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Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Dance

Only days before my final AP Calculus exam, I performed The Nutcracker in front of three thousand people. My childhood Nutcracker runs were twenty shows long; I had a show that night, and more that weekend.


I remember staring at my Calculus exam and laughing at the irony. Math problems make me more nervous than a theater full of strangers!
Last year, Conan O’Brien did a skit where he separated dance students into two groups. In the skit, he jokes that one group will “remain in the dance troupe.” Then he turns to the second group: “[But] you are all Uber drivers.”


It’s an old and tired myth: “dancers can’t do anything except dance.”


When you think “dancer,” you probably don’t think “brain surgeon.” The myth says that dancers are artsy, but not intelligent. Dance isn’t usually considered a valuable form of education.


Recently, though, the British Royal Family announced that Prince George’s schooling will include ballet classes—and for a good reason.


Dance training prepares you for life’s challenges and gives you the tools to excel at any profession, tools that many college students don’t acquire until after graduation.


In my experience, dancers are consistently—and exceptionally—clever, curious, disciplined and hard working. Dancers learn, viscerally and intimately, that success is not possible without failure.


This is not a lesson most people understand until they’ve hit rock bottom and fought their way back with sheer force of will.


My lesson came my sophomore year of high school, when I wasn’t cast in the same ballets as my friends.


The teacher was always disappointed by my work in class. I was held back a level when most of my friends advanced. No matter how hard I worked, I never seemed to achieve my goals.


I became angry, frustrated and confused. Suddenly, dance class was something I dreaded, not something I loved.


Failure is hard to learn from because it invites self-doubt. Doubt, in turn, sucks the joy out of your work. I seriously considered giving up dance entirely.


But dance also teaches you not to give up on something that’s important to you.


I came back to the studio every day and worked through my self-doubt. I started listening and took the instructor’s criticism, whether I agreed with it or not. I made changes to my work. I stopped focusing on the result—and the roles—I wanted. Instead, I zeroed in on my process.


As soon as I did, I started to love dancing again. I re-discovered the joy in it, and my teacher moved me up to the next level.


Dance taught me that success comes from persistence. It comes from years of working hard and accepting mistakes.


Persistence and a good work ethic aren’t just dance lessons; they are life lessons that translate to anything you want to do, including passing Calculus.


After scoring low on my Calculus exam, I was frustrated and disappointed, but I was also determined. I took a practice test every day. On every single test, I got a three—which is not a passing score, but I learned from my mistakes.


When I finally took the real AP test in the spring, I earned the highest score possible. My persistence and my determination (which I acquired in DANCE) paid off.


For many people, dance is a lifelong passion. A professional career is empowering and satisfying, but often short-lived.


It’s important to know that you have every tool you need to succeed outside of dance. I know former dancers who work in environmental policy, who are physical therapists, who are social workers, marine biologists, writers, choreographers, teachers, and agents.


They still love dance. But there is room for more than one passion in a lifetime. And whether or not you have a professional career, dance training gives you something valuable—and that’s the knowledge that you can do anything, as long as you’re willing to put in the work and never, ever give up.



Elizabeth Shew is a Portland, OR native and a New York-based dancer, writer, and creator. She is a graduate of The Ailey School and Fordham University and holds BFAs in Dance and English/Creative Writing. She has danced for choreographers Cindy Salgado, Jae Man Joo, Brice Mousset, Christopher Huggins and Taryn Kaschock Russell, among others. Recently, she participated in Cherice and Charissa Barton’s summer program, Axis Connect, and performed alongside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their annual piece *Memoria. *She is a current apprentice with BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance.

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