Gifted and Grown Up: The Artistically Inclined Gifted Child
It’s been 12 years since I first penned "Is She Really Gifted? Identifying and Nurturing the Child Gifted in Fine and Performing Arts". At the time, I was trying to figure out my gifted child who, unlike other gifted children I knew, was hyper-focused not on academic subjects but on the arts, specifically ballet.
To my surprise, parents of similarly inclined children still read it and want to know how it all turned out. Did she thrive in the environment I described? Did she become more academically inclined with age? Did she, as so many artistically gifted children do, manage to get a college degree while training for a career in the ballet? Has she been, in a word, successful?
She is 20 now. What happened in the intervening years? Not long after I wrote that essay, we discovered that she was dyslexic and dysgraphic. She had sensory integration issues as well. All of which explained, well, just about everything.
My daughter is twice-exceptional. She could comprehend college level books; she just couldn’t read them. She had a head full of stories; she just couldn’t write them down. As with many twice-exceptional children, she is gifted but can’t express herself in the way we normally think of when we think of gifted people.
With the advice of the psychologist who tested her and a wonderful education consultant, we mapped out a plan. She learned to type. We got her a Nook so she could format text in a way that helped her read, and we bought lots of audiobooks (this was before streaming). We also continued with unschooling and nurturing her love for dance.
Learning she had a learning disability did not help her feel better about having problems with academic subjects. She told me years later that she felt that having one made her stupid. No one in her family ever told her that. She just thought she was stupid because her brain didn’t work the way everyone else’s did. Dance became her salvation. She did it well. In her mind, it was the only thing she did well.
Ultimately, she grew out of that. As she got better at typing and as we found ways to help her compensate, she came to enjoy some academic subjects. I can’t recommend The Teaching Company highly enough. We checked out their videos at the library and bought them when they were on sale. She loved the videos and called the professors her “teachers.” She still does.
She fell in love with neurobiology. Her love for it was so strong she applied herself and through the charter homeschool program we were with, braved the AP Psychology test. She read neurobiology books and periodicals and watched open courses on child psychology on You Tube. It still fascinates her. A neurologist she spoke with was surprised that a sixteen-year-old knew as much and could be as articulate about the subject as she was.
This is the part where I tell you she decided to give up dance, go to college and become a neurologist. Nope.
When she was twelve she was invited to attend the American Ballet Theatre Summer Ballet Intensive in New York. Summer intensives are a must for any ballet student but I think they are particularly helpful to gifted children because they allow them to immerse themselves in their favorite subject. The ABT intensive lasted six weeks. No dorms, so I went to New York with her.
During the week she took ballet classes and on the weekends we explored every nook and cranny of the Big Apple. We visited the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Natural History. We attended the ballet at Lincoln Center and we ate lots of pizza and bagels. Travel broadens the mind and it certainly broadened hers.
Coming home wasn’t as easy. The training she received in New York was different from what she was used to at home. Not better but different. In New York she was with other children at her same level and she was placed in classes based on her ability, not her age. She went back to New York every year for the next three years to study at ABT. Then at 16 she received a scholarship to train at ballet school in New York with some of the best teachers in the United States.
In one sense it was easy: she was homeschooled, so we wouldn’t have to go through the rigmarole that is the New York public education system. On the other hand, she and I would be moving to New York, while my husband stayed in California.
It was an experience she would not have had without dance. She loved everything from the 300-square-foot studio apartment we shared (fourth-floor walk-up, in case you were wondering). Dancers come from all over the world to train in New York and she had friends from France, Israel, Japan, and Canada. She also learned a lot more about the dance world, including its politics.
Success in ballet is not based on talent only. You have to be genetically blessed as well. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how fast you learn choreography or how well you dance—if you don’t have a perfect ballet body, you don’t get very far. I’m not talking about weight I’m talking about body structure. You can’t have an hourglass figure. My daughter went through puberty and end up with a body most girls would kill for—just not a ballerina.
That is something very difficult for gifted children. They are perfectionists and they are more sensitive than most. As a parent of one of these children, you can try to prepare them for the time when they may not have the talent they seek, when they will be overshowed because their best isn’t good enough due to forces outside their control - but it hurts them and sometimes even breaks them. Most girls would have given up. My daughter refused.
I’m not sure that homeschooling had anything to do with it, but maybe being allowed to carve her own path at home, allowed her to carve her own path in dance. She turned 17, went to her first professional auditions, and came home with a trainee contract with The Washington Ballet in Washington D.C. Trainees are not paid, but it was farther than anyone thought she would get.
I think as parents of gifted children we get so used to advocating for them, we sometimes are unsure about their ability to advocate for themselves. I wasn’t sure how she would do on her own. Most kids go to college and have that transition period between the teen and adult years. She wouldn’t and she still had sensory issues that caused mild anxiety, even panic attacks on occasion.
Still moving to D.C. meant she would be close to more amazing museums. The Smithsonian became her happy place. Her experiences with the company were amazing. She danced at the Kennedy Center. She was in the corp de ballet when Misty Copeland made her debut in Swan Lake. She spent two years there, but a change in directors resulted in her losing her contract and she came home.
At that point she was at loose ends. Imagine how frustrating it is for a regular person to not achieve his or her goals. Now imagine that magnified. Gifted adults have issues when they can’t live up to the impossibly high expectations they set for themselves. She was moving back home with no job and no higher education, just a fierce belief in herself and her abilities.
We have a professional ballet company here but they didn’t hire her as a dancer. She talked her way into a job on the administrative side, however. She leveraged her strengths in social media into a job as the social media manager for the ballet company. When the executive director realized how smart and articulate she was, he began training her in marketing and public relations. She discovered something else she was good at. Something she liked almost as much as ballet.
This is the part where I tell you she went to college and got a degree in communications and lived happily ever after. Nope.
I mentioned that fierce belief in herself? While at home, she had an opportunity to audition for a director who had formed a new type of ballet company, one that valued talent and intelligence over body. The director hired her, not as a trainee, but as a full company member.
So she is living in New York again. She lives in a room she rented with access to a kitchen with no oven and a bathroom sink that has been broken for month. It’s cheap and close to the 1 train and Trader Joe’s. She loves the company, the dancers, and the work she does. She also still has her social media job, as that is something she can do from wherever she works. She is happy.
So what advice can I give, based on my own experience? Encourage your gifted child in their artistic endeavors. Have them tested if you suspect more is going on other than a lack of interest. Allow them to pursue what they love to the extent that you can afford it. The arts are not cheap. Allowing them to explore the arts may open doors to them that may not open otherwise, which then might feed an interest outside of the arts.
Finally, trust them. Trust them to weather the heartache that comes with becoming an artist. Trust them to know when they are done—not when you are done because it hurts too much to watch them try and fail multiple times. Trust them to be able to leverage the discipline it takes to become artists and their life experiences into paying jobs outside of the arts. They are smart cookies. They will be just fine.
Kandi Chong is a freelance writer and avid supporter of the arts. She homeschooled her ballet-crazed daughter from birth to adulthood. See how it started.