Freddie-Lee Heath wins over PE instructors with his pop culture-inspired choreography

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

How-To

Introducing and teaching rhythm can seem easy, but in reality it can prove to be a complicated concept—especially for younger dancers to grasp. At Ballet Hispánico's School of Dance in New York City, Los Explorers for 3- to 5-year-olds uses classic salsa and tango music to help kids acquire rhythmic awareness.

Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Neuromuscular expert Deborah Vogel with Jordan Lazan, right. Photo by Jim Lafferty

By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

Next Page
How-To
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored