Does your child love to dance? Does he or she start to move just hearing music? Maybe its time for ballet! But is the discipline of dance training right for your child?

A long-standing and honored rite-of-passage for girls, ballet lessons bring to mind a vivid pink picture of tiptoes, tutus and twirling. Boys, too, can become intrigued at images of athletic leaping and bounding trademarked by such dramatic dancers as Barishnikov. However, while the urge to dance is healthy and universal, the reality of ballet can soon lose its appeal to children not ready to take up classical training.

The reality is that many ballet schools begin formal training too early. “Turn-out” of legs and feet, and extreme flexing of joints before the developing body is ready can cause lasting harm to a child’s hips, knees and spine. In addition, time spent indoors practicing precise poses can take away from time romping on the playground—an important part of physical and mental development through age 7.

It's not until the age of 8 or 9 that young dancers reach the maturity to undertake the disciplined rituals of regular ballet practice. So what should you do if your five-year-old clamors for ballet classes? Look for classes called PreBallet or Introduction to Ballet that are full of lively skipping, sliding, and marching to music—perfect for the developing movement of the young child!

Once your child is really ready, it’s time to find the perfect school. Here are some tips for choosing a ballet class:

  • Is it a recreational or professional ballet school? This distinction makes all the difference in the overall objective of the class, the experience of the students and the expectation of the parents. During the course of professional ballet training, many students will be eliminated or will leave because of the stringent demands designed to groom professional dancers. In general, most young dancers will thrive in recreational classes for the first year or two.
  • Go to the school and watch the beginner's lesson. As the children enter the studio, are they happy and excited, or sullen and tense? A joyful mood of expectation should predominate. Are the children’s bodies still childlike, or are they hardened prematurely with strong muscle definition? A 7-year-old should still have a tummy, whereas a 9-year-old’s torso will be lengthening and slim.
  • A few years of disciplined training is required to prepare the body for going “on pointe”, usually around the age of 12 when bone growth is nearly complete.

The universal expression of delight in dance can be enjoyed at any age, however. Dance with your children at home, at school and at the park. Singing games, creative movement, folk dance and PreBallet all offer fun and age-appropriate chances to skip, slide, hop, spin and jump … for everyone, boys and girls included! Now, get dancing!