Writing it Down: In Defense of a Comprehensive Arts Education

By Mirabelle Korn

January 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Sunday morning on a college campus: half the students were still asleep, the others were finishing Monday’s homework, and my friend and I were enjoying an unexpectedly good brunch at the dining hall and discussing dance. Not unusual, since my friend tours with the college ballroom dance team and is currently making her first forays into hip-hop. The odd thing was, when I mentioned my own background in dance, my friend of four years was surprised.

She didn’t know I danced at all, aside from at the occasional salsa party. In fact, I told her, I had studied modern dance for about ten years before coming to college.

Later, I wondered how it could be that such a huge part of my life had, in four years of friendship, simply never come up. But then, most of my friends probably don’t know that, before college, I played in several neo-Celtic harp ensembles or traveled to Uganda to film a documentary. I myself had no idea until recently that one of my best friends used to take figure skating lessons or that another has a professional-grade singing voice.

We don’t keep these things from each other out of reticence or modesty. Our lives at this liberal arts college are simply so jam-packed with what is happening right now—thesis research, volunteering opportunities, lectures, performances, and student clubs, not to mention actual course work or personal interests—that we hardly have time to think back on everything that filled our lives before. And yet all the hours spent practicing pliés and perfecting glissandos were certainly not wasted.

Though it may be difficult to trace the influence of childhood dance classes on college careers, I believe there is value in allowing young artists to pursue a multitude of passions. I cherish the curiosity and confidence that I gained from my early exposure to a variety of art forms, from music to photography. It is a great privilege to be able to study a discipline like dance or theater without the intention of pursuing it to a professional level. My own arts education experience has broadened my perspective on the work of my friends and colleagues, helped me better appreciate of learning for learning’s sake, and given me a confident attitude toward art making that I value as much as any professional training.

While many little girls begin their arts education with a tutu and ballet shoes, I was enrolled instead in the program at Luna Kids Dance (now Luna Dance Institute). Luna’s focus on experimentation and student choreography exploded any restriction I had felt on my little body’s possibilities for movement. Dance class with Luna, where we twisted through hula hoops and sprinted and rolled across the room, was a time to explore what I did well, to stretch as far as I could go in the directions that felt good to me, not to strain to fit into shapes my teachers modeled. It wasn’t until I attended my first ballet class, several years later, that I first felt there was a dance I could not dance. Attempting pas de chats, I felt more like a lumbering bear than an agile cat, and I dizzied easily in pirouettes. I soon found myself back in modern dance classes at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Here, too, there were things I couldn’t do—shoulder rolls and handstands were out of the question, as I’ve always felt an aversion to turning myself upside-down—but my wonderful teacher encouraged us to enjoy the movement instead of striving for perfection.

When I wasn’t dancing and choreographing, I was learning to play the neo-Celtic lever harp. Just as my teachers at Luna and Shawl-Anderson encouraged me to explore dance through my own body, with all its particularities and peculiarities, my first harp teacher taught me to hear music through my own ears and play it with my own fingers. I chose songs myself and learned them by ear, so that I carried each melody with me instead of leaving it behind in a stack of sheet music at the end of the lesson. I also began to appreciate the intersections of my artistic interests. The facility with choreography I learned in dance class flowed into an interest in musical composition, and my experience with structured group movement improvisations was echoed later when I began exploring the improvisatory nature of jazz music.

My next venture was to join a youth Shakespeare company, where there were not even adults present to tell me that I could or could not do things my way. My experience with dance and music had taught me to find my own path to accomplishment, and I didn’t feel the need to aim for lead roles as stepping-stones to a brilliant acting career. Instead, I carefully chose supporting roles that had exactly what I wanted—good lines and lots of sword fighting.

I took the same approach to courses in film production, photography, figure drawing, and doll making. I knew that taking a dance class, learning a song, performing in a play, or shooting a short film did not mean that I was going to be a professional dancer, musician, actress, or movie director. Which didn’t bother me in the least because I wanted to be a writer. So why was I spending my weekends in the dance studio and behind a camera? Partly because of the joys of each individual learning experience and partly because of their cumulative effect, both varied and interconnected.

In fact, it’s only now, as I prepare to graduate from college, that settling into one path has even begun to cross my mind. I chose to attend a liberal arts college so that I could take courses in politics, literature, and photography. I never registered for much more than the minimum 4 credits per semester, leaving time to learn the foxtrot, perform Shakespeare scenes guerilla-style in the middle of dining halls, and produce a student literary magazine. Instead of perfecting my technique in modern dance, I started from scratch in the strange and challenging study of corporeal mime. Instead of pursuing my existing passion with courses on Shakespeare, I studied Molière and Ionesco. Instead of practicing my harp, I started piano lessons. Instead of taking a class on video editing, I wrote a screenplay.

Recently, while reading over an application essay I had written for a graduate program in literature, one of my professors jokingly suggested the word dilettantism to describe the kaleidoscope that is my résumé. It is certainly quite a challenge to explain to admissions officers and prospective employers that despite my background in dance, music, photography, languages, film, and theater, what I actually want to do is write. But a dilettante can be defined not just as an amateur or a dabbler, but also as a lover of the arts. I don’t regret a moment of my wide-ranging arts education. On the contrary, it has given me great pleasure and, I believe, exactly the skills I need to succeed as an individual working in an increasingly global society, an increasingly interdisciplinary model of education, and an increasingly multi-media art world.

The lasting value of my early arts education continues to resonate with each new artistic endeavor I undertake. On my first day in mime class, overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting my body into a new style of movement, I relied on the skills I had acquired in years of dance classes—the ability the observe and deconstruct movement and the faith that I would find a compromise between seemingly impossible contortions of the body and my own zone of comfort. Without fully realizing it, I have honed skills in observation and adaptation that have helped me tackle new challenges and enjoy new art forms.

In addition to specific skills, my arts education has given me true confidence—a valuable asset—in saying that I want to be a writer. It was not simply the inclusion of art in my education that gave me this confidence. It was the breadth of my study, as well as my teachers’ willingness to let me make the art my own, that made it all worthwhile even though I have no plans to be a professional dancer, musician, or actress. When a student is not pressured to achieve professional standards in everything they do, when they are allowed to enjoy learning for learning’s sake, when they are given the tools to make an art form their own, when they are offered the chance to experience success in a variety of efforts, how can they fail to approach whatever path they finally choose with zest and self-assurance?

The freedom to explore one’s interests and abilities is important for all young people—it is just as beneficial for a biology student to study dance as for a painter to study physics—but my own experience has shown me that it is particularly crucial for budding artists. It is important for actors who have to learn from choreographers, for lighting designers who must collaborate with costume designers, and for screenwriters and playwrights who need to compromise with directors and producers. Art wouldn’t be art without the geniuses, the individuals who do great things because they feel a driving need to do one thing to perfection, but neither would it be art without the lovers of art, the renaissance men and women, who bring the genius of perspective, the genius of collaboration, and the genius of exploring possibilities.

Mirabelle Korn, 21, is a senior at Scripps College in southern California. She is majoring in French and German and currently writing her thesis about the influence of traditional fairy tales on contemporary French and German film. She hopes to pursue a career in writing and the arts after graduation.

This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of In Dance.

Mirabelle Korn, 21, is a senior at Scripps College in southern California. She is majoring in French and German and currently writing her thesis about the influence of traditional fairy tales on contemporary French and German film. She hopes to pursue a career in writing and the arts after graduation.