Teaching Tips

How to Meet Students Where They Are—Without Being Accused of Favoritism

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For dance teachers, it's natural to want to treat students equally. But that doesn't always honor their varying backgrounds, abilities and strengths. To address this, some instructors implement differentiated instruction in their classes, a teaching method that provides students with customized material based on their individual abilities instead of holding them to a single, inflexible standard.

In the dance studio, differentiated instruction could mean teaching for students with multiple learning styles by calling out terms the first time a combination is demonstrated, repeating it with counts, and demonstrating a third time singing the lyrics. Or, it could mean giving different turns to students depending on their prior studies, so that everyone is dancing together but in personally beneficial ways.


Differentiated instruction not only allows dancers to gain strength and technique safely at their own body's ability, it reduces physical injuries and improves mental health. Students also tend to improve faster, as they can start from where they are rather than attempting steps they aren't prepared for; meanwhile teachers can still challenge more advanced students.

One drawback to differentiated instruction: It can fuel perceived favoritism. For instance, a student once accused me of "being unable to recognize her talent" and having teacher's pets. I quickly realized that giving her the option to do a simpler jump combination was interpreted as my not liking her, intentionally holding her back and favoring others.

According to Kate Mattingly, assistant professor at the University of Utah, "differentiated instruction that is helpful and equitable relies on two elements: transparency in why different options are offered and dancers' self-evaluation." This last bit is key—Mattingly notes that if a student lacks awareness of their true abilities and needs, they may mistake differentiated instruction for favoritism. Here's how to encourage self-assessment in the studio, and implement differentiated instruction with minimal drama.

A group of men in white shirts and black pants, and women in black shirts and long skirts, take a flamenco class. Their female teacher stands to the right and claps out the rhythm.

The author (far right) teaching at Central New Mexico Community College

Nicole Ortega, Courtesy Bridgit Lujan

1. Remove Value Judgements

As long as students feel like they have to be in the top group to gain an instructor's attention or praise, they will not accurately self-evaluate. "Removing the need for students to compare and compete is key," says Amber Sorgato, owner of Studio 34 Dance Academy in Las Vegas. For example, dancers have to experience that both simple and more advanced jumps, or single and multiple turns, have value. In order to get this across, she says, "I give each student equal time and equal enthusiasm when evaluating their work."

2. Nurture Peer Recognition

Naomi Elizabeth Montoya, head of dance at Public Academy for Performing Arts, a public charter school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recommends finding ways to reinforce students' comfort with working at different levels among their peers. She suggests a "kudos circle" to close each class. For instance, says Montoya, "students volunteer to highlight the positive things that happened in class. A comment might sound like, 'Marisa, I know you've been working hard on mastering that triplet phrase on the left side, and today you really rocked it!'"

Positive recognition by a classmate, Montoya adds, is often more motivating than acknowledgment from an instructor. "This helps students to embrace their own level of study and motivate them to continue."

A dance teacher in all-black dance clothing adjusts the shoulder of a female dance student wearing a black unitard, who poses with her arms in a T-shape and her right leg bent.

Naomi Montoya with student Yesenia Garcia

Jake Pett, Courtesy Montoya

3. Groups That Reflect Interests, Not Ability

A key concept of differentiated instruction is putting students in groups identified by neutral names (such as "red," "blue," "green") rather than hierarchical names, such as "1," "2," "3" or "A," "B," "C." This way, students cannot easily identify how their abilities have been assessed.

Jessica Warner, dance teacher at Chapin High School in El Paso, Texas, suggests considering students' unique interests when grouping them, rather than their level or ability. For example, allowing dancers to choose between one group that will work on turns and another on jumps. "Students in each group will be at different levels, with some working on a single turn, others a triple," says Warner. "This allows them to pursue their interest and be integrated with those who share it, but who are not necessarily their same ability." Dancers are more likely to be honest with themselves and understand what they are capable of if they believe level will not dictate their opportunity to pursue their interests.

4. Encourage Questions and Self-Reflection

Mattingly notes that authoritarian teaching styles give dancers few opportunities to ask questions or voice ideas. But encouraging students' self-reflection and giving them a sense of autonomy, especially as they reach higher education, can help them better evaluate their abilities. For instance, says Mattingly, "you can suggest that students who feel ready for a more challenging step or phrase explore a different combination. This approach decenters the teacher as the sole authority in a class and gives students opportunities to practice self-assessment."

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Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

Leap! Executive Director Drew Vamosi (Courtesy Leap!)

Since its inaugural season in 2012, Leap! National Dance Competition has been all about the little things.

"I wanted to have a 'boutique' competition. One where we went out to only one city every weekend, so I could be there myself, and we could really get to know the teachers and watch their kids progress from year to year," says Leap! executive director Drew Vamosi. According to Vamosi, thoughtful details make all the difference, especially during a global pandemic that's thrown many dancers' typical comp-season schedules for a loop. That's why Leap! prides itself on features like its professional-quality set design, as well as its one-of-a-kind leaping competition, where dancers can show off their best tricks for special cash and merchandise prizes.

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