Plan B: First Position

"Not many had a plan B." This line got my attention a few minutes ago. It's a comment from a real estate broker and refers to high income people defaulting on their mortgages. The article in this morning's New York Times is about the high default rate on mortgages of over a million dollars. It turns out the rich are defaulting much more readily than the working poor. Yes, it's good to have a plan B. This idea was on my mind recently when I became familiar with the circumstances of a young dancer who has been in Carlisle for the past few years, training at CPYB. This young person seems to have had very weak adult guidance and education does not seem to have been a priority. (This may be quite an understatement, but I don't want to get specific...) In any case, I did find myself thinking, what's the plan B? Ballet as a profession is a very tenuous proposition: only the most elite dancers are going to earn a living wage exercising their passion. And even for those select few, dancing for income is often a matter of relatively few years. Fortunately, our thoroughly unprepared dancer is extremely atypical at CPYB. It seems to me that for the great majority of the kids doing this intense training, the endless hours of dedication have provided a very solid Plan B. And that's my point: education in general is Plan B. Classical ballet training affords its students skills and knowledge that certainly do transfer to just about any sphere of life. Adults who question the value of classical ballet training by pointing out that it's just so much snake oil, a cruel taking advantage of childhood dreams, are sadly missing the point. Can you listen? Can you follow instructions? Do you understand that mastery requires seemingly endless practice? That's just the beginning. These kids also learn great lessons about language, communication, and, ultimately, creativity and beauty.

I'll write more on creativity and beauty later, but for now, just a thought on one of the central benefits derived from serious ballet training: the ability to focus. Small children at CPYB are engaged from an early age in 90 minute classes. That's a long time for a kid, but they learn quickly to stay focused on the teacher's instructions. They also come to understand that the big deal is in the small detail. Those amazing things that professional ballerinas do? They learn that it's not magic and that you don't start at the end, you start at the beginning. There are a million pieces to the puzzle. And, here's a key: the pieces must be mastered in a specific, sequential order. You can't go to step two until you have perfect mastery of step one, and when you get to step two you stay there until it too is perfectly mastered.* And on and on and on... (To this day, I feel quite moved when I see the level one students perform their simple dances on stage: yes, so simple. And so flawless!)

There are skeptics, of course. One argument goes something like this: but there's no creativity, you're turning the kids into little machines. It's stultifying! Let them have fun! Let's start at the end and work back: oh, they do have fun! Simple observation makes this quite obvious. The kids love it. Performing a seemingly simple dance in a group gives these children a very well earned sense of accomplishment. Many hours of practice have been necessary to achieve the desired effect of synchronization, harmony, and, ultimately, beauty. The small children may still be too young to know the word "dignity", but they get the idea. There is something noble about being on stage, participating in a well rehearsed, polished work. (And I very strongly suspect there is a much deeper lesson which they may not become fully aware of until many years later: a satisfying sense of high purpose may result from participating in something bigger than yourself.) Finally, the children learn that creativity is not about "self-expression"; it is not instinctual or even autonomous. Creativity finds expression in language, be it verbal, musical, visual, or kinetic. So, first master the language. That's a life-long lesson that many of us never quite get, but these kids at least are on the path.

*In her citation on the occasion of the honorary degree awarded this year by Dickinson to CPYB founding artistic director Marcia Dale Weary, my colleague Sarah Skaggs alluded to this phenomenon most articulately: "With a Zen-like approach, she breaks down each step into its infinitesimal components. Marcia is a sculptor of the ballet student body. She shapes the body through precise articulations. Her students repeat and repeat and repeat the constituent components of a steppiece by pieceuntil each part of the whole is perfected. Only then does a student advance to the next level. Similarly, Marcia’s system includes 10, not three levels of competence. Each student moves through a finely graded series toward perfection. No one is “passed through” her system."

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