Maximizing Minutes

Mastering the 30-minute lesson plan

 

 

First-grade dance class at Saluda River Academy for the Arts, West Columbia, South Carolina

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.”

Time-Saving Tips

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

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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