Freddie-Lee Heath wins over PE instructors with his pop culture-inspired choreography
Lady Gaga’s voice reverberated through the hotel’s multilevel atrium. It was the second day of the Arkansas Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s convention, an annual gathering of instructors and college majors from throughout the state. Freddie-Lee Heath’s “Get your ‘Glee’ On!” packed dance workshop was held in the atrium, in full view—and earshot—of other guests. Susan Mayes, an instructor in the Health Science, Kinesiology, Recreation & Dance department at the University of Arkansas, looked up at the floors above her and spotted two girls dancing Heath’s choreography. “They had heard the music and came out of their room,” Mayes says. “There they were, in their pajamas, learning combos four floors above!”
Best known for his musical theater and tap choreography, Heath has used his tenure as the National Dance Association’s 2010 K–12 Dance Educator of the Year to encourage PE teachers to incorporate contemporary choreography into their dance units. He hopes that using dances modified from popular movies and TV shows, such as Stomp the Yard, Honey and “Glee,” will help PE instructors overcome their fears of teaching dance and encourage them to make dance engaging for their students.
“In a perfect world, I would have dance teachers teaching dance units,” Heath says. But with budget cuts, many states have rolled dance standards into PE classes. While sports and dance both rely on physical aptitude, strength and discipline, making the leap from teaching one to the other can be daunting for PE instructors. Those with little or no dance experience can be intimidated by teaching moves they themselves don’t feel comfortable doing. Other teachers, such as Kayla Daniels, a PE instructor at John Tyson Elementary School in Springdale, AK, have dance backgrounds but remain wary of teaching complicated choreography to reluctant students. “I was concerned about my students’ maturity level,” says Daniels, who attended both of Heath’s workshops at the ArkAHPERD convention.
Heath, who teaches at an inner-city magnet school in Raleigh, NC, is sensitive to their fears. He has worked as a dancer, choreographer and educator for over 20 years, and many of his students have little or no dance background. “I have to bring them gently into the fold,” he says.
Heath has presented his workshops at conferences across the country, and his upbeat, lighthearted manner quickly sets participants at ease. He begins the hour-long sessions with warm-ups and isolations. Then he introduces 8-count phrases slowly, giving participants a taste of more complex choreography, but always returning to basic movements. “He has so many variations of how you can do one step,” says Daniels. To execute a 180-degree turn, for instance, he has beginners take a single step toward the back of the room, while more advanced dancers might make a three-step turn completing one and a half revolutions. Heath checks in with participants frequently, asking them if they’re ready to move on and repeating the step if they’re not.
Rather than use unfamiliar dance terminology, Heath uses descriptive phrases and everyday terms—Beyoncé booty, robot hands—that participants can relate to. He slowly brings in more technical choreography, including attitude turns and syncopation, but always allows beginners to keep practicing basic steps if they don’t feel comfortable moving on. At the end of the workshop, he hands out sheets reviewing the music and steps in shorthand, often using the same language he uses in the workshop. One 8-count for Heath’s Honey routine, for example, reads: “Walk R/L/R/L; pop fist by head on 5; turn over back shoulder 6, 7; look right 8 (sucker punch).”
Throughout his workshops, Heath references ways to incorporate steps into a variety of classrooms. “He’s constantly talking about muscle groups and developmentally appropriate techniques,” Mayes says. For younger dancers, for example, a simple hop might substitute for a more complicated footwork pattern. Heath also considers age-appropriate music, telling elementary teachers that they can swap Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” for a more familiar and less controversial song such as “Thriller.” What’s important is that dance is relevant to students’ lives, says Heath. He uses choreography and music inspired by “Glee” because it’s popular among middle schoolers. It’s a way to capture students’ attention while also “tying in levels, spacing and slow, sustained movement,” he says.
While Heath acknowledges that some participants might forget the specifics of his choreography, he hopes the experience will break down their inhibitions to teaching dance. The temptation, he says, is to rely on a DVD or a video game like Dance Dance Revolution. Between his cue words and the actual steps, he hopes they’ll use even a small excerpt of his routines and build on it to make it their own. He wants to foster creativity in teachers and thus their students. “I always preface choreography with ‘What I’m giving you is just a skeleton,’” Heath says.
His workshops gave PE instructor Daniels the confidence to try his approach with her elementary-aged students. This year, she revamped her dance unit to focus less on traditional square dances and more on contemporary moves and music. “I honestly underestimated my students in thinking there would be no way they’d get it,” she says. “They do get it, as long as you have variations that start very, very simple and let them add as much as they want to a step.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Virginia.
Photo by Nathan Acosta, courtesy of NCAAHPERD