Stagecoach Principal, dance teacher and distance runner Billie Murphy explores the benefits of dance for sporty kids
In an age of over scheduled kids and parents, finding a balance of fun extra curricular activities that address the physical, creative, and intellectual needs of children is becoming ever more difficult. In a 2014 report by Active Healthy Kids Canada, Canadian children received a D- for overall physical activity levels. Hardly a glowing statistic. In the USA, 35% of the participants in sports programs withdraw each year. We have reached a tipping point where we must find a way to engage our kids in moving their bodies for the simple sake of the joy of movement.
Take a moment and consider your childhood and experience with sport and physical activity. What are your fond memories? What are your negative ones? For most people, their earliest fond memories revolve around running outside with their friends, catching a ball with a parent, or putting on a skirt and dancing around the living room. Their negative memories are often associated with being forced to run in school as an exercise or punishment, or any other number of fairly uncomfortable physical activities for bodies and minds not yet ready to engage in such activities.
So how can dance help?
Any beginner children's dance class begins with basic body awareness. What is a flexed foot? What is a pointed toe? Can you stand on one leg? Can you jump as far as you can over an object placed on the floor? As anyone who has peeked into a children's dance class knows, most of the students are not particularly graceful or skilled yet. However, they are developing key body and motor awareness at the FUNdamental training stage (6-9 years) that will carry them through ANY activity of their choice, (save perhaps swimming!) as laid out in the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) pathway. A child who has learned to balance on one foot quickly after dancing around a room will have a far greater chance of balancing on a pair of hockey skates or landing a snowboarding jump. They will have the stamina required to run up and down a soccer pitch. And they will understand what a coach means when they ask them to land more on the ball of the foot, rather than the heel. They have already developed these muscles and movement patterns while galloping on their tippy-toes.
But beyond basic motor function, how can dance assist a child in making the elite team or winning the race? First and foremost, dance, especially performance based dance, such as we teach at Stagecoach is a TEAM SPORT, as well as an individual one. Individual dancers must be aware of their surroundings and other “teammates” to maintain their spot on the stage, not dance into anyone else, and create a cohesive, often synchronized movement with the group. If one individual is not functioning as a cohesive member, formations fall apart and the performance as a whole suffers, not unlike a team sport. Every dancer, regardless of ability is of equal importance to the group as a whole.
But what about making the team in the first place, or battling race day nerves? Take any child after they have performed in front of an audience for the first time. Self-confidence sky rockets. Do it a few more times and shyness and performance anxiety become a thing of the past. No longer is performing in front of a coach or team mates the number one fear. Focus can be put on their own skills and performing them well. They have learnt the techniques necessary to perform under pressure.
Lastly, that pesky 35% drop out rate and D- grade. This is where music comes in. Countless studies have shown that music not only boosts mood, it also improves neural function and enhances learning and recall abilities. Therefore, at such a key time for developing key movement skills, why would we not pick an activity that incorporates this fabulous learning tool. A child enjoying moving to music is a child learning to enjoy movement. A child who might otherwise find exercise unpleasant, may respond to music and develop their enjoyment and participation because of the music's initial “draw” for them. As adults, we use music as a tool to get us through workouts and other stressful tasks and enhance enjoyment. Why not kids.
As a runner, I always chuckle when I see athletes going through their “skip”, “hop”, and “karaoke” drills in exactly the same manner that students in a typical 6 year old dance class would. Why? Because these drills, or exercises form the basic physical literacy required for almost every other physical activity or sport. As a dance teacher, a past dancer, and an athlete, I attribute an early positive association with dance as the number one reason I am athletically successful today. Want your child to succeed on the soccer pitch, track, or ice rink? Look no further than dance class. Art and sport are not mutually exclusive. They can feed one another and help to create children who are athletes and artists; healthy in both body and spirit.