Growing Through the Arts

Growing Through the Arts

By Jillian Casella

This past spring, Lehigh Valley Marketplace had the pleasure of working with a group of students at Muhlenberg College who were taking a journalism class taught by Sara Vigneri, one of Lehigh Valley Marketplace’s writers. Over the course of the semester, the 16 students explored various traditions in journalism. But the grand finale of the course was the opportunity to submit a magazine feature article to Lehigh Valley Marketplace.

The students thought up their own story ideas, interviewed experts, researched their topic and submitted their stories on the last day of class. After careful review, Jillian Casella’s essay was chosen to appear in this month’s issue.

Enjoy her thoughtful account of the benefits of training shy children in the performing arts to help them emerge from their shells and shine.

It was a bright, sunny day and packs of young children overwhelmed the playground area of Willard Elementary School. They were shouting from the swings, racing down the slides, and giggling with each other as they sprinted through piles of wood chips to tag the next person ‘it’. I stood far back on the scorching hot pavement, glued to my mother’s side, and just watched.  Imagining what it would be like to join in all of the commotion, I was startled when a classmate of mine ran up and asked if I would like to play hide and go seek. Heart racing and tongue-tied, I grasped my arms tightly around my mom’s leg and slowly hunched down behind her never looking up to make eye contact.

Hiding behind imaginary walls that separated me from the rest of the world, I had built my own tiny safe haven. It was easier this way, or so I thought. My mother, worried as usual, searched for ways to break me out of the shell that I had comfortably resided in and had let interfere with my daily life. To defeat my case of chronic shyness, my mom enrolled me in theatre and dance classes. Her decision completely changed my life.

I remember, at first, being frightened to be amongst other kids who were much more outgoing and enthusiastic than I was. Utilizing my creative side, with the help of young performing arts teachers, however, I was able to build up my confidence and break down the barriers that hindered me from participating in, what I would call, your average children’s activities.

Childhood shyness is characterized by nervousness and fear when encountering new people and new situations. The shyness that I experienced as a child was unsettling to my mom, who longed for me to feel comfortable and confident enough to participate in activities with other children.  By choosing to sign me up for acting and dance classes, my mom was one step closer to cracking the shell. A recent psychological study conducted in Europe explored the perceived benefits of dance on a person’s well being and found that dancing can provide not only emotional and physical benefits, but can positively influence self-esteem, social relations and spirituality.

Sixteen years after my shy girl days, I am now a senior at Muhlenberg College studying dance and a jazz teacher for the Muhlenberg Community Dance Center (MCDC), a special community program for young dancers. Karen Dearborn, Executive Director of MCDC and former ballet teacher at Muhlenberg created the program with Kim Maniscalco over 15 years ago as a lab for college students to learn about teaching dance. Both Dearborn and Maniscalco mentored student teachers and the program became a unique learning experience for college students as well as young children. MCDC is an outlet for members of the community to receive an experience focused on dance as education as opposed to solely for performance.

“We educate the whole child,” says Teresa VanDenend Sorge, Education Training Mentor at MCDC. Always remembering how shyness affected me as child, I am very mindful of the ways in which it operates within my own classroom.  I have seen students mature and develop into young dancers with a newfound confidence that they didn’t have when they first walked into my class. It is truly rewarding to witness your students increasing their self-esteem and knowing that you had somehow played a role in that change.

Tara Repsher, Youth Program and Performance Company Director, says that she has had the pleasure of watching her students mature as dancers and as people. Repsher has seen huge differences in her students from their first day in the classroom to their last. “I’ve seen shy kids really blossom through the program in their own right,” she says. “They leave at the end of the semester a totally different kid.”

My own personal experiences have convinced me that art has the power to change lives.  I started out as a painfully shy child, completely lacking any social skills. Learning about the arts and being surrounded by artistic people I was able to begin developing socially.

There are numerous benefits that come out of getting involved in the arts. The primary benefit my performing arts background has given me is an outlet to truly be myself. At places such as MCDC, the physical and mental growth of children are fostered and, according to my own experience, they can be absolutely guaranteed!

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