The highlight of a creative movement class is often when the teacher brings out a box of props. “Props excite young dancers and increase the level of pretend play in the classroom,” says Beverly F. Spell, director of Leap ’N Learn, a company that sells early childhood dance syllabi. “Props can also help children understand movement quality, and they increase brain activation, which accelerates learning.”
But how can you incorporate props most effectively into classes, and which props should you choose? From using ribbon rings to mimic the movement of jellyfish to using balloons to teach triplet steps, Spell and two other dance educators explain how prop exercises help young movers gain fine motor skills and a better understanding of technique.
What to Choose
When working with younger students, you’ll need props scaled to little bodies—think short ribbons, small scarves, teddy bears or balls. Otherwise, the sky is really the limit, as long as the prop is safe and durable, and it can help a child understand a concept or increase her level of pretend play, says Spell.
Deborah Lipa-Ciotta, a K–12 dance educator at the Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, New York, and the director of Creative Dance for Children Classes in Cheektowaga, NY, has a few favorite props, including ribbon rings (very safe for young dancers since there are no pointed edges), hula hoops (for moving over, around or through) and beanbags (ideal for balancing exercises). “They should be colorful and fun, because creative movement works best when it’s fun and engaging,” she says. “I love color because it catches the students’ attention.”
When to Use Them
Spell most commonly introduces props toward the end of class, during the across-the-floor portion or free-dance period. That way, she can begin class with a familiar warm-up routine that will get students focused.
When it’s time for your students to use props, first “explain what the prop is and make it clear what you want to teach them, even with your youngest students,” says Sanja Korman, a dance instructor at Bellaire High School near Houston. “Tell them why you are doing it and why it is important.” Explain, for example, that they’ll be using ribbon rings to mimic the movement of jellyfish and will then copy the rings’ movements with their bodies, which will improve their creative thinking skills. This helps your students understand that props are not just playthings and need to be treated with respect.
Before jumping into the exercises from her lesson plan, Lipa-Ciotta sometimes likes to let her students experiment with the props on their own. “I like for them to familiarize themselves with the props, and to explore the creative possibilities they might come up with themselves,” she says.
Lipa-Ciotta recommends having children creatively solve prop-related “problems.” How can three dancers make shapes with one hula hoop? How many different ways can you incorporate a scarf into your dancing? How can you travel across the floor with a balloon?
To help your students understand the mechanics of a grand jeté, consider bringing out a cardboard fence for them to leap over, pretending they are horses, Lipa-Ciotta says. Or, if you are working on “up, up, down” triplet movements, have your students toss a balloon in the air, do the two “up, up” steps, then catch the balloon on the “down” step, which will help them get a sense of the rhythm. (See the box below for more exercise ideas.)
But remember that props are just that—props. While they can help young dancers improve movement skills, don’t let students become reliant on an object. “Once a skill has been mastered,” Spell says—like the triplet step—“try removing the prop, and then have the dancers perform the same movement.” DT
More Exercises to Try
Here are some prop-related exercises to jump-start your next creative dance class.
Age range: 3–6
Prop: Small ball
Purpose: Teach the difference between right and left
* Give one ball to each student. Have the students hold the ball in both hands, reaching toward the right while they stand in second position, with their weight leaning toward the right. Then, instruct them to plié in second position, swing the ball in front of their body and transfer their weight so that the ball ends up on their left side and their weight shifts to the left leg.
Source: Sanja Korman, dance instructor at Bellaire High School near Houston, TX
Age range: 3–6
Props: Stuffed pumpkins, play leaves
Purpose: Improve memory recall
* Make a large “plus sign” on the floor with blue painter’s tape. Put one pumpkin in two of the sections and a pile of the leaves in a third section, leaving the last one empty. Have students dance around the first pumpkin, jump over the second pumpkin, pick leaves up and let them fall, and finally, in the empty section, copy with their bodies how their favorite leaf fell to the floor.
Source: Beverly F. Spell, director of Leap ’N Learn, a company that sells early childhood dance syllabi
Age range: 7+
Prop: Stretchy fabric sack ($16 from the Oriental Trading Company)
Purpose: Encourage creative movement
* Give one sack to each student. Ask them to climb inside the sack and show, through shaping and levels, various emotions or feelings while inside of it. Have them experiment with what a movement looks like with and without the sack. (For safety reasons, make sure a spotter is nearby and that the students don’t travel through space.)
Source: Deborah Lipa-Ciotta, dance teacher at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, NY, and director of Creative Dance for Children Classes in Cheektowaga, NY
Hannah Maria Hayes is a NYC writer and editor with an MA in dance education (American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis) from New York University.
Photo by Jason Cohen