Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 7

Kristen Santos-Latrenta

Dance runs through her veins.

A graduate from 2009, when Kristen Santos walked across the threshold of my studio classroom, I knew I had to up my game. This tiny freshman powerhouse was a well-trained dancer from the start. In my world, students don’t usually come to me with much training; it’s my job to give them a mashup of the basics, performance tips, etiquette and confidence builders all in the same space. It’s pretty much a giambotta of a variety of talents and skills that I must concoct delicious artistic creations by the end-of-year dance concert.

It’s the kids like Kristen who my creative side is desperate to work with; they present a wonderful opportunity for me to grow as an educator. At the same time, my teacher-self understands that I must find ways to keep them interested and engaged while I am serving up the basics to those who don’t have access to private training. Therein laid the challenge: balancing the needs of students with very different levels of skill in the same class. It required me to present instruction that simultaneously elevated the skills of newbies and kept kids like Kristen challenged and interested. After all, she needed an experience that she would want to come back to the next year.

This is Kristen in high school performing Snow Queen in Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble’s “The Nutcracker.” She was no joke. This was the skill I was blessed to work with for four years.

I suppose I must have done a good-enough job, because Kristen kept coming back. Through dance classes, concerts and Thespian musicals (Grease, 42nd Street, Crazy for You, Fame), she graced our stage in plenty of projects. She was part of an arts-in-education residency with my good friend Astrid von Ussar who brought her dance company to Spring Valley to give the kids a taste of what being a dancer in New York is all about. Kristen and a group of her talented peers auditioned and took part in a re-creation of one of Astrid’s pieces, which they performed for our spring dance concert.

Showing off as Carmen in “Fame.”

After high school, Kristen went to Muhlenberg College to study dance and elementary education. However, she didn’t actually complete the education degree. To do so meant that she would have to stop dancing in order to do her student teaching requirements – a deal-breaker for sure.

Once she graduated from college, she performed with Spark Movement Collective for 7.5 years. You can find her in many of the photos on their website.

When she finally decided to retire from the professional dance world, Kristen shifted gears and stepped into a position at Conductor, a marketing technology firm. Now a Senior Account Manager, she puts her excellent interpersonal skills and positivity to good use selling technology and services to brands and companies to help them understand their SEO situation. (Are they on the first page of their own Google search? They should be.)

Thankfully, retirement from being a pro did not mean she had to give up dance to become an adult. On the contrary, when one door closes, another opens wide. Walking home from the PATH train after work in May 2021, she stumbled across a local studio that offered dance classes just for adults. Literally. It’s like the universe knew just what she needed; any dancer knows that moving the body is a necessity to feel healthy and centered. I completely agree; it’s the way we movers and shakers are wired, I suppose. Now, she gets her regular dance class fix every week and occasionally posts her dance videos on Instagram (which I love to watch!!).

Gaining wisdom in the studio

From my perspective, Kristen was one of those kids who was consistent, confident in her abilities and always brought her best self to everything she did. An outgoing, highly-disciplined achiever with a competitive streak, she was motivated to do the best and be the best, wanting to be worthy of the perceived high expectations of her. This is how she presented herself every day. From Kristen’s view, the last thing she ever wanted was to disappoint anyone, especially those she respected most. Her dance training gave her a deep respect for her teachers, which translated into an intense desire to please them. She was also keenly in tune with other people’s feelings and never wanted them to feel low as a result of something she did; she worked hard to be happy, optimistic and successful as a matter of course.

I had always wondered how the talented over-achiever perceived her experience in the studio, given that her private training offered her the opportunity to develop advanced performance skills that were far above her high school peers. After all, in addition to the full-complement of dance classes during the school year, she spent many summers in ballet intensive programs. It would have been easy for her to decide to skip the dance classes in high school and focus her training in the private setting.

Lucky for me, Kristen stuck around. She shared that she spent a lot of time “reading the room,” noticing the natural abilities that some of her classmates had, sometimes on things that she had worked on for years. This was something that seemed to ground her in the high school studio, as she took a step back and appreciated the fact that sometimes you have to work for things that others naturally have. Just because you want something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are given the automatic ability or facility to make it happen. Seeing the diverse abilities of her peers, she developed an appreciation for how they were highlighted accordingly in the different projects we worked on.

I asked Kristen about being highly skilled at something when working with people who have many different levels of training:

There’s always someone who is better, but you’re probably not the worst person in the room. Everybody brings something different to the table. Maybe you don’t always see it but it doesn’t matter; different things are going to catch people’s eye. You might have something that you want to get across but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your audience is going to take that from you. As long as they are getting something from you…if you are able to invoke some emotion.

Kristen Santos-Latrenta

Kristen understood that no matter how skilled you are, there is always room for improvement and there is always something to learn. She made sure she was always engaged and practicing her craft, even when so many things came easy to her. In school, she took advantage of the opportunities to study as an actor. From that work, she made deeper personal connections through character study, setting intention and accessing inner vulnerabilities. These were performance elements that play rehearsals offered that she didn’t experience in her dance classes. That process of delving deeper into a script not only enhanced her performance skills, it also translated to a better understanding of how she fit into the outside world.

Another epiphany she had from this training was becoming more in tune with her less comfortable feelings, something that eternally happy, optimistic Kristen sometimes had trouble doing. Over time, she learned how to be more self-reflective, allowing herself to acknowledge other feelings that she might have otherwise written off as unnecessary or unproductive. She talked about how being the optimistic person in her circle of friends can be exhausting. Now, she knows how to take the time and space to decompress and authentically feel whatever emotions she is really experiencing.

In school, she had to learn to temper her competitive nature and appreciate other people’s gifts, a lesson that she acknowledged has served her well in the workplace. As she got older, knowing how to read the room became a huge asset. In her first foray into any new environment – high school, college, and beyond – Kristen’s eyes are wide open, mouth is shut, and she quickly learns how to prove herself. This regular practice enables her to take a step back and see how she fits in to an organization, to consider other perspectives, to see how she interprets different interpersonal interactions, to minimize reacting impulsively and allow time for quiet reflection. All of these skills now guide her to respond wisely and productively to her environment. When she finally feels successful and comfortable, she lets her guard down and shows everyone her unabashed, joyful spirit that lights up the room.

Adulting now

So what does confident, optimistic, centered Kristen grapple with now? Plenty of things. Mostly, it’s in finding balance. Maturity often mellows even the freest and most joyful spirits, and she notices the waning of her high-achieving adolescent oomph; the last thing she wants to be is “lazy.” Am I doing enough? Am I working hard enough? Am I being a good wife because I went to dance three times after work…There are so many things she needs and wants to do in her career, her marriage, and as a homeowner while prioritizing ways to take care of herself, live life, and give back, all in the limited time, space and energy of adulting. The isolation of the pandemic didn’t help, of course. She, like most of us, feels like she has to now make up for lost time after so many things had to be put on hold.

Despite the constraints of adulthood, there are things Kristen recognized that have gotten much better. She is more at peace with the dynamics of her relationships and doesn’t feel the need to be included in everything. (Who has time for that, anyway?) Maturity has curbed the compulsion to control, solve or fix everything, and this makes for a calmer, more accepting version of herself. While she still struggles to say “no” when she is called upon, she is learning to create the boundaries she needs to keep her sane in real time.

To maintain her new-found mellowness, she has developed a menu of self-care skills that enable her to separate and decompress when she needs it most, including her adult dance classes, slow morning wake-up stretches, long showers and at-home spa facials. As much of a people-person that she is, Kristen has learned to value her precious alone-time to process everything that’s going on.

Kristen’s sage advice

Kristen shared lots of wisdom that should be of great interest to today’s teens:

  • Read more to learn about other people’s experience.
  • Talk to your teachers about their life-experience and listen to them. They’re your teacher for a reason. They’ve lived more life than you, they’re not telling you things just to tell them; it’s coming from a place of knowledge, experience and caring. Take a moment and absorb that.
  • Work hard. You’re building those habits early on. If you’re always choosing to be lazy or not care, you’re going to have a rude awakening at some point down the line.
  • Be kind to people. You never know when that person is going to pop back up in your life. Maybe they’ll be interviewing you one day or you have to work beside them – you just have no idea. The world is huge, but it’s also very small. People talk to each other. Remember the Golden Rule! Treat people the way you want to be treated.
  • Understand your communication style. Pay attention to when you get angry. Understand what works for you so that you can communicate that to people. Be reflective when you are having a reaction so you don’t respond in a negative, angry way.
  • Take care of your body – you only have one.
Watch our full interview here!

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