Teaching Tips

How—and Why—to Teach Anatomy in Technique Class

Chisa Hidaka's Applied Anatomy class at Barnard College. Photo by Guy de Lancey, courtesy Barnard

Gail Accardi believes there should be a model skeleton in every dance studio.

"How the body works can be mysterious, especially to beginners," says the New York City–based teacher, who has taught anatomy awareness courses at Peridance Capezio Center and Dance New Amsterdam. "A visual aid can help students understand what the body is actually doing in various dance movements."

But using a skeleton to demonstrate a port de bras or développé is only one way to get students familiar with how their body parts team up to perform choreography. Dance Teacher spoke to three educators about how to foster an understanding of anatomy in dancers of all ages.


Why Teach Anatomy, Anyway?

"If dancers know how their body works, they can care for it more responsibly," says Terry Goetz, director of the Creative Dance Center (CDC) in Seattle, Washington. "They can also be empowered to advocate for themselves." That may mean being able to speak up when a movement doesn't feel safe. It could also mean having the language to explain to a doctor or physical therapist exactly what hurts, and when it hurts.

But there are benefits beyond health and safety. "Your body is your instrument, and if you understand its components, you can play it more expressively," says Chisa Hidaka, who teaches Applied Anatomy of Human Movement at Barnard College in New York City. "Then, when you dance, you aren't just mimicking shapes. You're using your specific instrument to do something precise and nuanced."

While many college dance majors include an anatomy course, you can begin to incorporate this knowledge much earlier. At CDC, building body awareness starts in infant/caregiver class. "I'll have the parent pat the baby's arm and say 'This is your arm,' so the baby feels and hears and sees," says Goetz. "That sensory experience builds connections in the brain."

Around 15 students stand around a model skeleton, holding their notebooks and taking notes.

Chisa Hidaka's Applied Anatomy class at Barnard College. Photo by Guy de Lancey, courtesy Barnard

Use Correct Terminology

Knowing your scapula from your patella isn't just for people in the medical field. Though complex anatomical terminology may feel like a barrier, Hidaka says dancers are ideal learners because they already spend so much time paying attention to what their bodies can and can't do. "This knowledge is so relevant to a dancer's life," she says, "which makes it very accessible."

Goetz says even young children can pick up anatomical terms. "The idea that there are simple words and longer, more interesting words to describe our body parts is fascinating to kids," Goetz says. As you teach, use anatomical terms like "lumbar spine" interchangeably with descriptive terms like "lower back." The more often young dancers hear those words in context, the more likely it is they'll stick. (If you need a refresher yourself, Hidaka recommends dance teachers read The Body Moveable, by David Gorman.)

Early exposure will help college students more easily memorize terminology for quizzes and exams. But memorization and regurgitation are not the end goals. That's why Hidaka also gives writing assignments where students must think about what they're learning in relationship with their own movement practice. "They need to see how the scientific information applies to their dancing," Hidaka says. "Knowing what a thing is called is important—but not as important as having a sense of what it is and how it works."

Get a Clear Visual

"Dancers take in a lot of information visually," Accardi says. But there is often a gap between seeing something and being able to reproduce it. Think of a preschooler struggling to stand in first position: She can see that her toes should point away from each other, but she doesn't understand that she must rotate her leg from the hip to make it happen. "Using a three-dimensional, moveable skeleton, you can say 'This is how your leg moves in the hip socket,'" Accardi says. "'This is how your knee joint is built and how it's meant to bend.'"

Posters that show muscles, tendons and ligaments can deepen understanding. Hidaka also recommends the app Essential Anatomy 5, which allows users to zoom in on and view body parts from various angles, as well as video tutorials by The Noted Anatomist and AnatomyZone on YouTube. If you work with young children who might be afraid of a skeleton or a detailed diagram, you could turn to other models to demonstrate body mechanics; for instance, a door hinge could help students visualize the hinge joints at the knees and elbows.

The goal with each tool is to show how the human body is designed—and what that design means for dancers. If you have props and posters on hand in the studio, take five minutes out of class or rehearsal to explain how a movement breaks down anatomically. Then, students can get to work putting the knowledge into their bodies.

Make It Multisensory

Engaging multiple senses helps students retain information. That's why, aside from the skeleton, one of the most tried-and-true tools in an anatomy teacher's tool kit is a coloring book. (There are several on the market; Hidaka prefers Netter's Anatomy Coloring Book, 2nd Edition.) "Dancers are multimodal learners," Hidaka explains. "Coloring gives you a motor activity to do as you read a word and think about what it means."

Having students be hands-on with their own bodies is another tactic. During the BrainDance—a body and brain warm-up movement sequence developed by CDC founder Anne Green Gilbert—teachers often ask young students to palpate and name body parts: "Squeeze your shin. That bone is called your tibia." Have young students experiment with the possibilities in their muscles and joints. "How does your shoulder move? How can you bend your knee? How about your wrist?" Goetz asks. "Children love to explore their bodies."

In her anatomy awareness class, Accardi often demonstrates a concept on the skeleton and then has dancers try it for themselves. A lesson on turnout could involve students lying on their backs and internally and externally rotating their legs, with knees extended and bent. When everyone is focused on basic movement mechanics, you have an opportunity to discuss anatomical variations. For instance, "Each student's turnout will depend on how deep or shallow the hip socket is, where the socket is positioned on the pelvis, and on the shape of the femur bone," Accardi says. "The person next to you may have more or less rotation. You can learn to work with your unique anatomy."

Accardi, wearing black pants and a bright green shirt, sits crosslegged on the floor, with another person's foot in her lap, which she holds gently

Gail Accardi, photo courtesy Accardi

Put It All Together

Introducing anatomical concepts in technique class has the potential to create dancers who have greater control over and respect for their instrument. "Everyone wants to learn about themselves," Goetz says. "Teaching anatomy is a wonderful way to feed children's natural curiosity. And for dancers, the more we understand how body parts function in isolation, the more we can end up with this beautiful, articulate integration."

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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