I’ve always said that I identify more with children and animals than I do with people my own age. So it makes sense that I would spend a great deal of time between paying acting jobs babysitting and teaching at a performing arts studio. Most of the time I honestly love what I do. I’ve been so spoiled with the families I babysit for; I genuinely enjoy spending time with those kids. And as far as teaching goes, the proud dance teacher feels that come from watching my students grow throughout a school year cannot be replicated anywhere else.
On Super Bowl Sunday this year I closed a production of Bring it On, which I choreographed for the middle school and high school aged kids of the studio I teach at. Like any theatrical process it had its challenges, but overall I have to say it was creatively fulfilling, gratifying, and enjoyable working with these kids. If nothing else, they sweat their asses off, pushed themselves beyond their normal comfort zone, and we all laughed a lot in the process.
Process. I talk about that a lot. Because the older I get the more importance I place on a process over a final product. In the professional world it can be really easy to fall into the trap of a producer’s mindset. The producer’s main concern is usually the final product, how much money they will make, will the audiences be pleased, etc. This makes sense because they are on the business side of the operation. And as annoying as it can be to have to balance that energy with the free flowing creative side of any production, without that business aspect our work would never get put up anywhere other than your mother’s basement or grandma’s backyard. As an actor it’s about finding the balance between those two very opposing points of view.
But when you work with kids it’s different. When working with children there needs to be an understanding that they’re all on their own complicated journeys, trying to figure out who they are and what they’re good at. Their skill sets are constantly changing. They grow and develop at different rates. The small glimpses of progress need to be celebrated. Otherwise, we put our students at risk of becoming discouraged when something is a challenge for them.
“I will never expect perfection,” I said to them one day in rehearsal. “But I do expect that you will work harder than you’ve ever worked before and practice this choreography over and over until you’re doing it in your sleep.”
And that’s exactly what they did. They’d steal empty studio time between classes, connect their phones to the boom box and practice one of the numbers. A few of them began having sleepovers before my Saturday choreography rehearsals so they could stay up all night practicing the dances together. I know this because they showed me video proof of their midnight review sessions. To say I was proud of them is an understatement. In our final moments of review before opening night we ran one of the numbers that had been a real challenge for them. Suddenly it all came together in a way it never had before. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Were there spots I could’ve cleaned even further? Definitely. But for the first time I truly saw that they had done their homework on that particular number and they showed up with their game faces on ready to play. I honestly don’t even really remember exactly what happened once they finished. I think I blacked out from the adrenaline racing through my veins. I do remember leaping onto the stage and jumping up and down, screaming in their faces, unable to contain my overwhelming excitement. Again, the number was far from perfect but the progress was undeniable. Another choreographer might have reacted differently and with less enthusiasm. But I think to deny them of their right to feel proud of themselves and all their hard work would be a crime.
Arts education is so ridiculously important for a wide variety of reasons. But one thing that theater specifically teaches us as kids is how to be proud of where we are right now. When a child is willing to get up onstage in front of many friends, members of their family, and other strangers and showcase their talent at whatever stage of development it’s at - that’s true courage. Connecting to and celebrating that courage is what You are Here is all about.