What Charlotte The Spider Knows About Nurturing Champions

 

Anyone that’s ever felt a little emotional (or, outright sobbed) during a telling or re-telling of Charlotte’s Web knows it is a heart-warming yet bittersweet story about a little girl’s love of animals and also the friendship between a wise spider and a young pig. But, as Leah Singer writes, “[Charlotte’s Web] is also about words and the difference storytelling can make in people’s lives.”

This is the front cover art for the book Charlotte's Web written by E. B. White. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, HarperCollins, or the cover artist.

This is the front cover art for the book Charlotte’s Web written by E. B. White. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, HarperCollins, or the cover artist.

If you’re not familiar with E.B. White’s classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web is about a small pig, a runt, in danger of being slaughtered because it is “very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything.” A young girl named Fern convinces her father to spare the pig, who she names Wilbur. Fern loves and nurtures Wilbur but his life is once again in danger when he is sold to her uncle. It is Charlotte, a barn spider, that ultimately saves Wilbur’s life. Charlotte weaves a series of words into her web – “Some pig.” “Terrific.” “Radiant.” “Humble.” – which the farmers take as signs of Wilbur’s greatness. Word spreads of this remarkable pig and he becomes too famous to kill.

Wilbur is entered into the county fair and, though [SPOILERS ahead] he does not win first prize, he wins a special award for being extraordinary. Knowing that Wilbur is now beloved by all and his life is for certain no longer in danger, Charlotte finally gives in to her own death but not before leaving her egg sac in the care of Wilbur who returns with it to the farm, where he welcomes and befriends Charlotte’s children and future generations of spiders for years to come.

Through Charlotte, we learn a lot about coaching young dancers to greatness.

 

When it comes to nurturing champions, Charlotte knows:

 

That words matter and that the story you tell can save a life.

 

In the book, Charlotte makes a choice to re-write Wilbur’s story. At first she’s just tricking the minds of gullible humans on behalf of a little pig who is scared and defenseless but Charlotte does see something special in Wilbur. Maybe it’s just that he is willing to see beyond her “bloodthirsty nature” but helping Wilbur gives Charlotte’s life purpose and makes her feel good.

 

“…by helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”.

 

Where would an “unlikely ballerina” like Misty Copeland be without her first supporters and mentors who chose to see beyond the obstacles of not only her early life but the color of her skin and instead speak of Misty’s potential to rewrite what could have been her story? Not all dancers are as famous as Misty but I’d guarantee that, if asked, every single person in the dance world could give you the names of teachers whose words changed their lives.

 

"Barn Spider" by Dave Fletcher is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

“Barn Spider” by Dave Fletcher is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

 

That ordinary dancers become extraordinary the same way gifted ones do.

 

Wilbur blushed. “But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.”
“You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,” replied Charlotte, sweetly, “and that’s what counts.

 

Wilbur doesn’t start out as anything special. He is a common runt and even he doesn’t believe he is anything more. It takes time, hard work, and Charlotte’s steadfast belief in him but, by the end, he is truly a magnificent, “completely out of the ordinary” specimen of a pig. Wilbur can barely handle all the praise he receives.

I don’t think Charlotte foresees all that Wilbur eventually accomplishes but that doesn’t matter. She always plans her messages one word at a time. Who can truly predict which students will go on in dance, and which won’t? Who knows what the result of your influence will be? A perfectly average dance student becomes exceptional the same way a gifted student does… one step at a time.

That the way a student feels is as important as their skill.

 

Charlotte loves Wilbur but she’s not always overflowing with praise. She sees his limitations clearly. While searching for her next word, Charlotte asks Wilbur to run, and jump, and flip. He exhausts himself doing everything she asks. When he’s finished, Charlotte concludes…

 

“I’m not sure Wilbur’s action is exactly radiant, but it’s interesting.”
“Actually,” said Wilbur, “I feel radiant.”
“Do you?” said Charlotte, looking at him with affection. “Well, you’re a good little pig, and radiant you shall be.

 

Charlotte acknowledges that Wilbur is eager and willing and realizes that a pig’s natural abilities aren’t everything. Not to mention, they are completely different from her own abilities. She sees that the way Wilbur feels about himself is absolutely essential in helping him become all that he can be. Later, people take notice of the “interesting” things about Wilbur.

Your students are their own kind of dancer. They need you to guide them and challenge them even though eventually they will go their own way. Positive praise when your students show enthusiasm and effort builds their confidence but so does validating them – show them that their feelings and thoughts (who they are on the inside) matter.

 

That people (and pigs) live up to their descriptions.

 

“When Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”

 

Over time Wilbur transforms into the pig that Charlotte says he is. He’s always been a sweet little pig but “good food and regular hours were showing results.” Wilbur goes from a weak, lonely, uncertain runt that no one wanted to a healthy, strong, and confident pig that “any man would be proud of.”

“Say what you want to see” works for work ethic as well as pointed toes. It’s not that you need to make things up about your dancers that aren’t true. When you have a seed, you water it because you know the potential for growth is there if you do. As you work with your students, regularly sprinkle them with recognition of the growing potential you see in them.

 

"Piglet" by Jim Champion is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

“Piglet” by Jim Champion is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

 

That encouraging humility brings handsome results.

 

“Wilbur was modest; fame did not spoil him.”

 

The other animals worry that all the attention might go to Wilbur’s head but it doesn’t. In the back of his mind, he knows the fate he’s escaped  – it haunts his dreams a little – and he knows he would not have gotten far without Charlotte. “During the day he is happy and confident” but, when faced with his biggest challenge, he still wants Charlotte with him.

When they attend the county fair, Wilbur’s owner has a special crate that says “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” in gold letters and his wife fusses to make Wilbur look good with a buttermilk bath and clean straw. They believe his fame and looks will win him the prize. But Charlotte sizes up the competition and though there’s a bigger pig, she knows exactly what Wilbur’s got that that pig doesn’t… she writes HUMBLE above Wilbur’s pen. Charlotte’s word is true and it serves Wilbur well — everyone has something nice to say about it him.

As a mentor to your students, you can help them see their best qualities. The rest of the world tells your students that being a winner means you must be “Instafamous” or look and perform better than everyone else. But when you let dancers know with your words and actions that humility matters, they win.

That the work you do every day is a miracle!

 

Though it is remarkable that Charlotte is able to understand and weave human words into her web, Fern’s uncle fails to see it as anything special. Fern’s aunt hints at the idea that perhaps it is the spider that is extraordinary and not the pig but Charlotte’s role is soon forgotten in all the excitement over Wilbur. That’s okay by Charlotte. She cares only that her plan works and that Wilbur is saved. When Fern’s mother becomes concerned her daughter is spending too much time talking to animals, she consults the family doctor. They end up chatting about the writing in Charlotte’s web and he has this to say:

 

“When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle – it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.

 

Like a spider’s web, not everyone appreciates everything that goes into teaching dancers and the “ordinary miracles” you perform every day. Your reward isn’t the point or the purpose for doing what you do but when they do come, the rare moments of recognition are all the sweeter.

 

"spider web" by Alan Reeves is licensed CC BY 2.0

“spider web” by Alan Reeves is licensed CC BY 2.0

 

That you are never too small to leave a legacy.

 

Though she is small, Charlotte works extra hard to do her very best on Wilbur’s behalf and Wilbur never forgets her work and sacrifice. No matter the lengths you’ve gone to support your dancers, no matter how intricate the web you’ve woven, like Charlotte, you probably fade into the background. But your students remember and, just as Wilbur carries Charlotte’s egg sac back to the farm, your students carry forward the things you’ve taught them. They spread them, share them, and often pass them to future generations.

Your students may not become famous or win in every competition but if you help them as Charlotte helped Wilbur, they become winners – ordinary dancers who succeed, who go on to live lives that are remarkable in their own way and, in the process, create your legacy as a teacher and dance educator.

 

7 Reasons You Are Lucky to Be a Dancer

Being a dancer isn’t all rainbows. Learning to dance well takes years of hard work, and there’s typically no pot of gold awaiting you, either – sore, callused feet are more likely.

Still, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how lucky you are. There are plenty of benefits to being a dancer.

7 Reasons You're Lucky to be a DancerWe hope you’ll do a jig when you read these lucky seven:

1. Dancers move with health and confidence.

Dancing helps keep you physically fit and healthy. Dance is good for your heart, lungs, and bones. It’s a fun way to stay active while increasing your strength, stamina, and flexibility. In addition, dancing encourages good posture, body awareness and control that, even as you age, can and will benefit you. All of these things come together in a dancer to give him/her a physical confidence that others can spot and recognize. “You’re a dancer, I could tell.”

2. Dancing helps you keep your wits.

Two well-publicized studies [study 1, study 2] concluded that dancing is the only physical activity to reduce your chances of dementia in the way that cognitive activities do. Dance requires you to use multiple parts of your brain at the same time. No matter your age, this increased brain power improves your mental sharpness and agility, and can even increase your attention span.

The Benefits of Being a Dancer3. Dancing gives return on self-investment.

Dance keeps you in touch with your body, which is healing all by itself in a couch potato culture. Dance also helps you connect with your mind, emotions, and spirit. The practice of dance is an investment in yourself that can reduce stress, improve your mental well-being, and give you an outlet for self-expression.

4. Dance teaches survival skills.

Dancing builds resilience and determination because, well, dance is hard! You learn to keep trying despite failed attempts, keep going when things don’t go as planned, and yes, occasionally grit your teeth through a bit of pain. Dance also gives you plenty of chances to be resourceful and a creative thinker, especially if dance is your chosen career.

5. Never. Stop. Growing.

Dancing teaches you to keep going but you also learn that a person never stops growing. Every step you ascend on the stairway of dance, lights the way to more. There’s always somewhere to go; more goals to accomplish or details to master. This endless climb is also quite humbling… bonus!

6. All you really need to know, you learned in dance class.

Commitment, communication skills, passion, perseverance, the ability to take and respond to constructive (or not-so constructive) criticism and, you bet, that slice of humble pie, are just a few of the life skills dancing develops in its lifetime pupils. There’s not much you need to know in life that you haven’t already learned in a dance class.

7. As a dancer, you become part of a bigger picture.

Dancers build lasting memories and friendships with one another. Maybe it’s the work or long hours together, or maybe it’s because you’ve each given so much of yourself, but it always happens. Wherever you go, when you spot that other dancer in the room (and you will), you’ll know you have something in common. That shared experience is part of a rich history of tradition and innovation that unites dancers all over the world. And, because dance is tied deeply to the roots of our communities and cultures, dance builds awareness and appreciation of the differences and similarities between people. This makes you a better citizen of the world.

So, count your lucky charms, dancer. You are all kinds of awesome!

Before you go, be sure to share why YOU think you’re lucky to be a dancer in the comments.

May all your wishes be granted this St. Patrick’s Day!

Summer Dance: Fiction With Real Insight And Heart

It’s that time of year when so many young dancers are thinking ahead to summer.

If you are contemplating the exciting possibilities that await at a summer intensive or training program…

If you have fond memories of your own summer experiences…

OR if you’d just love to step into that world for a moment, I think you’ll love Lynn Swanson’s novel, Summer Dance.

Summer Dance is available on Amazon.com (for Kindle, too).

Summer Dance is available on Amazon.com (for Kindle, too).

Intended for tweens, but worthy of an all-ages audience, Summer Dance will appeal to both non-dancers and dancers alike. In the midst of tough competition and very authentic episodes of teenage drama, the characters develop… well… character, learning and demonstrating ways to get along and even work together.

Summer Dance author, Lynn Swanson, has a degree in dance from University of Michigan, an MA in creative writing from Michigan State, and has enjoyed teaching ballet and creative movement to children for many years.  She took some time to talk with us about the themes in her book, her own summer dance experiences at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and her career as both dance teacher and writer.

Dance Advantage: How many of your experiences as a dance student at Interlochen went directly into Summer Dance?

Lynn Swanson: Interlochen was the main impetus for writing the story. It is enchanting there, and when I went, camp was a full eight weeks and it was intense. You had to learn to pace yourself socially as well as technically and keep a cool balance. There were highs and lows in terms of energy and emotion.

Now camp there is mostly three week sessions, but they still cover a lot of ground. The geographic locale is made of tall and wonderfully smelling pine trees, lakes, and dirt paths to everywhere. There is no boy’s camp across the lake, and we were so busy dancing that nothing like the adventures with the boys in my book ever happened! Being at Interlochen for four summers changed me into a mature dancer and inspired me, so that I returned home in joy and expansion.

DA: The competitive nature of summer programs and the dance world is a very real and very central theme in your story right from the start, yet unlike so many narratives featuring dancers, I appreciate that you have successfully resisted over-dramatizing this aspect. How did you ‘keep it real’ as the writing unfolded?

LS: I simply wrote from my heart. Before writing anything new, I would completely re-read everything I had written and feel it in my heart, then proceed in a place of solitude trying to keep it close to my heart.

My own experiences in competing gave me the wisdom that competition is purely being the best at that moment that you, yourself, can be and has really nothing to do with anyone else in the room.

DA: What do you think is most important for young dancers to keep in mind as they come face to face with competition or even rivalry at a summer intensive (or elsewhere)? [Read more…]

This Is Why I Bother

Melanie Doskocil’s final entry for Ballet’s Un-X-pected Lesson Files this year. Enjoy!

I looked over the group of 5 and 6-year-old budding ballet students.

The girls were all clad in their little yellow and black stripped leotards, little yellow and black tutus, wings, head pieces with cute bouncy antennae. The boys in their striking bug costumes with jet black bodies and iridescent green wings.

I had a can of good old Super Final Net in my hands and wandered amongst them, spraying a wisp of hair here, a clump of bangs there. I checked ears and wrists and fingers for forgotten jewelry, tucked loose draw strings into leather ballet slippers, clipped threads and checked hands for no-no nail polish and pesky pen doodles.

IMAGE Excited little bumble bees IMAGEAs I was grabbing a few bobby pins to tackle a loose bun, one of the guest chaperones whispered loudly to another,

“I don’t know why she bothers; they are only on the stage for about a minute.”

I turned to the kids and said, “OK, Bees and Bugs, are you ready to go dance with your Flower in the Nutcracker?”

One tiny ballerina said to me, “I feel like a fairy princess!”

Then I turned to the parent and said, “THAT’s why I bother.”

Many families are inducted into the ritual of ballet performance during The Nutcracker.

There are strange rules to follow [Read more…]

What a Candy Cane Can Teach About The Virtues of a Dancer

Dancers learn important life lessons younger than most people. Melanie Doskocil adds another page to Ballet’s Un-X-pected Lesson Files illustrating integral qualities that lead to success, not only in dance, but in life.

 

Knowing her as well as I did, I could see the telltale crease around her eyes as I told her she would be a Candy Cane again in this year’s production of the Nutcracker. Her smile never wavered, her posture never slumped, but the miniscule sign of disappointment was there. She thanked me profusely and walked proudly out of the studio. Even later, when I was in my office and the thin walls amplified the voices coming from the dressing room, I could hear her extolling the virtues of being a Candy Cane to another of this year’s Candy Canes.

IMAGE A candy cane's tabletop reflection forms a heart. IMAGE

Photo by JD Hancock

 

“Talent notwithstanding,” I thought, “this one will go far in dance.”

This 11-year-old budding ballerina had already learned life lesson number one of being a dancer:

Handle rejection with grace.

Successful dancers learn early that they won’t always get the parts that they want, and later, the jobs they want and the salary they want. They learn to accept these decisions with poise and dignity, instead of throwing a temper tantrum that can have severe and often dire consequences. Dancers are not meekly accepting of what life hands them, however they keep their grace and dignity in the face of adversity, determined to succeed where others might quit.

 

Accept, even covet, constructive feedback or criticism.

This is another life lesson that dancers learn at an early age.

One day, while teaching my advanced level, I [Read more…]