How to Help Your Students Develop Their Creative Voices

Dana Genshaft has only one rule for budding choreographers at San Francisco Ballet School: No cartwheels or splits allowed. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet School

Ask a 5-year-old to make up a dance, and she'll probably skip around the room, impulsively moving to the music. But give the same assignment to a teenage dancer, and the student might clam up, unsure what to do. Even mature dancers can feel reluctant to create something new, especially if they've never tried their hand at choreography. "I wasn't exposed to the art of making dances until I was in college," says Lauren Giordano Curran, faculty at Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. "I felt self-conscious because I had never had that experience."

It's easy to overlook the vital practice of helping dancers develop their creative voices, when so much of dance training tends to focus on technique and repertory. But teachers can introduce the art of making dances in age-appropriate ways, giving students the tools they need to choreograph and the confidence to do it.

Start with Improv

"Making dances starts with improvisational concepts first," says Janis Brenner, artistic director of Janis Brenner & Dancers and on faculty at The Juilliard School in New York City. When working with young dancers, harness their creativity by having them build on one idea at a time. Play with space in the room, for example: Where is front and back? How can they move on a diagonal?

Giordano Curran likes to start with a basic shape, like a rectangle, or even an animal. "Give them something they can really imagine, then they can mimic what they see," she says. "Getting comfortable with improv at a young age will make choreographing easier for them, more natural."

As students mature, try offering classes on improvisation, which could then lead into composition or choreography. "Get them to think creatively about movement rather than pre-learned steps, styles or techniques," says Brenner. "It should be mandatory, like jazz or ballet. Then they can really apply the joy of moving into their own unique vocabulary."

Offer Parameters

Students need structure to help guide their improvisation and, eventually, their choreographic approach. "When young people aren't given parameters, they can feel pretty intimidated," says Brenner. "They end up trying to do tricks to impress rather than thinking about movement invention." With more experienced students, Brenner suggests working with abstract concepts like space, time, shape and motion. "Each little motif becomes the guiding principle that allows you to stay in the idea."

Music can also provide structure. Giordano Curran selects age-appropriate songs for students so they can "tap into an idea and connect to it"—songs offer built-in narrative ideas for dancers to draw from. Brenner will quietly play atmospheric music in the room while students improvise, watching as movements take on their own phrasing and dynamics. Once the material is set, Brenner talks about how music can influence the experience. If students start presenting their dance to Bach, for example, she will then have them try the same movements to a song from Björk. "They'll see movement in a completely different context and feeling," says Brenner. "Show them how a choreographic phrase can be so many different things depending on what you do with it."

Lauren Giordano Curran of Gus Giordano Dance School, Chicago. Photo courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School

Work Together

When students start to choreograph, put them in pairs or small groups so they don't feel like they're being put on the spot or judged in any way. Dana Genshaft, contemporary teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, sometimes organizes students into groups based on material they've created. "Each group has a flavor and ingredients I feel would be most successful together," she says. She then gives each group a choice of three music options and lets them run with it. "The goal is to allow students to make choices together. The kids learn how many choices there are in choreography and how to filter their decisions based on logic and aesthetic."

Brenner sometimes asks dancers to work in pairs, and then each duet teaches their choreography to a new couple. "All of a sudden you've got a quartet," she explains. "They have to explain what they just made up and develop a language for directing or imparting movement information." Some students might show the choreography, while others articulate what they've done in words. It's an exercise for students about how to share and develop new material.

If you can empower young dancers to move creatively and consider movement theory, you are nurturing a new generation of choreographers. "Teachers can help with the building blocks," says Genshaft. "Allow students to experiment when they're young, and they'll walk away with a growing respect for the choreographic process. Maybe they'll be motivated to try it again."

Show Comments ()
Courtesy of NUVO Dance Convention

For all intents and purposes, Stacey Tookey is a Disney princess. Her voice is like honey as she waltzes around the classroom exclaiming words of encouragement, she sees the best in all of her dancers from the front row to the back and she's absolutely beautiful. I mean, come one! Who get's to have a kid, hip surgery, years of wear and tear and still maintain eternally lovely lines that rotate into perfection?

What's more? She creates a nurturing environment in her classroom where dancers feel comfortable as they navigate challenging combinations and complex emotions. No matter what you're going through, dancing with Tookey is good for the soul.

Here are four takeaways from her class this past week. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Jim Lafferty

Have you ever attended an audition and wished that you knew what the director was looking for? We've rounded up some of our favorite quotes from our Director's Notes column over the past few years to give you a deeper glimpse into the minds of 10 artistic directors.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via Kenedy Kalls Instagram

Dancers have a language all their own. From French technical terms to scatting out choreography dynamics, it's a wonder any nondancers understand a word we say! Perhaps some of the most confusing dancer terms are the various foods we use to describe our feet. To help dance outsiders out, DT broke down the foods that are commonplace in dancer lingo. Share them with your loved ones, so they can better understand the weird and wonderful breed of dancer that you are.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Image via Michaels' Instagram

We all know and love Mia Michaels. She's a fearless choreographer and teacher, who's inspired a generation of dancers with her unique style, grace and brilliance. What's not to love? And now we can't help but gush over a personal confession she recently shared on Instagram.

Bottom line: No matter your age, size or shape, don't wait to love your body or yourself.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

I recently started back in modern dance after a long hiatus—I stopped dancing at age 11 and went back two years ago at age 24. I've found that when I'm on the floor, I can't open to a very wide second. Also, if I'm sitting in butterfly on the floor with my feet together, my knees are some distance from the ground. What can I do to loosen my hips?

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!