Ten little girls file through through a pint-size door, the entrance to a world of enchantment. Outfitted in pink leotards and tutus, several wave at their parents, who have already entered the dance studio (via a regular, adult-size door) and seated themselves in folding chairs arranged around the perimeter. Their eyes alight with anticipation, the girls whisper and giggle excitedly, each taking their designated place around what, to them, is a magic circle.
It’s “watch week” at A Fairytale Ballet, a children’s dance studio on Southport Avenue on Chicago’s North Side—a chance for parents to see their 4- and 5-year-old ballerinas practice their pliés and arabesques.
For the students and parents at A Fairytale Ballet—and at many other performing arts programs across the Chicago area—the goal of each session isn’t mastery of the art at hand, or grooming kids for high-profile competitions. Rather, instructors strive to nurture the children’s creative spirits, spark their imaginations and let them explore dance, theater, art and music at their own pace and, ultimately, cultivate a passion to take with them into adulthood.
And that, say many arts professionals and education experts, is exactly what arts exposure should do for young kids—not put them in a performance pressure cooker.
Building a foundation
“I don’t want them to be professional dancers, but I do want them to love dance,” says Martha Gardner of her daughters, Zoe, 5, and Senna, 3, both of whom are enrolled at A Fairytale Ballet. “It’s not something to be afraid of, [so I] don’t want it to be full of things they don’t understand or that make them feel like they don’t belong.”
According to Dr. Shani Beth-Halachmy, associate professor at National-Louis University and director of the school’s educational and school psychology doctoral program, this is the right attitude for parents of budding young artists. Exposure to performing arts fosters a child’s creativity and cognitive abilities as well as language, problem solving and social skills. But Beth-Halachmy believes this type of development is best when it is pressure-free.
“An environment where there is no expected outcome, where the pleasure is in the play itself and not in the product one produces, is absolutely and completely essential to nurture imagination,” she says. “In a more structured environment, where there are expected goals and criteria, the kids do learn skills, but it’s not developmentally appropriate. They learn to do what they’re told, but they will be less able to feel free to take risks later on, to develop that capacity of going into the unknown on their own.”
For Robert Tenges, associate education director of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and founder of the school’s audition-free musical theater program for kids ages 6 to 12, the only limitations for kids entering his program are age appropriateness and being one of the first 10 people in the door.
“We want to turn these kids into extraordinary human beings, not necessarily artists,” he says. “Craft and technique—that’s easily learned. They can always acquire [the skills] as adults.”
No pressure, all fun
Still, it is inevitable that, like the sponges they are, children will absorb the basic foundations of their chosen art form, even as they have fun with it in a relaxed setting.
“Children this age don’t have the attention span [formal instruction requires], so we sneak the technique in—sometimes the girls don’t even notice,” says Alaina Bomke, instructor and area director for A Fairytale Ballet. “We incorporate the movements through the stories we tell, acting out the ballet steps.”
A successful pressure-free arts program will even slip its potentially more stressful aspects past its students. Though recitals and performances are often key to gaining a true appreciation for and understanding of the arts, Tenges believes these experiences can ultimately be pressure-free and uplifting confidence builders, as long as the process of getting there is enjoyable.
“I’ve been working with some of these kids for five or six years,” he says. “As I see them getting older, I see something in common: They’re fearless. They haven’t had instilled in them that they have to be afraid to make choices.”
This confidence oozes from virtually every pore of the 9- to 12-year-old students in the current musical theater class taught by Tenges and his teaching partner Shana Harvey.
In the midst of rehearsals for the “Curse of the Cracked Locket,” a challenging, 19th century, Sherlock Holmes-inspired whodunit, the kids remain unfazed when they stumble over difficult words like “paramour” or struggle with fast-paced dialogue.
In this program, there truly are no small parts, and each budding actor seems to realize this, delivering each of his or her lines with relish.
But beyond building confidence, fostering children’s participation in a relaxed arts program also aids children in their day-to-day schooling, Beth-Halachmy says. Though programs such as these may seem as though they give a break to kids who sit through structured classes at school each day, they actually reinforce the same lessons.
“It’s a great way to get accustomed to how a school setting works, showing that there are times for play and other times where you have to be still and listen,” Zoe Gardner’s mom, Martha, says of the classes at A Fairytale Ballet. “It teaches her that there are things that are hard at first, but that get easier once you practice.”
In fact, it is never too early to begin introducing children to the esteem-boosting power of the arts. In addition to the musical theater class, Shana Harvey also teaches the Old Town School’s Wiggleworms classes, designed to connect infants as young as 6 months old to sounds, melodies and rhythmic movement. (see related story, page ??)
“I was surprised at how primal music is,” Harvey says. “Put a maraca in a baby’s hands, and they know exactly what to do. Their whole physique changes.”
And the earlier a child is exposed to a noncompetitive, relaxed arts environment, the better prepared and more eager she will be to continue learning as she gets older.
“At this age, there shouldn’t be any emphasis on the performance element,” says Jennifer Trippiedi, a licensed Kindermusik instructor in Lockport. “If they’re just developing their talents, you don’t want to compare them. That takes all the fun out of it and hinders [the child’s] development.”
Much like Wiggleworms, Kindermusik introduces infants, young children and their parents to the world of music—both vocal and instrumental—through loosely structured and casual curriculum.
“You really just want to encourage them to love music,” Trippiedi says. “That’s missing in general from kids today—as they get older, there is a de-emphasis on the arts.”
Tenges agrees. “We’re all born with this inherent love of learning, questioning and reaching out,” he says. “Unconsciously, society is designed to break down that love of learning. We want to tap into that.”