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Be Careful What You Wish For In Toddler Dance Class

Photograph by Twenty20

When she was 10, my daughter told me she didn't want to go to college. Keya had just danced in the Joffrey Ballet's Los Angeles production of "The Nutcracker." Tiring rehearsals, poky wigs and stern ballet mistresses hadn't discouraged her.

Keya did a pirouette, stretching out a slender arm. "I'll get a degree," she said reassuringly. "I just want to dance first." She already understood that the physical peak for dancers is about 16 to 28 and didn't want to waste time.

I was silent. It's common knowledge that American kids need higher education to get ahead today. Yet here was my daughter, jeté-ing away from convention.

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Ironically, in the late 19th century, my great-great-grandfather also defied tradition. He fought for the right of women in India to be educated, even opening one of the first girls' schools there. My grandmothers were educated. My academic parents stressed the value of education. Keya's father and I went to college. We assumed she would too.

Now she's 14, a high school freshman with 11 years of ballet training. She still wants to dance professionally.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Kaumudi Marathé

Her father, Sanjiv, insists on college. But over time, I've begun to consider education differently. We steer academically inclined children toward degrees and careers in engineering, technology, medicine. Must young artists, dancers, musicians, follow the same trajectory? What about other methods of learning, like apprenticeship?

Our family searched for balance together. Keya eats healthy and keeps up her schoolwork. She's auditioned for and attended the Joffrey, Boston Ballet, ABT and Princeton summer dance programs. We facilitate this learning and give her opportunities to see professional dancers perform.

She's pleaded to study online or at home so there's more time to dance, but we put our foot down, not wanting her to narrow her focus too early or burn out. We also refused rigorous "competition" style dance training that could injure her.

Wherever Keya travels, I'm certain she must do what she loves.

She's gone from saying, "I only want to dance at New York City Ballet" to "There are a lot of great companies that suit my style and will give me what I need." I've gone from listening lovingly to her fantasies to acknowledging her reality.

For now, though Keya likes history, science and English, she doesn't want to study them further. Ballet is what she loves. And she's really good at it. Her teachers—people who've made dance their life—tell me she has the physique, the focus, the endurance and the "fire in the belly," all reasons to finally consider full-time dance programs and internships.

Sanjiv frets about Keya's physical wellbeing, financial prospects and the brevity of dancers' careers. Injuries are an occupational hazard that she's willing to endure. The number of well-paid dance opportunities is increasing. And her heroes, NYCB's Wendy Whelan and ABT's Misty Copeland, have proven that careers can be long and fulfilling.

'Ballet school is my college,' she says.

Today, we understand that our daughter will find work in dance: in ballet, on Broadway and the film industry. After that, she can teach, choreograph, design costumes, write about dance.

"Ballet school is my college," she says.

"OK," we concede. "But you need to apply to regular universities too, just like your classmates. Keep your options open." If she hasn't been offered a dance apprenticeship by graduation, she can start college. If she has, she can give dance a shot.

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We insist on a Plan R (rest-of-her-life). She agrees. One day, she hopes to study dance physiotherapy, preferably at NYU.

Wherever Keya travels, I'm certain she must do what she loves. And the lessons she's learning at the barre—discipline, perseverance, grace—won't be in vain, on or off the dance floor.

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