Life Lessons with Legs: The Enduring Benefits of Studying Dance as a Kid

It’s back to school season and many parents with dreams of starhood are registering their kids for dance class, just as my mom once did. Not all will go on to become professional dancers, but the lessons they’ll learn will undoubtedly extend well beyond the mirrored studio.

Six days a week for the past six months I’ve been running up and down the Hudson River from my Battery Park City apartment, training for a series of races this summer. As I’ve written about before on the blog, I feel like I live in my head and am therefore challenging myself to “see” more of my city. So far I’ve been amazed at the new things I’ve come across - even on my familiar running path. Just last month, in fact, I noticed for the first time a beautiful quote about friendship engraved on a bench sweeping the distance between west 11th and 12th streets. It said:

“I can sail without wind, row without oars, but I cannot part from my friends without tears.”

I quickly snapped a photo to share with some of my dearest friends whom I studied dance with growing up and who feel far away these days. After doing a little internet research at home, I learned that this quote is actually an AIDS monument for the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day in 2008 “to commemorate those who have died from the disease, those who live with HIV, and those who have those who have cared for people with HIV/AIDS, educators and researchers who will one day eradicate it.”

Reading that gave me a momentary chill. It reminded me of a modern dance piece that I performed with those very friends when we were all about 16 years old. It was dedicated to many - oh, too many - friends that our teacher Colleen, the choreographer, had lost to AIDS while dancing professionally in the 80s. Dancers, directors, costume designers. This piece was an artistic turning point for our group, as Colleen shared her gratitude for having known these special people and her grief for having lost them, and then coached us to express that deep emotion through movement.

I hope that this experience has made me a more compassionate adult. And seeing that AIDS monument got me thinking about all the ways that dance continues to influence my life (even though the closest I’ve come to a leotard and pink tights was a Black Swan Halloween costume about four years ago).

No, I’m never going to be the star of the dance floor at the office Christmas party or perform a pas de deux at my wedding. But those dance lessons have served me well over the years - in much more unexpected life situations:

Giving a presentation

I’ll be the first to admit that I’d rather perform a dance in front 20,000 people than give a speech in front of 20. Public speaking completely takes me out of my comfort zone, as I agonize about what I’m going to say and whether anyone will think it matters. Interestingly, studies suggest that the words you use make up just 7% of the overall impression you give your audience. The rest? Tone and body language - the latter being a real strength of dancers. When it comes time for me to present or give a talk and I feel myself getting short of breath, I know that I can feign confidence through my body. I stand up tall, suppress my nerves and “sell it” as my first dance teacher used to say when she wanted us to stop thinking about the specific moves and start thinking about the overall performance.

Launching a business

No matter your innate personality type, dance instills in you a predilection for discipline that always kicks in when you need it most. Different to the type of kinetic pleasure you get from moving to the beat of a song at a party or bopping around the kitchen cooking dinner, with the artform of dance, there’s delayed gratification; you have to put in a lot of hard work and endure a degree of physical pain before you start to totally enjoy yourself and achieve a higher state of fulfillment, or flow as some might call it.

Training that “patience muscle” is no different than training your body to pirouette or pas de chat - and likely to be a much more valuable asset in life, especially if you want to launch your own business like I did. It’s exhilarating to put something new into the world - which will bring value or joy to someone, and also serve as a source of income for you - but success rarely happens immediately. First come many sleepless nights spent obsessing over whether that purchase order has landed in your inbox or your pitch deck is ready for tomorrow’s meeting (and did Facebook really change its News Feed again?!). Discipline to do the work day-in and day-out, and patience to wait for that hard work to pay off are indispensable to any startup founder.

Entrepreneurs also need to be creative - and not just in traditional sense, like coming up with new marketing campaigns or designing a logo, but also in terms of finding fresh ways to be resourceful with a shoestring budget, or evolving your business to meet an emerging customer need. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson of “Ted Talk fame” advocates for more art - especially dance - to be taught in the schools. Not because a new cohort of children will all become professional dancers, but because human beings think in different ways. He believes dance can help strengthen the creative skills of an often overlooked segment of students: those who, in his words, need to “move to think.”

Training for a triathlon   

When I was about 10, I wanted to write to the Olympic committee demanding that they make dance a sport. I would watch the figure skaters and rhythmic gymnasts and wonder why there wasn’t a global platform for me to compete. My parents supported my enthusiasm and sense of civic duty, and at the same time, tried to have a serious conversation with me on the purpose of art, and why it’s different from sport.

Looking back, my futile attempt seems silly - of course, dance is not a sport with a clear winner and loser - even the dance competition program “So You Think You Can Dance?” refers to the winner as America’s favorite dancer, not America’s best dance.

But that’s not to say dancers aren’t athletes - because they most certainly are. They are skilled in a precise type of physical activity that requires them to train regularly, build up muscle memory, push their bodies to new limits, manage injuries and measure their performance. Sure, the measurement may not be speed or number of balls through a net, but there is a level of technical perfection, rooted in the physics of classical ballet, which most dancers strive for regardless of style. It’s a level that, when reached, allows the artistry to truly shine through - elevating the experience from physical to spiritual.  

From the moment I started dancing, there has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t physically active - whether running or biking, practicing yoga or learning to ski for the first time in my 20’s. So when I wanted to train for my first triathlon this year - unable to swim a single lap without getting out of breath - I dug deep to find that dancer discipline and athleticism to get the job done. It wasn’t easy - on my body or my ego - but learning to swim longer distances felt surprisingly similar to practicing ballet.

Beyond just the pointed toes, swimming requires complex body coordination: the glide, the rotation, the kick, the breath. When mastered, this combination of movements helps swimmers move efficiently, move fast; and although it’s not the end-goal, they appear as graceful as a ballerina leaping across a large stage.

Learning a new sport also takes excellent body awareness - something dancers have in spades. In fact, scientists who have studied the brains of dancers can see that they have an increased ability to perceive where their bodies are in space - a sense called “propioception.”

I’m still not much of a swimmer - maybe I’ll never be this late in life - but I did become proficient enough to complete my first triathlon this summer. As I peeled off my wetsuit after the swim, heading from the beach to the transition area, I couldn’t help but feel that old-familiar rush of a quick backstage costume change. Helmet on, shoes clipped into my bike, I was more ready than ever to perform the next act.

Starting a blog

I may have spent my teenage mornings watching MTV before school, but my nights were spent with the likes of Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, and Glass. These were the type of composers that surrounded us in dance class.

I now see how much dance is interwoven with other art forms, giving young people the tools to understand and appreciate art for a lifetime. Modern choreographers like Merce Cunningham collaborated with visual artists and architects, not to mention his life partner, composer John Cage, while many classical ballets were inspired by great plays, such as Don Quixote, and Romeo and Juliet.

I started at the University of Maryland thinking I’d be a dance major, but graduated with an English literature degree. To some, this may have seemed like a sharp deviation from my original plan, but to me, it felt like a natural evolution. As I matured in college, the written word simply replaced physical movement as a way for me to express myself. But the impulse remained the same; and it’s one of the reasons I started this blog.

Like a tap dance, I enjoy hearing the rhythm and structure of the sentences and paragraphs as I write. And when I read a piece of literature that moves me - writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joan Didion are especially skillful at this - it’s often the cadence and musicality of the passage that helps me to better connect to the meaning of the words.

Nurturing friendships

Of course, it’s not just the arts that give me a sense of belonging and purpose, it’s also the people in my life. To this day, some of my closest friends are the girls I used to dance with. They stood and stretched next to me at a time when we were all forging our individual identities, yet unified by a common and unrelenting passion for dance. Regardless of geography or lifestyle differences, they are forever friends.

Back then, on those Thursday nights together, Colleen taught us how to turn our angsty and often superficial teenage feelings into something meaningful and beautiful.

Today, the dancing may be over for me, but those life lessons still have legs.