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Taking The Stage! how performing arts builds character, confidence & self-esteem
by John Boccacino
With its long tradition of worldclass performing arts ranging from Garth Fagan Dance and the world-renowned Eastman School of Music to the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and the Hochstein School of Music and Dance, Rochester is recognized as a major player in the performing arts industry. While nailing a solo or gracefully gliding across a stage in a dance number can be so personally rewarding, there’s a much greater benefit in participating in performing arts. They offer a chance for children of all ages to build up their self-esteem and confidence up while making friends and learning about teamwork and cooperation. Locally, there are plenty of dance studios and theatrical outlets available to children who seek a creative outlet, a healthy hobby or a chance at improving their social skills, all while having fun in a structured, organized setting.
“We’ll often see our students gain a tremendous sense of confidence through the performing arts, especially in their own abilities. Often, children will find they have skills and abilities they didn’t think they had,” says John Barthelmes who runs the Spotlight Theatre Performing Arts Studio in the Village of Fairport.
“In each scene we’ll have different kids playing the main parts to get their moment in the spotlight, their time to shine,” says Barthelmes. “While many are shy at first, through rehearsals and positive encouragement, a sense of confidence and self-worth is instilled in these children. I run into a lot of teachers who tell me they had one of our students in class, and how that student is a lot more open about himself and apt to talk and get involved with group discussions than other non-theatre students.”
Part of that improved self-confidence stems from the skills and drills learned during rehearsals, Barthelmes says. One of his favorite activities features a game where children select a hat at random out of a giant bag of hats. Using only the hat, each child must create a character on the fly, and develop its personality traits, then the children interact with each other, falling back on their newly developed personas as their primary means of relating to one another.
“That trains the kids to think quickly, and to think outside the box, skills that carry over into school and their lives at home,” Barthelmes says. “We use improv to resolve issues between students. For example, if two children are having an argument, we’ll have them role play as the other person to create a better understanding of how their actions are affecting others. It also helps with their performances on stage, because if they forget their lines, they can just improvise. It’s a great tool for kids to learn.”
Through Drama Kids International, an organization that includes 50 chapters in the United States, instructors aim to cultivate character development while helping eager students feel more confident in their abilities, both on and off the stage.
Pamela Spiteri, the director of the Rochester chapter of Drama Kids International, says roughly 450 students ages 4 to 17 will attend her classes this year, all under the guise of creating confidence in kids. As an example, each class begins with an open-ended question of the day, something as simple as what kind of ice cream do you prefer or what was the best part of your day? Questions requiring simple yes or no answers are avoided because, Spiteri says, she wants her pupils to learn how to speak and answer questions creatively.
“We often ask our children to be someone other than themselves in our exercises, and we’ve found they can overcome big issues like stuttering or being extremely shy through the performance arts,” says Spiteri of her center, which challenges students of all age levels with curriculum that develops their speaking, acting, leadership and literacy skills. “Everyone can find themselves playing a crucial role in our performances, and that sense of belonging comes from these groups. Kids then become more comfortable speaking in front of a group. No matter where one goes in life, the ability to articulate and express your feelings is an instrumental skill.”
At the Park Avenue Dance Company boys and girls are taught how to use their bodies to explore space, time, and energy while building their own creative capabilities in a group atmosphere, says Christine Fendley, the company’s founder and artistic director. Fendley notes that dancing is not just for girls; she’s seen an increase in the amount of boys participating in dance classes during her time with Park Avenue Dance Company.
“The thrust of our program is creative dance, and we take an educational approach to dance,” Fendley says. “We don’t just teach steps, we teach concepts and let our students learn about working in space, the timing, tempo and rhythm of the dance steps, and how to work together to solve problems.”
Among Fendley’s favorite instructional activities for developing dancers is a simple mirror activity, where two students stand in front of each other and one person is assigned the leader role, while the other is to mimic the leader’s dance movements. Relying on the skills or lessons taught during that day’s class, the leader will move his or her arms, legs, head and other body parts, and the partner is expected to closely follow and imitate each action. After a certain period of time, the roles are reversed, and the leader becomes the follower.
“That drill is a really good developmental exercise because it forces the children to carefully watch their partner’s movements and figure out what they need to do to copy the motions,” says Fendley.
“As a dancer, you have to be a musician, an actor, a mathematician and an architect, knowing where you are in space in relation to your peers,” Fendley adds. “We all have those intelligences within us, but we help you develop those skills.”
John Boccacino is a freelance writer living in Webster, NY who reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College.