When did dance become a job…for the students?!

I’m struggling with this question.  I’m trying to understand what has changed since I grew up dancing.  Now, I’m certainly aware of the fact that not everyone I danced with loved it as much as I did and they certainly didn’t go on to make it career.  But I don’t remember them hating being there.  I don’t remember anyone ever actually verbalizing their dismay at being there.  Maybe there were one or two who felt this way but if they were that miserable, generally they found a different activity and quit.  Most of them, no matter what career they went into later, loved being there and really had fun with the work.  Many of them have brought their kids to dance as a result of their experience!  But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’m suffering from nostalgia of my own experience or maybe I loved it so much, I was blinded to the misery of others out of the fear of being infected with it myself.  So has it changed?  Or am I just remembering how I felt, not what the reality of the situation actually was?

I asked the question this week; How many of you say, “Ugh, I have to go to dance tonight”?  Sadly I wasn’t surprised.  It was about 90% of the kids in the company.  In my heart I knew this was the case.  I could see it in their faces every time I walked in the room.  But the younger group just below them, they still come in eager and hungry and playful.  So what is happening in that one or two year transition between middle school and high school?  What is making them dread walking in that room and actually doing something for themselves? Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this everywhere.  I teach at a couple of different studios and at the other one I’m at weekly, I never have that feeling of dread as they cross the threshold.  They come in and start practicing, immediately trying to remember the step from the week before.  So what is the difference?  Why does one group hunger for the experience and another despises it?

There are any number of factors to consider and I admit that their are much smarter people than I out there that ought to be sought out to do this research.  I am simply reacting to my observations.  The two studios are in different states, located in areas of  different economic strati; although the economic status of the actual clientele of each studio runs the gamut.  The politics and racial profile of the area of one tends to be a little more diverse whereas the other is a tad more homogeneous.  Ironically, the studio with the more diverse clientele has a more homogeneous teaching staff while the studio with the more homogeneous clientele has a more diverse staff.  So I can guarantee there is no level of discrimination at play in either place.   Both studios have competition teams that do well when they compete.  Both have thriving recreational programs that provide quality and caring instruction.  Both attend competitive events that offer classes and workshops.  But one group of kids definitely values the experience more than the other.  Both are located within an hour to an hour and a half from New York City and have easy access via public transportation.  In reality, they are almost perfect test cases for this kind of research; most things being equal.

So I begin to wonder where the difference lies?  Is it at home?  School?  What is being put in the minds of one group that devalues this experience so much compared to the other group?  It’s hard to say without going into the homes, riding in the cars to and from the studio, sitting in the classrooms at school.  There’s too much data to which I don’t have access.  It’s exasperating though; having lived the life I’ve lived and having seen the positive impact dance has had on MY life as well as the lives of thousands of dancers (professional or otherwise).  It’s incredibly disheartening to see this group literally hate that they are spending this time essentially locked in a room doing something that they don’t see any value in committing themselves to mastering.

Back to the group to whom I had asked the question…I asked another one.  “In your minds, what is preventing you from taking your dancing to the next level?”  Luckily, I’ve fostered a relationship with these kids that allows them to be brutally honest in these conversations.  The answer I got wasn’t something new to me.  “To be honest, I feel like in order for me to take my dancing to the next level, I’d have to give everything in my life to it; and I don’t plan to make this my career so I’m not willing to do that.”


Coincidentally, this is actually the reason I left the other studio I teach at several years ago.  There was never a conversation about it but it was SO CLEAR to me that this was the case.  They didn’t see dance as an option, so why give your whole heart to it?  I was teaching a group of dancers with so much potential, I couldn’t wait to teach them the next routine.  I was creating some of the best choreography of my life for them and they were coming at it like average dancers and never really fulfilling their own potential let alone that of the choreography.  It was frustrating for both me and the directors of the studio that they weren’t taking advantage of what I was giving and we made the mutual decision that it wasn’t worth their money and my sanity to continue.  I returned 2.5 years ago to work with the next group of kids and it’s been a great experience thus far.

Back to the current situation…I said to them, “You guys are missing the point.  There is joy to be had here.  There is joy to be had in giving over to movement.  It’s not about how you’ll use it, it’s about allowing yourself to feel joy in your ability to express yourself in this way.  You are treating this like you’re making a living rather than just living.”  I explained, as I have so often before, that it’s about habits.  It’s about establishing a habit of excellence in every moment that makes life easier in the long run.  But, with these dancers, I think it may be a losing battle.  They have closed their minds to seeing what they can actually gain from the experience. Years from now, they will most likely look back and see parallels, but by then, they will probably dismiss them or point fingers at a teacher for not pushing harder or blame all the work they had to do at school…never accepting responsibility for the fact that, in the moment, they never gave themselves to the experience.

When a teacher is with dancers for years and years, the students take for granted that their instructor will always be there…much like they do their parents.  In many cases, they see their teachers as surrogates and don’t listen to them any more than they would their own mother and father.  It’s like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons.  Wah wah, wah wah wah wah. A teacher’s expressions of frustration over them not working to their potential are seen as admonitions rather than expressions of desire to see them achieve the greatness they deserve.

Normally this is where I go into a spiel about my company MPower Dance Workshops and how it tries to answer these questions and solve the problems.  In fact that is why I do it and what I hope it will achieve over time.  And to be honest I did write one.  But before I let you read it, I want you to know that it always comes from a sincere desire to improve the experience of dance training for dancers of every level, demographic and professional aspiration.  I want you to know that I’m asking myself some really important questions:

  1. Why can I go to a studio for a day and inspire those dancers so much, but I can’t get the students that I have taught for years to want to be as great as they can be?
  2. What is my mission statement for my role as a dance instructor and what are all the parts of that?
  3. Where does the student’s responsibility end and mine begin?
  4. What can I say or do new in order to help my dancers see the value in committing to the moment they are in when they have been hearing me say it for years?

These are things I have to evaluate each week before stepping into the studio.  What can I do today to inspire greatness?!

[Sidebar #2]

As I finished this post, I shared the basic contents with my mentor and we had a really interesting conversation about it.  He explained to me that at the core of what I’m talking about is gratitude.  Gratitude is learned through hardship, having to provide for one self or through comparing one’s experience against that of someone less fortunate.  Perspective and life experience helps to build gratitude.  Unless it’s being taught at home, it is extremely rare to find a young person that understands or expresses it.

And now, the spiel…slightly modified:

MPower Dance Workshops is an in-studio guest training experience designed to help overcome the issues discussed above.  When we come to a studio for the first time, the theme of the experience is called Right here, right now.  We make it clear (and come back to it over and over throughout the day) that this moment is the most important moment in your life.  That being in this room right now, you are giving yourself something special and you should be mentally present for that and gain everything you possibly can from it!  The phone, the crush, the drama…it will all be there when you leave…but right now it’s about YOU, HERE, GROWING so that you can make the choices in your life that will bring you to where you desire in life; rather than being a slave to the events that happen to you, you can choose!  We encourage them to carry over the lessons we teach them through the year in all aspects of their life; to know that they don’t need a specific venue or person in front of them to push them there…they can create it for themselves by being their best versions of themselves each moment of every day.

If you’re interested in bringing MPower Dance Workshops to your studio, please contact our Owner/Director, Jason Marquette at info@mpowerdance.com or by calling him at (267) 243-0442.



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