Why children need to dance, sing, act and perform

Classical music concept: cello, violin, piano and a score

By Jill L. Ferguson


In “Gutless & Grateful”, a one-woman show that has been touring since 2012, Amy Oestreicher tells the story of how theater saved her life. She had loved to sing and dance and tell stories during her childhood, but at the age of 18, just weeks before her senior prom, she awoke with a health emergency, a blood clot on her mesenteric artery that caused thrombosis, and during surgery her stomach exploded and her lungs collapsed and she went into sepsis shock. These things sent her into a coma and nearly ended her life. When she awoke, she was unable to eat or drink and was worried she’d never be able to sing or dance again.

Eight years later, she took that experience, what she calls “an extremely difficult journey” and used the stapled pages of the journal she kept throughout the whole illness and recovery and created an engaging show of music, drama, dance and humor. Since its debut six years ago, Amy has toured “Gutless & Grateful” to theaters, international conferences, colleges and anywhere else she can “get myself booked,” she said.  And she has developed a show for sexual assault prevention and mental health  advocacy for students.

“Theater has the power to change lives, both for those performing and those who watch. Theater teaches us we’re capable of anything—and usually teaches us this at times we need it most,” Oestreicher said.

By participating in theater, dance, music, comedy and improv and performance art, children learn and develop in dynamic and engaging ways. This month, Pittsburgh Parent chatted with public school dance teacher (yes, you read that right) Alison Rose, author of the children’s picture book Shoes Off, Mommy?, about the benefits of performing arts, and in particular dance, to young children of any age and gender.

Rose broke down the benefits of all elementary school aged children taking dance or performance classes into the categories of social skills, the physical body and the mental/emotional self. “Dance is good for social skill development,” she said. “You interact with others. You’re taught to lead and you’re taught to follow. You learn about respecting others, about communicating verbally and nonverbally and you learn about empathy.”

As to one’s physical body, dance—no matter what kind—improves one’s coordination and balance. Dance affects heart health (It is cardio exercise, after all.) and it increases one’s strength and flexibility. Rose said having dance as part of school day helps students burn off some of their excess energy so they can more easily focus in other classes where they need to be seated and quiet.

And Rose said that the mental and emotional growth that comes through dance comes through its performing aspects, where children develop confidence and get boosts to their self-esteem when they get to express themselves in front of others.

Indian actor and current chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India Anupam Kher said that acting classes not only teach you the craft of acting and drama but they make “ you understand who you actually are as well…it gives you discipline and punctuality. It also teaches you a way of life.”

Being involved in performing arts can increase children’s confidence, make them better public speakers (clearer, more eloquent, able to better project); teach them how to work effectively as part of a team;  instill poise (by being aware of each position and movement made both physically and in emotional expression); can help children understand a variety of viewpoints; and teach them to be better conversationalists. Drama, music and performance art teaches building suspense, timing, how to display emotion through a medium and nonverbally and how to captivate and entertain.

Performing arts have also been show to have positive impacts on intellectual development and non-art academic subjects. The American Alliance for Theatre and Education reports higher average SAT scores in both the verbal and math components of the SAT, and researchers at Florida State University found that students involves in the arts had improved school attendance and a lower school drop-out rate than their non-arts-involved classmates.

But even more important than the individualistic benefits to children arts brings, participating in a performing art connects children and makes them a part of something much larger than themselves. The World Economic Forum writes, “Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your sense, body and mind. It can make the worldfelt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement and even action.” Art helps us identify with one another and connects us to all of humanity. And therein lives its biggest benefit.