Here’s the scene: A middle school auditorium in suburban New Jersey early in the Fall. It’s late Saturday afternoon on the second day of a dance competition. The auditorium is filled—but only loosely—with young dancers and their parents, other family, and friends. They’re all waiting for the final performance of the competition.
Some hip hop comes up on the sound system and a few of the dancers begin moving to the music. Some of them are standing up from their positions in the audience and are dancing in place. A couple others, at the far-left and far-right down front, are dancing in the outside aisles. More start joining in.
Down front, in the center, the action photographer—the guy who’s there to shoot photos of each dance number so they can then be sold to parents—is sitting down front on his high swivel chair. He’s smiling, swiveling in the chair to survey the scene, and he starts clapping on the back-beat.
Now another hip hop number comes up and, in a whooshhh! dancers get up out of their seats, rush to the aisles, and the aisles are jammed with kids joyously dancing. Five, six, eight, eleven, fifteen years old, a few older. Even the dancers waiting in the wings on stage for the final number, they danced too.
All dancing. 100, 200, maybe more. Dancing.
It was wonderful.
It made the day
What it is is an industry. There are some 200 companies in the USA that hold dance competitions, regional and then, in some cases, national.
Oh, You Mean Like Dancing with the Stars, only for kids?
Something like that. I don’t really know how it works because I’ve only seen this one day’s worth. What was going on that afternoon is that various dance studios would enter students in the competition as solos, duets or trios, small groups and so on, and they’re divided into a bunch of age groups so you don’t have four year olds competing against fourteen year olds.
And they dance in various styles too: lyrical, ballet, hip hop, jazz, tap, flamenco, and so forth. I must have seen dance moves from three or four continents up there, not to mention costumes.
I mean I was there as a photographer. I had to take 50+ pictures of every single dance number. Maybe 150 dances in 10 hours or so. It was pretty intense. But every once in awhile I saw something so joyful that I just had to laugh a little, even as I kept snapping the shutter.
You just wanted to hug those kids.
But what about the competition?
Oh, yeah, the competition. There were three judges, sitting down in front, right in front of me as a matter of fact. They had scoring sheets and microphones they talked into. I assume they were making oral notes for the kid’s dance teachers.
What’d the kids win in the competition?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. There WAS one awards ceremony early in the afternoon, but I took that as an opportunity to eat some lunch. I did catch a bit of it though. There were plaques, for kids and teachers, and trophies. Some of the trophies were almost as big as the kids. There was another ceremony at the end of the day, after the last dance. By that time, though, I was anxious to get on the road and get home, so I didn’t stick around for it.
What I think about the competition is mostly that the kids got to stand up in front of their friends and get a prize. What mattered was having fun dancing and just having people see that you did good.
What David Said
A couple days later I talked to my friend David about it. He has a daughter who was a serious competitive gymnast in her youth. She eventually made it to the state championships in New York and, I believe, won in this or that event.
He said it was great for her poise and self-confidence and he can see what it did for her even today, when she’s just become a mother herself and is running a small non-profit.
Of course, at the root of it, whether gymnastics or dance, IT is fun, physical fun. And for very young children physical fun is mostly what there is. Because they’re all body. Sure, they can talk and draw pictures and dream and tell stories. Sorta. But what they do best is move around.
So in gymnastics and in dance they get to move around all they want. And they learn to do so with grace and they learn that there is a special pleasure in being graceful. That’s a valuable and important lesson.
Plus, they get to dress up in a colorful costume! They get to put on an act.
That’s important too. We live in a complex world and every one of us has to present ourselves to strangers practically every day. We’re so used to doing it that we don’t realize how tricky it actually is.
You need to remember that the simplest human societies aren’t like that at all. In the simplest societies you are always surrounded by people you know very well. Strangers are rare. So you don’t really need to have an ‘act’ for dealing with them.
That’s not our world. We need to have an act for dealing with strangers. Heck, we need to have several acts, each for different settings and purposes. It’s not about being phony, rather, it’s about being authentic in a wide variety of social settings.
All of That and Home Too
Dance does all of that?
Yeah, I think so.
Must be exhausting.
Maybe. But a good kind of exhaustion.
But the kids weren’t too exhausted to have one last big dance.
No they weren’t. The kids in the audience would cheer their friends on: “You go, girl.” They loved it. So, of course, did the parents. A lot of them wore tee-shirts proclaiming their kid’s dance studio. Lots of brothers and sisters there too. This is a family activity.
And that’s really what happened when the kids filled the aisles with dancing. They turned the group into one big happy family. I mean, yeah, “one big happy family” is a cliché. But it was real for five or ten minutes that afternoon.
The kids simply wouldn’t have gotten up and danced in that way if they weren’t very comfortable, like home. Many of them knew one another, of course, because they came from the same studio. There were several studios with dancers there. They weren’t ALL of them friends.
But the dynamics of the whole scene made them ALL family, if only for those few minutes. Fact is, while the competition was real, I also think it was something of a cover. It’s what we have to tell ourselves to allow this to happen, to make it happen.
Unfortunately our society has trouble valuing the arts, especially for just plain folks. The arts are for special people with special talent, that’s the belief. And not all that many people have that talent.
Nonsense. The arts are for everyone. No talent needed. If we have to turn things into a competition—because we DO believe in competition, do we ever!—then that’s what we have to do. But what it’s really about is kids having fun, learning to dance, growing up, and learning to meet the world with poise and confidence.
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This is excerpted from a collection of essays Charlie Keil and I recently published: Playing for Peace: Reclaiming Our Human Nature (2022). Here’s the introduction, “The Place of Music in Everyday Life.”