Debating whether to enroll your kids in dance classes? These thoughts from one dance teacher will make you want to run–or maybe jump, leap, and spin?–to the closest studio and sign them up.
Research shows our ability to experience happiness is 50 percent genetic, and 10 percent based on our circumstances. The remaining 40 percent is left up to intentional behaviors–activities, habits, and, mostly, choices–that enable us to experience happiness. One year ago, I left my comfortable corporate office job and decided I wanted to pursue happiness. I became a full-time dance teacher.
I started teaching dance as an apprentice under a childhood-specialty teacher when I was 16. I observed classes, assisted, and jotted down notes as I watched dance touch the lives of everyone involved. Eleven years later, I am now teaching students of all ages how to help create a loving environment that encourages learning, kindness, and happiness. And we do this through dance.
Even after dancing for 22 years, I continue to find benefits and hidden powers of dance. I want to share with you some stories I’ve witnessed during my time as a dance teacher.
Confidence & resilience
She was in that awkward phase, stuck somewhere between a child and an adult. Her skin was covered in acne, something that she loathed about herself and one of the reasons she refused to use the adjective “pretty” to describe herself. She wasn’t skinny (and she wasn’t fat) but to her, this translated through the walls of mirrors as “fat.” She worked hard, and she loved dance. We often discussed her goals and dreams. She would always finish telling me about a goal or dream with a qualifier, “But I know it probably won’t happen. I have to be realistic.” I witnessed her shoulders collapse when she thought of having to give up something she loved, all because she wasn’t pretty enough or skinny enough, and because she just wasn’t being realistic.
Throughout the school year, I watched as this young girl failed, developed resilience, and tried again. It wasn’t long before she was failing less and succeeding more. She would jump into the air and as quickly as she landed, she’d jerk her head around with a huge smile on her face. “Did you see it?” she’d say, full of joy. “I did,” I’d respond.
By the end of the year, this young girl was not only succeeding in dance class, but she had made friends. She was hired as a ballet assistant and started making money. She got invited to prom, and she performed a solo at the end-of-the-year performance. Her mother, brought to tears at her daughter’s progress, clasped my hand and said, “Dance gave my little girl her confidence back that the world had taken away.”
Friendship & acceptance
She walked into dance class with a sneaky smile. She had a joke to tell, and she was waiting for her classmates to pay attention. As I opened the roll book and started to check off names, I watched as she gathered everyone around to listen. “What kind of dance do buns do?” She asked, struggling to control her excitement. Her classmates’ eyes glanced around the room. Nobody knew. Finally, she jumped in the air and said, “A-bun-dance.”
My little comedian student was always looking to make people laugh. She also loved jumping, spinning, and skipping. If you had a question, she always made sure it got answered. She also has Down’s Syndrome. But mostly she was a teenage girl who loved a good joke and loved to work hard on her dancing. As the year progressed, I watched as the other students would come to class and bring a joke. They wanted their joke to make everyone laugh, too. Friendships were forming in between our dancing. On water breaks, I’d hear giggling. When we changed shoes, I’d hear, “Did you hear the latest joke?” But when it was time to work, the girls focused. They worked together as a team, and they learned each other’s personalities so well. They knew when someone was having a bad day or needed space. They learned when to push each other, challenge each other, hug each other, and listen to each other. This class, full of different abilities and different needs, bonded together over jokes, hard work, and trust. At the end of the year, I looked around I saw friendship and acceptance…in “a-bun-dance.”
Rehabilitation & patience
He had a stroke as a child leaving him paralyzed on his right side. Pediatric strokes happen to every six in 100,000 children, and he had often wondered, “Why me?” But here he was, registered in a dance class and ready to try anything that could help him regain movement. “I want to walk, and dance, and dance some more,” he said. He wanted the world, it seemed, and he wanted it now. He didn’t understand what had happened to him or why something as precious as movement had been taken away. He wanted it back. Now.
I went home that evening and printed up the story of jazz dance legend, Eugene Louis Faccuito. Known as “Luigi” in the dance world, I spoke with my student about Luigi’s near-fatal car accident that left him paralyzed down one side of his body. And we spoke about how patience, hard work, and time helped heal his body, but “we have to start small,” I said. Each week, we started on the floor, stretching, moving through the spine, strengthening our muscles. We eventually moved to our knees, crawling, balancing, reaching. Slowly, strength started to return to his body. He began to move, walk with only a slight limp, and spin. Every day, every detail of movement and every difficult emotion he experienced added up to a success as he felt himself improve. One of the last days of classes, he went up to his mom and said, “It took a whole lot of time and a whole lot of work and a whole lot of waiting, but here I am!” And he spun around, holding his arms out as if to say “ta-da!”
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If the research is true–that we have 40 percent power over experiencing happiness by intentional behaviors–then we always have work to do. We can be spontaneous. We can build dreams. We can establish friendships and foster progress. We can help someone rebuild a shattered life. We can believe in ourselves and others, and we can be tolerant and kind. We can climb over hurdles. We can focus and we can laugh. We can work in groups or we can work alone, but we can plan, work hard and achieve. We can study history to inspire and inform the future, and we can share our stories and ideas. And we can do this all through dance.
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Sheena Jeffers is a dance educator from Richmond. She danced on a competition team for six years, before moving to Virginia Beach. Once in Hampton Roads, Sheena studied dance under Denise Wall while she was a student at Governor’s School for the Arts. She holds a BA in English, and a BS in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University, and she is currently working on her Master’s in Dance Education at Old Dominion University.
Sheena has studied extensively in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary and modern. She is a member of the National Dance Education Organization and she is the Dance Expert writer for Answers.com. Sheena is also owner and content manager for Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins, an internationally-known online blog that discusses the dance life, career, and dream. Sheena has danced in the Broadway smash hit Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Miyazaki, Japan, danced on the VCU Dance Team, and she made a special appearance dancing with the Washington Redskins. Sheena’s students have been accepted into Governor’s School programs, colleges and honored as “Up and Coming” students to watch.