Dance Teacher Tips

Building Body and Brain: Tips for Teaching Dance to 3- to 6-year-olds

Beverly Spell introduces games to help children develop their relationship to others. Photo by Jason Cohen, courtesy of Leap 'N Learn

Creative dance means creative teaching, too. Though leading a class of 3-year-olds may sound like fun and games to the uninitiated, there's a serious side to early childhood dance education. Each activity has a purpose: to develop cognitive, social and physical abilities. There are also specific teaching strategies for working with this age group. “It's important to understand how children think," says Rima Faber, who developed The Primary Movers, a curriculum for early childhood. “They don't think abstractly the way adults do. Children have to experience, to know what it feels like. They don't understand if you're telling them to feel this muscle or that one. You have to provide images that they have experienced." For example, she says, “In second-position plié, I tell them, 'You're like a park bench.' They already know a park bench is wide and open, so you give them that picture, then they can internalize it."

Dance Teacher asked Faber and four other early childhood dance specialists to share their favorite tools and advice for success with pre-K children—an age group that is increasingly regarded as key for the growth of any dance studio.


Candy Beers Village Dance Studios Richmond, Virginia

The children are reaching high to pick berries. Photo by Sandra Culp Marr, courtesy of Candy Beers

What I do with the kids changes with each group. I believe that you have to get a feel for what each group's favorite activity is, what's interesting and inviting for them.

I do a lot of activities that help with spatial awareness using the kinesphere bubble. I have them imagine their favorite color and, with that color, reach as high as they can and then go down low, side to side, so they are "painting" their kinesphere bubble with their hands and with their feet. They start to get the idea that the kinesphere is space around them.

Then we might have a "bubble dance," where we move, but try not to pop each other's bubbles, so they start to become aware of how close they can get to each other. I scatter colored yoga mats on the floor, and I'll put on a piece of music and say, "Raise your hand if you have an idea of what to do on the green yoga mat." They can do that step, then we pick other things to do on the other colored mats, and when they get to that color mat, they have to do that movement. It helps them practice memorizing movement.

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Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

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