How-To

How to Help Your Students Create Dances of Their Own

Anne Kramer, owner/artistic director of Dance Etc. in Milford, Ohio, with her students. Photo by Jorja Vornhder, courtesy of Kramer.

While regular technique class is the backbone of a young dancer's training, it's also important for all of your dancers—from the tiniest to the most accomplished—to experience creative movement, improvisation and dance making. “Even at age 5 or 6, if the child makes up her own dance, I see a better performance," says Ellen Robbins, a New York City modern teacher and director of Dances by Very Young Choreographers.

Choreographing helps students think more creatively about every aspect of dance, and it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Several veteran teachers who work specifically to develop choreographic skills in students share with DT their tips for guiding the dance making process.


Sparking Creativity

When it comes to encouraging creative movement, Christy Wolverton of Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, Texas, begins with improvisation. She finds that the “freeze dance" game, in which she puts on music and the kids dance around, freezing in one position when the music is turned off, is great for students ages 4 through 10. “They absolutely love it and it encourages them to move freely," Wolverton says.

Ellen Robbins' student Beatrice March. Photo by Faye Ellman, courtesy of Robbins

Young dancers can also benefit from slightly more structured improvisation. In improv classes for children 6 through 10, Robbins has the students choose partners who are responsible for watching each other during a guided exercise. Each classmate has to tell her partner one thing she liked and one thing that could have been done differently. “I try to get them interested in looking at and appreciating dance," she says. “I want them to learn how you can tweak something to make it more effective."

In her weekly summer choreography class for students ages 10 and up, Anne Kramer, owner/artistic director of Dance Etc. in Milford, Ohio, emphasizes the use of prompts. “Some kids get very emotional or stressed out when they try to create," Kramer says. Prompts ease that anxiety by giving them a place to begin. For example, Kramer will write out different steps on slips of paper, have her students pick two at random, and then ask them to use the steps in a short movement phrase. Or she'll have her students stand in a circle and pass around a prop (a hula hoop, a stuffed animal, a hat), asking each one to come up with something to do with it—quickly. “That gives them almost no time to analyze their decision, so they just act intuitively," Kramer says. Accessing that natural movement intuition helps them explore movement fearlessly when they begin to choreograph.

Choosing a Topic

Alice Teirstein, founding director of the Young Dancemakers Company summer dance ensemble—a group of New York City public high school students who create and perform original choreography—says her biggest challenge is getting young choreographers to come up with their own ideas, since most students gravitate toward clichéd topics or things they've already seen. She helps her students discover what's meaningful to them personally by giving them a provocative statement to think about. “I'll say something like, 'You are inheriting this world,' and then ask them, 'What pleases you about that? What doesn't please you? What do you want to change?'" Teirstein says. “Or I'll ask them more generally what's going on in their heads, what's on their minds. What do they want to create a dance about?" In the past, her students' choices have included a solo piece about a girl's self-image and self-confidence, a humorous dance about body language, and a piece about male bonding and friendship.

Selecting Music

When it comes to choosing music, most teachers have specific guidelines, finding that limiting the options can make the decision less overwhelming. Robbins prefers that her students use classical music. “Pop music tends to be repetitive, but classical has kinetic excitement," she says. “It has depth, structure to hang a dance on, ambiance and nuance."

Both Robbins and Teirstein stay away from musical selections with words. “Lyrics cannot be disregarded," Teirstein says, and dancing to the words can stifle or constrain a student's natural movement instincts.

However, what's most important is that students find a piece of music that speaks to them. If their choice doesn't fit whatever rules you decide to use, hear them out. An impassioned dance comes from music the choreographer is passionate about.

Guiding the Process

Before Teirstein allows her students to start creating their pieces, she has them spend several days improvising with choreographic tools. “I ask them to explore the ideas of time, space and energy, and how you can use contrast," she says. One exercise, for example, might be to show anger through two contrasting types of movement, illustrating that you can depict that emotion both by flailing your arms and by remaining still.

Once the actual choreographing begins, be available to your students. “When students are first starting to choreograph, you're holding their hand through it; you're giving constructive criticism," Wolverton says. Students under the age of 11 or 12 will usually need constant supervision as they're working. If the choreographer is in her teens or older, quietly observing a few rehearsals and giving feedback only at the end is an unobtrusive way to help.

No matter the age of the student, don't be overpowering or insistent about your advice. “My tendency is to give too many suggestions for things they could do," Kramer says. Instead, be sure to ask them if they want help before giving your opinions. “And make sure to praise them, especially when someone is struggling," Kramer says. “It's important to allow students to create freely and experience the process, even if it takes a while."



Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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