Phrase Manipulation as a choreographic teaching tool

I teach basic dance technique, composition and improvisation to college students.

At the end of the semester, they work in small groups on a composition study that gives them an opportunity to apply everything they’ve been learning.

Improvisation and creating from ideas or prompts may not generate dances that follow a steady beat.

However, learning how to manipulate phrase material generally does produce movement that has a beat or pulse. It also helps students learn how to include variety and contrast in their dances and how to rework a small amount of material many different ways.

You can give this movement assignment to teach contrast and variety and the B.E.S.T. concepts . Some easy-to-access concepts for phrase manipulation are: direction, speed, level and movement quality (energy)

Begin with a phrase of 4-6 eights. My starter phrase was 5 eights:

1st 8 beats:

Side slide step/hop diagonally, with arms doing a full circle in the line of direction (LOD). Travel on a shallow diagonal so as to progress across the floor. Do right and left.

2nd 8 beats:

Turn to the right, traveling 3 steps and wrapping arms around with right arm behind, leading in a clockwise direction and stepping out on your right. Continue in the same LOD, with left foot crossing behind, turning counterclockwise 3 steps, and wrapping arms around with left arm behind.

3rd 8 beats:

Over 4 beats – Un-spiral from the wrap, to face forward and jab your left arm up to the high right diagonal, crossing the mid-line. Repeat the jab with right across to left on high diagonal.

Over 4 beats – Jump forward three times, legs parallel wide/crossing/ parallel wide.

4th 8 beats:

Repeat the 3rd set, but this time reaching across to the LOW diagonal.

5th 8 beats:

Two walks over 4 beats. Shimmey and travel forward over 2 beats.  Burst out to a shape on count ‘7’ and hold the freeze.

This phrase include direction, level, energy and speed changes.


My objective was to have the students learn several choreographic devices for phrase manipulation: canon, transposition and repetition.

Having learned the phrase, we did it in a canon, starting every 8 beats.

Then we broke into small groups, so students could see different ways of blocking the canon.

We experimented with 1) doing the phrase as a flank, starting side by side and going one by one. Then 2) as a single file line, still going one by one.

We played with having the last dancers catch up to the first one’s so the canon did not end predictably.

For transposition, we change the arms to legs and legs to arms from the 3rd and 4th 8s.

For repetition, we played with the material as it existed, expanding some parts.


Students then manipulated the material in their own ways. They changed the blocking, speed, size, spatial relationships, as well as playing with direction, level and the devices they’d learned.

This taught them that there are alternatives to unison, and that successive movement and contrast adds interest.


This idea is fun to interject into a study that is already in process. Students can use the phrase you learn together and then grow into manipulating their own phrase material. These strategies also expand the language you can use when communicating ideas to dancers and when teaching them what to look for in other performer’s work.

Some of the outcomes were: putting counts to the movement, playing with size, repetition of one motif from the phrase, and having each dancer do a different part from the phrase simultaneously or successively.


May 3, 2015. Tags: . Creating, Elements of Creative Dance, Studio Teaching, Teaching Tips. Leave a comment.

Steps to Guiding Creating

In my Creative Dance for Children mentoring program a few weeks ago, we got to talking about the steps for guiding Creating activities in class.  This pertains to ages 4-10.

When guiding students, you have to assume a leadership role at many points along the line.

First, you lay out the structure for creating as clearly and simply as possible.  Visual aids, such as mapping or vocabulary, may help a great deal.  If you are working from a poem or a picture, you have it posted.

Next, you divide the group into sub-groups if you have enough assistants in the room (for younger) or if the children have self control and concentration to function successfully in small groups. When first empowering students to work independently, duets are good.  Generally 5 is a large group.  Before you send groups off to work, have a sound signal ready that will mean ‘freeze, sit, look and listen’ so you can get everyone’s attention once they are spread out in the space. This could be a drum or hand clap pattern.

Make sure to have a nice distribution of ‘chiefs and indians’ in the group so the leadership is balanced. Also balance out off-task and on-task folks.

Instruct groups to first plan, then get up and test their ideas.
Next, they need to refine their ideas, ‘set’ (that means remember so you can do it again) and practice.

After that, they can re-evaluate their choices, refine again and practice.

Give the groups a short amount of time to work (5 minutes), and check for progress, allowing for another minute to wrap up before showing.

Move among groups during the working process. Ask them: ‘show me what you’ve got’ if they appear stuck or have completed the assignment.  They can refine if they are done, and get back on track if they are stuck.

If you see one off-task child in a group, you can join them for a while to calm that child and help with focus.

When it’s time to perform, select your order of performance. Stronger groups should perform later in the line-up, since they know what they are doing and will remember it.  This is also so as not to intimidate weaker groups who may feel less successful once they’ve seen the stronger groups. Put anxious groups early in the line-up, too.

Review or teach audience and performer skills. Audiences watch with a purpose, don’t practice their own dances, are still, silent, respectful and facing towards performers.  You can check what the purpose is they are watching for (usually the concept or structure of the dance). Performers are still at the beginning and end (a big breath helps), do their best, and don’t get flustered if they make a ‘mistake’ (since the audience doesn’t know the rules of their dance anyway!). Even though these are only ‘studies’ that performers are show, audiences can still applaud at the end to show appreciation.

Reflect on the dances. Decide on how to approach this. Will everyone have an opportunity to volunteer an observation, or one group comments upon another, with that rotated around?  A spokesperson from each group? Lots of possible ways to do this.

What are good reflection questions? You can guide the group to recall elements from the purpose of the dance, memorable moments they saw, sequences, etc.  Groups can themselves talk about the process of making the dance: what was the leadership dynamic?  If there was one thing you could change about your dance, what would it be?  Again, lots of internal reflection possibilities.

In our program, we find this process takes about 20-25 minutes, from start to finish in a group with approx. 12 children and a maximum of 5 groups.

To recap:

  • Frontload the assignment.
  • Divide groups, teach the sound signal for getting their attention.
  • Give a time limit, and a wrap-up time limit.
  • Move among the groups to check for understanding.
  • Decide on the order groups will show.
  • Review Audience/Performer expectations
  • Be ready with meaningful reflection questions and a strategy for how reflection will be conducted.

And, of course, have a pleasant look on your face and a smile in your heart as you work, oops, I mean ‘play.’ Creating is challenging fun!





November 15, 2014. Tags: , , , , , . Creating, Kate Kuper on Teaching Creative Dance, Reflection and Closure, Studio Teaching. Leave a comment.

What to do with …. Apples and Oranges

What to do with….
Apples and Oranges (from Step on the Beat)

I’ve talked about Apples and Oranges in other blog posts, connected to teaching galloping, for example.

(If you don’t already have it, you can purchase Step on the Beat through my website,, or from West Music.)

The children asked to include this dance as a favorite activity for our Informance (Open House, informal presentation of a lesson).

We identified “Body Parts and Energy” as the conceptual through-line for the 4 & 5 year olds’ Informance.

For 6-7 year olds, the concept focus was “Body Parts and Shape.”

Here’s how we adapted Apples and Oranges for each age group, conceptual focus, and lesson plan component:

1) For 4-5s, as a Creating activity

Creating includes invention and/or improvisation.  We decided to make the A section focus “Body Parts.”

After learning the clapping pattern A section, we asked the children to suggest using a different body part other than the knees for the ‘slap.’ What should it be?  We performed that part in the section, with the ‘circle round’ that we do in place with younger children (or when we want to go quickly through the dance), where we just turn around on our spot .

After practicing, we chose ANOTHER body part for the second ‘slap.’

Then we put it all together: slap/clap/slap/clap/ And turned the other way for  ‘circle round’//

Time for the B section focusing on “Energy.”

Next, we designated half the group as Apples, half as Oranges. (Since parents were dancing with the children, we had people choose by raise of hands, rather than half and half or every other one).

Leader modeled how Apples would  ‘dance away’ and ‘dance back home’ WITH A SPECIFIC ENERGY while Oranges would stay and clap on the pulse.  We chose swinging movement away, and shaky movement home.

But wait!  Why should the travelers have all the fun?  Those who stayed had to keep the pulse tapping on A SPECIFIC BODY PART.

Everyone practiced.  Then MUSIC GO!

2) For 6-7s as a Developing Skills activity

Developing Skills is about hard-wiring technical abilities and challenging memory within sequence.

First, we focused on Body Parts. We practiced the B section traveling movement in scattered space: side slide with head going up toward the ceiling and center (area of the belly button) drawing a letter “U” with every slide.  Skip with knees lifting up.  Gallop with one foot chasing the other, pointing the toes … like a real chassé!

Second, we emphasized Body Parts and Shape for the A section.
Find a partner and a spot in scattered space. Practice slap & clap.  Add one body part for the slap (idea from the children that we all use) and clap.  Add second part and clap.  Sequence first-part slap/ clap, second-part slap/ clap.  Teach ‘angular elbows’ around for an elbow swing with your partner.  Ask for prediction, when we repeat, what will happen with elbow swing? (We’ll go the other way).

Here comes the shape emphasis.

Decide who is an Apple and Orange in each pair.

Apples will travel.  Oranges will stay.

Travelers will use two of the three locomotor skills we practiced earlier.  (Travel away with the side slides and back with the gallop.)

Oranges will MAKE A BODY SHAPE and keeping the pulse WITH ONE BODY PART (can be audible or visual).  Nod a head! Tap a foot! Bounce into one hip! (Etc.)

All practice shape and keeping the pulse.

Then practice travel and shape/pulse.  Practice trading.

MUSIC GO!  On second travel, skip away and gallop back.

December 14, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Creating, Developing Skills, Elements of Creative Dance, Kate Kuper on Teaching Creative Dance, Recitals, Studio Teaching, What to do with...., Working with Kate's Material. Leave a comment.

Song Picture Books

I am a member of the Children’s Music Network.  This incredibly generous group of people are primarily music presenters to audiences of all ages. I enjoy learning from and sharing with this delightful community from all across the America. Some focus exclusively on early childhood and primary students. I joined the organization because my work straddles both the worlds of dance and music. The only difference is perspective. Most of the members add movement to song.   I add song to movement!

One CMN member is Nancy Schimmel.  Nancy put together a list of picture books that are singable songs. I think they’d be a fun resource for reading and singing….and dancing.
I haven’t worked with the list yet.  I’m sure you’ll get some ideas for ways of working with these songs.  When you do, please share with the rest of us!


Here’s Nancy website:

If you are interested in learning more about CMN, visit their website, too.

November 24, 2013. Tags: , , , . Creating, Favorite Books. Leave a comment.

Co-Constructing Creating Activities with your students

How to make  a dance with a group of children (in this instance, ages 6-7) and share leadership successfully?
No matter what the concept or the prompt (poem, word cards, image, etc)……you can use these strategies to build the dance together, get buy-in and ownership from the group, and keep the PROCESS central (with the PRODUCT as an outcome)

  1. Collect movement ideas from the students:  Let’s use Veronica’s leg swing and Mei Lin’s arm swing. 
  2. Ask, don’t tell: Veronica, how should we swing?  How many times?
  3. Share leadership: Let’s follow Veronica for this part, the cue will be when she starts.
  4. Ask questions that spark variety (based on your aesthetic sense of what the piece needs) – Where shall we start?  Together or apart? Where shall we go next in the space?  How can we change levels?  Do we all have to be on the same level? Can some be high and some low? 
  5. Note opportunities for technical teachable moments:  Sitting up from lying down could be an abdominal challenge.  What tip could  acknowledged the challenge?  Could they connect and help each other up?  Go more slowly and with intention, focusing on the abdominal muscles?  Use their hand reaching forward or on the ground?
  6. Duration: How many times?  What’s the cue for ending that section?  You can also share the cuing with students, each one taking leadership for a different part (as suggested in 3.)

These are some things that came up today.  The list could be longer.  Share your own thoughts.


December 1, 2012. Creating, Kate Kuper on Teaching Creative Dance. 1 comment.

Everybody Do This as a Creating Activity

Everybody Do This from Songs for Dancing is something I usually use for teaching sequence and recall and as part of a warm up.
This week, one of my college students decided to use it for a Creating activity on the concept of Body Parts.  We used the Instrumental only tracks, Everybody Do This Part 1 and Part 3 that played 4 sets of 16 beats.  You could use Part 2 and Part 4 for shorter versions that play 4 sets of 8 beats.

We introduced the activity as a dance using body parts. Brainstorming included asking one child to name a favorite part. To another child: How can we move that part? After a short moment with that, asking another child: How else can we move that part? Each idea, shaped in the framework of time (pulse, pattern), was sequenced and repeated.  Likely we’d do one movement idea for 4 beats, and the other for 4, and repeat.  Or 8 and 8 and repeated, depending on the interest and complexity of the movement ideas.

Add another body part sequence: Ask a different student for favorite part, another student  for Idea 1 (with brief explore) , and a third for Idea 2 (with brief explore).  Last, shape the two movement ideas into a phrase and repeat the phrase.

Final step, sequence body part 1 with two moves and body part 2 with two moves into a longer phrase. Do with the music.

As you explore and shape the ideas, include other concept lenses, such as direction. Example: can we travel this forward and back in the circle as we move our head?  Around the circle as we lift our knees?
Other concepts to use as the viewing lens could be speed, level or size.
Reflection: What body parts did you use?

Once you’ve got your sequence down, try it to Galloping Song (Instrumental Only) for a different musical feel.

Extensions: Sequence more than two body parts into the phrase. Break into smaller groups and create your own dances that follow this structure.  Show and share.
Reflection: What body parts did you see the dancers use? What body parts did you use?

Happy creating!


November 11, 2012. Tags: . Creating, What to do with...., Working with Kate's Material. Leave a comment.

Animal Tracks: Lesson Ideas for ages 4-7

Here’s a really fun lesson idea connected to animals, animal movement, literacy, science and just plain fun!  Use ANIMAL TRACKS: Some Basics found at the end of the lesson for ‘authentic’ animal movement ideas.


Moving Like Animals


Animal Tracks: Some Basics


Bibliographic Suggestions

Duffy, Dee Dee.  Forest Tracks.  Boyds Mills Press, 1996

Dorros, Arthur.  Animal Tracks.  Scholastic, Inc. New York.  1991

Ways of walking like animals (Start from spread to personal space)

Do half group watch, half group do, then trade.

Explore ways of moving around the room.

Bear Walk

Crab Walk

Bird Walk (and flutter, fly)

Frog Hop

Snake Slither

Horse Gallop

Lizard Dart

Cat Prowl

Elephant Lumber

Kangaroo Hop

Squirrel Scamper

Tortoise Trundle

As you explore, combine ways of walking with pathways and directions.

Making Animal Tracks (Start in flanking lines for across the room)

            Refer to Animal Tracks: Some Basics


Diagonal Walking



Extension Idea: Repeat tracks with additional things to think about:

Pick an animal you’d like to be.  What do you look like?

Are you short or are you tall?

Are you big or are you small?

Are you heavy or are you light?

Do you move by day, or by night?

Are you quick or are you slow?

Do you move high, do you move low?
Do you stop and go?

What do you look like?  I don’t know?

Where are you?

in the woods

in the meadow

in the desert

in the rainforest

Going Further: Notice carefully how you use your fingers and toes.

Do you need your whole hand and foot?

Finger tips?  Toes only?

Heel of your hand?  Sole of your foot?

A mix of these things?

How would you move your parts?  Head?  Neck?  Arms?  Legs?  Torso?

How would you:  Eat?  Drink water?


Extension Activity 1: Small groups form based on a specific animal, sit in individual circles.

Choreographic Assignment (3-5 minutes)

1. Decide how to move to the center of the space as your animal

2. Perform some type of action in the middle of your circle as your animal OR

Travel around the circle as your animal

3. Decide how to move back out to the edge of the circle as your animal

Then, all groups sit in large, semi-circle (if performance-based) OR large circle (if process-based).  Show dances one by one.


Extension Activity 2: Read Forest TracksDuffy, Dee Dee.  Boyds Mills Press, 1996

This book uses the format of Listen (the sounds the animal would make), Look (the tracks the animal would make), See (picture of the animal).
As you read, have children guess what animal is coming next, before you turn the page for See.

To dance the book, use the story following the format of Extension Activity 1. Use the text to shape the dance, with everyone making body percussion sounds on Listen! Small groups decide ahead of time which of the animals in the book they want to be, and go in, group by group, for rabbit, deer, raccoon, etc.

For skunk, everyone goes in, bit by bit.  Teacher comes in as skunk, and everyone scurried back to his spot on the circle.
Decide with the group what to do for the jeep tracks at the end, or don’t include it in your story dance.

based on material from “Into Winter” by William P. Nestor

PACING done by dogs, cats, foxes, deer
Both limbs on one side (right) move, then both on the other (left).  Track fairly far apart, forming a zig-zag pattern.

DIAGONAL WALKING done by animals with wide bodies and short legs (racoons, skunks, woodchucks)

hind left foot and front right foot move, then hind right foot and front left foot.

BOUNDING done by slender, long bodied animals with short legs (weasel, mink, otter)

front feet go together, then hind feet follow as a pair.

when walking, hind tracks fall behind front.

when running, hind fall into front tracks, or even a little ahead of front tracks

GALLOPING done by animals with short forefeet and long hind legs (rabbits, hares, squirrels, some mice)

similar to bounding, but hind feet land on either side or ahead of forefeet

RUNNING done by shrews, voles

combines running and galloping.  similar to diagonal walking, but with tracks wider apart


October 24, 2012. Tags: , , , . Creating, Creative Dance Lesson Plans, Seasonal Lessons. 1 comment.

Thoughts on Creative Process

To build awareness of how dance-making works, I asked my college students this week to consider:
How was your dance constructed AND facilitated?  What role does the teacher/leader play when facilitating inside a group?  What questions can you ask from inside the group to generate diversity?

Good places to start are:

  • ask branching questions within the context of the concept (should we make a high shape or a low shape?) or that will generate contrasts in BEST (body, energy, space or time)
  •  encourage the idea-generator to lead that piece of the dance (Sarah suggested that we melt; let’s look at Sarah when we get to that part.  Simone showed a skip, let’s follow Simone for the skip)
  • bring the group back to the ‘top’ for review after adding a couple of new parts (“drop stones, not crumbs”)

Reflect on how another group’s dance was different from your own.  Ask them what they did to make the choice that stood out.

Collaboration is a big topic.  How does every voice get heard that wants to get heard?  Ideas can layer on each other.  Sarah’s shape starting idea could be built upon by Simone’s suggestion for how everyone can connect to make the shape. Model the layering approach.

September 24, 2011. Creating, Kate Kuper on Teaching Creative Dance. Leave a comment.