Those of us who work in the arts are convinced of the importance of art for art's sake. We believe that the beauty, inspiration and knowledge one gains from attending performances, exhibitions and workshops have intrinsic value.
But it is undeniable that the arts play other important roles in our society: the arts help to encourage tourism, the arts teach children to be creative thinkers, the arts contribute substantially to the economy, and on and on.
Perhaps because I have spent so much of my career running dance companies, I am particularly interested in the impact of dance education on young people. My work at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (through its remarkable AileyCamp program now in eleven cities), American Ballet Theater (in a program, Make A Ballet, we inaugurated at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem), Royal Ballet (in the Chance to Dance program offered throughout the greater London area) and in the numerous dance programs sponsored by the Kennedy Center, I have learned that dance is a powerful educational tool for several reasons.
First, one needs no assets besides one's own body. Many children are unable to participate in the arts because their families cannot afford a cello, a piano, or art supplies. Yet every child can participate in dance equally; this is the most non-elitist of art forms.
Second, everyone can improve. While not every child can play a violin, every child can and does improve when they learn to dance. Not every child becomes a Baryshnikov, but all children can learn to move and express themselves. (Even children with disabilities can benefit from dance training; I have been fortunate to observe children in wheelchairs, children who are blind and children who are deaf dedicated to their dance classes.) As a result, every child who learns to dance can develop the self-respect that is so crucial for future success.
Third, dance teaches discipline. Children who take dance class learn to follow directions, to work as a team while expressing their own individuality, and to appreciate the importance of technique and form.
But last, and certainly not least, dance teaches a love of body. Children who dance are far more likely to appreciate their own physical selves. Dance training helps address the obesity problem currently facing our nation. Children who dance regularly are less likely to be overweight; they improve their metabolisms and burn calories. But perhaps most important, children who dance are less likely to participate in the dangerous behaviors that adversely impact the lives of their peers: teen pregnancy, drug abuse, unprotected sex, etc.
It is far cheaper to give a pre-teen dance lessons than it is to treat them for drug abuse, to provide care for the children of children, and to treat them for HIV infection.
As we search for ways to reduce health care costs, why not think about providing dance training for every child in this country? It is inexpensive, productive, and addresses so many very expensive health care issues.