Dancing, cheerleading, and gymnastics are all good-for-you physical activities for children. Bodies in motion get blood pumping and muscles moving—giving balance, grace, and coordination a healthy workout. These are active pursuits where kids can start “small,” with a recreational class once a week. Then, as your child develops skills and strength, she can gradually progress to more advanced levels.
Before you sign your child up for dance, cheering, or gymnastics lessons, talk to other parents and ask for recommendations; then do some research into local facilities. Ask about the teachers’ or coaches’ training and certification, as well as the facilities’ safety practices and equipment. Make sure the goals and philosophy of the program agree with your personal goals for your child. Finally, make sure your child is interested in participation, and observe a class before you enroll.
On Your Toes
Dr. Elizabeth McPherson, coordinator of the BA in Dance Education program at Montclair State University, says, “Children love moving, and dancing builds on this natural interest.” While not classified as a sport, she says, “Dance bridges physical activity and the arts. It improves coordination, flexibility, and muscle strength, while also giving children an opportunity for self-expression.”
Dr. McPherson suggests creative all-over movement classes are best for young children. More formal dance classes, such as ballet, tap, lyrical, jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary dance, are appropriate for children ages 8 and up.
Don’t know which genre to choose? Base your decision on your child’s interest. As with any pursuit, children who want to advance past a certain level will need to devote a substantial amount of time to dancing. But, Dr. McPherson says, “Anyone of any age and ability can have fun by taking a recreational dance class.”
Although the majority of dance students are girls, boys can enjoy dance classes, too. Michael Hoey, 12, from Essex County, was 5 when his mom signed him up for an all-boys hip-hop class. From the start, Michael says, “I liked dancing and realized if I worked hard, I could be good.”
Most dancing schools organize a recital where children can perform prepared dance routines for an audience. Many studios also participate in organized competitions against other dance studios.
Flex & Stretch
Rolling, jumping, and tumbling all help a child’s development. Early gymnastics programs for children ages 18 months to 6 years provide a fun way to hone these skills. Crystal Chollet-Norton, Rutgers University gymnastics coach, says, “Gymnastics programs for preschoolers are good for coordination, flexibility, strength, and balance. Gymnastics teaches body awareness, which is the foundation for any other sport.”
Many gymnastics facilities offer recreational classes. But depending on ability, children around age 7 can participate in more advanced, competitive programs, where they learn acrobatic feats that display strength, balance, and body control. “Unlike other sports, gymnastics is a team sport, but it is about individual accomplishment. In competitive gymnastics, even though you are part of a team, each participant competes alone and is judged on her own performance. Improvement requires setting individual goals and meeting these goals through hard work, dedication, and determination—skills that translate to other sports and build self confidence,” says Chollet-Norton.
Although all children can enjoy and benefit from gymnastics, competitive teams require many hours of practice, so participation should be something kids really enjoy.
Cheerleading has changed a lot in the past decade, and now requires more than just a set of pompoms and a winning smile. Modern cheerleading consists of prepared routines that incorporate gymnastics, dance, performance, and strength.
Cheerleading teams can be divided into three categories: traditional spirit squads that support other athletic teams; competition-only teams; and spirit squads that also participate in competitions (organized events where cheerleading squads compete against each other). The complexity of the routines will vary by level but may include partner stunts, pyramiding, tumbling, and jumps.
Most spirit squads and competitive cheerleading teams start around age 5 and focus on teaching the fundamentals. Depending on their ability, children can start learning intermediate stunt skills and more advanced cheerleading moves around age 8. Many town recreation departments offer cheerleading programs, or local gyms may sponsor their own competition teams.
Because cheerleading has become so physically demanding, there’s debate as to whether to categorize it as an activity or a sport, especially for older kids. “Cheerleaders work as hard as any other sports team at the school,” says Cranford High School cheerleading coach Nicole Savino. Her squad also participates in three to four competitions a year. “Competitions have given my girls a strong sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem,” she says.
Dr. Elizabeth McPherson, coordinator of the BA in Dance Education program at Montclair State University, cautions that teaching improper technique can cause physical damage to young bodies and prohibit dance advancement. Anyone can teach dance (no certification is required), but some teachers have certifications or dance degrees, which indicate advanced or specialized training.
Because the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association does not recognize cheerleading as a varsity sport, certification is not required for high school cheerleading coaches. Yet incidents of physical injury from advanced routines have raised questions about safety. Several organizations, including the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, offer training classes for coaches, as well as safety guidelines.
“Parents need to be aware that the nature of gymnastics—the twisting, the flipping—makes it a high-risk sport,” says Crystal Chollet-Norton, gymnastics coach at Rutgers University.
Even for preschool tumbling classes, children should only participate in gyms that are members of USA-Gymnastics, which is the national governing body for the sport. To find a member gym, visit usa-gymnastics.org and click on “find a gymnastics club in your area” on the home page.
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer from Short Hills, NJ. She has three children.