Teaching Dance and Helping Millennials

I recently saw a video on YouTube which discussed many of the problems we are seeing with millennials and the difficulties that they are having in the workplace and in life. The video makes a point of stating that these problems are not the fault of this generation but rather places the responsibility on the hand they were dealt and the world in which they were raised.

The video touched on many of the topics that we as educators have discussed over and over again, among them: the endless praise that their parents have lavished on them making them difficult to teach and correct, their sense of entitlement, their impatience and their addiction to their devices. The video also discussed how dissatisfied and unhappy so many of them are and the difficulty they have in forming deep and meaningful relationships. And it saddened me; more than I could have ever expected.

I look at my students and I worry; I worry about their future success and I worry about their happiness.

When ever I teach the first class of the afternoon I see the same thing. I come into the studio 15 minutes before class. The students are scattered around the studio floor, finishing their lunch and looking at their phones. They aren’t really talking, interacting, bonding and forming relationships. They are engaging with a devise. This worries me. How can a young person who is more interested in a machine than their friends and colleagues grow and develop into a communicative artist? But the even more troubling question is: How can a young person who is more interested in a machine than their friends and colleagues grow and develop into a happy and fulfilled adult?

In addition to ballet and the Luigi technique, I teach dance history. I recently gave a lesson on Marius Petipa and the development of the classical pas de deux. (For my readers who are not dancers or dance teachers, suffice it to say that one would expect a full-time pre-professional ballet student to be fascinated by this topic.) After a short discussion I ran a video of the “Black Swan Pas de Deux” from Swan Lake, one of the most famous and beloved moments in all of the classical ballet repertoire. I, myself, was enthralled by this video (which I have seen countless times). About five minutes into the video, I turned to look at my students and noticed that several of them were looking at their phones.

I have mentioned this to many of my friends and colleagues and I have gotten the exact same response from everyone: “That is so incredibly disrespectful!”. And some have gone on to add “Did you take the phones away?.

Here’s the thing: I agree that this behavior is disrespectful. But to be honest, the disrespect doesn’t bother me that much. We can teach behavior. We can collect cell phones at the beginning of class and return them at the end. We can threaten to not give them credit for attending the class if we see a cell phone. We can fail them, punish them and create all sorts of penalties for this sort of behavior. And what will that do? It will teach BEHAVIOR. And, in this very particular situation, behavior is meaningless.

I want to know why a cell phone is more interesting and important to a full-time pre-professional ballet student than an exquisite performance of Swan Lake. This is unfathomable to me and this question has been haunting me since the day I ran that video. I remember, at 14 years old, setting an alarm clock at 3:00 AM in the middle of the week, so I could get up and watch Top Hat on television. We did not yet have a VCR. I had never seen it. I knew it was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I simply HAD TO SEE IT. This was the only means I had to educate myself about dance. It was far more important to me than sleep. There was no deterring me. Today, when I suggest to a student that they look at something on the internet, and check in with them a few days later, never…not once…in the last ten years…has the student followed my suggestion and made the effort. And the thing that troubles me so much is that for so many of them (not all) it is an EFFORT.

I see the lack of patience in so many of them. I see a reluctance to repeat an exercise over and over again, each time striving to find something more. I oftentimes feel “tolerated” by students as I painstakingly explain a fine point of technique. I feel them bristle if I ask them to repeat a phrase over and over again, trying to pull some artistry out of their steps. They want it fast. They want it now. They want the solo, the staring role, their moment in the spotlight and the accolades for their brilliance without putting in the work. I had no choice but to be patient. I waited until I was 26 to take my first dance class. The five year old inside of me, who saw that first mesmerizing Nutcracker on television, waited 21 years to take his first dance class. And when I finally started dancing it was the WORK that brought me joy. And from the time I took that first dance class, I waiting another 25 years to secure my dream job at the Joffrey Ballet School. But here’s the thing: no one had to tell me to be patient. I simply was. Apparently, I have students who can’t wait for a 12 minute video to be over to check their phone.

Clearly I don’t see these problems in all of my students. There are certainly those that are passionate, committed and hard-working. But I find myself worrying more and more about the others. These students are placed in my hands and I am charged with the task of making dancers out of them; I am charged with the task of nurturing artists. I can teach them to put their phones away. I can teach them to follow my suggestion and look at various performances on the internet. I can teach them dance history. I can teach them music. I can teach them steps. I can attempt to cultivate some artistry in them. But sadly, the way things are now, I am starting to feel that I will not really be successful.

Every time I step foot into the studio to take class I see it as an exploration. I am always looking for new feelings, new ideas, new discoveries that I can bring to my classroom and use to help my students grow. But now I am exploring new territory. I am looking for ways to inspire my students to see the work, the diligence, the patience, the richness of their art as far more important than anything else in their lives. When a 1978 performance of Swan Lake makes them forget about their phones, when they can endlessly examine their arabesque looking for ways to make it more beautiful, expressive and expansive, when they can work happily and tirelessly to EARN a solo or a starring role, then they will begin to have the goods to develop into an artist.

I am far from perfect and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. There is so much that I do not know and I am always looking for new ways to inspire and guide my students. There is one thing I do know: Until the art is of paramount importance to the student, until there is no room in their mind or their heart for anything else, they will never be able to reach and move an audience. Unfortunately, telling this to students will not help them. They must come to it on their own. They must find it for themselves. And when they do, they will soar.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Dance and Helping Millennials

  1. I get it. I get where you’re coming from and I feel your frustrations too. And I also have a few millenials in my life, though I haven’t taught many of them dance. I have been in dance classes with quite a few though. Here are a few of my own observations. (Sorry for the long tl;dr reply!)

    I don’t think kids and teenagers have changed fundamentally, or are lacking passion, but that the way it’s expressed is so hugely different to my own childhood (80s/ early 90s).

    Don’t despair! Their consumption of dance is just very different to previous generations, (and it’s hard to keep up with the rapidly changing online mediums through which they consume it.) And they’ve probably watched that same clip you love so much then moved onto some other dance clip long ago. And mostly those clips won’t be 12 mins long, but a few minutes, if that. It’s not a lack of passion. It’s not having learnt a value in sitting through a ‘long’ video like that. And that’s got more to do with how advertising revenue streams currently work than anything to do with millennial passion or lack of it.

    And they’re also probably using their phones to chat to their friends, (including quite possibly the student next to them!) In between watching (2 minute) dance clips, or crushing on the latest impossibly difficult pirouette gif doing the rounds.

    I think helping them learn the skills to interpret realistically what’s out there,starting with the stuff they’re already seeing, is so important. They’ll be seeing the impossibly perfect or brilliant, (like those forever-turning perfectly-executed grand foutte gifs) and know instinctively that can’t be done, and thus not even try it. This is especially true for kids with low self esteem. But if they have something realistically doable, in challenging but satisfyingly achievable steps, They’re much more likely to give it a go.
    In the same way, help in learning to differentiate between technical brilliance and artistic interpretation with the dance they experience online, is incredibly valuable.
    You talk about a sense of entitlement and having been told they’re always good no matter what … What I’ve seen is secretly these kids find that neverending praise – and the seeming ‘self esteem’ it creates – is as hollow as you and I both find it. In helping them interpret their world of dance realistically, you’ll be helping them build some solid, REAL self esteem. They’ll have the skills to identify and reject the fake things, minimising unrealistic expectations, and helping them create realistic ideas of what can be. And from their their passion has a much better chance of blossoming into hard work and real achievements. And real, reliable self esteem.

    Dance aside … don’t discount the value of teaching behaviour! You’re giving them behavioural options that, as they grow older, gives them choices. Important choices. If they haven’t learnt yet that using their phones during class is just plain rude, not just to the teacher but the other students, then they will forever be unintentionally rude. If the only things they are able to get out of your classes are some choices in how to behave, that’s actually an extremely good outcome, especially for the kids like you’ve described. It’s even more important than becoming great dancers.

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      • I’m enjoying the exchange too!

        I was thinking more about it last night and I thought … it’s all about where the line is between the parenting and the teaching of a child. You hope as a teacher the children can come to you with a good solid foundation for a happy, successful life. But that requires good parenting, which is not always there. So then what are you, as the teacher, supposed to do? Teach them where you were employed to teach, knowing full well you’re building on such a shaky foundation, it’s unlikely you’re achieving anything. Or are you supposed to go back to the basics and reparent them as well as a teacher is able to?

        Difficult situation.

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      • It’s an extremely difficult situation. I teach in many different aspects of the dance industry: everything from seven -year-old s to adult recreational dancers to serious, full-time pre-professionals … to working professional dancers and each group needs to be handled and approached differently . I really don’t believe that it is my place to “parent“ my students But often we are left with no choice.

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