The benefits for kids of all ages - from preschoolers to teenagers
By Louise Freeman
Children have a natural desire to move – they’re all over the place, jumping, running and even dancing to their own rhythm. Dance classes are a good way to corral all that energy into a discipline that is also an outlet for self-expression, creativity and imagination. Dance education is a great option for children who are not drawn to team sports, but whose parents still want them to be active and healthy.
The benefits of dance on childhood development – from tots to teens – are definitely worth exploring.
For preschoolers, dance “develops motor skills, coordination and rhythm, and teaches them how to explore different movement with their bodies,” says Philip Krauter, artistic director of Juneau Dance Theatre.
This “creative movement” opens the doors for preschoolers to “use their imagination and learn an appreciation of their bodies and their own capabilities,” says Eileen Spezialy, owner of Anchorage Music and Dance Center. Dance class also helps little ones learn how to work together within a group – a useful skill before starting school. “They learn how to interact with others and how to cooperate,” she adds.
For school-age children, dance has cross-over benefits to their academics. According to research by the Dana Foundation, an organization that supports brain research, dance can benefit children’s ability to learn new information because it stimulates the brain’s visual, auditory and memory centers. “When children start to dance, their academic performance goes way up because it uses both parts of the brain at once,” says Kristen Vierthaler, executive director of Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage. “Dancers need to focus on so much, from keeping track of their body in space to what’s going on in the music and where everyone else is, that it helps them learn to stay focused in other areas, such as school.”
Dancers can even get a leg up on math, notes Charlotte Truitt, mother of four dancers ranging in age from 10 to 18. “My kids’ math tutor said that dance is beneficial to building math skills. They’re learning to think spatially and geometrically because they are building patterns through the choreography. And, they have to learn how to count in beats of four, six and eight while moving their body.” In Alaska, dance has another plus: “It is a wonderful indoor activity,” says Truitt, especially during cold and rainy days.
Some children, especially boys, take classes to increase their flexibility and balance, which helps them in a variety of sports. Both Juneau Dance Theatre and Alaska Dance Theatre offer scholarships specifically for boys. “I try to recruit as many boys as I can,” says Krauter.
Dance can be uniquely beneficial for teenagers. “Today with the proliferation of electronics, teens are always on their phones. They’re not present. Kids who dance are very present,” says Truitt.
Marley Elconin, age 16, has been taking dance since the age of 4 and is now taking classes ranging from jazz, tap and musical theater, to ballet and modern dance. She says she sees many kids at school slouching in the hallways with bad posture – and bad self-esteem. “It’s hard anyway being a teenager, but being on stage has helped give me confidence in myself.” Elconin also finds dance is a good stress reliever. “It keeps me sane when I get overwhelmed with schoolwork.”
For kids of any age, overcoming the challenges of learning new dance skills makes them stronger – physically and intellectually, notes Spezialy. “It takes practice, patience and dedication to overcome the mistakes we make while learning,” she notes. “Research shows that we all learn more and help our brains to grow when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks, rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones,” she says. “(For children), knowing and experiencing their own capabilities is a reward that will last them a lifetime!”
But dance is not just about hard work and brain development. It is also fun. “There is a joyfulness, innocence and playfulness about dance,” says Vierthaler. “Children and teens still get to be kids.”