Maybe you have heard people say that Asian students are good at math. Well, studies do indeed show that students from Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, consistently outperform their North American counterparts in math. Why is this so?
Malcolm Gladwell lays out his answer to this, and other questions about how people achieve success, in his book “Outliers”(published by Little, Brown and Co. 2008). Gladwell describes a study in which students are given an extremely challenging math question and a set amount of time to try to solve it. After a few minutes, the majority of the students realize the problem is too advanced for them. At this point the North Americans tend to stop working. The Asian students, however, continue working until the time is up.
This, says Gladwell, aligns with the beliefs about math ability generally held by North Americans (that it is something you are born with, or not) and the Asians (that it is something you acquire through persistence). Mr. Gladwell outlines the influence rice farming (one of the most labor intensive and cognitively challenging crops) has had on Asian culture and the value Asians give to persistence in all areas of life.
So, North Americans think success is achieved by discovering the talent you are born with and honing it and Asians, including Japanese, think that success is achieved through persistence.
How does this Japanese persistence play out in the dance world? Nobody will dispute that dancers who succeed do so after many years of hard work and persistence whatever the cultural background. The difference between Japanese and non-Japanese students is streaming: who is encouraged to persist and who is advised to give up.
Due to this persistence, are there Japanese dancers who succeeded despite having less than ideal physiques or talent? ...and others who caused themselves permanent injury, physical or mental? Are there North American students who seemed to have less than ideal physiques or talent in their younger years who, but for discouragement from teachers, could have succeeded had they persisted?
I think it is fair to say that one of the reasons many North American schools welcome Japanese students is because their presence inspires a higher tone of discipline and persistence among the entire student body. I do feel, though, that this dedication to persistence can have the “side effect” of hampering Japanese students’ ability to explore more subtle, but highly important, concepts such as efficiency of movement, releasing of tension, and attention to breath.
Teachers the world over want to help students reach their full potential so they give them corrections, advice and criticism. In the west it is common for teachers to acknowledge something a student has achieved before challenging them with a correction. “Beautifully stretched feet, Sarah, now try to coordinate the lift of your arms with your jump.”
Here's a puzzle for you to do over the holidays!
Test your knowledge of the names of characters in well known ballets.
Christopher Powney, artistic director of The Royal Ballet School, has posted an article on his school’s website, “Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?” Mr Powney gives a clear outline of the benefits and risks for dance students entering ballet competitions, pointing out that while competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne have age restrictions that aim to mitigate risk for the younger dancers it is the training in the years leading up to such competitions that can, potentially, damage growing children. He ends his article with a call to the dance industry as a whole to keep the wellbeing of students at the forefront of our policy-making and to engage in serious conversation about ballet competitions.
I’d like to add my voice to the conversation.
Nowhere is the ballet competition culture felt more keenly than in Japan, where I have been living and teaching for the past 30 years. The belief that a student MUST compete to realize a career in dance has become disturbingly pervasive. The Prix de Lausanne 2019 list of applicants and selected entrants by country illustrates the popularity of competition in Japan.
Are the schools that award scholarships to Japanese winners of ballet competitions aware of the effect it has had on the way ballet is taught in Japan?
Every time a Japanese dancer wins at a competition such as Prix de Lausanne, and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious professional training program, aspiring Japanese ballet dancers, and their teachers and parents, are watching. One would hope that seeing the winners’ success would inspire these ballet teachers and parents to give their children the foundation, technical and emotional, that will prepare them by the age of 15 to be able to compete effectively if they so choose.
The reality is, sadly, very different. Due in part to a uniquely Japanese approach to education, the general thinking is that the best way to succeed at competition is to practice doing competition. Consequently, there are competitions for all stages of the journey. Young students can begin with pre-competitions (for applicants as young as 6), move on to the more higher ranked ones, and hope eventually to become one of the entrants at a major competition offered a scholarship to a world class school. Ballet competition is big business here in Japan.
Needless to say, there are many young dancers who don’t achieve success. What they get from their 10 plus years practising to be a successful competitor we can only imagine. I suspect that it is not all positive.
I think it is also worth noting that the effects of the “competition culture” have seeped down to the recreational ballet level. Rather than enjoying the life benefits of studying dance these students often feel that they are not doing “real ballet” if it doesn’t involve competition. Not to miss out on a business opportunity, competitions for recreational students, including adult students, now exist.
While there is so much talk these days about the health benefits of dance, both physically and mentally, it makes it even more frustrating to think that, under our watch, some children may actually be damaged by the ballet lessons they attend.
Surely there is a better way than competition for professional training programs to discover and nurture talent.
I applaud the schools that are also coming to Japan to hold auditions for their training programs, thus giving Japanese students a pathway to a dance career that doesn’t involve competition.