How This Teacher Chooses Music For Early Childhood Classes

Hanley sings instructions to keep little ones engaged. Photo by Nancy Adler, courtesy of Maria Hanley

A self-described 4-year-old at heart, Maria Hanley has a knack for understanding the mind-sets of young dancers. During the rare moment when she isn't teaching one of her 20 weekly creative ballet classes at the New York City Jewish Community Center, you can find her in a toy store browsing for props or in the children's section of the library, gathering ideas for classroom activities from picture books.

Among her tiny dancers—ages 18 months to 6 years—Hanley says the 3-year-olds are a particular source of inspiration. “They start to make their own shapes and move their bodies in the way they want to, instead of just following along with me," she says. “I can give more to them, and they can give me more ideas back."

Though she plays the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" as part of her warm-up, Hanley, who earned her master's degree in dance education from New York University, limits her use of instructional songs. “I try not to use directive music all the time, because then why am I here?" she says. “I try to have the music enhance what I'm doing versus lead it." She chooses tracks that appeal to young listeners and spark their imaginations, switching between instrumentals and songs with lyrics.

To keep students focused and moving smoothly from one set activity to the next, Hanley often sings instructions instead of speaking them, like “Have a seat, have a seat on the wall," to the tune of “If You're Happy and You Know It." That way, dancers stay engaged with the game instead of scattering. “In this age group the transitions are really important," she says. “I don't just say, 'Stand up.' I have a way for them to do it."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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