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Why Maddie Ziegler Matters to the Dance World

02/05/2015 09:58 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

Poised inside a door frame, Maddie Ziegler appears the image of stoicism and composure. Her legs swing like pendulums in 360-degree loops, and her jétés and pirouettes juxtapose self-containment with a sort of reckless abandon. But it is her face--teeth bared at a partner, lips pursed in reflection, or eyes bulged with neuroticism--that truly captivates her audience thanks to the tantalizing allure of catharsis through art.

That's right: Ms. Ziegler is an artist, and she lends hope to a dying field. No, I don't mean dance as entertainment; motion is inherent to the human psyche. Before there was speech, there was dance--for amusement, for ritual, for communication. What is relatively new, made popular by Louis XIV and his courtiers in the 1600s, is the notion of dance as something that defies temporary grandeur or ephemeral pleasure. With ballet came the dancer as an artist--Marie Taglioni in the 19th century, Margot Fonteyn, Gelsey Kirkland, and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 20th, Wendy Whelan and Marcelo Gomes in the 21st.

The modern and postmodern dancers lent themselves to another, even more vulnerable conception of emotional viability. Martha Graham performed her celebrated Lamentation with an intensity that no one can quite mirror these days; Twyla Tharp tapped with verve and sensation.

But let's face it--other than a few revolutionary moments from the likes of Bill T. Jones, Jessica Lang, Mark Morris, Ms. Tharp, and Kyle Abraham, not much has happened in the dance world since way back in the 1960s with the Judson Church. Or perhaps it has, but it hasn't taken the shape of innovation. Likewise, the primas of the 20th century--Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes, Ms. Whelan, Aurélie Dupont, Carla Körbes--are hanging up their pointe shoes, and with them the dignity of the ballet. Replacing these are the millennials, an especially lazy and self-indulgent lot when it comes to performance. They lust to be stars without putting in the work to deserve the title.

Now, competitions dominate both Western classical and contemporary dance--in ballet, the Youth American Grand Prix and the Prix de Laussane, in contemporary, the venues that you see on Dance Moms. Winning titles transcends training, and the passion that makes artists isn't the same competitive drive that crafts one-time winners.

Meanwhile, in the alternative dance community, performance art and museum retrospectives are trending, and quite frankly, they're often self-satisfactory and isolating. Who went to Xavier LeRoy's exhibit at MoMA PS1 last fall and actually enjoyed it? Not me. It felt hollow and so personal that it lost its universality.

In this kind of a setting, a Maddie Ziegler is more than a dancer. She is a lifesaver.

Her work ethic, not to mention her evident love for the art, has made her relentlessly relevant. She has something to say with her performances, whether in a music video for Sia or in a solo at nationals. Her technique is lovely, especially for a 12-year-old. She has stretched knees, pointed feet, and arms that float on clouds, her fingers perfectly placed. But still more important is her virtuosity, her connection with the public. She tells a narrative that resonates with the viewer, whether portraying a scorned lover or a werewolf. This maturity is astounding for a preteen--she just gets it. She's meant to perform, meant to communicate with people. She has defied the odds of Generation Z's competitive, egocentric mentality to make her career about the work, not the celebrity.

And so, of course, the celebrity has come, and Ms. Ziegler has handled it with extraordinary poise and respect. Sometimes, she even seems more together than her interviewers. Her message is always clear--she is thankful for the opportunities that she has merited, and despite the effusive applause and praise that has come her way, she is just humbled to be able to do what she loves.

More dancers need to be like Maddie. Her coach Abby Lee Miller says it every week on Dance Moms, and I'll repeat it now. The dance world is wanting in artists, not star-struck teens in search of the spotlight. Hard work and passion are the only ways to make your movement mean something. And as Maddie continues to put in the hours, I look forward to seeing what she does next.