Baby Steps

Teaching Creative Dance Through the Foundations of Dance Language: Space, Time, Weight and Energy

I have discovered, over many years as a dance artist, that the art of teaching young children does not differ much from the creative process involved in making adult choreography. Therefore, it seems important to create a class that subconsciously embeds the fundamentals of dance language that all dancers will need to employ: weight, time, space and energy. Early exposure to these concepts, in a kid-friendly way, can make a difference in the soul of a child and in his or her development as a future dancer and as a confident, imaginative individual.

Pre-K children (ages 4 and 5) are eager to pretend and speak through their bodies, improvising to stories, poems and songs. My creative movement class is designed to meet the children on their developmental level and challenge them to explore the incremental baby steps that will lead to greater awareness and confidence in life.

I try to utilize many teaching examples from authorities in the field. Then, I make them my own, or come up with my own ideas, valuing my own skills, personality, experience and intuition. Here is how I shape my 45-minute class into three 15-minute time components: "The Warm-Up"; "Movement Makers"; and "Steps and Patterns."

 

"The Warm-Up" begins with children sitting in a circle. Colorful rubberized "dots" on the floor act as visual place markers, defining the space we will use. The movement focus of the warm-up circle is an age-appropriate study of the technique of the body: How does my body move? With live piano accompaniment, we sing many simple childhood songs in unison, like "Head and Shoulders, Baby," "Sally Go Round the Sun," "Forward and Back, Bobolinka." We move through various simple yoga and Pilates positions, like "The Cobra," discovering how body parts move in isolation and are then integrated into whole body activity. Fun problem-solving questions ask children to find points of balance with their bodies, like balancing on one foot/one hand, on 10 fingers/10 toes or flipping upside down to find balance on two shoulders.

We explore weight exchange and levels in space with body shapes often by giving names to the shapes: "the table," "the bridge," "the chair," "the ladder." By reaching up high and climbing down eight steps of an imaginary spatial ladder with our hands while the pianist plays descending notes on the musical scale, we explore steps in abstract space. I then ask the children to hold onto, for example, the eighth high step with their hands, and the second step with their foot. Immediately, all can find balance on one foot because of the imaginary support of "rungs on the ladder" in space. Unknowingly, the children have created symmetrical and asymmetrical technical use of parallel arms and legs together.

When the time seems right, we travel around the center circle using songs that children love to sing and dance to: "Shoo Fly," "Skip to My Lou" and "Walking, Walking," experimenting with hops, skips, jumps, walks and runs. Having a live musician allows us to experiment with various time elements—meters and tempos—so that the children try to control their own bodies in time and space, using slow, medium or fast support.

We end the warm-up with a favorite folk dance called "Chimes of Dunkirk," which incorporates clapping, stomping, circling with a partner and then choosing a new partner. Children explore space, time, weight, energy and socialization quite naturally by dancing and moving in unison to an engaging, traditional song and dance, bringing the worldview of dance to a very young learner.

 

"Movement Makers" usually involves a poem, story, picture, song or question that inspires children to use their bodies as instruments and storytellers, improvising, pretending and exploring in space and in time to music. I often use beautiful pictures as motivational tools: A picture of a pretzel will help them think about a curved and twisted shape; a picture of fireworks will inspire sprightly percussive jumps and reaches through space.

Stuffed animals serve as visual aids as I manipulate them, encouraging the children to explore the technique of how an animal moves. The "elephant" asks them to shift balance from one side of their body: right arm/right leg together, to left leg/left arm together, developing center balance and coordination, and exploring heavy weight-shifting.

 

"Steps and Patterns" involves props, too: hula hoops, plastic dots, a bamboo stick. Each week, I lay the props out in different visual patterns around the room. Recently: hoop, hoop, hoop, dot, dot, and repeat that pattern. Then, each child participates individually in passing through the pattern with his or her body. Ideally, this pattern would ask for one foot, the other foot, one foot, then jumping with two feet together on each dot. The pianist then repeats this musical pattern. The children love this gross-motor, task-oriented exercise, and it usually ends with a grand jeté exercise of running and leaping over the stick. This shifting of weight and coordination of baby steps simulates the same type of large movement through space experienced at the end of an adult technique class.

The class finishes in the original starting circle to once again support emotional security, closure and "reverence" after an exciting movement experience. We express the satisfaction and success of working together creatively. DT 

Mary Seidman is artistic director of Mary Seidman and Dancers in New York City. She teaches children of all ages at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, NY, and directed her own school of dance for children in NYC for 10 years. Seidman is a guest artist and adjunct professor at colleges and universities and earned an MS at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA, and an MFA through the Hollins University/American Dance Festival program.

Expert Advice

"I'm not just teaching classes, I'm teaching lessons. I am teaching learning that focuses on personal experience, starting with the child as the artist. Every class lesson has a focus. I write a sheet for parents on what the focus of the class is: goals, activities. This is real learning: how the learning in dance is learning in life." —Dr. Rima Faber, founding president of National Dance Education Organization and chair of the task force that developed NDEO's Standards for Dance in Early Childhood, available at www.ndeo.org

"In Pre-K, I begin to introduce ritualized sequences of entering and exiting the dance space, which become norms for all age groups. Single-file entrance, seating, shoe removal. Even these seemingly simple preparations become important control factors for efficient use of time, respectful behaviors and focused attention." —Catherine Gallant, choreographer and educator, PS 89, New York, NY

The story of Peter Rabbit can be used as a springboard for learning by asking the children to explore the space around Peter's rabbit hole: "The springboard idea is the visual image of the old gnarled tree where the bunnies live, and the movement concept is the shape of the roots and the negative and positive space they create and how one moves in and out of these spaces."—Mary Ann Lee, director, University of Utah Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program, from her article, "Learning Through the Arts"

 

More than Hopping like Bunnies

"The elements of weight, space, time and energy are truly about how one relates to her environment.

When a child understands space, she is able to share, get into lines at school, honor another's space and feel safe.

Understanding the element of time helps children with impulse control and frustration tolerance. It also helps them move toward something they need and away from something that is overstimulating.

A balanced sense of weight allows a person to release and trust and also stand in one's power and get what they need.

Energy or flow shows us how one expresses herself in the world. Are emotions free-flowing, with no control, or so controlled they stay bound inside? Teaching a balance between these two extremes can help children safely express their emotions."

—Candy Beers, dance therapist, Richmond, VA

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy at Mark Morris Dance Center

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"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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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"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."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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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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