( Originally Published 1898 )
If any particular argument were needed to support the assertion that dancing is a beneficial exercise and accomplishment for children, it would be only necessary to direct attention to two opposite " tableaux vivants : " the one composed of a large assemblage of young people where (lancing is prohibited ; and the other, of an equal number, where it is permitted as a prominent feature of the occasion.
I have often attended children's parties where a proposition to dance, or to play a dance " tune," would have been considered an insult and a sacrilege ; and in the interest of art, and in order to pursue the study of nature, — child-nature, — have observed closely the recreations and pastimes introduced or invented for the amusement of the young people.
Among the number of harmless indoor games, those of oats, peas, beans, and barley," " pillow," and " snap," may be mentioned as types and examples. These games .are so well known that a description of them would be superfluous. " Snap," however, presents so many ludicrous contrasts in movement, attitude, and etiquette, to the refined and gentle exercise of dancing, that a laconic synopsis of its prominent features may not be out of place. Two young people of opposite sexes stand with clasped hands at arms' length, and facing each other, in the centre of the floor. The juvenile audience is seated around the room. Suddenly the young girl who has been designated as leader springs from her seat, " snaps " her fingers at a particular boy, and takes refuge behind the two central figures. The " snapped" young gentleman immediately gives chase, with the object of catching and kissing the " snapper." Now the " fun " begins. Round and round the pivot posts fly the hunter and his quarry. They " dodge," spring, rush, and turn about, until by a skilful feint the hunter " doubles," and with an agile bound seizes his prey. A short struggle, a faint shriek, a flash of tangled curls ; the reward is won, and the penalty paid. The young girl, flushed, exhausted, possibly bruised, returns to her seat, and the successful hunter becomes in turn the snapper and victim. This boisterous game is kept going until each boy and girl has, in turn, been caught and kissed. When the sport is over, there is an intermission of fifteen minutes devoted to antidotes, remedies, and repairs. Thread, needles, hooks, eyes, buttons, and pins are brought into requisition to mend rents, and to restore order in disarranged toilets ; while hartshorn, valerian, arnica, and zodique are administered to shattered nerves, sprains, contusions, and bruises.
For the out-of-door amusements there may be different names from those of a few years since : such as " fox and geese," " puss in the corner," " How many miles to Miley Bright? " " hide and seek," " prisoners' base, " et cetera, ad infinitum. But the grande finale of all, the old and the new, is about the same : a boisterous chase, a noisy applause, an abrupt and often rude consummation, punctuated generally with a shock either to the person or feeling of one or more of the participants. The great want of the children of the present era — so precocious and rapid is the development of the juvenile mind—is intellectual and at the same time recreative amusement. Especially is this true of female children, whose habits —owing to sex, nature, and custom— are more confined and sedentary than those of boys ; and who grow up, and enter society as " finished " women, before young men of the same age are half through the intermediate courses of a collegiate education.
Many parents and guardians seem to consider (and the suggestion is made with all deference) that their duty to sons and daughters and wards, between the ages of five and ten years, is conscientiously done when they have supplied them with fitting habiliments, careful nurses, and attractive toys ; and later, when they have been entered at a grammar - school, provided with a music-teacher (whether they have musical talent or not), and compelled to attend regularly at church and at Sunday school, that another climax has been reached in the course of obligation ; and finally, that the whole duty of parent or custodian has been discharged when the boy has been sent to Harvard or Yale, Lexington, Annapolis, or West Point, from whence, too frequently, he returns more accomplished in field sports, aquatics, and the slang and equivocal morality of the mess-table, than learned in science and classics, or educated to efficiency in commercial practicality, naval or military tactics and discipline, or social polish and dignity.
The young girl leaves home in pinafores and other juvenile paraphernalia, enters a seminary at Staunton, Elmira, Boston, or Baltimore, to be formed and finished ; and comes home, after two or three years, in " pullbacks " and paniers, elbows angled " la mode,," with an unhealthy and unnatural bend of body, learned in the arts of " crochet" and " croquet ;" apt in the colloquialisms of " the period," ambitious for nothing perhaps more elevated than conspicuous celebrity in ball-rooms, parlors, and at festivals ; eager, like a bright-winged butterfly fresh from the chrysalis, to taste the honey in every blooming flower, although its colors may be flagrant and its perfume insidious and nauseous. Those who have watched, reflectively, the growth and direction of American sociology for the past twelve years, will not consider this picture too highly colored. At no period in the chronology of great social revolutions, has the Latin proverb, " The times are changed, and we are changed with them," ever been more comprehensively illustrated than it is now, in the general condition of all civilized societies.
In our own country, the mad race after notoriety, speculation, and display, consequent to the inversion of society after our civil revolution ; the mental and moral fermentation set to work by the social and political heat of the times, — developed a condition of manners, tastes, and customs foreign to our national characteristics and incompatible with the spirit of our individual and general social and educational theory and habit, and for the reformation of which conditions years of patient industry and perseverance will be required.
It is the mission of the authors and educators of the present and future time, to sow the seeds that shall bear again the food and flowers from which, of old, we derived our mental and moral food and fragrance ; and these seeds must be sown with the greater taste, care, and judgment, in the fertile soil of infant and youthful minds and hearts, because of that natural and unavoidable law of dependence which places ignorance and innocence in the power of knowledge and experience.
I think that the most profound and beautiful sentiment to be found in the whole catalogue of imaginative literature occurs in the language of Victor Hugo in his novel entitled " '93." He writes : " A bird sings, a child prattles ; but it is the same hymn, — hymn indistinct, inarticulate, but full of profound meaning. The child, unlike the bird, has the sombre destiny of humanity before it. This thought saddens any man who listens to the joyous song of a child. The most sublime psalm that can be heard on this earth is the lisping of a human soul from the lips of childhood. This confused murmur of thought, which is yet only instinct, holds a strange unreasoning appeal to eternal justice ; perchance it is a protest against life while standing on its threshold ; a protest unconscious, yet heart-rending. This ignorance, smiling at infinity, lays upon all creation the burden of the destiny which shall be offered to this feeble, unarmed creature. If unhappiness comes, it seems like a betrayal of confidence.
" The babble of an infant is more and less than speech ; it is not measured, and yet it is a song ; not syllables, and yet a language ; a murmur that began in heaven, and will not finish on earth ; it commenced before human birth, and, will continue in the sphere beyond. These lispings are the echo of what the child said when it was an angel, and of what it will say when it enters eternity. The cradle has a Yesterday, just as the grave has a To-morrow ; this morrow and this yesterday join their double mystery in that incomprehensible warbling ; and there is no such proof of God, of eternity, and the duality of destiny, as in this awe-inspiring shadow flung across that flower-like soul."
Parents and guardians, mentors and moralists, do you realize and appreciate this grave and difficult responsibility, when, looking in the face of your child or pupil, you observe, breaking through the mists that darken and confuse its struggling mind, a deep or a brilliant thought mirrored briefly on its face, or flashing brightly like a meteor across a clouded sky, leaving but a faint reflection behind of its impetuous and startling passage? And do you, as should be done, search by patient and gentle means to find the cause, comprehend the effect, and explain both to the true and wise understanding of the child?
How frequently and painfully are the natural tastes and peculiar talents of children perverted and misapplied through lack of comprehension and careful attention on the part of parents and teachers ; and owing, too, to the servility with which " Society " bows itself clown to the rule and regimen of Fashion !
Every girl, with or without adaptability, must scream through " Norma " and " Martha," and pound desperately on the keys of a piano, at the passionate sound-language of Rossini and Bellini, and the purer and more sublime prayer-music of Haydn and Handel ; while the boy, possibly an incipient Vanderbilt, or (to make the antithesis complete) a Verdi, must cram the saws of Solon, and demonstrate the differential and imaginary calculi, or sink into idleness, apathy, or mediocrity, because those who should do so have made no effort to develop the true and valuable possibilities of his individuality.
The rule being, as it is, that all children whose parents can afford it must learn music of some sort, and with a certain degree of proficiency, without regard to the individual qualification, genius, of the child, it cannot be disputed that the earlier and more gradually the preparatory training shall begin, so much the better for the child, and for the interest of music. Time, in all its relations to musical tones, is the great desideratum and foundation for a musical education ; and in no way can children so readily, so effectually, be made to understand and appreciate this value of time, as in the motion and demonstration of the dance, with its many variations in method, movement, and measure.
It will possibly be objected by the amateurs and professors of the "meum est" schools of music, that this premature tutelage of the mind to the precision and specialization of dance-tunes will pervert and vulgarize the taste and capability of the pupil, and so systematize the musical powers, that originality and profundity will be sacrificed to simplicity and frivolity. It need not be necessarily so. Genius and. talent judiciously encouraged always find their level. Every creature with mental and animal life, from man to the lowest orders of animate creation, is influenced more or less pleasurably by sweet sounds and gentle motion. Among all nations and tribes of peoples, and all classes of animals, the emotions of joy and pleasure are illustrated and expressed by movement, attitude, and gesture, as well as by speech and song ; and it is claimed here that the frequent association of the mind and instinct of even an infant in arms with the combined arts and graces of music and motion, must arouse and refine its sensibilities, lend impetus to its mental development, and prepare it to receive understandingly in later life the higher aesthetics of any or all of the fine arts.
With reference to the art of dancing particularly, it may be asserted that early training and constant practice are absolutely essential to insure ease and proficiency. It may be imagined — often it is imagined — by those who form their opinions from casual observation, that to teach dancing is an easy, pleasant, almost frivolous pursuit. To all such as indulge these views, there can be but one answer, — " Try it." And yet I cannot deny that the most pleasant and profitable hours of my life have been passed in the schoolroom among my junior pupils, where, in addition to the pleasure I have experienced in watching the growth and development of the talents of the children, I have acquired and appreciated much useful information in the study of contrasts and comparisons, and in individual and collective characteristics.
It is my belief, that the great secret of success in training the thought, habit, and accomplishment of children, consists in the ability on the part of the teacher to accommodate his language, manner, and motion to the peculiar disposition of each individual child. It may be necessary, in order to arouse its mind from apathy, inattention, or resistance, to speak quickly and peremptorily to one, while the greatest gentleness, persuasive encouragement, and patient repetition of words, may be required with another ; and this talent of adaptability on the part of the teacher must be spontaneous and unerring in its application. He must be able to comprehend at a glance the emotional organization and mental status of the pupil, and never shock its sensibility by inappropriate language, nor confuse its understanding by too intricate illustration and example.
And another particularly necessary qualification on the part of the teacher is the knowledge how to hold, guide, and control the child while practising with it the evolutions of round dances, so as to fix its attitudes, regulate its steps, and render its whole movement easy and graceful. An infant is an unwritten poem ; childhood is the Indian summer of life ; and it is during this time that we, who may, should repeat the poetry and replant the flowers of our own youth, by cheerful association and intellectual companionship with children.
Finally, in closing this chapter, in justice to my pupils (and not without some personal pride) , I believe I may point to the young people in Galveston and elsewhere, who have favored my schools with their attendance, as worthy examples of what may be accomplished in this branch of education by a conscientious teacher, when his efforts have been seconded and assisted by the talent, intelligence, and amiability of his pupils.
Dancing At Home And Abroad:
The Dancing Academy
Music And Musicians
System In Teaching
Special Classes And Specialists
Balls And Soirees
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