I was just reading an article about drama in the classroom versus theater for the stage. The author, quoting from a work she’d co-authored, described drama as focused on “the process of the experience for students and teachers, not on a product produced for others.” The co-authors described theater as “a disciplined artistic experience in which artists work and re-work the same material with the goal of performing it perfectly for an audience.” (A Dramatic Approach to Reading Comprehension, Kelner and Flynn, Heinemann, 2006)
These descriptions were a light bulb moment for me in thinking about creative dance compared to studio techniques, and the way we explain them to others.
The objective in most studio training, as in the description of theater above, is to polish and perfect in order to perform. Many hours of training go into “working and re-working the same material with the goal of performing it perfectly for an audience.” Striving for technical excellence sometimes obscures the reason that many of us were drawn to dance in the first place, namely for the feeling of freedom and joy that we get from moving.
Whenever we are called upon to stand up for the value of creative dance in a studio setting, it is worth remembering – and helping studio parents and administrators to understand – the ‘process’ nature of creative dance and its importance in a well-rounded dance education.
Creative dance provides a lab, an incubator, for improvisation, problem solving, invention, collaboration and critical thinking. Through it we learn the language of dance, dance making, and dance appreciation. While we may choose to polish and share what we create, ‘process’ is at the top of the list.
Ultimately, we can bring the versatile skills of creative dance to the study of ALL techniques to help us become better choreographers and more expressive dancers.
This entry was prompted by a question from reader Kerry B., who is currently teaching at a ballet studio. She wants to know how to integrate the expectations of ballet for young students with the creative, concept-based approach.
Here’s the story dance exemplar she provided, and my response.
Example: “At the Castle”
For ages: 4-5
Driving to the castle, skipping to castle stable, marching with soldiers to get horses, trotting and galloping with horses, marching to dungeon, creeping around dungeon, tip toe out, walking into garden, hopping on stepping stones. Tip toe into room to prepare for ball, group and solo dances at ball, grande waltz, leaving ball
Driving – An American in Paris (Gershwin)
Skipping – Skipping Song from Songs for Dancing (instrumental only)
Trotting & Galloping –
Galloping Song from Songs for Dancing (instrumental only)
The Magic Toy Shop: Tarantella, Shostakovich
Ballet Suite No. 1: Galop, Tchaikovsky
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20A – 6 Act3: Spanish Dance
Marching – Firebird: Infernal Dance of King Kastchel’s Subjects, Stravinsky
Creeping – Op.46, In The Hall of Mountain King, Edvard Grieg
Tip toe – Walk – Hop – Tip Toe – Ballet Suite No. 1 – Music Box Waltz, Shostakovich
Waltz – From Coppelia
Driving to the castle… pathways and directions in space.
Skipping to castle stable, marching with soldiers to get horses…. light and strong weight (or can continue with previous concepts)
Trotting and galloping with horses….locomotor movement and speed. (Or can continue with previous concepts) Imagination – be the horses.
Marching to dungeon, creeping around dungeon…. levels in space.
Tip toe out, walking into garden, hopping on stepping stones…. structure a phrase with elements from each locomotor movement idea. Repeat it several times. Can bring back the pathway and direction concepts.
Tip toe into room to prepare for ball…. This is a transition to reimagining the environment. Preplan with dancers for where they will end in the space for the next section. Potentially a large circle, so that in the next section, dancers will take turns in the middle.
Group and solo dances at ball…. opportunity for ¾ time lyrical improvisational dancing. Can tap dancers on the shoulder to indicate when they dance in. When you cue them to come out, they tap a dancer to take their place.
Grande waltz…everyone dances!
Leaving ball… end in a final body shape.
We just had our Informance – ‘informal performance’ – which we also call ‘Stay Day’ or ‘Open Class.’ We invite parents, family members, and friends to come, watch, take pictures or video, and best of all – PARTICIPATE! This is the only class where parents can see what a typical class looks like. Otherwise, we are closed to observation.
In the fall, Creative Dance is a mentoring program for college students learning to teach, so we have several people sharing leadership during the lesson. My role is to narrate the rationale behind each section and to lead the final closure activities. In the spring, I teach with one assistant only, and we trade leadership throughout. I continue to narrate before each lesson component.
I asked my students to come up with a “To Do” list that would help them plan future open classes.
HERE IT IS!
Informance/Open Class “To Do” List
At the beginning of the semester, include information about the Open Class. Two weeks before, remind parents about the upcoming informance/open class. The week before, post signs and send out an email reminder.
Print out business cards or flier promoting the class for the next semester and for referrals.
Throughout the semester, track favorites activities from the lesson for Exploring the Concept, Developing Skills, and Creating.
Select from among those favorites to write lesson plans, keeping in mind the possibility of parent participation. Make sure the lesson plan is very complete. Divide up lesson sections among teachers and assistants. Practice parts thoroughly so as to be competent and relaxed in front of the parents.
Have a prepared introduction. This includes introducing all teachers and assistants and a brief summary of the concepts that we’ve worked on during the semester.
Have a prepared short description of the whole lesson structure, with specifics presented before each activity (including the rationale for each component). Integrate remarks into the lesson plan so all teachers and assistants know what’s coming, to help with class flow and a sense of community.
THE DAY BEFORE:
Set up seating for “audience.”
Have a sign when the parents walk in saying “Welcome Dancers and Families” as one last reminder, and to welcome them into our classroom.
Clean/sweep the floor.
Have props and materials all ready set to the side, easy to find.
Have the concept on the board written clear and large so all can see.
Have music on a playlist, organized, easy to find.
THE DAY OF:
Keep the before class-activity really simple, so anyone can join in. (We put out scarves)
Watch the clock or have a timekeeper to keep us on track.
Keep inviting parents and family members to participate throughout the class.
Make closing remarks, at which time you can get promo into parents’ hands.
Follow that with a fun, communal closing activity that includes everyone, and ends with the children and teachers organized for a group photo.
Be prepared for ‘hugs, hand shakes and high fives.”
Have parents help clean up.
Note: A few activities (from Kate’ material) that work well for parent/child involvement in an open class:
Explore: Stick Together Game from Step on the Beat
Developing Skills (or Creating) for All: Apples and Oranges from Step on the Beat
Resting: Resting from Songs for Dancing
Creating (or Explore): Shape Maker/Shape Explorer from Step on the Beat
Closure: The Goodbye Song from Songs for Dancing
Our lab program meets Saturday mornings. We run two rooms simultaneously. There are generally 12 children in a class, who have chosen to take this class (self-selected). After our first day with the children (ages 4-5, 6-7, 8-10) here were some remarks I made in response to my college students’ comments.
Building Trust and Emotional Safety
- Get on your students’ level, physically (particularly important with younger children). Go ahead, squat down!
- Give them something to do right away (we always have interesting props set out on yoga squares so everyone can go to a spot and find something as they come in the door)
- Be enthusiastic and supportive
- Be honest and caring
- Show interest
- Be loving
- Never be afraid of your students. You are the Alpha dog in the pack!
- Give freedom within structure, which conveys permission to be expressive
- Consider the “V” of freedom. Start narrow and gradually open out. (As with good parenting).
- Plan activities that help kids get comfortable with community (like sharing yoga squares with more than one person) and a get-together, welcome, name song
- Be flexible with the shy kids; the transition may be harder on them. But expect that by 3 days into the semester, they will have adjusted. (although our class rule is no parents in the room, I make an exception for the separation of that one child on that first day).
- Make sure all voices are heard (call on others besides the raised hands)
- “No” is a ‘wall’…..look for ‘window’ options instead. “No” is reserved for safety and boundaries (such as it’s not okay to hurt yourself or other people in class)
- Learn and use students’ names frequently. We take pictures of every child wearing a name tag the first day, then never have to use name tags again.
- On Day #1, the room should be creative, but structured enough not to be overwhelming. Otherwise, with too much freedom, issues would arise.
- Set boundaries and expectations the first day, and have an easier time thereafter. Example: Always give instructions while students are seated.
- Establish audio cues the first day that indicate “clean up, time to warm up”. My go-to instrument for the start of class is a recorder (block flute) upon which I play a series of 3 simple motifs based around the notes B-A-G. Each motif guides students to pick up, put away, find a spot for warm up.
Last summer I attended a workshop on Language of Dance with Tina Curran. Also teaching was Frederick Curry, certified in Laban Movement Analysis (which you can Google and find out more about).
Each day of the workshop focused on a different umbrella topic, including body, space, shape and relationships, and effort/dynamics. These concept categories are familiar to me through the work of Anne Green Gilbert. But the view lens and perspective of both LOD and LMA gave me a fresh take on concept teaching.
I’m going to talk about space, and in particular the kinesphere, because – since returning from the workshop – I’ve been exploring this in all my teaching to great effect. Lately I’m teaching children ages 4-10, college-aged students and people over the age of 50. Everyone is responding very positively to the learning.
Why am I so excited? Because sensing ourselves in space is so important.
Here’s what I’d like to share.
The kinesphere is the space around us. I give the image of a ‘hamster ball’ – one of those transparent globes that allow your pet to run around the house without getting away from you. I prefer this image to ‘bubble’ because it’s not as fragile. You can touch the inner surfaces without breaking through.
Within the kinesphere, we can grow and shrink, changing size. ‘Extension’ is the word for stretching and reaching the limbs in all directions. ‘Flexion’ is the word for bending our limbs at the joints, shrinking towards the core. Therefore, ‘extension’ moves us towards ‘big’ and ‘flexion’ towards ‘small’.
As we explore extension and flexion within the kinesphere, staying in one place (standing, sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor would be options), we create pathways. Reaching directly out from the navel or core, we make direct pathways. This is called moving centrally. Upper and lower limbs can move centrally in all directions, challenging balance. Central pathways are straight, direct and radiate from the core.
Peripheral pathways touch the inner surface of the kinesphere. Movers sweep limbs across the space, in curves, in all directions. Tossing over the top is peripheral movement. Keep the image of touching the kinesphere to encourage big reach, and remind movers of the space behind and below, too.
Transverse pathways cross the midline, passing from one side of the kinesphere to the other, in front and behind the body while remaining in one place. Smaller, intricate movements may appear in this exploration. The pathways can take direct or indirect routes as they cross the midline. Encourage movers to explore all limbs, both upper and lower.
After exploring size and pathway in the kinesphere, take a walk or transition into a warm up and see how your sense of space is affected. How does this change your spatial awareness? Do you move with more volume? Are you aware of all sides and dimensions of yourself in the space, not just the front of the body?
This is a great way to start a movement exploration, and establish a bigger and more dimensional sense of self and others.
If you are already doing the Developmental Movement Pattern Sequence found on my CD Brain Bop (also called the “Braindance” developed by Anne Green Gilbert), you might enjoy using these same 8 patterns to develop a technical warm up for your students ages 7 or 8 and up.
I suggest working with one or more colleagues to brainstorm ideas that work for ballet, modern, jazz or hip-hop. Start with one technique only, and develop a progressive warm up that follows the sequence while also teaching elements and principles of the technique.
Then, film or otherwise document the different sequences and keep them handy. They can be used on a rotating basis.
In my Creative Dance for Children seminar, college students divided into groups and created. I videoed and posted, so that whoever was lead-teaching had a point of departure. The warm up was refined and improved upon from one week to the next.
In our ages 8-10 class, we divided our semester into 4 weeks each of modern, ballet and hip hop just for the warm up. The rest of the lesson followed a concept-based approach for technique, improvisation and composition. We did refer back to the “technique of the week” in the across the floor phrases, layering on new technique ideas as they were introduced through the warm up over the course of the semester.
In preparation for our “Informance” (informal, open class), students decided ahead of time which of the three different warm ups they wanted to share. That became the warm up for the demonstration class, shared with parents and friends.
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.
Doing something you’ve never done before can be intimidating.
A couple of years ago, I decided to audit a hip hop class. Most of the students were college freshman. Then there was me, a senior……citizen.
The first day I had to make myself be okay with moving across the floor. That’s the part of class when it’s you and three other dancers and the rest of the class is either waiting to start or waiting and watching on the other side. I had to dig down into my ego place and let go of my fears about public risk-taking.
It was hard to come back to the next class, but I made myself do it.
By the third day, I got into the groove. During the semester I learned to loosen up, get more grounded, and expand my identity beyond “modern dancer.”
Not only was it a pivotal experience for me, but I also earned the respect of the freshman class.
Similarly, our students may start by being intimidated or slow to embrace the new things we are teaching. This creates chaos, such as acting out, laughter, or non-compliance. In classes with youngest children, some may sit out, be reluctant to enter the room, cling or cry.
However, by Day 3 this dynamic has shifted. The little girl who wouldn’t enter the room without Mom is now pushing Mom out the door. The little boy who wouldn’t take off his shoes and socks is now relishing the feeling of bare feet on the floor.
For us, the teachers, the Rule of 3 also applies. The first time I teach a new activity, my delivery may be a little clunky. I haven’t yet figured out the fewest, best words and movements to demonstrate the skills. By the third time I teach that activity, the flow is better and I have clearer expectations for the outcome.
How does the Rule of 3 apply to becoming a creative dance teacher?
The first time I taught Anne Green Gilbert’s concept-based approach and lesson plan structure – and this was after 20 years of following my own methodology – I felt like I was wearing borrowed clothes. Having children say the concepts aloud was new to me, as was including a time for constructive resting. I had to trust the act of leaving my comfort zone so that I could grow as a teacher.
The upshot is this: be patient with yourself, your students and the process. It takes a while to get comfortable with “the new.” But the courage and perseverance is worth the reward, for students and teachers alike.
I just completed another semester of teaching Creative Dance for Children.
As I observed the college students practice-teach in our lab program, these tips came up repeatedly.
Note: Our classes follow the lesson plan format established by Anne Green Gilbert in her two seminal works: Creative Dance for All Ages and Brain-Compatible Dance Education. If you do not already own these two volumes…run, don’t walk… and get them.
Tips for teaching 4 and 5 year olds
1) Free Play before Class
If behavior is inappropriate…..Don’t just stand there and watch. Provide a fascinating alternative instead, preferably related to the concept(s) of the day.
This is relevant if children come into the room and start running, or hitting each other with the prop of the day (scarves, noodles, etc.)
Use a sound source, instead of your voice, to transition from free play to the warm up. Teach it on the first day of class. A drum can be very effective. Or play a melody on a pitched instrument, such as a recorder (flute), that says “time to clean up and join the circle.”
To speed up (and make joyful) the transition for gathering in a circle, sing to gather the children. The novelty attracts their attention and gets them moving quicker.
Example: Pick a familiar melody such as “London Bridge” and make up words: “Join me in the circle now, my dear dancers.”
DROP HANDS BEFORE you open out a circle, to prevent pulling.
Pitch your singing voice high, since the children have high voices.
When a child is off-task but not distracting from the group or hurting herself or others, it’s okay to leave her/him alone, and invite her/him in to participate periodically.
If you are sitting near a child who doesn’t get a movement pattern, you can manipulate their limbs so they get the pattern, or ask an assisting teacher to do so.
Introducing the Concept
Color-code the different concept words on the board so you can refer to them by color for your non-readers.
Use color to suggest meaning, such as green for “go” and red for “stop.”
Clap the syllables of words and say them at the same time to help children to ‘chunk’ the information and understand it better. Always have children say the new vocabulary/concept.
Give a brief explanation of new vocabulary any time you introduce it.
Examples: Gestures are everyday movements we do to communicate. Locomotor movement goes from one place to another.
Note: when facing children you have to reverse your OWN right and left.
When children try to cut in line, teach them to find a place at the end of the line. This is a basic get-along skill required in school, too.
For leaps….when you set up cones or other props to leap over….. check the leap distances to make it challenging.
To signal a ‘freeze’ to a group while they are running, it helps to shake the drum as a ‘warning’ followed by the double-beat ‘freeze’ sound.
It is helpful to play the uneven rhythm of skip, gallop and side slide on a drum when teaching these locomotor movements.
The first time you teach constructive alignment, tell the children that you are going to give them 3 adjustments: legs, arms, head. Ask them to ‘pretend they are sleeping’ when you do the adjustments so they’ll be dead weight.
Designate ‘zones’ when you divide the groups so each group has a nice amount of work space.
When watching different dances:
Ask the audience beforehand to “watch with a purpose.” What will we be looking for?
During review, if you aren’t getting anything back, you can always refer back to the board and the color of the word.
Review all activities before asking for favorites at the end of class.
To be quick and inclusive, have everyone show their understanding of the concept at the end (e.g. ‘show me shaky movement’ or ‘show me a curved shape’) Call on specific kids rather than have them raise hands.
Tips for teaching older children (ages 6 -10)
Any time you teach movement that involves dropping the head, children will raise their heads up to watch you. Therefore, model first, have them do it, then embed it in the combination.
Remember, when you are at the barre they ALWAYS have to see you. You must be furthest downstage of their movement. Otherwise, they are looking over their shoulder.
Sometimes a movement is better understood with everyone facing your back to see the mechanics of the movement, rather than in a circle.
Developing skills and moving across the floor
Rhythmic acuity is an important skill to build. If students are rushing the beat, you can stop the group, have them listen to YOU clapping the beat, then have them join again.
When modeling something that faces away, have them watch you first, then have them join you in the face away.
For backwards walking (and all backwards movement) across the floor, you can have first line people touch the backs of all the others as they arrive at the line.
In a jump-hop combo, encourage dancers to alternate the hopping leg.
For safety sake in weight sharing/bearing….teach a wrist connect (holding at wrists rather than hands).
Always give a 4-count pick up at the top of a rhythmic combination, even when first modeling.
What would you give as a refinement when students repeat the combination? As you watch students, note what could be refined. Timing? Skill? Smoothness of transitions?
If groups are done creating and seem to be aimless, you can say “show me what you’ve got.” You can also do that for groups that get ‘stuck.’ “Show me what you’ve got” helps groups get ‘unstuck.’
Give a time ‘warning’ for wrapping up: “1 more minute.”
General Tips for All Ages:
Make sure the volume of the music never overwhelms your voice.
Make sure students don’t always group together the same. Give them frequent opportunities to learn how to work with others.
Note how hard it is for the children to integrate when they come late! Have a welcoming strategy for that (e.g. pair your assistant with that child to help them transition)
When students come into class wearing distracting clothing (mask, feather boa, crazy shirt, scarf) try right at the start of class to see if you can get rid of it. (Could be a class rule). But do it in a fun way. Usually, when a student is bothered by the garment, you can see an opening and ask them to leave it by the door to pick up on the way out.
Demand that children give you their concentration and call on the off-task ones to get their attention during all instruction-giving.
During reflection – if younger students are getting stuck, time is short, or the concept is challenging – give choices to select from among.
Examples: Which movement was smooth: punching or swaying? Which was the low level movement: crawling, leaping or walking?
This is the third and final post in this Lesson Plan Series.
Notice these things:
- Simplify more complex activities to make them age appropriate.
- Teach a skill, then apply it in the following activity.
- Use visual supports to teach, empower and improve memory.
Simplify more complex activities to make them age appropriate.
For Here We Go Round and Round, I adapted a circle dance that is usually done holding hands, traveling around the circle line.
Since the concept was ‘Body Parts.’ I made the circling into ‘circle one body part, one way and the other.’ The sequence of the dance remained the same except for that. I posted the downloadable visual support for this dance, found on the Songs for Dancing CD, so we could use it as a visual reference. See my post called What to do with…. Here We Go Round and Round for more details on that.
Teach a skill, then apply it in the following activity.
See my post called Using Galloping Song to teach Apples and Oranges for more details on that!
Use visual supports to teach, empower and improve memory.
Use the letter “S” to teach qualities: smooth, sharp, shaky and swinging. You can even use letter blends – sh, and sw – if you want to up the challenge level. Use the “S” visual for review, to check for understanding.
See my post called What to do with….Imaginary Journey to download the visuals for that activity. Use the visuals before you teach, while you are teaching, and when you review. Very powerful and empowering for the children.
Finally, use your collection of visuals as an archive.
When it’s free choice time, I place three pictures in front of a child and ask him/her to choose which activity we will do. If there’s time, pick another child to choose another activity after you’ve done the first one. There are all kinds of methods you can use to select and sequence free choice activities when the visual supports are available. I keep my visual supports in page protectors in a binder. I either put the ones I’m offering for free choice on a 1″ book ring for ease of flipping pages, post them on the board, or lay them out on the floor.
Here are the last 5 lessons in this series.
Enjoy your time with the children!