Teaching 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.


Anne Green Gilbert Creative Dance Center Seattle, Washington

Photo by Bronwen Houck, courtesy of Anne Green Gilbert

Dancers this age learn best through their visual sense, so I dance with them, then step back to watch and make "Try..." and "I see..." comments. I am always positive and call out students' names frequently during class with a comment such as, "I see Joan moving on a low level"; "I see Elliott dancing backwards"; "Kyung is listening to my directions."

Children can start crying because their parents left them or they fall down or the moon is full! I keep the class going (or toss an engaging prop on the floor with a quick instruction) as I run for an ice pack or give the child a hug and tell them dancing will always make them feel better or hold their hand and keep moving. If the parent is waiting outside, I may hand the child off to the parent. What I do not do is stop the class and give the crier a lot of attention, because then everyone will start to cry.

A child might refuse to dance. If they sit quietly, I go on with class and once or twice invite them to join. After class I will ask the parent in a diplomatic way if the child really wants to be in dance class, if the child is engaged in too many activities, etc. I always welcome the child back because maybe the moon was full that day—and everyone has a bad day!

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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