Sometimes, offering the right image or resource can make the difference between a student dancing in a crunched and compact way or feeling the freedom of their fullest kinesphere. Helping students to find their biggest movement potential takes creativity and persistence, but should always find its way into your teaching toolbox—especially as students navigate a variety of dancing spaces, from confined areas at home to the stage.
Here, University of Iowa visiting assistant professor of dance Britt Juleen shares five tips for teaching students how to access a more expansive range of motion (even when they're dancing at home).
Familiarize yourself with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's work.
Juleen's somatic approach to ballet is greatly influenced by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's method of Body-Mind Centering. "She takes the fluid systems—blood, synovial and interstitial—as the basis for a whole exploration of movement," she says. "Working with this aspect of ourselves might help us to find more spaciousness inside when there is not a lot of space outside around you."
Juleen reminds students to articulate through the joint spaces between bones, where synovial fluid is located. She says that having that awareness of these spaces can invite freedom and flow into the body, making expansive motion more attainable.
Cue students with sight lines.
Draw your students' attention to where they're looking. Juleen has students find focal points in the room or out the window into the distance. "I have students really look at things to stimulate the optic nerves," she says. "Being inside at home, everyone has gotten so internalized." When students look out past their own immediate kinesphere, the ripple effect through the rest of their body is immediate.
Don't neglect to talk about breath, even when you're masked.
Breathing deeply helps oxygenate the blood and muscles and eases tension, which can aid students' full range of motion. Juleen recommends having students concentrate on how the lungs and heart are in constant cooperation, sending fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the entire body. This can be done with a simple verbal cue or an audible breath. Sometimes Juleen even starts class with a few minutes of deep breathing to set the intention for the rest of the class. "Becoming aware of the rhythm of the breath and the pace of the heart can invite a sense of fluid pulsing through the body," she says.
Britt Juleen, photo courtesy Juleen
Experiment with imagery.
A meaningful image can help students create spaciousness in their body. Juleen frequently offers her students the image of a jellyfish with tentacles that float and reach out from a central core. She also likes late ODC Dance Commons ballet director Augusta Moore's idea of the Miss America sash stretching across the torso. "You don't want to let the sash slacken. It keeps opposition between the shoulder and opposite hip," she says. Also, try thinking of the muscles as sponges. "Play with the idea of the muscles being porous. When you plié, the water comes out."
Use William Forsythe's Improvisation Technologies.
Juleen worked with William Forsythe during her career and continues to use his nine-point theory to encourage students to move more expansively. "You place yourself into a cube with nine points in front of you, nine at your body's plane, and nine behind you," she says, noting that you can use the cube imagery during any part of class. "Ballet technique is quite symmetrical and geometrical," she says. "I find drawing movement in space through the nine-point cube can clarify the look and alignment of the body's position in space, which also clarifies technical skills."
Juleen has used Forsythe's cube during the pandemic as she's juggled having some students on Zoom and some in person. "That cube can be as big as you imagine it to be," she says. "It's been fun playing with the actual reality of our spaces versus imagining what it could be. For example, how can you stretch your movement through space to feel as if you are touching every point?"