What’s wrong with talking about dance and natural talent?
Dance and natural talent! The two words are practically synonymous. But what if the natural talent excuse is actually holding our dancers back? I was thinking about this when I was on the treadmill today. Running for me is HARD work, it’s never, ever easy. But I love it all the same. Mostly I love it when it’s over! Anyway, as I was running, I was thinking about how I’m not a natural runner, but I had to stop myself, for this is exactly the kind of thinking I try to avoid when I’m teaching and in life in general. However, this kind of thinking pervades the world of dance which often focuses so heavily on the myth of natural talent. So often I hear parent’s and dancers describe kids that are perceived as ‘successful’ in terms of factors that aren’t attributable to the child’s actions in any way. Students will say things like, ‘oh she’s amazing’, ‘she is soooo talented’, ‘she’s naturally flexible’, ‘well she’s got those feet!’, as if all these things are for the ‘other’ and not possible for them. I get that it is part defense mechanism and I also accept that it is true that some children are ahead of the curve in terms of facility. We as teachers see it all the time, preschoolers that come in and show their happy toes which just so happen to touch the ground or when they are asked to put their legs in second and they fly out to a flat split. And then there are those whose hamstrings are so tight that that can’t sit up straight. It is also true that dancing is a visual art and classical ballet in particular requires certain physical attributes and yes, facilities.
The impact of the Talent Myth.
When our dancers or their parents say things like, ‘oh she is naturally flexi’, think about what that is actually saying to our students. This is helping to build a fixed mindset around dance. They are effectively being told that there is no hope for them, that a particular child is naturally flexible, that they aren’t, and that there’s probably no use trying because they are the sum of their make-up. Worse still, they are being given an excuse not to work hard. After all, why should they work hard if ability and success is perceived as being the result of natural talent, something completely out of their control. This is shaping exactly the kind of dance mindset we want to avoid. We want our dancers to be inspired by those around them, to think, well I can’t do that yet but if I work I’m sure I can improve. We want our dancers to have a growth mindset. You can read more about growth mindset and dance here.
You are effectively giving them an excuse not to work hard. After all, why should they work hard if ability and success is perceived as being the result of natural talent, something completely out of their control.
Besides the negative impact such statements can have on dancer mindset, when dancer success is attributed to natural talent, much of the time, as we as teachers know, it is simply not true. We know that often, what is perceived as natural talent or ability is actually the result of hours of training and dedication. We know how hard some of our own kids work, what it really takes. Although comments like ‘oh she’s so talented’ may appear harmless it is important to consider the impact of these sorts of statements. Why would a child strive for more if they are constantly being told that success is the result of something out of their control? It is important to admire and be inspired by those around us, but this can only truly happen if we emphasize the hard work behind success. We need to give our students the hope and belief they need to succeed.
Likewise, when children are told that they themselves are talented, it
can also cause issues. Make your Mind Up suggests that when children are told they are talented, they run into trouble when they reach the outer limit of their talent, when they run into wall of hard work. This is something that I think everyone in the dance world has seen – the very precocious younger child that gets to around 12 and is suddenly overtaken by their peers. Maybe the child was very ‘ talented’ compared to her peers, or more likely she was developmentally advanced. However, when all that evened out the hard work by her less precocious peers began to pay off. Forget the myth of the born dancer and start to see the work behind that dancer. Carol Dweck’s research shows the impact of praising children for being clever as opposed to for their effort. Children praised for being smart shied away from future challenges and ultimately performed worse than their peers who had been praised for their hard work.
As dance teachers we can certainly foster an environment that focuses on effort and hard work, that helps our dancers believe that success is achievable for them and not just for the so called ‘talented’. When we hear our dancers talking about other kids who they perceive as naturally talented or naturally flexible or a natural turner we can help them understand that so often these abilities are the result of hard work and practice. We can help them set goals, break them down and work towards them step, by step. Yes, there will always be kids that appear to be ‘ahead’, who are developmentally advanced, who seem to be ‘naturals’ but dismissing that as the result of natural talent does everyone, especially our own dancers a great disservice. Rather than subscribing to the talent myth, give your dancers the hope and belief they need to be able to truly succeed.
Give your dancers the hope and belief they need to be able to truly succeed.
Here are a few key pointers for our dancers to keep in mind.
Find out more about the power of YET here
Learn more about Growth Mindset here
Learn more about Goal setting here
Coyle, Daniel, The talent code, greatness isn’t born. It’s made