To Self And Others
At the foundation I mentioned where I work with children in Los Angeles, my wife, as founding Artistic Director of the organization, instituted a very strict dress code even in the tap classes — correct shoes, pants, shirt, no jewelry, hair pulled back out of the face. Any student not properly dressed sits and observes class that day.
I was brought up dancing in the studio of one of the great old-time hoofers in San Francisco, a guy named Stan Kahn. There was no dress code, no uniform. I had no exposure to that type of thinking. So at my wife’s foundation I resisted the dress code rules for years, wondering about the point of being so strict. Eventually I saw the wisdom behind it. The dancer and their family are responsible for preparing the dancer. There might be a time that a young dancer or their family forgets the uniform but it doesn’t happen again. Over time the young dancer learns to be responsible without the parents being involved and you no longer hear the sentence, “My Mom forgot my shoes.”
The dancer also becomes responsible for actually learning the material. I have a nephew who would often comment during his high school education about how he was doing poorly in such and such a class because the teacher was “boring” or “not good” or “didn’t explain things well.” In other words, my nephew’s lack of success in that class had nothing to do with my nephew. Dancers learn that the teacher teaches and the student learns. It is true that some teachers are less skilled at explaining things than others but the bottom line is that the dancer must take the responsibility to learn the dance. The teacher is not a puppet master who can make a body do the correct thing. The teacher is just a guide. This is a lesson that translates well to academics. The teacher could be brilliant or the teacher could be awful but, in the end, it is up to the student to learn the material or the student will simply not know the material.
The dancer also becomes responsible to the class. Kids learn that being absent, especially when rehearsing for a performance, is really the act of letting down their classmates. At the beginning of their dance training a dancer or their parent might say naively that the child knows the steps so it’s OK that they can’t be in class. Eventually, though, they come to understand that the other dancers can’t get a good rehearsal without everyone in the room. If the person you stand next to, circle around, move behind or in front of is not in class (or is in class but has no idea what is going on) then no one gets a quality rehearsal. Missing class, coming to class unprepared or not focusing on executing the steps properly, they learn, affects everyone else in the room. Dancers become responsible to others.
What People Think Doesn’t Matter
In a world that is so concerned about appearance and image, dance teaches you that what others think is not the most important thing. Some students like to stand front and center in a class while some fade to the rear almost willing themselves to disappear. With improvisation, for example, some students get nervous and self-conscious. Everyone else is doing something “cool” and they are not. What I try to explain to the class is that usually everyone is more or less feeling that same way so what is the point then? If person A feels less than person B and person B feels less than person A then we have a very pointless psycho-emotional moment happening.
I also try to explain to my young students that they are in the process of leading their own lives and that they can’t let their experiences get derailed by what they think someone else may perhaps be thinking. They are on their own personal quest for success and improvement and training. If they stand front and center in a class and make a mistake, what does it matter what another student may or may not think? Stand in front and give it a try, 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. You can come to the front, you can improvise, you can try to do that step. And, guess what? If you can’t do it today, there is always a next class to keep trying and you are already on the way because you have begun. Don’t let someone derail you from having your full life experience.
Advanced Things Are Built On Beginning Things
In a world where universities do grade appeals as students shop for a grade that they didn’t earn and B-list celebrities shimmy on Dancing with the Stars to the swooning of the American public, what dancers know is that advanced things are built on beginning things.
My younger students will invariably ask me when they can move to the next level and my answer is, I’m sure, very frustrating to them. I say that there is really only one level: beginning. If everything goes well in beginning then all improvement will flow. If any corners were cut, any day dreaming interfered, any attendance issues prevented the requisite work then it will be hard to ever become advanced. I can and do distill advanced steps down to the same words I use for a person’s first tap lesson. Advanced things are built on beginning things.
This is exactly why Dancing with the Stars irks me. It is tabloid dance training and, if it is even dance training at all, it’s only the first 1% of it. They try to build a dancer on nothing. Sure, it is amusing to see famous or once famous people trying to dance and, yes, they do learn some things. But thank you Dancing with the Stars for explaining to the American public that dancing is a snap, the easiest thing ever. Anyone can do it! You can become proficient in dance in a matter of weeks! Good enough to even win a television show contest and then be on talk shows! Why all of the dancers I know have been busting their bunions their entire lives to perfect their craft is beyond me when I see someone become a veritable master of merengue almost overnight. That show has done for dance what McDonald’s did for hamburgers.
Dancers know the truth. Advanced things are built on beginning things and there is no substitute for following the full trajectory. Anyone with an aptitude for dance who excelled a little too quickly through the ranks will tell you that they eventually go back to fill in the gaps.
Dance Can Save The World From Unraveling If Only. . .
In a world that is unmoored from its center, where veneer and appearance are valued, dance teaches what is real. Dance teaches about commitment over time, hard work, responsibility to oneself and to others, about not being derailed from pursuing your destiny because of what others may think, that advanced things are built on beginning things and that abstract things can lead to concrete results.
However, the only way our students will reap all of these rewards is if we educators cling to high standards both for ourselves and our students and don’t cheapen the process by becoming part of the modern problem ourselves.
And that will be the topic of the next installment.