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Parents, you’re enrolling your little ones in the wrong kind of dance class

Many parents sign their children up for dance, but do some of these classes actually limit a child’s free expression? (iStock)

An irresistible picture often comes to mind when parents start thinking about dance classes for their little ones. For those with toddler girls, especially, ballet may signify the peak of angelic sweetness, so this vision is usually dressed in pink from head to toe, with a fluffy tutu skirt and tiny pink slippers.

I’ve had that vision, too, and I’ve acted upon it — not once, but several times, enrolling each of my three children in some kind of preschool dance class. And as a lifelong ballet lover but ambivalent dance mom, here’s my cri de coeur: Do your kids a favor and banish the thought.

Yes, there are options galore for parents looking for a dance class for their toddlers — even for babies. Dance schools will be delighted to fulfill your sparkly pink dreams. But the best dance class for a very young child looks nothing like that.

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Instead, it will have no dress code. It will not demand tights or special shoes. It will offer your child a box of scarves and a wide variety of music, or maybe just drumming, or maybe the kids will make their own music with maracas and tambourines. The instructor will be open to just about anything; she will be tolerant, kind, happy to be there. She will demand little more of your child than free expression. She may also join the children, mirroring their moves, or she may simply watch what the kids come up with, and cheer them on like mad.

This is the kind of dance class I was lucky to experience when I was about 3, in a neighbor lady’s basement, and I’m sure it sparked my love of the art. I remember the scarves, and waving them to the music — I literally thought of them as ocean waves, probably because the teacher, whom I adored, planted the idea. And then, what do you know? There I was, the most amazing scarf-waver she’d ever seen.

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At some point she would unroll a long mat and we’d turn somersaults or kind of flop around on it. (I believe I specialized in the latter.) I remember her record player skipping a lot, which made me laugh. The LPs were scratched from years of use, eons probably. This lady was obviously a mystical being who could channel and unearth the ecstatic, primitive charge of dance as joy incarnate, not something one learned.

On the other hand, she could have just been a phenomenal early-years dance teacher.

Yet for some reason, when my own daughter was 3 or 4, I pulled up her tights and pinned back her hair and carted her off to something entirely different. It was a ballet-jazz-tap class, billed as fun and creative, but it was serious business. The kids were drilled in each genre for precisely 15 minutes, starting with ballet.

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Class began like this: The students stood in rows while the teacher went around adjusting each little foot of each little child into first position. Eventually she got them all teetering in this unnatural pose, heels together, toes turned outward. After some minutes, things moved along to, oh, attempting a wobbly bending of the knees, with feet still glued to the floor in their precarious V-shape.

These were all lovely children, each one trying hard to do as instructed. Their teacher, while firm, was cheerful and endlessly patient. But who wouldn’t sympathize with her students for twisting around to shoot looks at their parents that said: Just how, exactly, does all this standing in rows add up to dancing?

I should have known better, because dance classes for my two older sons, when they were preschoolers, hadn’t gone any better. In one “creative movement” class, the teacher spent a chunk of time getting the kids to line up for the water fountain. In another, my son frequently ditched class entirely and amused himself with play equipment in the corner.

Children are born with the instinct to learn, which to them translates as play. Too often this comes into conflict with adult expectations at a distressingly early age. And play becomes hard work.

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Back in August, “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer got herself into trouble when she made mocking comments about Britain’s Prince George taking ballet at age 6. She was absolutely wrong to ridicule the boy for his love of dance, and public outcry rightly brought about her on-air apology. But in a sense, another point was lost in the flap. When she announced that “the future king of England will be putting down the Play-Doh to take on religious studies, computer programming, poetry and ballet,” Spencer was also talking about letting a kid be a kid.

Ballet is an art form, a discipline, and for some children it’s not that interesting at first. Static body positions must be learned, including what might seem simple: standing up straight. It’s not so simple in a ballet sense, since proper alignment of the head, spine and pelvis is the basis of the technique, and there’s a lot of focus on proper posture. The question is, at what age will a child accept this focus freely, without growing frustrated?

Ballet can be terrific fun for 6-year-olds, but it may be too boring and stifling for younger children. Very young children are likely to be happiest just running around to music and letting their imaginations fly, unbound by rules and procedures. Yet offering some kind of “baby ballet” for toddlers and preschoolers is lucrative for dance schools, what with those captivating parental visions of little ones as adorable princes and princesses.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking ballet or any form of dance instruction. Dance is a superb art to dive into when young, through which children — especially school-age children — can discover the amazing capabilities of their own bodies, and learn about music, self-expression, discipline, confidence, poise, problem-solving. They can surprise themselves. (This happened to me: I progressed from that basement tumbling-class-fantasyland to serious ballet study, eventually leaving high school early each day for an intensive preprofessional program, which launched me into a career I love.)

Yet there is such a small window of time in which kids can simply bloom. Where they can explore and experiment to find what they love, without following the leader, without rules, without breaking them.

Dance offers those precious moments of joy that the human spirit has always cherished, and it has no requirements, really. You’ve probably heard the Pablo Picasso quote: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” One answer is to let a child be a child as long as possible, and not rush the growing up.

Years ago, I was in the pediatrician’s office with my firstborn, asking the doctor how to get him to sleep through the night. I was failing miserably at the Ferber technique, a popular method you’ve heard of if you have kids. Maybe it works for hardier souls. It basically boils down to letting your baby cry himself to sleep all alone in his crib.

It felt horrible to do that. It felt horrible not to be able to do that. Obviously this lack of discipline was going to set the boy back for life. Right?

The doctor was quiet for a moment, looking down at the baby in my lap.

“It’s a cold, cruel world out there,” he said gently. “What’s wrong with rocking him to sleep in your arms?”

What’s wrong, indeed, with tossing technique in favor of love? With inviting children to do what comes naturally, to see life’s magic in a box of scarves, to dance their own dance?

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