Franco De Vita (American Ballet Theatre JKO School Principal) once quipped that he loves teaching thirteen-year-olds simply because he enjoys that particular age; the context for his remark was a discussion around one kid in particular who happened to be thirteen at the time and who is clearly destined for ballet greatness. I was picking his brain about that child and the conversation soon expanded to include generalities about young adolescent sensibilities, what makes them malleable and likeable as they stand on an important threshold: children still, but who see the potential for their adult selves already coming into focus. And for youngsters who are seriously contemplating professional work in the arts world, that focus is essential and even urgent.
I get that–the idea that there is a place along a child’s developmental continuum that appeals more than another. For me it is the four-year-old child, something I’ve discovered about myself only in the last calendar year of teaching. This is not to say I can’t reach kids who are in another place on their journey to being grownups, nor that I do not enjoy teaching them. I emphatically do. And I often surprise myself, because almost without exception, even on my worst days–when I want to crawl under the covers and be left alone by the world–I find myself completely immersed in the act of teaching. A 90-minute class suddenly has five minutes remaining, with still so much to be done. (Always.)
Four. It’s a nice, even number. I remember being four and liking that condition. Not quite ready for big kid school, still enjoying early childhood pleasures and indulgences, but poised to cross an important threshold. Not unlike a thirtreen-year-old. And four-year-olds are intellectually honest; they will let you know whether you are feeding them tripe (why would anybody want to do that?). My four-year-olds possess the same sense of wonderment as their still-toddler and infant siblings and cohorts, but also a worldliness that a three-year-old does not.
The classical ballet curriculum we use where I teach is literature-based in the Pre-Primary Levels. I confess that I love children’s literature, and significantly, I love reading it aloud. I like using facial expressions, and animated vocalizations, and dialect when it is called for: it is more like theatre for me than only reading words printed on a page. This probably goes a long ways towards explaining why my own child (now grown) was unwilling to let go of bedtime stories until well into middle school, by which time we were of course reading pretty dense literature–out loud, together, energetically and enthusiastically, every night.
I also confess I was unwilling to discard pretty much any book ever purchased for my own child during his nineteen years under my roof. When it was time to move a thousand miles for the big mid-century reboot I had so many difficult decisions and choices to make, but the formidable process of sifting through no fewer than about nine gigantic Rubbermaid tubs of all those books–and stacks and stacks of others on top of them–consumed hours, then days, and finally weeks, as I leafed through beautiful illustrations and fonts, and remembered how we read certain passages, and my child’s reaction to them. I pulled a few cherished tomes to pack and left the rest to their unknown fate.
Last weekend when I was planning the next few weeks of curricula for the Pre-Primaries I grabbed The Steadfast Tin Soldier from my shelves. I had not opened its pages in a while. I try to choose literature with language that suggests movement, and stories that translate themselves into pantomime, and onomatopoeia that will serve as exercises in musicality. All quietly laying the foundation for an ancient, contrived, intellectual, and physical art form. So much to pack into forty-five short minutes. The Steadfast Tin Soldier has it in spades. But with only about five minutes of precious classroom time given over to actually reading, I am usually lobbed with plaintive objections when I bookmark our place each week.
Something magical happened during my reading in class this Monday. The words leapt off the page as if they were meant for this day, this moment, these children, our purpose. I paused after I finished this delicious passage in the book:
We did not belabor the word astonishing, but I gave it dramatic emphasis, and paused for a moment. Four-year-olds. And somehow they seemed to understand.
We stopped a few sentences beyond that point, just after the steadfast tin soldier meets the ballerina in the soft muslin dress, who appears also to have only one leg–because the other is “hidden” behind her in a beautiful arabesque (this evolved into an exercise–we were beautiful ballerinas whose legs were hidden–proprioceptive work dressed in fancy clothing). Naturally the soldier is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. When I closed the book, a great hue and cry went up from a particular child: OH GOD! she wailed. (There was that worldiness.)
Are you sad we had to stop? Yes, she insisted, crestfallen.
I was, too.
Class went on. We were one-legged soldiers. We hopped and saluted. We shouted the words higgelty piggelty–which described the wrapping paper strewn around the box of tin soldiers–to music with different time signatures, and exploded in giggles when the music grew too fast for the words to form correctly on our lips. We laid down more layers of the hard work that forms us.
Next week we will come back and do it again. Because ballet school, and work, and art, and life–anything that matters–requires steadfastness of us all. Even when we are four, and especially if we want to be astonishing.