Bringing the Past to Life

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

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