In this post I’m going to write a little about Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB) and why I believe it’s a uniquely valuable cultural and educational institution. The immediate stimulus for this brief reflection is simply, as so often the case, my morning walk with Waldo. While leisurely following our habitual path around the neighborhood one day last week, I was offered a stark reminder of what an awkward time early adolescence can be for many teens. On our way home Waldo and I passed a neighborhood girl who was walking to the local middle school. Shoulders slumped, head down and generally moving with a gait that suggested extreme discomfort, my neighbor seemed to want nothing more than to disappear. I’m no expert, but “body language” is often an eloquent indicator of one’s general state. In an article published in Psychology Today, popular author Joe Navarro, who does claim expertise on this subject, suggests that one of the things parents should teach their children about body language is that “What your body says to me is more accurate than what you say and it speaks to me before you do. So always be aware that often we can tell what you are thinking or feeling before you speak.” (Note the strange mind/body separation Navarro’s statement presupposes; maybe he should take some dance classes...) Yes, we all know that a gesture can communicate more forcefully than words. Precisely one of the great difficulties of adolescence is the frequency with which body language escapes our conscious control. Fortunately, the awkwardness and insecurity of adolescence passes and most of us seem to muddle through it and survive into adulthood. But it’s not easy. (The inspirational and popular video project It Gets Better is no doubt the most poignant contemporary example of this vital message.) And here’s where CPYB came into my thinking: how fortunate, I said to myself, that two of my daughters have had some dance education and been rewarded with a “body awareness” whose core benefits apply most valuably and enduringly outside the dance studio and far from the performance stage. I have no dance education myself, but as a casual observer there is no mystery: from the most basic notion of good posture to the subtleties of gesture and eye contact, ballerinas are in command of their physical presence in a way that communicates confidence, connectedness and ease of being. Let’s not underestimate the value of having these particular qualities.
Anyone who has taken beginning Spanish will recall that the language of Cervantes has two verbs that mean “to be,” ser and estar. Mastering the usage of these verbs takes much practice, but the general concept, in simple terms, is that ser refers to inherent existence and estar refers to presence or condition. So, in Spanish you can know how to estar, but not how to ser, since in the latter there is no knowing, you just are or aren’t. You exist or you don’t, there’s no skill involved. And now to my point: one of the truly great compliments one can be paid in Spanish is to be told that you sabe estar. It’s like being told you know how to act in any given setting, but it’s more than that, for it entails having all the attributes so often observed in dancers: poise, ease of being, self-assuredness, awareness. These qualities are essential if one wants to estar a la altura de las circunstancias or, as we might say in English, to rise to the occasion. Dancers, literally and figuratively, know how to rise to the occasion.
It seems that when discussing the benefits of training in classical ballet, fans of this art are inclined, quite reasonably, to point to the great discipline it instills in its students and practitioners. Indeed, I have observed repeatedly the remarkable discipline that typically accompanies ballet dancers. And I’m not referring here to my daughters, although I believe they, too, have these qualities: I see it again and again with my Dickinson students. Almost without exception, those students of mine who have dedicated some extended time to ballet are well organized, have no difficulty completing assignments, and stay focused in class. These anecdotal observations are confirmed by much research. The key is focus, an ability to pay attention. Excessive speed and excessive choice are central characteristics of contemporary life, and so it stands to reason that an ability to stay focused affords one huge advantages. Educators talk often about the importance of changing how and what we teach to prepare our students for success in a fast-changing world. We may want to reconsider the value of simply filling our classrooms with lots of technology. Let’s keep this in mind: a recent study whose results were published in the journal Pediatrics found that “the greater a child's attention problems at age 6, the more likely that child will perform poorly on tests of math and reading in the last few years of high school.” Finding a direct correlation like that in a rigorous study is significant and we should take notice: young children must be able to focus, and in today’s world it seems to be an ever growing challenge. So, my advice to parents of young children in the Carlisle area: send your kids to CPYB starting at a very young age. It doesn’t matter if they show no interest in dance, just have them do it for a couple or few years, then let them decide if they want to continue or not. After two or three years the biggest prize, the ability to focus, is already safely hardwired in their still developing brains.
It takes many, many thousands of hours of formal training to prepare for a career as a professional ballet dancer. It is a tremendously difficult, highly demanding path. And it’s hyper competitive, especially for the girls: for every young dancer fortunate enough to be invited to join a major company there are hundreds, even thousands, who share the same aspiration and don’t make it. Dancers at CPYB have a distinct advantage: no other ballet school in the country (actually, in the world) located in a community comparable in size to Carlisle has a record even remotely approaching CPYB’s in terms of preparing future professional dancers. Stephen Manes, in his recently published book The Land of Ballet, refers to CPYB as a “ballerina factory.” Although the metaphor has some dehumanizing connotations, Manes meant it as a great compliment to CPYB and a tribute to the inspired teaching of founding Artistic Director Marcia Dale Weary. Hundreds of CPYB students have gone on to professional careers in ballet, and many have had or are now in the midst of brilliant careers at major companies.
Any community our size would be proud to be home to a great school like Dickinson College. In this regard Carlisle is quite fortunate. Everyone knows that in addition to Dickinson, Carlisle is also home to the Dickinson School of Law and the U.S. Army War College. That’s a lot of higher education for a community our size. Yet, it’s truly unfortunate that there is not much greater awareness regarding CPYB’s exceptional place in the world of ballet. With all due respect to Dickinson College, where I’ve been happily employed for over 20 years, CPYB is not to ballet what Dickinson is to higher education; CPYB is the Harvard or Princeton of ballet education. So, carlislians, let’s take pride in our ballet school and performing company: they know about it in San Francisco, Boston, and New York; they know about it Madrid, in Tokyo... let’s know about it here at home.
The best way to learn about CPYB is to go see one of their performances. And it is as a performing company that CPYB shines as a stellar cultural institution, putting on several times a year amazing productions of professional quality right here in our area. I’ve been attending CPYB performances for many years now and, frankly, at the beginning I could not have imagined that they could keep getting more and more impressive. But they do. Their shows at the Whitaker Center and Hershey Theatre really do compare favorably to what is done by professional companies. Giselle is coming up, April 21 and 22. Don’t miss it.