A Woman’s View: I hope you dance

At one point or another, most little girls dream of being a dancer.  Usually fleeting and sometimes parent-inspired, the fascination of little girls with dance is nothing new.

As little girls enter into a dance class of theirs or their mothers’ choice, they either discover that they enjoy the time for fun, or that they want to dance for their life. However, there are those who discover they despise the idea.

I always found it inspiring to watch the younger classes of 5 or 6 year olds, all dressed up and trying their best to act and look as perfect as possible, while executing a movement that requires years of skill to do correctly — looking so proud when they have finally managed to put that one foot in front of the other to make a step come to life. 

As we get older and the little girls grow up to be teenagers they tend to lose their “sense of wonder” that once inspired them to dance.  Sometimes life takes over with jobs, boys, school or friends creating less time for dance.  As adults, women sometimes find themselves redrawn to dance for either the great exercise benefits or the pure pleasure of being able to create art with your body.

Some of the reasons little girls first begin a dance class is surprisingly not their idea at all.  I spoke with several dancers from a variety of studios in the Philadelphia area and was surprised to learn that the majority had been almost pushed into dance at a young age by a parent.  Fewer than 30 percent of the women/girls I spoke with said they joined dance when they were younger because they wanted to.

“I love dance now, but at first I hated it.  My mom always wanted to be a dancer, but never could, and so when I was of age she slapped me right into a class even though I complained all the time,” said Heather, who now attends four dance classes a week.  “I do enjoy it now, but would have preferred it been my decision.”

True that pushy parents can take the enjoyment and fun right out of dance, creating a job-like atmosphere for their little ones, but there are many great social aspects, as well.  Children will learn discipline, structure and mental alertness that can greatly assist them through their studies in life.  Dance is also a chance to move freely to music and develop balance and flexibility and fight obesity.  As children become older and progress into adolescence, they may become more likely to enjoy their choice of dance class and appreciate the teachings betters.

One thing to be very careful of is eating disorders, which are commonly associated with dancers.  One of the main reasons dancers have so many problems is a result of the unrealistic expectations that are sometimes placed on the young women.  There is a constant struggle to stay flexible and thin for agility, not to mention that as a dancer you spend much of your time staring in the mirror at yourself, slowly critiquing your physique and abilities.

Parents should especially be aware of warning signs in young adults, as this is a crucial growth stage for dancers.  Healthy eating habits are always good to invoke, and teachers should be aware that certain criticisms could be detrimental to a dance student’s health and career.

“My daughter decided to join a dance class at the age of 12 because all of her friends did.  She was the only one of her friends who stayed and really enjoyed it, “Jane Lee from Lawncrest told NEast Philly.  “I found that dance helped her focus a great deal more but then one of her teachers, two years later, started telling her to lose weight and comparing her to other girls.  Now she battles an eating disorder and I am not sure she will be able to ever stop battling it.”

Finding the right studio and the right teacher for your child or yourself can be part of the battle.  You need to take into consideration what you hope to get out of the classes and instruction.  What type of dance do you like best?  What is your goal with learning?  Are you or your child attending for fun, fitness or in hopes of a career?  Establish these fundamentals up front, and accept that they may change and develop as the dancer does.

It is not always about perfect form — sometimes it is just about fun.  Bottom line: you want to stay safe and you want your child safe.  In no way should a teacher ever tell a student to lose weight.  Scales and measurements should not be found in a studio, and careful instruction with caution to injury should be given.

Dance is a great way to obtain focus and expression.  There are many styles of dance for many different body types and cultures.  Feel free to explore as many styles as you can, and remember that just because one style is not good for your physique does not mean that all dance must be eliminated from your life.

Adults have a lot more freedom to choose their styles and their schedules to what best fits them.  Though a professional career might not be attainable, dance is a great addition to life and can help you to feel good about yourself and improve your health.

I think many women are dancers at heart. They just need the courage sometimes that will drive them forward.  If you dance, you should do it for you.  Never let you fears stand in the way of your dreams – at least try.

A Woman’s View is a column about women’s issues written by Donna Ward. The column appears every other Thursday on NEastPhilly.com. See others here. Read other NEastPhilly columns here.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.