Studios as Safe Spaces
I received this month’s hip-hop tips from columnist Samara Atkins just a few days after the U.S. election. Her wise words about using movement to process strong emotions struck a chord. A couple of days earlier, I’d run into my childhood ballet teacher, whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years. In the midst of a two-day retreat, she was wondering how she’d get through the teambuilding exercises she’d planned with her teenage students, who included both Clinton and Trump supporters.
With public emotions running so high, I imagine many teachers, whatever their political affiliation, have been grappling with similar challenges since November.
I also imagine that, as teachers, you sense your students’ emotional atmospheres. Poverty, divorce, abuse, trouble at school, bullying, eating disorders, job loss, or illness in the family—a childhood can be cut short in so many ways.
Right now many people in our communities feel personally under attack. The children in your care may be under great stress. A little girl whose parents are undocumented immigrants may be waking up from nightmares of her family being separated; another may be anxious that her two moms’ legal marriage could be dissolved. Your brown, black, gay, Jewish, and Muslim students may have suffered suspicious looks, vicious taunts—even scary physical attacks.
No teacher can fix the world for her kids. Still, we adults owe it to children to be our best selves for them, and with them. We owe them love and safety. We owe them our protection.
Think of the dance studio as a safe space for your kids. The shouting, squabbling, bullying, weeping adult world has no place there. In your lobby and classrooms, don’t let any student feel taunted, demeaned, or unwelcome. Look at those beautiful little human beings who love you and are full of potential and are learning the great, deathless human art form of dance from you every week. They deserve nothing less than your very best self. —Tamsin Nutter
DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter lives in Berkeley, California. Formerly a marketing writer at MoMA in NYC, she trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School and danced with Regina Nejman & Company and others.
How many of your studio’s alumni studied dance in college or went on to professional dance careers?
For some people, the answer to that question is a bragging point. And why not? College dance program applicants face great competition for limited slots: for example, the Florida State University dance department serves 101 students from a total enrollment of 41,473. And the chances of finding a steady, full-time job as a dancer are slim. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 20,100 people had jobs as dancers and choreographers in 2014. Total employment in December of the same year: 147 million.)
According to National Dance Education Organization, 3.5 million children receive dance education in the U.S. So yes, brag if you’ve got a healthy list of alumni studying or working in dance—you’re doing something right.
But that doesn’t mean studios without such a list are doing something wrong. I began thinking about this when conversations with dance educators revealed that some of them view dance instruction for kids and teens purely as a conduit to dance in college or as a career.
That bothers me because it means—if we consider the statistics above—that despite the efforts of dance teachers, most of their students won’t achieve what many believe to be the ultimate goal. Placing jobs and degrees on some “achievement pedestal” devalues what so many studios provide above and beyond technique—acceptance, joy, grace, friendship, creativity, excitement, and physical fitness. A place to call home and much well-deserved applause.
This is not to say that studios don’t need to provide quality dance education. A high school math teacher wouldn’t give faulty or uninspired instruction to students who plan to enter the armed forces or take up a trade rather than pursue math in college. Dance teachers have the same responsibility.
There is no doubt—dance studios have value in and of themselves. They provide lessons in life, lessons for life. Studios have an important mission to fulfill, and fulfill it they do. Studio alumni who go on to college majors or careers in dance? That’s just frosting on a very delicious cake. —Karen White
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.