– by Ana Gherasim
Those of you who liked our Facebook page may have already seen this video, which I shared yesterday – a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson in which he proposes a rethinking of school systems that undermine, rather than promote, creativity.
The downplaying of creative subjects in education is a topic very close to my heart, because I am a product of a school system that not only fails to encourage creative pursuits, but it discourages them outright.
The Romanian system, where I’ve spent most of my formative years, values math and science almost exclusively. At least up to the high school level, wanting to focus on humanities was considered a kind of failure rather than a choice – you didn’t go into humanities because you wanted to, you went into humanities because you were bad at math. I was bad at math, but never saw my decision to focus on learning languages and social sciences as a failure, though many of my teachers did.
However, even humanities, though far from preferred, were acceptable compared to visual, or worse, performance arts. Romanian public schools had, at least in my day, no dance or drama classes; as for music and drawing lessons, they were relegated to the lowest level of the school hierarchy and these classes were often “borrowed” by math teachers as extra study time. Students soon learned to discount these pursuits as a waste of time, and most never had a chance to explore their own creativity.
Outside the school system, creativity was only encouraged in the highly talented who were likely to excel, while those with less talent – or those who took more time and patience to find their talent or style – were discouraged and overlooked. It was a sink-or-swim mentality that promoted innate talent and considered everyone else a waste of time. In children’s choir, the teachers lined us up in descending order of likelihood that we’d be accepted into music school. The first few got extra solo practice time. The last few were all but told to quit.
Dance was taught the same way: beginner classes progressed at the level that teachers decided they should; those who kept up (usually less than a quarter of the class) were deemed worthwhile and were trained to perform and compete. The rest usually weeded themselves out within a month or two. The concept of pursuing dance as a hobby, purely for recreation and with no lofty goals of competing, was foreign and considered pointless. Be the best, or don’t bother. You were encouraged to focus on what you were good at, to the exclusion of all else.
Unsurprisingly, I grew up convinced that I had no aptitude for anything physical or creative. But it was more than that – it was also a conviction that, because I had no natural aptitude for it, there was no point in trying. Ken Robinson talks about school systems teaching students that being wrong is the worst thing you can do. The Romanian system also teaches them that pursuing something they’re not great at is the worst kind of “wrong” they could be – not only are you pouring your energy into something that will be of no use to you, but you are also wasting your teachers’ time, which could be better spent on those who will have some use for the skills they learn.
It took Jeff an immense amount of coaxing and patience to convince me to even try dancing. The priming I received in childhood left me almost paralyzed at the idea of trying something I knew I wouldn’t be good at – and I knew, after all the dance classes I joined and then weeded myself out of, that I would never be good at dancing. The first few months were an exercise in frustration and helplessness, but I did slowly learn. Taking my first group class, after 3 months of one-on-one lessons with Jeff, was terrifying; I still felt like an impostor, trying to learn alongside others without chips on their shoulders – but, surprisingly, I kept up. My first few social dance outings were even worse – in class, we were all learning together, but here were people at all different levels, and they all looked like far better dancers than I ever thought I could be – surely they’ll spot that I’m not supposed to be here? Again, to my great surprise, everyone I danced with was courteous, kind and encouraging.
I’ve been dancing salsa for four years now, and it took almost half that time to get over the mental block that kept me from fully enjoying dance and had me looking over my shoulder in fear of someone telling me I wasn’t good enough. I still don’t consider myself naturally talented – just very lucky and thankful to have had wonderful, patient, non-judgmental teachers who took the time to guide me. I also know I have much, much more to learn; your teachers are also my teachers, which is why you’ll probably find me in most of our classes, helping when I can and learning alongside you the rest of the time.
Salsa has been a fantastic journey for me. I met amazing people who inspire me and whom I admire, and I made great friendships that have transcended the dance floor. I also learned that dancing can be great fun – even if you’re not training to be the next world champion; in fact, in my case, probably because of it. We started this school to share that joy with as much of the world as we can reach, and we hope dancing gives you the same high we get from it every day.