In the Magazine

Maria Hanley

Music for early childhood class

Hanley sings instructions to keep little ones engaged.

A self-described 4-year-old at heart, Maria Hanley has a knack for understanding the mind-sets of young dancers. During the rare moment when she isn’t teaching one of her 20 weekly creative ballet classes at the New York City Jewish Community Center, you can find her in a toy store browsing for props or in the children’s section of the library, gathering ideas for classroom activities from picture books. Among her tiny dancers—ages 18 months to 6 years—Hanley says the 3-year-olds are a particular source of inspiration. “They start to make their own shapes and move their bodies in the way they want to, instead of just following along with me,” she says. “I can give more to them, and they can give me more ideas back.”

Though she plays the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” as part of her warm-up, Hanley, who earned her master’s degree in dance education from New York University, limits her use of instructional songs. “I try not to use directive music all the time, because then why am I here?” she says. “I try to have the music enhance what I’m doing versus lead it.” She chooses tracks that appeal to young listeners and spark their imaginations, switching between instrumentals and songs with lyrics.

To keep students focused and moving smoothly from one set activity to the next, Hanley often sings instructions instead of speaking them, like “Have a seat, have a seat on the wall,” to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” That way, dancers stay engaged with the game instead of scattering. “In this age group the transitions are really important,” she says. “I don’t just say, ‘Stand up.’ I have a way for them to do it.” DT


Artist: Wee Sing (Pamela Conn Beall and Susan Hagen Nipp)

Album: Wee Sing and Pretend

Children’s voices accompany musical encounters with animals, motorcycles, cowboys and more. “There’s one song called ‘My Blue Balloon,’ and you blow it up and float in the sky. Every song leaves space for dancers to create their own movement.”


Artist: Lisa Harris

Album: The Magic Wand: Preballet Music

Piano interpretations of popular songs, from show tunes to pop melodies, with suggested ballet exercises for each track. “I use this for explorations with my toddlers and practicing ballet steps with my 5-year-olds. It has many instrumental classics on it, and they make me so happy to dance to in class.”


Artist: The Bossy Frog Band

Song: “Nature Freeze Dance”

This bouncy, upbeat song prompts students to dance like different animals, with a moment to freeze between each. “It has everything! It’s a freeze dance, it’s about animals, it incorporates tempo and choreography. It’s the best for the free dance portion of class.”


Artist: Mikey’s Band

Album: Blast Off With Mikey’s Band

Original, beachy, singer-songwriter sounds à la Jason Mraz for kids. “It’s great to set choreography on preschoolers. My favorites are ‘Lucky Lady Bug’ and ‘When I Grow Up.’ The songs are catchy and slow enough for counting and singing.”


Artist: Anne-Marie Akin

Song: “Milkshake Song”

An acoustic song that instructs students to combine ingredients and shake up their milkshake. “In my toddler class, I cannot get away with skipping this song. They love it. It lends itself to a stretch, a turn and a lot of shakin’ it up! It’s gold.”



Photo (top) by Nancy Adler, courtesy of Maria Hanley

In Motion's senior company dancers and Candice after a showcase performance in Bermuda, (2016). Photo courtesy of Culmer-Smith

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