Unlike many studios, where dancers are grouped according to level, the K–12 dance class is often a mixed bag of abilities. Just ask Kelly Conway, who’s been teaching dance at New Smyrna Beach High School in Florida for 24 years: “I’ve taught kids who pulled their first pair of shoes out of the box with the price tag still on them, to girls who’ve been taking dance classes since they came out of their mothers’ wombs,” she says, laughing.
So how can a teacher accommodate such a wide range of dancers—all in the same class? “To address each student, the teacher must be prepared to affirm those who are immediately successful and then offer a challenge, and at the same time offer strategies to help students who need more time to learn,” says Theresa Purcell Cone, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
Offer a range of complexity.
Known in educational parlance as differentiated instruction, the idea is to create lessons that can be adapted to various stages and styles of learning. “The teacher should develop a range of complexity for all the dance content,” advises Cone. “I call it scaffolding. You can make the task harder or easier based on where you see the students.”
For instance, if Conway is teaching step-ball-change into pirouette, the beginning students learn to connect to passé, while the intermediate students do a single turn and the advanced students execute a double or triple. The same can be applied to lessons that focus on creating choreography. For example, students who learn at a faster pace can include more than eight movements, create and change formations, select music and add level changes such as theme and variation, canon and retrograde. Meanwhile, those who need more time can reduce the number of movements, count out loud or write out their sequence and place it nearby for reference, or have one person call out the steps as they are dancing.
Let students take the lead.
Many teachers find that pairing an advanced dancer with a beginning student who needs a little extra help is a mutually beneficial arrangement—the tutor gets to develop some teaching skills, while the struggling student gets one-on-one instruction and more time to practice.
Cone advises teachers to choose peer tutors carefully. “Sometimes students who are great dancers may not want to deal with somebody else,” she says. “You have to have a student who is empathetic, who is patient and understanding and who is good at articulating and demonstrating. It’s also important to change peer tutors, so that the student who is always helping is also able to take the class.”
Another option is to have advanced dancers lead portions of the class. The extra responsibility keeps these students engaged while freeing you to focus on others. Conway gives her experienced dancers assignments that combine research and choreography. For example, they might research the elements of a proper warm-up, and then create one for the class. For their extra work, they receive a dance honors credit.
Sanja Korman, a dance teacher at Bellaire High School in Texas, appoints dance officers who help create choreography for student performances. “I sit down with my officers and talk about the theme, the order of performances,” she says. “We create this together as a team. When my kids are done with high school, they know everything they need to know to put together a whole production. We teachers all need to be more flexible and give students the opportunity to create and choreograph.”
Offer extra encouragement.
“Students who have not been successful in motor skills, have low self-esteem, have been marginalized by others or have difficulty with comprehension may be reluctant to participate,” says Cone. “Here, the teacher needs to be sensitive to the cause of the reluctance and use strategies to engage the learner.” These can include talking privately with the student about his or her concerns, providing lots of positive feedback during class and asking students to keep a journal of what they’ve learned and how they feel about their participation. A behavior contract, in which students agree to comply with certain rules, participate in class and outline goals, can be a good option for those with emotional disabilities or disruptive behavior.
“It’s important for the teacher to establish an atmosphere of success for all students,” Cone says. “Understanding that each person has something to contribute will set up the expectation for acceptance and reduce feelings of vulnerability and failure.”
Give equal stage time.
The goal is to make all students feel equally supported and challenged—and this policy should extend from the classroom to the stage. Conway, who produces three annual performances, makes a concerted effort to prevent her beginning dancers from being upstaged. She does this in part by creating a large production number in which dancers are grouped by ability.
“One group begins the routine, and the movement might be a bit simpler or flashier, depending on the level, and then they exit and another group comes in,” Conway explains. “This way, they’re all working together and they all feel included. You don’t have girls standing on the side watching other girls perform.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter if a student has had 10 years of dance training or doesn’t know a pirouette from a pas de bourée. With some careful planning and a little sensitivity, you can help every dancer feel like a star. DT
Michelle Vellucci is a freelance writer in New York City.