10 Lessons Studio Teachers Can Borrow from the Classroom
K–12 teachers share their best practices.
The greatest difference between studio students and those in a K–12 setting is that students in the studio generally want to be there,” says Elisabeth Gosselin, who teaches at Harlem Success Academy in New York City. But, she notes, even studio dancers need a teacher with strong classroom-management skills and compelling incentives. For any good teacher, the key to running a smooth classroom is setting high expectations for behavior and performance, giving explicit and direct instructions and being consistent with consequences. Those goals can be a challenge in a private studio, where parents might have a different relationship with the instructors than they might with a teacher in a public school.
And yet, for kids, the studio and the classroom don’t need to be so different from each other. In fact, children can benefit from seeing strategies they’ve encountered at school repeated in the dance studio. Encouraging continuity from the academic day into the dance day can really stimulate students, says Baltimore public school teacher Judy Kurjan-Frank.
“Earlier this year a little first-grade boy told me that they were learning about ants in their classroom. They all seemed excited about that unit, so I bought some books about ants,” she says. “We read them together and made a list of all the movement words. We practiced doing all the movements, and then we made a dance and presented it to their classroom teacher. They loved their ‘Ant Dance’ because it was based on their ideas and interests.”
This and many other ideas, both practical and philosophical, can translate well from a K–12 dance class to any kind of setting. In that spirit, we asked classroom teachers to share their strategies.
1 The Power of Planning
Although some studio instructors teach from a set curriculum, many do not. Megan Doyle, the associate director of dance education at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in NYC, has taught in both studio and classroom settings, but it was in the K–12 environment that she first began keeping a notebook of her lesson plans and working out specific themes for her classes. “It was so important and helpful for me to break down what my plan was for each lesson,” she says. “Does the warm-up match the center work? How will this take the students to the next level?”
If she’s introducing jazz pirouettes, for instance, her warm-up will focus on the difference between parallel and turned-out positioning. Exercises across the floor might concentrate on spotting and alignment in a fourth-position preparation, and then the combination will include the pirouette.
Not only does the planning give you a record of your classes, it also helps you chart a student’s progress. “When you’re talking with parents in a studio setting, you often have to explain why a child might need to stay in Jazz I for another year,” Doyle says. “Having a record of what they’ve learned through the year gives a sense of a student’s progress and helps you verbalize that.”
2 Word Walls and Charts
On the subject of charts, Doyle also suggests creating “word wall” posters to help dancers pick up vocabulary, especially as they’re learning new steps. “They don’t have to be permanent,” she says. “You can use sticky paper and fix it to the wall. As they learn a new dance step during technique classes, you’d write it on the wall. In tap class, I might write down words like ‘stamp, shuffle, brush, shim sham.’ When they learn maxi ford, I’ll write ‘stamp, shuffle, leap, toe’ next to the step, so the students can look at and refer back to it.”
Doyle also uses the wall space to follow her dancers’ achievements. She puts up a chart with every student’s name and writes the names of steps across the top. For young kids in hip hop, for instance, she might track isolations (head, shoulders, ribs, hips), slide clap, crazy arms, kick-ball-change or rock step and give a child a star every time they learn a step. “It also helps the parents see what their children are doing whenever they visit the studio,” she adds.
3 Freeze Frame
Managing energetic kids in a classroom is often a matter of setting up simple but useful structures with the group. Judy Kurjan-Frank, who teaches in Edgewood Elementary School in Baltimore, likes to use a drum as part of her classroom-management toolkit. “They learn very early on that two beats on the drum means ‘Freeze!’” she says. “We play games where I try to trick them, so they have to always have one ear open for the sound.”
For instance, you might instruct that one drumbeat means students freeze and put their hands on their knees. Two drumbeats might mean to immediately sit on the spot. In the process, kids are learning to pay attention to auditory signals, as well as when it’s appropriate to move or not move. Once the idea is in place, drumbeats are a quick way to quiet a busy class, or hit the “pause button” on rambunctious students if you need to make an announcement, for instance, or help an injured student.
Instead of drums, you could use other noisemaking devices, such as a tambourine or hand claps. “Whatever you decide to use, whether it’s drum, claps, etc.,” she warns, “make sure that that specific phrase or pattern is only used for ‘freeze,’ otherwise it won’t be effective.”
4 Spatial Awareness
Kurjan-Frank helps kids develop awareness of others around them and how they’re moving in the room with a concept called Space Bubbles, which she learned from Jennie Miller at P.S. 3 in New York City. This is especially helpful in a larger group. “I explain to the kids that we have invisible bubbles all around our body and we are inside of the bubble all the time,” she says. “Our bubble travels with us around the room, and when we expand our body to take up more space, so does our bubble. When we make our body take up less space, so does our bubble.”
If the dancers bump into something, whether it’s the wall or each other, she sends them to the “bubble hospital,” a designated place in the room where they have to sit out for one turn while their bubble gets fixed. Be sure to let the students know that if they pop a bubble by accident, they are not in trouble, but they will need to be more careful next time. If a student pops his or her bubble on purpose or is obviously being careless, they’ll sit out for two or three turns.
“Mostly, though, the kids don’t want to have to sit out of the game, so they try to avoid popping bubbles,” says Kurjan-Frank. “This helps to create a safer space and dancers who are more aware of their bodies in space.”
5 Silent Signals
Creating an atmosphere of respect in the classroom is key to Melinda Waegerle, an assistant professor in dance education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her classes, she uses the American Sign Language gesture for “respect” as a quick, silent method of communicating with the dancers. “I want the students to know they need to respect themselves as learners, to respect others, their teachers, that they need to respect ideas. Having someone make fun of ideas or the way you did something can be devastating,” she says.
Her students also learn to use other signs during class, to signal if they need to use the bathroom, for instance, so the interruptions to the flow of the lesson are minimized. “The students are savvy to that and pick up on it quickly,” she says.
6 Drawing Out Shy Dancers
“I was a shy little dancer myself,” says Waegerle, “so I often think about how to get the kids out of feeling pulled back.” She will sometimes play with the idea of range of motion to make dancers feel comfortable, giving them a “step” that starts with a very small movement. “I do it silly small,” she says, laughing. “A finger motion that moves into a hand, then the arm, then the torso. We make it super-silly, teeny-tiny stuff that becomes gigantic. It’s a fun thing for kids who are shy.”
The game sometimes evolves into a circle activity in which Waegerle keeps a beat going as each dancer contributes a small movement. “They have to do it eight times in a row,” she says. “I’ll go first, and then we move to the next person in the circle. You really have to think about ‘What can I do eight times in a row that everyone can do?’ From there we’ll do movements that we repeat four times, two times, one time.”
With the beat continuing on, everyone gets to be a leader as well as a follower, and there’s little time to get embarrassed or feel self-conscious.
7 Changing Places
Waegerle also notes that dancers have a tendency to head to the same places in the room from one class to the next. “I like to mix it up so no one can claim turf,” she says. “So I’ll call out ‘new spot,’ and while I play the drum, they have to find a new place in the room.”
Her students have to stay alert because they know that at any point in class she might ask them to change their location. “It breaks up the little cliques that happen,” she says. “For students who are uncomfortable or shy, if there are cliques, it makes them even more shy.”
8 Positive Narration
To keep the atmosphere upbeat, Gosselin uses positive narration, a simple strategy that turns the negativity of a correction into a positive encouragement. “Instead of telling kids what not to do, I emphasize telling them what to do,” she says. “After giving my instructions, I highlight the students who are following my directions exactly. I also correct the students who are off task after I have given them a chance to correct the behaviors through positive narration, framing it as a reminder.”
It’s a tip that works best with younger dancers, Gosselin says. “If the kids are at the barre, I might ask them to use their abdominals. So as they do their pliés, I’ll call out specific names—‘Tammy is engaging her abs,’ ‘Julie is lifting up.’”
This reinforcement also serves as a reminder to the entire class, giving them a chance to respond positively.
9 Special Tasks
One of the ways Kathleen Isaac addresses ownership of classroom etiquette and rules is to give special jobs to dancers in the class. She might assign entrance monitors to make sure students enter the room quietly; or shoe inspectors, who make certain the dancers’ shoes are neatly lined up; or back checkers to walk around the room with wands, reminding others to sit or stand up with tall dancer backs. A student might also be the class DJ, turning the music on or off and adjusting the volume. It can be a way to help a behaviorally difficult student to focus, but it can also encourage students to rise to a role of responsibility.
“This student-centered approach allows me to continue engaging students individually, in pairs, small groups and as a class,” says Isaac, who specializes in K–12 teaching practice as director of the Arnhold Graduate Dance Education Program at CUNY Hunter College.
10 Learning Styles
In any class, particularly large ones, you’re likely to have groups of dancers who learn in a certain way, whether they’re visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Jeffrey Dobbs, who teaches at the Queens Valley School of the Arts in Flushing, NY, suggests observing students for a few classes to assess what kinds of learners they are, and then grouping together those who share similar styles.
“While I’m teaching, of course, I’ll talk and say the steps while I’m doing it, so they hear over and over again,” he says. “But then I’ll ask the groups to work on their own for 10 minutes, and during that time, I’ll go around to each group and work with them using the learning style that works best for them.”
“It takes a lot of patience, but it’s worth it,” he says. DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer and dance teacher.
©Thinkstock; photo courtesy of 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center; photo by Roxie Waegerle, courtesy of Jesse Wharton Elementary; photo courtesy of Elisabeth Gosselin; photo courtesy of Kathleen Isaac; by Catherine Kramer, courtesy of Queens Valley School of the Arts