K–12 teachers are no strangers to the time crunch. By the time students have changed clothes for class, your 45 minutes can easily become 30. Especially with younger grades, your entire class period might be 30 minutes total. With less time than many dance classes devote to warm-ups alone, how can you impart technique, history and composition—and ensure that students retain what they’ve learned?
Luckily, K–12 teachers are good problem solvers. “You can accomplish a lot in 30 minutes,” says Diane B. McGhee Valle, head of dance education at the University of South Carolina. “The key is to be not only time-conscious, but also organized and well-planned.” A few time-saving tricks can’t hurt, either. With preparation and a little creativity, you can make every moment count.
Prepare for Success
McGhee Valle says that one of the easiest mistakes to make is to introduce too many variables within one 30-minute class. For example, you might devote one elementary class to skipping in different ways. But adding hops and gallops in the same class is more than students will retain. If you feel that you’re breaking down dance into even smaller bite-sized pieces than you would for a 50-minute class, you’re doing it right, she says.
This doesn’t mean you must abandon your end-of-term goals. “You still want to reach those goals, just maybe on a different level,” says Laurie Brongo, who teaches grades 3–8 at The Town School in NYC and has 19 years experience. “You just have to figure out how to get there a different way.”
For both McGhee Valle and Brongo, a multipurpose warm-up is essential. McGhee Valle recommends getting students’ blood pumping while reviewing prior material—having them execute known skills, before adding in the day’s focus, such as skipping. Brongo emphasizes routine with a set rhythmic warm-up. Because the students grow to rely on muscle memory, she can add layers that vary by the day; in one class, she might prompt the students to face different stage directions as they execute the steps. The goal is to save time by layering concepts, like locomotor movements and stage directions, while warming up the body—and in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.
McGhee Valle’s essential elements for a 30-minute class include the multitasked warm-up, guided improvisation and composition, rehearsal time, performance for classmates and a quick review. “Everything in the body of the lesson should give them food for creating a new dance. Everything should be carefully linked,” she says.
She thinks of this plan as an accordion with elements that can be expanded and contracted as needed. But teachers should guard against getting bogged down in details. In general, she recommends limiting the warm-up, improvisation and composition elements to the first 19 minutes of class, followed by a few minutes to practice, a few minutes to perform and a quick 60-second debrief of the day, when she’ll ask questions like, “What happened today?” and “Can you give a compliment to someone who was working very well today and tell me why?”
Though the most successful short lessons are thoroughly choreographed, they also require flexibility—and a degree of lightheartedness. “Everything takes time, so give it the time it needs,” says Brongo. “We all think, ‘Let me cram this in,’ but they won’t retain it. They won’t enjoy it, and neither will you. It takes flexibility, with a capital ‘F.’ And if you have a sense of humor, you’re ahead of the game.”
Trigger a dance mind-set by giving students a task to complete immediately upon entering the room. “Transitions are always tough for kids, so as soon as they come in, I have a challenge on the board—anything from ‘count the squares in the ceiling’ to ‘make a round shape with a partner,’” says Brongo. “A fun activity immediately turns the mind around, and they start the class with success, having solved a problem already.”
Don’t waste time changing CDs or searching through playlists. McGhee Valle recommends using one instrumental CD through the whole class (lyrics can distract young dancers), creating a playlist for each class, or better yet, using a drum or other percussion instrument to seamlessly integrate music into your lesson plan.
When a student needs one-on-one time, give the rest of the students a task. You can save this for the end of class, when students are changing their shoes, or you might talk with one or two students while others are rehearsing with a partner.
Use every possible moment to reinforce class concepts. For example, once class is over, challenge your students to skip a certain way to get their shoes.
Use homework to extend the lesson. To minimize time spent watching videos in class, Brongo posts videos on the school website for students to watch as homework; they then discuss them in class the next day. She also posts videos of the students’ compositions, so that they can evaluate and critique their work from home. DT
Dancer Ashley Rivers is based in Boston.
Photos by Diane B. McGhee Valle, courtesy of the photographer