Let’s Dance

Mark Krueger
October 1, 1998

What if we thought of youth development as dance? In his writings about the development of intellect and free spirit, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I do not know what the spirit of philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his divine spirit.”

If our goal for youth is happiness and independence, why not think of youth and youth workers as dancers who use their curiosity and presence to share the journey through adolescence while staying nimble and open to possibility? Why not think of youth development as a process of striving to be aware of self, others, and surroundings, like a dancer is aware of his or her movement and it’s effects on the dance and the space within which the dance occurs? And as we move together with youth, why not try to feel the motion as we sense the changing tone and tempo of the dance, filling together our expanding and contracting spaces?

Like the dancer, we could learn to be light on our feet, aware of the hardships of the past and the emotions evolving from these experiences, but not consumed or weighed down by this awareness. We could learn to sue our experiences as a way of enhancing our performance in the moment.

This doesn’t mean that we would think of youth development as purely instinctive or intuitive. Dance is highly technical and skilled endeavor. Like the modern dancer, we would practice, choreograph and respond to changing rhythms as indicated by need and circumstance. We could also help youth learn the steps, practice and practice, then improvise with the tempos of daily living – instinctively and sometimes consciously aware of their actions and how this process contributes to and impacts upon the music being composed through interacting with others. Further, we would use our self-awareness, knowledge, and skill to stay in synch with youth’s developmental rhythms for growing.

If we choose metaphors such as dance to think about our work and how youth develop, wouldn’t we be on a course that rings truer with our experience than if we focus on linear, rigid models of practice that focus on end results with little thought of how we get there? In recollections of their experiences, for instance, don’t youth and workers most often recall moments of togetherness, accomplishments, fun and struggle? The times when they were in and out of synch? Thus, wouldn’t we improve our ability to help youth and increase our competence if we thought of youth development more as a journey traveled with self, technical skill, awareness, and intuition, the way a jazz musician or modern dancer improvises and interests with others?

Think of a positive interaction with a youth. Wasn’t there a sense of being in the moment? An “in-tuneness” and flow to the interaction? A shared calmness after a struggle was resolved, perhaps? Aren’t these the moments and interactions that comprise youth development? The brush strokes in the evolving portrait of youth? The moments of joy, sadness, success, and failure in their stories?

So why do we shy away from these interactive metaphors and replace them with others that feel distant from our experience? When I think of youth work, I think of the modern dancer, struggling, emotive, joyous, vibrant, real in his or her portrayal of the composition that is adolescence. I don’t think of care as managed or growth as a series of outcomes. I think of movement, struggle, presence in the moment, interaction, music, mood, and tempo. When I learn youth development with youth workers, I want to learn to think on my feet, to accept struggle as part of the dance, to be in or out of synch with the moments, to be in it heart and soul, curious about the shared journey.

It saddens me when I hear such an important period of life spoken about with cold and rigid metaphors that are chosen mainly with an end result in mind, or when I hear attempts to define youth simply as a set of assets as opposed to dynamic, evolving individuals with unique feelings, skills, problems and strengths. This is not the way I know or want to think about youth development. I want to be open-ended, continuous, curious, rich with struggle, joy, sadness, connection, and success.

I say let’s dance.

Mark Krueger is a professor at the Child and Youth Care Learning Center, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Krueger, Mark. "Let’s Dance." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 53.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.