Dance–any kind!–helps kids to learn balance, rhythm, fine motor control, sequencing, and so much more. My daughter caught the bug at 11 months old, and her first steps were on tiptoes, just like the ballerinas she insisted on watching over and over again on YouTube. Finding a good dance school was a defensive measure–I was so sure she would damage her adorable little growing feet trying to imitate larger-than-life ballerinas on screen.
I was more of a tomboy growing up, and too much pink sparkle still induces my gag reflex. Minoring in gender studies in college didn’t change that. So I’ve struggled with how to support my daughter’s clear and assertive interest–demand–for all things ballet, with my concern for well-rounded development free of undue gender stereotyping pressure. I mean, if you want to wear pink, by all means wear pink. Just don’t wear it because you think that’s what you’re SUPPOSED to wear. Or that you won’t be liked or appreciated as well if you’re not classically beautiful, or acting like a princess.
A friend recommended the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which discusses the manufactured pressure on girls to choose princess-y role models. Peggy Orenstein, the author, appeared on the local KQED Forum radio show called Girls and the Ambition Gap about two weeks ago. The subject of the show was a recent study commissioned by the Girl Scouts of America, which found that a third of girls between eight and seventeen said they would not be comfortable being a leader. I listened to the show the whole drive over the hill to dance class, which takes about 45 minutes. It really got me thinking about what it means to be a leader, and what we as adults model for our daughters.
I began writing down some of the resources I’ve gathered in my struggles with the Princess Problem, and thought I’d share them with you here. And what do you do when your son is interested in dance? How do you support his interest in a female-dominated princess-ified world? We all know that men, after all, can be amazing dancers, too, and every one of them started out a little boy! So I’m going to note where some of these resources might be good for boys as well.
What to Look for in a Ballet School
The ballet world, like many other highly competitive sports environments (football, hockey, horse sports) tends to foster a sort of jocular “play through the pain” attitude to the body. If your daughter is expressing a serious interest in dance, help her find a school that teaches healthy, ergonomic movement. Teachers trained in Pilates and yoga are a really good sign that the school understands the importance of healthy movement. If you have a boy interested in dance, look for a school that offers a boys-only class, so that your son can see immediately at every class that he is NOT the only boy in the world interested in dance. Academy of American Ballet in Redwood City offers a boys-only class.
For a toddler or preschooler class, look for a school that begins with age-appropriate movement and music. This might involve rolling or tumbling movements, balance games, or sequences of movements like running, jumping, skipping, turning in circles, or walking a balance beam. Starting with named positions or overly emphasizing prettiness, beauty, or lining up for specific ballet dance moves can come at the expense of an overall balanced approach to developing core strength and fine motor control needed later. Besides, as many active girls may discover, being a perfect princess can be really boring!
A teacher who really engages the playful instincts of children in game-like activities and sequences, or encourages a variety of options for dress in class, keeps it fun and interesting for a preschooler, preserving their enthusiasm for dance. What can you do to support your child after class? This article intended for parents of children on sports teams gave me some food for thought.
On Your Screen
If you’re first starting out with your collection of kid videos, you’ll quickly come across the Prima Princessa series, including Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the Nutcracker. These are fine for explaining the stories and creating a basic introduction to ballet. I like the interludes between acts that explain some of the moves with their French names. While they’re suited to a younger toddler with a really short attention span, if your child is crazy into ballet, it may not scratch the itch for very long. And of course it does play into the princess thing. There are other videos out there designed to be a “dance class” for your toddler, but it was clear to me that wasn’t what my daughter was looking for. Within a few months, I was back on Amazon, trying to find something to fill her desire for a feature-length story with inspiring dance characters. Typical commercial animation offerings like Swan Princess just don’t cut it–all the physicality that makes it inspiring as a dance story with a ballerina star has been sucked out of it. What’s left is the princess bit.
The Little Humpbacked Horse was originally filmed in 1962, so in some ways its dated. Or “retro”, as we think of it fondly around here. It has really stood the test of time in our house. There are several female leads, including the part of the lucky humpbacked horse (which led to lots of -horseplay!- in our house) the Queen of the Sea, and the Queen Maiden. One of the characteristics of Russian ballet is that it tends to feature lots of men! Russian ballet was influenced by Chinese classical dance (which also influenced much of our modern gymnastics.) If you have a boy interested in dance, this is an excellent one to have in the house. The adventures of peasant boy Ivan drive the action, and there are male dancers throughout, performing amazing acrobatic moves as court jesters, horses, and sea creatures. It is the lucky horse that saves Ivan each time he gets in over his head, and ultimately, it is the Queen Maiden who comes up with a clever trick to both save herself and defeat the corrupt king. Based on an old Russian fairy tale, and performed at the Bolshoi, the costumes and Cyrillic credits also give it lots of definitely-not-made-by-Disney flavor. My daughter has asked for this ballet at least once a month for over two years, since she was about two. I’ll have to post about our Queen Maiden crown project in the future, as well.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Pacific Northwest Ballet company is one we gave to a friend whose daughter is fascinated by both fairies and dance. The story features lots of different fantasy characters and costumes that will spark imaginative dance play, as well as a quality performance you will enjoy watching with them. Another one where boys are more than princes and girls are more than princesses. Mostly fairies. We are talking about the ballet world, after all. But if you’re inclined toward felt and wood toys, this is probably a good one to start with or gift to the little ballerina. Throw in a starry night play silk! Or a Donkey Headband and Tail.
The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty is also a good ballet to begin your home collection. The first act is the story–the entry of Maleficient is a bit scary, so probably best for 4 or 5 and up, depending on your child. The dancer who plays Maleficient really gives an awesome performance. The second act features dances by all of the familiar fairy tale characters, including Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. A dance by two bluebirds features an Asian guy as the bluebird, a powerful dancer with amazing leaps, so this is another one to highlight for the boys.
When your daughter starts requesting the Kirov version of Swan Lake, vs. the American Ballet Theatre Swan Lake, vs. the Paris Opera Ballet Swan Lake by name, you’re in big trouble. Just don’t go out with the hubby to see Black Swan on date night, or you’ll have nightmares for years. Again, the Kirov version has some of the most athletic moves by guys. The Von Rothbart costume in the American version has been voted “too scary”, and I think we agreed that we liked the Odile in the Paris version best. But they all have good qualities. Having several different versions to compare will also help you talk about character, plot, and the differences in story telling. Which happens to be in the Kinder/First curriculum for language arts at our school.
Swan Lake is especially great, in my opinion, because Odette and Odile are complicated female characters, locked in a struggle that doesn’t leave room for pink. Add a black tutu and a white tutu to the dress-up collection, with some matching sparkly black and white feathered headbands (look in the accessories section at discount stores like TJ Maxx, Ross, or Marshall’s) and your little girl can safely explore both her “naughty” and “nice” sides. Etsy is a wonderful resource for unique tutus! Figure out what really rings your little dancer’s chimes–probably not the same bubblegum pink as everything available in Target–and get something made for about the same or a little more on Etsy that truly reflects her personality. Is orange really her favorite color? Blue? Or “rainbow” like a certain little ballerina I know? (Or “Rambo”–I don’t plan to correct her on this until she figures it out herself, I just love it.)
There’s also a version of Swan Lake out there somewhere done by a classical Chinese dance troupe that Grandpa found on Netflix a long time ago. Great for boys! The acrobatic moves are really inspiring. If I find it again, I’ll update this post with the link. (UPDATE: Click here for the link to Swan Lake performed by the Guangzhou Military Performance Group on Netflix.) Or if you do, let me know in the comments! The story quality wasn’t the same–the story line was changed, the production quality not great. But exploring different versions of the same dance, with different Odettes, different princes, and different Von Rothbarts, has been a really fun way to help model a critical eye. We talk about whether she likes this performance or that one, these costumes, those choices. As I mentioned, she’s very opinionated now on which Von Rothbart she prefers, which prince, which Odile.
Did you notice that I didn’t list the Nutcracker? For a long time, the soldier-head costume scared the willies out of my little ballerina. So maybe it will work for you, but it hasn’t made our top list. (UPDATE: we saw this live at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, she just turned 5, and she was absolutely rapt the entire time, so I think we’re over the fear factor. Which is good, because the ballet school does Nutcracker every winter, and she’s now old enough to audition.)
On Your Bookshelf
Dance! by Bill T Jones, is a wonderful toddler-to-early-reading book. It’s not available new, you can only find it used, but it’s well worth the search. A guy dancer, not to mention a guy with some color, adds some fun dimension to story time. Especially for little princesses. If you have a little boy interested in dance, obviously this is an especially good one to pick up. While the typeface isn’t ideal, once your little one is familiar with reading the italicized letters, it’s fun for early readers as well. For mommies and daddies struggling to catch up with their children’s interest, Jones’ autobiography Last Night on Earth is excellent. I met Bill T Jones in college–a truly inspiring person. I’m hanging on to a copy he signed for me, for when Miss H is older.
Our local librarian turned us on to Hilda Must Be Dancing, a wonderful story about a Hippo who’s massive talent expands to include many varieties of dance. Her friends encourage quieter hobbies, like knitting, but Hilda doesn’t enjoy them. Until someone suggests “water ballet dancing.” At the end, all of her friends shout “Hurray, encore!”
If your little one is into dinosaurs, you might also enjoy Brontorina, about the search for a pair of shoes and a studio large enough for Brontorina’s talent. We’re so in love with this book, and the surprise twist ending, that we donated a copy to the school library in honor of Miss H’s birthday.
For Mo Willems fans (Knuffle Bunny, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) check out Elephants Cannot Dance! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), where Piggie tries to teach Gerald how to dance and learns a lesson about opposites.
Do you have favorite less princess-y dance-related resources to share? I’d love to hear about them!
Also, see my post Teaching Math Through Dance.