Midway through every semester at Indiana University Bloomington, contemporary professor Stephanie Nugent notices that her students aren't quite as awake as they were the first week of classes. They're tired from midterm exams and bring less energy to the studio. Nugent, too, feels the lull. "Teaching in academia is an arc with many peaks and valleys," she says, noting that the repetition of exercises can get monotonous. "On days when it feels like we've been doing the same thing over and over, I give students an improvisational prompt, and it reignites all of our interests. It's something to investigate, rather than something to repeat."
Most teachers experience a moment of stagnation at some point. Maybe students aren't progressing as fast as you feel they should, or you feel uninspired by the daily routine. Factors outside the studio, like administrative work, can also deplete your energy reserves. During these low and slow times, consider the following ideas to find inspiration and give yourself—and your students—a boost.
Because of his own hyperextended knees, Mark Morris Dance Group member Billy Smith pays particular attention to the condition in his students. Locked knees, he says, lead to locked hips, denying your full mobility. This combination requires a straight and stable supporting leg through both a rond de jambe en l'air and a promenade. Softening behind the knees to counteract hyperextension allows you to fully access your turnout and stand easier.
When a principal, teacher, or parent walks into a room and sees 20 children rolling around on the floor and then leaping for the sky (learning about level changes), or jumping about like frogs (in a role-playing improvisation activity), they might not always understand what's going on. That's why Deborah Damast, clinical assistant professor and artistic advisor of the dance education program at NYU Steinhardt, offered up several responses as to why this type of movement—often a precursor to formal ballet/tap/jazz classes—is so very important.
As 30 dancers in booty shorts and socks concentrate to perform grand pliés in center, Heather Rigg glides around the perimeter of the studio. She counts off the exercise as she checks students' alignment to gauge their level of experience. “That's when I see whether I need to take something out of the combination or restructure it. I can tell at that point what the pace is going to be."
William Whitener held countless auditions when he directed The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and he himself learned from legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse about what it takes to make it on Broadway. Now he coaches ballet students on these skills when he guest teaches around the country. "Auditions require a certain amount of strategy," says Whitener. He holds mock auditions and discusses all aspects of the process—registration, class and even how to make a professional exit. "Practicing for this kind of performance works better than telling dancers what they should do," he says. "They need to actually do it."
When I was 23, an e-mail circulated among my former college dance classmates at Towson University, regarding a teaching position as the jazz director at the In Motion School of Dance studio in Bermuda. I applied, and after a few e-mails, I got offered the job.
Four weeks later, I packed up my tiny little car in Denver, where I was a dancer for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and drove across the country to my hometown in Maryland, before flying out for my new life in Bermuda.
Looking back now, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't have time to think through how I should prepare and what I needed to do to officially apply for a work permit. I was mostly concerned with how I was going to pack all my clothes and belongings into two suitcases. If I could go back, I wish I would've had a more specific guide to what teaching in another country entailed.
In an effort to share my experience, here's what I wish I would've known before I left and what I learned over my 10 years living and working as a dance teacher abroad.
Q: My students just stand in front of the class and read the screen of their PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations. Is there another platform that's better at capturing attention?
A: A new option I like is Sutori, in which you set up your presentation on a vertical timeline. It changes things up by having the viewer start at the top and work downward, with items placed on either side of a center line. The program is intuitive, and the presentation flows nicely. You can add text, images, sound files and videos—and even create multiple-choice quiz questions. It also has a forum option to cultivate conversations. Since it lives in the cloud, it can be created collaboratively, making it great for group work. It's also an effective way to communicate step-by-step directions for an assignment, and it functions well as a self-guided presentation, like a study guide.