Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series: Interviews with experts in a particular field or specialty about appropriate ages for children to begin taking lessons. This month, we’ve asked various arts professionals around the city to advise parents about how to evaluate whether their children have reached the ‘ready stage’, and why it’s important to wait.
Sure…the memory of watching your 5-year-old gracefully prance across the stage in a puffy, pink tutu is priceless. But lessons in the arts can offer a lot more. Exposure to the arts opens a myriad of possibilities for a young child. They can experience the joy of creation and tap their endless energy to strengthen their bodies and their minds. “Classes in the performing arts offer children a wonderful beginning to a magical journey into the theater and the arts,” says Callina Moraytis, owner of Callina’s School of Classical Ballet, in Long Island City. But how do you know when your child is ready to fully benefit from a structured class or lesson?
It’s important to remember that each child is an individual with different strengths. Chronological age is not always the best measuring stick. Kids mature at different rates and parents should not be over-anxious to enroll a child before they’re ready. When attending lessons becomes a tug-of-war, it’s better to hold back and wait a few years. Classes aimed at the youngest aficionado usually require parents to remain for the entire session. Others require children to be dropped off to participate independently in group or private lessons. Parents must evaluate which setting is right for their child. Many schools will allow you to monitor a class or two before actually registering. Exposing young children to a variety of activities is a good idea, but not all disciplines will be right for each child. “It’s all about finding yourself and being joyous about the endeavor you choose,” says Grace Pettijohn, founder of Theater Dynamics, in Astoria. “To nurture the individual is a teacher’s greatest responsibility.” Here is some advice from the experts:
ART “Age 6 is a prime time to start art classes,” says Stacy Heller Budnick, an instructor at The School of Art at Jerry’s Artarama, in Bellerose. While preschool children will thrive in basic arts and crafts programs, most do not have the ability to focus on a formal two-hour class. In art class, children explore various media — from paint to printing — and learn fundamental art skills including how color and light relate, perspective, and shading. Sharing their artwork with others is an important part of the process, helping to build confidence and provide an outlet for individual expression. Art instruction sparks an intellectual curiosity, encouraging inventiveness and an ability to look for solutions. “Drawing exercises the right side of the brain,” says Susan Lane, a child’s instructor at the Alliance of Queens Artists, in Forest Hills. “This is the part of the brain that encourages problem solving.” She agrees that age 6 is a good age to start, but points out that it depends on the individual child’s ability to concentrate. Both schools will accept younger students who exhibit a willingness to participate. “We encourage our students to go outside the lines and explore alternatives,” Heller Budnick says. This freedom can be liberating to students. It sparks curiosity and original thinking. In Lane’s classes, students use books on nature and animals as subjects. “This helps children see and enjoy the world around them,” she says. “It opens up new possibilities and the potential for viewing things in a different way.”
DANCE Beverly Ron, director of Studio E, in Flushing, believes you are never too young or too old to start dance. Her school has something for everyone — from infants as young as 2 months old to special senior citizens’ classes. “Our research-based program, ‘Music Together’, suggests that all children are born musical,” Ron says. In her classes, geared to children ages 2 months to 3 years, students acquire basic music competency. “To watch their progression is like going to a party,” she says. The children are exposed to rhythm, tonal patterns and creative movement. They also experiment with musical instruments. Once their ears are trained, they move on to creative dance at age three. “Everything is sugar-coated,” Ron says. “Nothing is approached as a task, rather as a charming endeavor. Andrea Blagdan, owner of The Dance Zone, in Bayside, starts kids in creative movement at age 3. In her classes, she introduces basic ballet terminology along with age-appropriate activities such as tumbling or skipping. “This is the first coordinated group activity many of my preschoolers experience. They learn a great deal of the skills needed to succeed in school,” Blagdan says. The children learn how to follow basic directions, how to work together with peers, gross motor coordination, and counting. Many dance skills can help the budding athlete. “Boys learn how to be agile, how to use their bodies and basic self-control,” Blagdan says. Dance is also a confidence builder, she says. As an example, she explains how an overweight 6-year-old, who was experiencing social problems in school, benefited from the positive reinforcement she received in dance class. “She now walks proudly because she has an outlet that brings out the best in her. She can look in the mirror and be happy with herself,” Blagdan says.
BALLET Opinions are mixed about how early to start ballet fundamentals. Maureen Gelchion, owner of the Astoria Dance Centre, and who has taught ballet for the past 26 years, suggests toddlers start with pre-dance classes that include short spurts of simple ballet movements. “From an anatomical standpoint, it is impossible to teach ballet to that age group,” she says. Her classes incorporate stretches, and soft quality arm and body movements. She introduces French terms for movements that will form the foundation for ballet. Pre-ballet classes start between ages 6-8. In these classes, the fundamental skills of ballet are introduced; they include coordination, balance, and the basic positions. Moraytis, of Callina’s School of Classical Ballet, goes straight to ballet fundamentals with her preschoolers. “People are overwhelmed by how much ballet I cover with my youngest students,” she says. Both agree that an instructor must be vigilant and monitor the progression of the individual student to assess their proper level. Certain ballet movements done pre-maturely, such as the turnout and rotation in the hips, should not be stressed at a young age. Formation of the feet and legs is important and different children develop at different rates. Students who wish to move on to ‘pointe’ dance directly up on their toes in special toe shoes, and must work vigorously and achieve certain physical and technical milestones. Working on pointe too early can affect a child’s growth plate, leading to serious injury and even surgery. Pointe work generally begins at age 12 or 13. “Ballet is a very demanding discipline, but has many rewards,” Moraytis says. Many of her former students have gone on to obtain leadership roles in the community, and have attributed their success to the discipline learned in ballet. “In addition to building a healthy body, musical knowledge, self-confidence and poise, students’ minds are constantly being trained to focus attention on an awareness on how to use their mind and body as an instrument through movement,” Gelchion says.
THEATER ARTS Theater arts encourage the shy child to shed his cocoon, while offering the natural ham a chance to bask in the limelight. “Actors come in all ages, sizes and shapes,” says Grace Pettijohn, founder of Theatre Dynamics, in Astoria. “History, math, psychology and foreign language are all mixed into the study of theater.” Kristine Lewis, founder of the Theatre Arts Center, in Bayside, starts kids at the kindergarten level in her theater arts classes, which involve dance and movement. “Acting provides a wonderful outlet for the vivid imaginations of young children,” Lewis says. “Because it increases sensory and perception skills, it also helps children learn to focus.” This can be a particularly important tool for children with disorders like ADD, who have problems with focusing. Pettijohn, who studied acting at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in London, has developed her own coaching technique. It reflects her philosophy that the entire body is an instrument which must be tapped on stage. She recommends children start her program at age 8, when they are old enough to understand text and words, and are prepared intellectually. “They should have particular sensitivity and an inclination toward wanting to express themselves,” Pettijohn says. She also suggests a daily routine of relaxation exercises to foster a general sense of well-being. Many theater arts programs offer singing as part of the curriculum. Although choral singing is encouraged in the youngest students, formal voice lessons should not be started until the vocal chords reach a certain physical maturity level. This can vary widely from child to child. Early vocal training may strain the vocal chords leading to injury. “By the age of 12, a voice will begin to change,” Pettijohn says. “I like to gently train children through the pre-teen transition years. This requires a delicate skill.” For older children, theater classes can be a great release outside of school. “Our education system encourages uniformity — making children the same,” Lewis says. “Acting helps them unlock the individual, encouraging them to explore feelings and build self-confidence.”
MUSIC Early music programs provide infants and toddlers an ear for music and rhythm. “It’s amazing how young children absorb the language of music,” says Lisa Maron, associate director of Queens College’s Center for Preparatory Studies in Music (CPSM). Music programs for this age group are highly interactive, creating a warm atmosphere for bonding between parents and children. “Our musical theory classes for children ages 2-3 encourages kids to have an appreciation of music for life,” says Anne George, an administrator at The Queens Music and Dance School, in Flushing. It introduces children to instruments, song and piano. CPSM offers the Dalcroze method in its toddler program. Based on the concept that rhythm is a fundamental component of music, the program emphasizes eurythmics and body movement. The Suzuki method is widely employed for children ages 4-7, who wish to specialize in a musical instrument. Students are taught to play a musical instrument the same way they learn a language, through repetition and positive reinforcement. Violin, viola, cello and piano are among the instruments recommended for young learners. “Parents are absolutely key to this method,” Maron says. The parent stays with the child through the 30- to 60-minute lessons and becomes a home teacher, guiding the child through a series of practice sessions each day. Even though most parents agree that kids are natural drummers — especially on kitchen utensils — percussion lessons are generally introduced at age 6 or 7. Wind instruments require a greater lung capacity and should not be started until a child physically develops the necessary strength. This typically occurs at age 9. “Music is a terrific confidence builder,” George says. “It helps concentration and builds skills utilized in math and English.” As children progress, ensemble performance is encouraged. Students learn to work together toward a common goal, reinforcing the importance of teamwork. “Most importantly, music adds a human dimension. It gives children a whole new language with which to express their emotions,” Maron says.
Resources ART The School of Art at Jerry’s Artarama 248-12 Union Tnpk., Bellerose (718) 229-8953 www.jaartschool.com
Alliance of Queens Artists 99-10 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills (718) 520-9842 www.arts4u.org
DANCE American Dance and Drama 188-22 Union Tnpk., Flushing (718) 479-8522 www.americandanceanddramastudio.com
American Bolero Dance Company-School of Spanish Dance 42-24 9th St., Long Island City (718) 392-8888 www.ambolero.com
Astoria Dance Centre 25-95 Steinway St., Astoria (718) 278-1567
The Dance Source (718) 268-7079 www.dancesource.net
The Dance Zone 34-57 Francis Lewis Blvd., Bayside (718) 463-3434
J-J’s Dance Studio 211-57 Jamaica Ave., Queens Village (718) 465-0920 20 S. Tyson Ave., Floral Park (516) 354-2260
Once Upon A Time 87-61 111th St., Richmond (718) 846-9182
Queens Dance Academy 79-30 Myrtle Ave., Glendale (718) 366-5226
Studio E School of the Dance 187-16 Union Tnpk., Fresh Meadows (718) 264-0100 www.studioe.net
Twinkle Toes Dance 102-10 159th Road, Howard Beach (718) 641-4446
BALLET Astoria Dance Centre 25-95 Steinway St., Astoria (718) 278-1567 www.astoriadancecentre.com
Ballet Arts School of Forest Hills 98-11 Queens Blvd., Rego Park (718) 997-1278
Callina’s School of Classical Ballet 35-12 Astoria Blvd., Long Island City (718) 204-2727
Woodside Ballet Academy 49-10 43rd Ave., Woodside (718) 672-6372
MUSIC Astoria Music Together 38-01 31st Ave., Astoria (800) 728-2692
Center for Preparatory Studies in Music at Queens College 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing (718) 997-3888
The Queens Music and Dance School 43-77 162nd St., Flushing (718) 445-0141
Sam Ash Music (516) 932-6400 www.samash.com
THEATER ARTS LaGuardia Performing Arts Center 31-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City (718) 482-5151
Unison Center of the Performing Arts 37-63 81st St., Jackson Heights (718) 639-1425