10 Lessons Studio Teachers Can Borrow from the Classroom

K–12 teachers share their best practices.

Studio teachers can take a lesson from K–12 educators when it comes to classroom management.

The greatest difference between studio students and those in a K–12 setting is that students in the studio generally want to be there,” says Elisabeth Gosselin, who teaches at Harlem Success Academy in New York City. But, she notes, even studio dancers need a teacher with strong classroom-management skills and compelling incentives. For any good teacher, the key to running a smooth classroom is setting high expectations for behavior and performance, giving explicit and direct instructions and being consistent with consequences. Those goals can be a challenge in a private studio, where parents might have a different relationship with the instructors than they might with a teacher in a public school.

And yet, for kids, the studio and the classroom don’t need to be so different from each other. In fact, children can benefit from seeing strategies they’ve encountered at school repeated in the dance studio. Encouraging continuity from the academic day into the dance day can really stimulate students, says Baltimore public school teacher Judy Kurjan-Frank.

“Earlier this year a little first-grade boy told me that they were learning about ants in their classroom. They all seemed excited about that unit, so I bought some books about ants,” she says. “We read them together and made a list of all the movement words. We practiced doing all the movements, and then we made a dance and presented it to their classroom teacher. They loved their ‘Ant Dance’ because it was based on their ideas and interests.”

This and many other ideas, both practical and philosophical, can translate well from a K–12 dance class to any kind of setting. In that spirit, we asked classroom teachers to share their strategies.

Megan Doyle’s students get a lesson in tap vocabulary.

1 The Power of Planning

Although some studio instructors teach from a set curriculum, many do not. Megan Doyle, the associate director of dance education at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in NYC, has taught in both studio and classroom settings, but it was in the K–12 environment that she first began keeping a notebook of her lesson plans and working out specific themes for her classes. “It was so important and helpful for me to break down what my plan was for each lesson,” she says. “Does the warm-up match the center work? How will this take the students to the next level?”

If she’s introducing jazz pirouettes, for instance, her warm-up will focus on the difference between parallel and turned-out positioning. Exercises across the floor might concentrate on spotting and alignment in a fourth-position preparation, and then the combination will include the pirouette.

Not only does the planning give you a record of your classes, it also helps you chart a student’s progress. “When you’re talking with parents in a studio setting, you often have to explain why a child might need to stay in Jazz I for another year,” Doyle says. “Having a record of what they’ve learned through the year gives a sense of a student’s progress and helps you verbalize that.”

2 Word Walls and Charts

On the subject of charts, Doyle also suggests creating “word wall” posters to help dancers pick up vocabulary, especially as they’re learning new steps. “They don’t have to be permanent,” she says. “You can use sticky paper and fix it to the wall. As they learn a new dance step during technique classes, you’d write it on the wall. In tap class, I might write down words like ‘stamp, shuffle, brush, shim sham.’ When they learn maxi ford, I’ll write ‘stamp, shuffle, leap, toe’ next to the step, so the students can look at and refer back to it.”

Doyle also uses the wall space to follow her dancers’ achievements. She puts up a chart with every student’s name and writes the names of steps across the top. For young kids in hip hop, for instance, she might track isolations (head, shoulders, ribs, hips), slide clap, crazy arms, kick-ball-change or rock step and give a child a star every time they learn a step. “It also helps the parents see what their children are doing whenever they visit the studio,” she adds.

3 Freeze Frame

Managing energetic kids in a classroom is often a matter of setting up simple but useful structures with the group. Judy Kurjan-Frank, who teaches in Edgewood Elementary School in Baltimore, likes to use a drum as part of her classroom-management toolkit. “They learn very early on that two beats on the drum means ‘Freeze!’” she says. “We play games where I try to trick them, so they have to always have one ear open for the sound.”

For instance, you might instruct that one drumbeat means students freeze and put their hands on their knees. Two drumbeats might mean to immediately sit on the spot. In the process, kids are learning to pay attention to auditory signals, as well as when it’s appropriate to move or not move. Once the idea is in place, drumbeats are a quick way to quiet a busy class, or hit the “pause button” on rambunctious students if you need to make an announcement, for instance, or help an injured student.

Instead of drums, you could use other noisemaking devices, such as a tambourine or hand claps. “Whatever you decide to use, whether it’s drum, claps, etc.,” she warns, “make sure that that specific phrase or pattern is only used for ‘freeze,’ otherwise it won’t be effective.”

4 Spatial Awareness 

Kurjan-Frank helps kids develop awareness of others around them and how they’re moving in the room with a concept called Space Bubbles, which she learned from Jennie Miller at P.S. 3 in New York City. This is especially helpful in a larger group. “I explain to the kids that we have invisible bubbles all around our body and we are inside of the bubble all the time,” she says. “Our bubble travels with us around the room, and when we expand our body to take up more space, so does our bubble. When we make our body take up less space, so does our bubble.”

If the dancers bump into something, whether it’s the wall or each other, she sends them to the “bubble hospital,” a designated place in the room where they have to sit out for one turn while their bubble gets fixed. Be sure to let the students know that if they pop a bubble by accident, they are not in trouble, but they will need to be more careful next time. If a student pops his or her bubble on purpose or is obviously being careless, they’ll sit out for two or three turns.

“Mostly, though, the kids don’t want to have to sit out of the game, so they try to avoid popping bubbles,” says Kurjan-Frank. “This helps to create a safer space and dancers who are more aware of their bodies in space.”

It’s all about respect: Melinda Waegerle and students of Jesse Wharton Elementary School.

5 Silent Signals

Creating an atmosphere of respect in the classroom is key to Melinda Waegerle, an assistant professor in dance education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her classes, she uses the American Sign Language gesture for “respect” as a quick, silent method of communicating with the dancers. “I want the students to know they need to respect themselves as learners, to respect others, their teachers, that they need to respect ideas. Having someone make fun of ideas or the way you did something can be devastating,” she says.

Her students also learn to use other signs during class, to signal if they need to use the bathroom, for instance, so the interruptions to the flow of the lesson are minimized. “The students are savvy to that and pick up on it quickly,” she says.

6 Drawing Out Shy Dancers 

“I was a shy little dancer myself,” says Waegerle, “so I often think about how to get the kids out of feeling pulled back.” She will sometimes play with the idea of range of motion to make dancers feel comfortable, giving them a “step” that starts with a very small movement. “I do it silly small,” she says, laughing. “A finger motion that moves into a hand, then the arm, then the torso. We make it super-silly, teeny-tiny stuff that becomes gigantic. It’s a fun thing for kids who are shy.”

The game sometimes evolves into a circle activity in which Waegerle keeps a beat going as each dancer contributes a small movement. “They have to do it eight times in a row,” she says. “I’ll go first, and then we move to the next person in the circle. You really have to think about ‘What can I do eight times in a row that everyone can do?’ From there we’ll do movements that we repeat four times, two times, one time.”

With the beat continuing on, everyone gets to be a leader as well as a follower, and there’s little time to get embarrassed or feel self-conscious.

7 Changing Places

Waegerle also notes that dancers have a tendency to head to the same places in the room from one class to the next. “I like to mix it up so no one can claim turf,” she says. “So I’ll call out ‘new spot,’ and while I play the drum, they have to find a new place in the room.”

Her students have to stay alert because they know that at any point in class she might ask them to change their location. “It breaks up the little cliques that happen,” she says. “For students who are uncomfortable or shy, if there are cliques, it makes them even more shy.”

Keeping it upbeat:
Elisabeth Gosselin’s class at Harlem Success Academy.

8 Positive Narration

To keep the atmosphere upbeat, Gosselin uses positive narration, a simple strategy that turns the negativity of a correction into a positive encouragement. “Instead of telling kids what not to do, I emphasize telling them what to do,” she says. “After giving my instructions, I highlight the students who are following my directions exactly. I also correct the students who are off task after I have given them a chance to correct the behaviors through positive narration, framing it as a reminder.”

It’s a tip that works best with younger dancers, Gosselin says. “If the kids are at the barre, I might ask them to use their abdominals. So as they do their pliés, I’ll call out specific names—‘Tammy is engaging her abs,’ ‘Julie is lifting up.’”

This reinforcement also serves as a reminder to the entire class, giving them a chance to respond positively.

Kathleen Isaac assigns special jobs, like serving as class DJ.

9 Special Tasks

One of the ways Kathleen Isaac addresses ownership of classroom etiquette and rules is to give special jobs to dancers in the class. She might assign entrance monitors to make sure students enter the room quietly; or shoe inspectors, who make certain the dancers’ shoes are neatly lined up; or back checkers to walk around the room with wands, reminding others to sit or stand up with tall dancer backs. A student might also be the class DJ, turning the music on or off and adjusting the volume. It can be a way to help a behaviorally difficult student to focus, but it can also encourage students to rise to a role of responsibility.

“This student-centered approach allows me to continue engaging students individually, in pairs, small groups and as a class,” says Isaac, who specializes in K–12 teaching practice as director of the Arnhold Graduate Dance Education Program at CUNY Hunter College.

Watch, listen, do. Jeffrey Dobbs uses all three learning modes.

10 Learning Styles

In any class, particularly large ones, you’re likely to have groups of dancers who learn in a certain way, whether they’re visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Jeffrey Dobbs, who teaches at the Queens Valley School of the Arts in Flushing, NY, suggests observing students for a few classes to assess what kinds of learners they are, and then grouping together those who share similar styles.

“While I’m teaching, of course, I’ll talk and say the steps while I’m doing it, so they hear over and over again,” he says. “But then I’ll ask the groups to work on their own for 10 minutes, and during that time, I’ll go around to each group and work with them using the learning style that works best for them.”

“It takes a lot of patience, but it’s worth it,” he says. DT

Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer and dance teacher.

©Thinkstock; photo courtesy of 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center; photo by Roxie Waegerle, courtesy of Jesse Wharton Elementary; photo courtesy of Elisabeth Gosselin; photo courtesy of Kathleen Isaac; by Catherine Kramer, courtesy of Queens Valley School of the Arts

 

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox