In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, Dance Magazine related a short anecdote about Bryant taking tap dance lessons to help prevent additional injury to his ankles.
That summer, he researched ways to make his ankles stronger, and landed on tap dancing. “I worked on it all of that summer and benefited for the rest of my career,” he wrote.
Though Bryant continued to suffer from ankle injuries, tap helped him learn to keep his ankles loose and active, which helped prevent injuries elsewhere.
…Though he stopped dancing after that summer, he says that “for a year there I could tell my feet to do this and they would actually do that.”
Over the last couple weeks I have been thinking about why my initial reaction to this story was that it provides a good example of the value of the arts when I often warn about citing the prescriptive benefits of the arts. Let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more prescriptive than the idea that dance helped Bryant mitigate additional injury.
Ultimately, I realized that as a superb athlete, this was an example of how dance was supplementing his existing capabilities. Often when we hear about arts benefiting test scores, economy, social interactions, etc., there is an implication that the arts are improving things to an acceptable level. That there is some flaw to fix– a kid’s test scores need to be better; the foot traffic in stores & restaurants is tepid; people are having overly aggressive interactions.
With Kobe Bryant though, he is at the top of his field as an athlete and the tap lessons are something he used to provide a benefit his already demanding training regimen didn’t afford. While suffering a problematic injury is just as negative as poor test scores, low economic activity or negative social interactions, I can’t imagine anyone considered Kobe deficient and needed the arts to fix him. Tap was an available option he found suitable to his needs.
The difference between a supplemental activity and a prescriptive one is a bit subtle. In truth, at its base, the supplement is just as prescriptive. The context in which it is presented makes a significant difference. In Kobe’s case, there are no promises of outcome measures that have to be backed by qualitative data. The celebrity association aside, the value of tap dancing and the arts in general aren’t evaluated in terms of his scoring record.
Sure, saying ‘it worked for me” lacks the empirical evidence that people may want to justify funding. (It shouldn’t be used anyway.) Regardless of whether you have empirical data or not, if Shaq and Kobe both took tap together, the benefits each realize will vary based on dozens of variables in their physical, mental and emotional attributes.
For example, Kobe was open to exploring the way people in other disciplines achieve success and employed an approach Shaq probably wouldn’t have. He credits a conversation with composer John Williams for shifting his perception on leadership:
This conversation was held after the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Bryant said the talk helped him become a better leader and that he took some of Williams’ ideas into training camp for the next season. “I felt like there were a lot of similarities between what [Williams] does and what I have to do on the basketball court,” Bryant said. “And some of the things he said to me were fascinating.”
On the other hand, it is assumed that great achievement in one area occurs in a vacuum with no contributions from any other pursuits. You can tell people Einstein as well as myriad other highly accomplished scientists played musical instruments and no one credits any benefit to the music–even if Einstein credits his accomplishments to playing violin. So even though Kobe said he attributes tap dance for improving his agility and reducing injuries, few people will likely perceive tap as having anything to contribute to basketball.
Because really, no one would consider basketball and tap have any relationship with each other.