How Ballet Made Me a Better Student

Last June I watched my 8-year-old’s first dance recital. It was supposed to be her second recital, but a fever and burst eardrum caused her to miss out on the first one. Watching her on stage, a little 8-year-old in her element, I remembered when I was a young dancer, and I had an epiphany. Dance is not only enjoyable, but it also helped prepare me for success in my education and my career. 

Studies show the benefits of dance when it comes to health, cognition, and coordination. Recent data states only 3-10% of trained dancers “make it” professionally. This might make you stop and question the value of the money you pour into your child’s dance hobby each month. When you weigh the financial input versus the likelihood of your child making a career out of dance, it will likely not feel like the type of return a savings account or 529 will give you. However, despite this fact, there are amazing future career and financial benefits.

When it comes down to it, dance teaches grit. Angela Lee Duckworth gave a TED Talk a few years ago where she argued that “the greatest predictor of success was grit.” I want to give a few examples of how high-quality dance training can provide plenty of opportunities for young dancers to develop grit.

Dance Taught Me to Recognize and Accept Constructive Criticism 

Have you ever taken or watched an upper-level ballet class at an elite studio? The instructors constantly give corrections and constructive criticism. When a young dancer takes their lessons seriously, they quickly learn that attention from their instructors is a good thing. Sometimes corrections come across negatively, “Straighten your back! Lengthen your neck! Use your core!” However, they are still meant to help the student. When an instructor gives corrections, it means they see the student is capable of improvement. My mother pointed this out to me around age 12. It has stuck with me ever since, and now as a doctoral student, I look forward to feedback on my work. I know it means my professors believe I can and will do better. As a university instructor, if I receive student feedback that speaks to a negative experience in my class, I can examine it and see how to improve the course or my practices.

Dance Taught Me Not to Quit 

There is something about being in a room of peers while a member of a former USSR country calls you out and gives you instructions that makes you try harder. When faced with such demands, dancers don’t give up but work diligently to do a better job on the next attempt. 

When I completed my Master’s degree, I had a 9-week-old baby, a 4-year-old, and an 8-year-old. I worked part-time from home for a university, I cared for our three small daughters, and I completed my Master’s taking all upper-level History courses (i.e. it was a lot of reading). I had to do all of those things at the same time because I could not quit my job or ignore the needs of our three children. I also had to complete that Master’s in order to take the next step in my career. Were there times I wanted to quit? Absolutely. Did I? Thankfully, no. Years of discipline at the ballet barre and on the dance floor taught me to push through the hard times. The results are worth the season of difficulty. 

I also remember being in jazz class during middle school and being introduced to abdominal crunches. I felt completely exhausted and inept. The immediate thought that popped in my head was “I cannot do this.” But there is a type of positive peer pressure in dance. I was not going to be the only one of in my class to quit. A dancer has to learn to question their inner dialogue. As long as I was not at risk of being ill or injured, I learned to keep going and not give up.

Before my career moved toward academia, I was an event coordinator for several years. Event season was grueling for me! But I used the grit I learned from those crunches back in 1996 to push through. The job must be finished and finished well. 

Dance Taught Me to Weigh the Outcome of Every Decision 

When I was 14, I quit dance classes for about 6 months. I was so burnt out from the amount of dances I was in for every recital and company performance. On top of that, I had a weekly private lesson plus youth scholarship ballet courses at the University of Oklahoma every Saturday. Within a month of quitting, I missed dance terribly. It was then I learned to look ahead to what the other side of every decision would be like. 

When I was in my freshman year of college, I had to take a public speaking class. As an anxious introvert, I was up until midnight the night before trying to decide if I should just quit college altogether or give my first speech. I woke up the next morning and gave my first speech in my public speaking course. I appreciate the discipline and consequences I learned in the ballet world when I think about that freshman year decision. 

Even though dance did not become a career for me, I can see the many positive lessons I learned by engaging in such a demanding art form for so many years. The next time you try a new exercise class, sign up for intramural soccer, or decide to join your church choir, remember- you just might pick up some grit along the way.