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The Pavlova Effect: An Argument for Equal Access to Arts Education

by Michelle Van Doeren

In the 1930s, during the height of the depression, the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova stepped out of the elite world of the finest opera houses and gilded theaters, and into the heartland of America to share her passion for ballet with the struggling masses.  Her mission was to bring ballet to the world, and many a little girl discovered her inner dancer. Anna Pavlova made dance accessible. It seems we need Pavlova again.

Anna Pavlova as The Dying Swan (Photo: Public Domain)

The numbers are clear. The average monthly cost for 10 hours of dance instruction per week  is roughly $450 — over $5,000 per year — and that does not include the hundreds needed for shoes, dance attire, and costumes. In an economy where far too many families are struggling just to pay the monthly utility bills, the luxury of dance classes is just not an option.  All too often an aspiring young dancer in Middle Class America today is out of luck.  So are many gifted young pianists, singers, and flutists who cannot afford the $40-100 cost of hourly private instruction required to master their instrument.  We risk a situation where access to the arts is determined by financial means and not by the inherent talent and the dreams of our kids.

How many young Pavlovas, Mozarts, Picassos, and Streisands are out there in this struggling world of economic uncertainty, waiting for the opportunity to discover their talent and share it with the world?  But the opportunity is not there.  They just don’t have the access.  Many of them don’t even know they have the talent. The situation reminds me of an observation made by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers:

We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.

What is true of future software engineers is also true of future dancers. The problem is not necessarily a lack of instruction or mentors. Dolly Dinkle’s School of Dance will give someone all the dance training that their hearts desire – and that their parents’ wallets can afford.  Some kids are afforded the best training and education, all the resources to discover and express their inner gifts, which should be a basic opportunity for all children. As for the teachers, it is not as if they are taking advantage of anyone. There are plenty of conscientious and talented dancers who want to train young people to share in the joy of their art form. And it is not like any conservatory-trained trombonist is teaching private lessons because it is a lucrative industry. No, they are just trying to make a living at a labor of love.

The Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA 6-12) of Pittsburgh Public Schools (Photo: The Muse Dialogue)

What I am arguing is that arts education ought to be part of the fabric of our public schools as an institution, part of what we consider to be the civil right of education. Superior arts instruction should belong to all.

Thankfully, there are more Anna Pavlovas out there.

In a 2009 visit to Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts Magnet School (CAPA), Michelle Obama shared her vision of CAPA and a public education system that offers fair and equal access to all. Arts education, she said, “should be an opportunity that is available for every single child in this nation and quite frankly around the world.” She continued by saying: “It shouldn’t be something you do just because you can afford it. We believe strongly that the arts aren’t somehow an ‘extra’ part of our national life, but instead we feel that the arts are at the heart of our national life. It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future.”

CAPA has thrived for more than thirty years as a public school that offers high quality education in music, dance, visual arts, theater, and literary arts – with an equal opportunity for students of all economic backgrounds to work with the best teaching artists in the area. Schools like CAPA help balance the scales. Disadvantaged kids are given access to the quality arts education that only the economically advantaged can afford in the private commercial sector. More importantly, they are given the opportunity to thrive in an environment where they can discover and nurture their inner gifts.  They get to pursue their dreams.

But today, CAPA is struggling to survive.

The economy took a hit at CAPA a couple of weeks ago when the School Board announced it was cutting $550,000 of the school’s budget this year, targeting the adjunct teaching artists.  Many teachers will lose their jobs.  Young artists will lose their mentors. And even more severe budget cuts seem likely next year.

What will happen to these young artists if CAPA fails them?  Their families will continue to struggle to pay their bills and most of them will struggle to find another direction. Many will give up their dreams.

CAPA is a wonderful institution and it is a privilege to teach there. It would be a shame to lose any of its richness, and the richness that it gives to our community.

Michelle Van Doeren is a choreographer and teaching artist in dance. She holds faculty appointments at Point Park University and CAPA 6-12, and formerly taught at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts until its closing due to state budget cuts.


Related Articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Children and the Arts” by Elyssa Jechow

The Seriousness of a Child at Play” by Andrew Swensen

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathi McShane #

    Amen!! You can count my daughter among the ones with potential who may never find what they are capable of due to financial reasons. CAPA was an option we were considering to see who she may become — without it she will become something she may not have been meant to be. Great article.

  2. L.Anderson-Braswell #

    Thank you so very much for speaking up for all of us who care about fair and equal excellence in arts education being made accessible for all!!!

  3. Charles DiPasquale #

    As parents, we all want to believe each child is special. Even Congress acknowledged that all children deserve “access to a quality education”…even as the best means of delivering such remains a topic of great debate. In the debate between funding quality education in both “public” and “private” schools (using vouchers), many parents have discovered that within some private school models for education, “school choice” is a double edged sword, allowing students and parents “freedom” to choose… yet also allowing schools freedom to indiscriminately reject many students, or an arts curriculum altogether, at the “behest” of paying “customers” or simply to fund athletics in their stead. This often happens without even having allowed many potentially talented and dedicated students to try. Fact is, the Pittsburgh CAPA model for education simply works, and substantiates many national studies which clearly illustrate that arts education reinforces better attendance; a better academic work ethic; higher test scores; higher rates of graduation; and a greater likelihood of students continuing into higher education (college). As recognized by the First Lady in 2009, Pittsburgh’s Public School CAPA 6-12 is a great example of success, in a district that is otherwise struggling. At Pittsburgh CAPA, “No Child Left Behind” has been properly tempered with “Yes We Can!” But now it may take even more. To keep its funding will require a bipartisan commitment by Pittsburgh area voters first, and then by our elected officials, all of whom must stay committed to expand what works in public education and put aside what fails. True, private schools must do this to remain competitive. Yet continued erosion of quality public schools may not precipitate expansion of a private school system quickly enough to serve the vast majority of area students (at an affordable tuition), thus leaving them “waiting” not for Superman… but for the free market to catch up with reality.


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