Movement-based dance history activities for young students

Students from The School of Contemporary Ballet Dallas performing with the Dallas Bach Society in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, choreographed by Catherine Turocy

While working with students to reconstruct scenes from Dido and Aeneas, the tragic opera based on Virgil’s Aeneid, Catherine Turocy recalls a moment when a collective gasp filled the rehearsal studio. Students at The Washington School of Ballet had just realized Dido dies at the end of the opera. As director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, Turocy explores the origins of ballet through historical dance workshops at studios all over the country. It’s moments like this, she says, when young students are fully invested in a work of early dance, that make it rewarding to teach.

Many dancers won’t learn dance history until they reach college, and when they do, they’ll be seated at desks reading or listening to lectures. But there are benefits to starting earlier and to using a movement-based approach. With students as young as 6, learning history enhances their understanding of dance, deepening their grasp of technique and empowering them as movers. And for younger students, in particular, Turocy says hands-on, outcome-focused activities work best. Students should always be working toward a performance or a demonstration, however small-scale. With this approach, learning centers on students’ observations and movement, rather than on abstract concepts and memorization. As a teacher, even if you aren’t staging dances from the 1700s, you can lead exercises and facilitate discussions to bring dance history into daily classes and begin training more thoughtful and insightful artists.

Delve Deeper into Technique

Encouraging students to question technique ensures a natural transition from movement to discussion. For example, in her beginning modern classes for ages 11 to 14 at BalletMet, Joyelle Fobbs will use a student’s question—“Why do you need to be able to hear the breath?” for instance—as the impetus for a mini-lesson about how early modern dance reacted against ballet. “I emphasize the fact that early moderns wanted to get real instead of pretending to be spirits defying gravity,” she says. “They wanted to acknowledge the body’s natural response to gravity and even exaggerate it.” Once students learn the history and understand the reason for the use of breath, Fobbs says they begin audibly exhaling.

Raegan Wood, director of The Taylor School, does an activity she calls “stop, drop and write” at the school’s day camps with dancers ranging from age 6 to 10. At the beginning of class, students respond in writing to questions displayed on large poster boards. She poses questions that ask students to think or predict rather than recall facts, like “How old do you think modern dance is?” or “How does ballet remind you of geometry?” After the writing activity, students take class with the question lingering in their minds. Students have the option to share their responses and any new observations at any point during the class. Writing allows each student to develop his or her own ideas. Throughout the class, the instructor can add her own insights about historical context. For instance, Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, who is sometimes cited as creator of the first ballet, defined dance as people moving in geometric patterns.

Activities with Archival Footage

Showing students iconic choreography can provide an exciting springboard for history lessons and for their own choreographic efforts. Cherie Hill of Luna Dance Institute has used footage from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations to facilitate conversations about movement quality with her 10- and 11-year-olds. After identifying the big, open shapes and differences between long, sustained movements and quick, sudden movements, students work in groups to create their own versions of Revelations, using the same movement qualities. The results show in their technique. “It’s great for getting students to slow down and lengthen their movements,” she says.

Make Studio Decor Work for You

Consider displaying images in your studio that represent a range of important figures in dance, perhaps going back to early pioneers like Louis XIV and Marie Taglioni. This will open the door to questions and discussions. You can also use the pictures for interactive exercises. Molly Rogers, who teaches at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, recommends playing dance charades. Students explore a set of iconic dance images and practice embodying the details of each pose. Then they work in small groups to choreograph transitions between poses, creating short movement sequences. As students perform, the others watching call out the dancers and dates associated with the poses.

In her baroque dance workshops, Turocy leads a similar activity, drawing from the cultural history of classical dance. She gives students postcards from the baroque period with pictures of sculptures, paintings and courtiers. Dancers reproduce the poses in their bodies and discuss the experience, while Turocy helps them draw connections between culture and style. (For example, exposing students to the world of Western European scientists, artists and philosophers demonstrates how principles of alignment, turnout and geometric shapes were built into the culture that gave birth to ballet.) Turocy says the impact is significant. “They take on the emotional quality of the pose, which affects the plié, the efforts in the movement, the rhythm and subtle decisions in timing.” DT

Ginger O’Donnell previously taught dance and theater history at The Chicago High School for the Arts. She teaches writing at Grand Center Arts Academy in Saint Louis, Missouri.

If It’s Not Baroque…

In 1976, Catherine Turocy and Ann Jacoby founded the New York Baroque Dance Company (NYBDC) to build a bridge between the academic world of dance history, the professional world and the general public. They recruited dancers from New York ballet and modern companies and began presenting dance from 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

Today, the company employs a full roster of “performer-scholars.” They re-create everything from baroque-era street performances to full-scale operas, complete with costumes of heavy dresses, corsets and masks; music from the time; and the style’s distinctly balletic choreography with lilting port de bras and variations on petit allégro.

Each piece is meticulously researched for historical accuracy, consulting as many primary sources as possible. They study etiquette and social behavior of the time and visit historic theaters to get the feel of the stages where these performances once happened. —Andrea Marks

Photo by Sharen Bradford, courtesy of The New York Baroque Dance Company

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
This Bitter Earth. Photo by Sam Wootton, courtesy of NYCB

Create a Watch Party! Here are four free offerings from New York City's most celebrated arts organizations to share with your students and their families.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less