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 your dancer 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 mothers and even teachers describe kids that are perceived as ‘successful’ in terms of factors that aren’t attributable to the child in any way. People will say things like, ‘oh she’s amazing’, ‘she is soooo talented’, ‘she’s naturally flexible’, ‘well she’s got those feet!’ It is true that some children start off ahead of the curve in terms of facility. I see it all the time, preschoolers that come in and show me their happy toes which just so happen to touch the ground, or when I ask them to put their legs in second they fly out to a flat split. And then there are those whose hamstrings are so tight that they 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 facility.
The impact of the talent myth
When you say things to your child like, ‘oh she is naturally flexi’, think about what you are saying to them. You are helping to build a fixed mindset around dance and natural talent. You are effectively telling them that there is no hope for them, that a particular child is naturally flexible, that they aren’t and there’s probably no use trying because they are the sum of their make-up. You are effectively giving them an excuse not to work hard. 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.
Besides the negative impact such statements can have on a dancer’s mindset, what you are saying is probably not true. What is perceived as natural talent or ability is often the result of hours of training and dedication? In trying to make them feel better in the short term have you given them an excuse not to work hard and achieve? 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.
In trying to make them feel better in the short term have you given them an excuse not to work hard and achieve?
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 a 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.
Hard work beats talent
What can we learn from this? There will always be kids that appear to be ‘ahead’, who are developmentally advanced, who seem to be ‘naturals’ but when dismissing a dancer’s achievement as being the result of natural talent we are doing everyone, but especially our own child a great disservice. Why would your child strive for more if they are constantly being told that success is the result of something out of their control? You are giving them an out, making an excuse for them not to work hard. So next time you go to describe a child as ‘talented’, stop and think about what you really want to say to your child. Rather than subscribing to the talent myth, emphasize the hard work behind success. Give your child the hope and belief they need to be able to truly succeed.
Give your child the hope and belief they need to be able to truly succeed.
Here are a few key pointers 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 grown.