The Gift of Dance During the “Tween” Years
By Jennifer Jeter, MFT
My daughter just graduated from elementary school. The simple days of cutting out Valentine hearts and drawing and writing about your favorite animal are over. It is unlikely that we will ever participate in another “twin day” or that she will ever walk in a circle around her school, again, dressed for Halloween.
These days are a little more complicated… Here come the pressures of middle school. We have been given the inside scoop on the places NOT to sit during lunch so as not to get teased. We have been instructed on what to avoid wearing because popularity is important but avoiding being judged and criticized is even more important.
I want to tell my daughter it doesn’t matter—that these issues are so small in the grand scheme of life. I want her to know that world is better than the pettiness of middle school. But I know two things: One, these issues do matter, when you are a preteen. And, two, that it doesn’t get easier, necessarily, as we age.
But then… there’s dance.
Dance class is the place my daughter goes to at the end of her school day to forget about popularity and cliques and “issues.” In dance class, my daughter focuses her heart and spirit on something that feels good. She is present in her classes, serious but happy. She is able to strive and grow in the activity she has chosen everyday. I watch dance lift my daughter out of the heavy mood of hormones, emotional minefields and preteen drama.
Confidence and self-esteem are a byproduct of dance. They are natural gifts that come to a committed dancer. Because dancers know a secret: They know that being skilled in something special is more valuable and more impressive than almost anything. No expensive piece of clothing, updated smart-phone or fancy pool party takes the place of being good at something. Dance erases the significance of the superficial things adolescents tell themselves are important.
The group of friends my daughter has made through the years in dance is steady. All the students have their own complicated little lives going on too—but the dance world is (mostly) protected from the outside. The common interest of mastering a triple pirouette or a fish roll takes precedence over the issues of pimples, body issues and boyfriends or girlfriends. These friends are united through years of dance routines, performances and competition. Dance has become a “camp” of sorts and has made happy memories.
My daughter and her friends sometimes call their coaches “mom.” This good-natured nickname indicates everything these teachers do for our kids: make them feel supported, cared for, even loved. And indeed, these adults are people we would choose to look out for our children. They are firm but fair, strong but warm. They have high expectations for our kids but are realistic about each individual’s limits.
I have been asked if my daughter intends to become a professional dancer. My answer is always “probably not.” (Though I would certainly support it, if it was what she wanted to pursue.) That surprises some people who know how much time, energy and money we have invested in dance over the years. If they are surprised, however, it is because they don’t understand what dance has given my daughter and me, too, as her parent.
Dance has given my daughter a place to work and train and grow every day. It has given her an opportunity to let go of outside stressors and to feel supported by coaches and friends. It has given her a place to laugh and be happy. Dance has given my daughter a safe place to be free.
As a mother, dance has given me an opportunity to watch my daughter grow and excel in something she loves. It has given me great joy to see someone I love so much doing something she truly cares about. It has allowed me to celebrate my beautiful daughter with my friends and family during and after her performances. And most of all—after an especially hard day of emotional, preteen pressure, worries or social issues, it has given me great peace to look at my daughter and know that soon she will be lifted, flying through the air in dance.
Jennifer Jeter is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and serves on the Advisory Panel for Y.P.A.D. – Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (www.ypad4change.org).