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Grace On and Off the Dance Floor

I am often brought to uncontrollable tears by watching dancers and their ability to exhibit such enviable grace on the dance floor, making even the most difficult ballet moves look like fluid motions. I grew up with two older brothers, so I was more likely to climb trees than dance. (Not that I didn’t enjoy spinning around on my four-poster bed with a microphone-brush in my hand, but the thought of anyone witnessing my clumsiness makes me feel flush even now!) When my daughter was two-years-old, she began dressing in tutus and could not get enough music and dancing, so I realized rather quickly that we had a twinkle toes on our hands and enrolled her at a local ballet studio. She’s now been dancing for nearly eight years, and we’ve learned a lot about grace in dance – on and off the dance floor.

Grace in Class

Grace with Instructors -- Feeling criticized is difficult, and we’ve all been there, but it’s our job as parents to teach our children how to respond to that criticism. I remember one time in particular when my daughter mentioned that one of her instructors was especially hard on her during a ballet class. We (my husband and I) reminded her that her instructors want her to succeed and know exactly what she’s capable of. We also discussed that many of her instructors have been training her for several years, and they most likely start looking at their dancers and loving them as their own kids after a while. Just like we as parents get frustrated with our kids when we feel they aren’t listening or aren’t living up to their full potential, their instructors feel the same way. It’s not because they want to pick on a student, it’s because they love that student so much! When your dancer is given a correction, it’s important that she responds appropriately:

  1. Never disrespect an instructor. This means no talking back or eye rolling.

  2. Make the correction. If it’s a correction that your dancer struggles with and feels it’s something instructors are constantly picking out, encourage her to practice at home.

  3. If your child does make the mistake of handling the criticism poorly, encourage her to apologize to the instructor outside of class.

Grace with Other Students -- Just as it’s important for our children to be graceful with instructors, they need to be graceful with other students. Unless an instructor wants a student to demonstrate something to another dancer (or the entire class), the teaching should always be left up to the instructor. It’s not a child’s responsibility to correct another dancer, and the other dancers will not respond well to someone in their level doing this.

Grace with Themselves – When your child makes a mistake during a class, rehearsal, or performance, she might feel embarrassed or angry with herself. It’s important that our children understand that it’s not only normal to make mistakes, they help us grow. Concentrating on a mistake only forces our focus away from improvement. The sun provides us with light and warmth, but if we stare at it, it affects our vision and we can’t see well for a while. We should never stare directly into our mistakes. It’s also just as important that our children see our own blunders. You may feel like your child thinks you’re a big goof, but she secretly holds you in very high regard. Tell your dancer stories about your failures and mistakes. Show her your ability to laugh about them and what they’ve taught you.

Handling Casting Disappointments with Grace

There are times in just about every dancer’s training when she feels disappointed over a casting. Whether she didn’t get a part she was hoping for, or she was cast in the same role in Nutcracker for the fourth year in a row, it does happen. As parents it’s difficult to see our children experience this type of pain, and we might even feel as if our children were slighted, but we need to help our children figure out how to deal with their (and even our) disappointment in a healthy way. It’s important that we not only prepare our children before a cast list comes out, we need to prepare ourselves for their possible disappointment as well.

  1. It’s okay to be disappointed. Can you imagine hoping for a promotion at work, but then being told you’re not allowed to be disappointed if you don’t get it? It’s an unrealistic expectation, especially one to have of our kids. However, it’s not okay to express disappointment through anger, callousness, or jealousy.

  2. If your child doesn’t get the part(s) she hoped for, tell her to take a few moments to be disappointed, but then she should adjust her focus to finding the positives in the role(s) she was given. Not only should she find the positives in her own role(s), she needs to find the excitement in her friends’ roles, even if they were cast in a part she was hoping for. More than likely she’s also not the only one disappointed, so it will be important for her to encourage others to realize the benefits of their roles. This type of encouragement is contagious and will help create a fun, loving environment.

  3. Remind your child that all productions are a team effort, and all of the parts are important.

  4. Urge your dancer to congratulate the other dancers who did get the role she hoped for. If she had been cast into that part, she would want her friends to be happy for her, not angry that they didn’t get it.

  5. Encourage your child to be the best dancer she can be in her role(s). If she holds onto disappointment over the casting, she will carry resentment, which is just too heavy for a dancer to bear. It will show in her posture, attitude, dancing, etc., and it will make it even more difficult for her to be cast into roles she wants. Dancers can always use their roles to better themselves as dancers. Productions are only successful when everyone performs to the best of their abilities. A studio could have the most talented dancer performing as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, but if the rest of the dancers don’t try and perform their best, the entire production suffers.

  6. Never blame your child – “…..maybe if you had practiced more at home.” Remind yourself that casting is not used as a director’s punishment.

  7. Tell your child it’s important that she doesn’t compare herself to other dancers. Their roles have nothing to do with your child’s own dance training, and comparisons will only distract her from bettering herself.

  8. Remind yourself to not compare your child with other dancers -- lead by example. If your child hears you compare them, you’re fueling negative thoughts that may already be in her head, which can have devastating effects on her dancing. Telling her she’s “a better dancer than everyone else,” and that she “deserved that part more than so-and-so” will not only feed arrogance, it will give her an attitude that will undeniably damage her ability to dance with grace (and other dancers will not want to be around her).

Handling Casting Triumphs with Grace

While dancers have to deal with casting disappointments, they also need to learn how to handle excitement with grace. Remember how your child felt when she didn’t get that part she wanted last year? Someone else’s child (possibly several) are going to feel that way because your dancer was cast in the role they were hoping for. Again, it’s important to prepare your dancer (and yourself) before the cast list comes out:

  1. It’s okay to be excited! It’s not okay to boast. This means your child shouldn’t tell people she was cast in the role because she’s “the best dancer,” or that “she deserved it more than someone else.” It’s also okay for us as parents to share in our dancer’s excitement, but again, it’s important that we do not boast or put our children on pedestals they can easily fall from.

  2. Accept congratulations with modesty. When your child receives words of congratulations from other dancers, responding with “thank you” and a smile is an appropriate response. While she may be so excited that she’ll want to talk more about it, some of those dancers may be struggling with disappointment and it may have even been difficult for them to muster the words without tearing up. Remind your dancer how she has felt when she’s been disappointed over casting, and to carry empathy with her.

  3. Congratulate the other dancers. Even if your child received a role as coveted as the Sugar Plum Fairy or Clara, it’s important that she shares in the excitement of her fellow dancers, or perhaps even encourages them to see the excitement in their own roles.

  4. If another dancer makes hurtful comments to your dancer (“you only got the part because your mom volunteers all the time,” or “you only got the part because you kiss up to the director”), encourage your dancer not to respond, neither with words nor facial expression. Remind your child that the other dancer is more than likely feeling jealous, or upset over her own casting, so instead of feeling angry or hurt over the remarks (as much as they might sting), foster empathy towards the other dancer. Chances are, the other child will come to regret her words on her own.

Handling Promotions (or the Lack Thereof) with Grace

Every dancer grows at her own pace. Sometimes a class can be mixed with an age range that spans 6 years or more. If your child is upset that she didn’t get promoted, remind her of the following:

  1. Another dancer getting promoted has absolutely nothing to do with your child’s training. Try to keep the focus on your own dancer, and stay away from comparing her to others. There is always a reason for a promotion, whether you (or your dancer) see it or not.

  2. A dancer’s lack of promotion is never a punishment. There are many factors that could have played a part in why your child didn’t get promoted: emotional maturity, physical maturity, consistency in training, the strength of skills in her current level, etc. If you and your dancer are not sure why she wasn’t promoted, schedule a meeting with the director to respectfully discuss the reasons. However, during that meeting it would be wise not to compare your child to other dancers, and to really listen to the constructive feedback the director has to give.

  3. Even if this is your dancer’s third year in the same level, and she claims she is bored or is not being challenged, it means she’s not working hard enough. A couple of years ago I remember my daughter having these complaints. After speaking with an instructor and the director about it, I realized this only meant she wasn’t challenging herself. And, after taking a couple of adult ballet classes myself, I understood what they meant. Ballet really is demanding, and there are so many things a dancer has to think about at once (tuck this, stretch that, point this, hold that, balance this…). Even a professional dancer can make a “simple” class challenging.

Grace is multifaceted and it will come more naturally with experience and age if we make a conscious effort to practice it. If you look up the word “grace” in the dictionary, you’ll see one of the meanings is: “favor or goodwill,” and two of the synonyms are: “kindness” and “love.” So if you’re struggling to describe grace to your dancer, a good premise is that, above all, kindness and love are most important. Not only should we (parents and children alike) be kind and loving towards others, our children need to love themselves.

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