In 2013, the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma put down his bow for an evening and picked up a sheaf of papers to give the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He called his speech “Art for Life’s Sake,” and though the art in reference was, of course, music, the parallel to dance is obvious. In subsequent speeches he has called on each of us to become a “cultural citizen” who uses art to better the world.
Ma says “Art for Life’s Sake” has roots in an event in his childhood, when he met Pablo Casals: “His musical phrasing had the strength and beauty of marble sculptures. I was mesmerized. But it was something he said that most influenced me. He said: ‘I am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third.’ ”
As human beings, then, we can use what we know as dancers and dance educators to work toward a better future. Ma says, “[M]usicians spend years learning technique, but the point of art is always to transcend technique. That’s when we get to meaning. We transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that gives meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities—that’s art for life’s sake.”
I think dance teachers as a whole understand that. They want to train fine dancers, certainly—both technicians and artists—but they also defend the value of dance beyond the classroom. Think about how often the phrase “life lessons” is used as an argument that taking dance classes teaches young people about collaboration, self-discipline, dedication, and respect—qualities and skills that will enable them to do good and effect change in the world.
Ma agrees: “I realized that everything I practice in music—and this is true of all the performing arts—involves the four qualities necessary for success in the workforce of the 21st century: collaboration, flexibility, imagination, innovation.” And he puts some muscle behind that claim, saying that 10 years’ worth of data on 25,000 students in the National Educational Longitudinal Study finds that “arts‐engaged low‐income students are more likely than their non‐arts‐engaged peers to have attended and done well in college, obtained employment with a future, volunteered in their communities, and participated in the political process by voting.”
How can we, as cultural citizens, help all students engage with the arts? What Ma wants to do is add another letter to the acronym STEM, used to describe the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. He would add an A, for “arts, culture, and humanities. STEM to STEAM.”
How do we do get from STEM to STEAM? According to Ma, the best entry point is where things juxtapose, areas of transition and overlap. “In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of ‘edge effect,’ ” he says. “In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.” In other words, the edges are where change is most likely to occur, where one group can have the greatest impact on another. Perhaps they’re areas where individuals tend to be open-minded, because of the fluidity around those edges, the frequency of change, and the need to adapt.
As dance teachers, you already know the inherent power of the arts to transform a life, an outlook, even—when a performance transports us, making our worries and stresses disappear—for just a few hours or moments. So why am I sharing Ma’s words with you? Because I think the concept of us as cultural citizens is brilliant. I urge you, however you can, to find those edges and infiltrate them. Speak loudly and with conviction about the need for the arts in education, the importance of the arts in developing young human minds to their greatest capacity. Let the dance you’ve devoted your life to speak not only in the classroom and on the stage, but wherever you go. —Cheryl A. Ossola
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola is a former Dance Magazine associate editor and a freelance writer for San Francisco Ballet. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.