Teaching Tips

4 Ways to Incorporate Improvisation Into Your Dance Classes

Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!


1. Let dancers make choices. "We might do triplets across the floor," she says, "and there'd be two measures in which they could do whatever they want: stand still; funny movement; something beautiful; they could turn. Then they have to catch the train, so to speak—after the two measures they made up, they have to get back into mine."

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

2. Speak in a language they understand. For Robbins, that's metaphors. "The first composition that they make, at 5 years old, is to Mozart's variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," she says. "It has an AABA form. I prepare them for that by teaching them dancing sandwiches. I put down tape to mark off thirds of the room, and they go across the floor doing anything—could be skipping, could be triplets. In the first third, they'll do one movement. Then, they'll get to the center third of the room and do a different movement." For the last third, they repeat their first movement. "It's bread, peanut butter, bread," she explains. "When I take the tape away, they understand that's a sandwich. Mozart had two pieces of bread [AA], and then the peanut butter [B] and then bread again [A]."

3. Keep them honest. Robbins will ask her dancers to stand still and close their eyes—which inevitably leads to swaying. She has them exaggerate the sway and fall out of it, two steps away. "Dancing is a ride," she says. "I want them to feel the trajectory of their ride." The next step is falling, connecting the fall to another movement, taking it to somewhere else in the room and then bringing it to a close. "We watch each other," says Robbins. "I ask, 'Who's really telling the truth? Is your spine really involved, or are you just dancing with your feet?'"

4. Build slowly. "When my students are little, the pieces they create are very short—half a minute," she says. "Then I use suites of music that are a minute and a half. When they're 8, they choose their own music that's three minutes long. It goes very slowly, step by step, little by little, until when they're older—then they're pretty independent."

Music
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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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