For years, dance has been a popular form of recreation in Malta. Students often flock to dance studios and flourish, at times even internationally, whether it’s on their tiptoes with their tutus, or with their hip hop attitude, fluid contemporary movements or the flourish of their flamenco skirts. Dancers from all dance disciplines have been encouraged to unlock their potential and explore their creative expression.
However, at the peak of childhood and pre-teen age, all focus and energy for Maltese students is turned to maintaining a balance between dance and academia. And many Maltese students feel they need to give up dance (and other creative outlets) due to academic pressures.
One main question for exceptionally talented dancers training at the studios and across the island has persisted: Where could young dancers find vocational level dance training and a high level of academic studies?
So far, the honest answer has been overseas. While Maltese dancers are well trained in numerous schools and recreational classes are widely available, talented dancers are not given the opportunity to be trained at the vocational level required to hone their craft, develop the variety of skills and high standards of technique needed to be able to pursue professional prospects on the international stage.
Such talented dancers have sought funding to facilitate their studies abroad, sometimes at tender ages away from their support systems during crucial stages of their development.
The need for a balance between arts and academic education on the island is undoubted and heavily discussed within the dance community. Once placed in classes, students are expected to thrive equally and attain the same learning goals. An artist to be, a doctor to be, a lawyer to be are all measured in the same way throughout the course of their child development.
Why? Who is benefiting from this?
If we genuinely want students to flourish, why do they all have to flourish in the same subjects and at the same time?
Gifted dancers often refrain from exploring their dance journey further due to the fact that it does not provide a ‘safe bet’. Students are about 12 years old when they are asked to choose subjects for the remainder of their secondary schooling. Could anyone confirm what a ‘safe bet’ is at such a young age? Has it not occurred to us that at 12 years old there are so many more things to experience other than lengthy hours sitting at a desk studying and putting in great effort for subjects students may not be interested in?
Students are being deprived of the opportunity to spend these carefree years exploring, being creative, nurturing, developing analytical skills and talent which deserves its own space as we expect all students to succeed in the same way, with the same subjects and at the same pace. What’s worse, the same people who grow up, participate, contribute to and allow for such a flawed system take it upon themselves to advise young pre-teens to follow this path following their own, perhaps sour, personal experiences.
I highly doubt there is a clear cut solution to this issue however, I am sure we can agree that creating a shift in the way we structure a dancer’s academic year is possible.
One of the things I have done to try and change this is to create a new structure at my own school for dancers aged 12 and up to provide young, talented and willing dancers with the opportunity to train rigorously within a local set up that is streamlined with scholastic studies.
Dancers get the opportunity to cultivate international and local relationships as they join a strong network and all dancers’ creative potential while being nurtured to ensure they are well prepared to forge their path in the dance world.
The alignment with academic school subjects and timings enables students to develop truly holistically through their teenage years and beyond. Students discover the benefits of a new shift in the balance between their scholastic subjects and their dance studies, where their dance studies are elevated with an increase in hours on their schedule therefore an increase in regular focused, guided training to coach them on their dance journey.
Harnessing potential at the secondary schooling age and beyond, through intensified training that runs naturally alongside schooling can equip dancers with the variety of skills they need to participate in international masterclasses, competitions and possible production or work opportunities.
It’s important to give Malta-based students the opportunity to pursue their academic studies just as their foreign counterparts have the opportunities to do.
As a result, Maltese students will have more experience, training and confidence with which to take on competitions, masterclasses, roles within local and foreign companies, collaborate with local and foreign artists with higher chances of achieving excellent results.
We need more programmes that provide a bridge for the dancers to enable them to follow a path that develops and sustains them on their dance journey until they are ready to follow either path, whether it is joining an international vocational school or continuing their studies in subjects’ non-art related, furthering their dancing locally at age 16+ or internationally, joining local dance companies or supporting short-term projects.
The emphasis must be to cultivate creative thinkers, not just technical dancers. Our dancers must learn to explore their own creativity and expression with the right support in order to enhance the skills they need to develop into proficient and professional dancers.
Nurturing talent, encouraging focus and ultimately paving the way for all futures should be at the heart of every education system.
Marisha Bonnici is a professional dance teacher who heads Seed Dance Studios
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