Dance Teacher Tips

Should You Use Hands-on Corrections in a K–12 Setting? Two Teachers Weigh In

Amber Johnson at Deland Middle School. Courtesy of DMS

For a young student in the process of developing bodily awareness, a hands-on adjustment by a teacher can mean the difference between safe and incorrect alignment. But in many K–12 schools today, a hands-on approach is frowned upon or sometimes even forbidden. With dance being a kinesthetic art, this limitation presents a predicament for K–12 dance teachers. Here, two teachers share their views on whether to use touch in class and, if so, how they go about it.


Is Touch Even Necessary?

At Deland Middle School in Florida, Amber Johnson estimates that 90 percent of her students haven't had a dance class before they enter her classroom. Her classes are choreography- and technique-based, so helping students feel correct alignment is a priority. "I feel like hands-on corrections are essential," she says. "A lot of students are very not aware of their bodies." Many come to her with hunched shoulders, swayed backs or difficulty engaging the correct muscles, so a light touch to the shoulders, back or stomach can go a long way.

Conversely, Valerie Gutwirth, who teaches at several different elementary schools in Berkeley Unified School District, intentionally avoids hands-on corrections. Her students are mostly first- and second-graders, so her classes focus primarily on creative movement, spatial awareness and coordination. "I teach very young children, so my job right now is more about getting them not to touch each other," she says.

Set the Expectations and Get Permission

Though Gutwirth doesn't offer physical adjustments in her classes, she will occasionally conduct activities that involve touch, such as the "sculptor-and-clay" exercise, in which students "mold" each other into different shapes. "I'm very mindful of getting their permission and getting a kid [to help demonstrate] who wants to do this. I don't just pick a kid," she says. She always asks, "Is it OK if I touch you?" More often than not, students say yes.

Johnson lets students know her approach from day 1: "In my syllabus, I have a clause that says: 'Parents and students should understand that this is an instructional movement class, and there will be some physical contact in order to facilitate proper alignment and movement. There will also be physical interaction with other students.'" Students then have to take the syllabus home, have a parent sign it and bring it back for a grade.

Johnson lets students know they are free to drop the class if they are not comfortable with physical contact. In her 11 years at Deland, Johnson says she's had maybe two students transfer out for that reason.

She uses the first few classes to get students comfortable with making physical contact by playing improvisation games. "They're having fun and not really thinking about the fact that they're breaking the touch barrier," she says.

Consider How You Touch

Johnson's early training included forceful touch and even being poked with a stick by one of her teachers. "I definitely use lighter touch corrections," she says. For example, she might stand behind a student and gently put her hands on their shoulders to help them roll them down and back. Or as a reminder to engage their abdominal muscles, she might lightly touch their stomach—never poking or pushing.

Johnson suspects that she might use more pressure in her corrections if she were working in an after-school studio, but, she says, "in the public-school setting, you just have to be careful." Gutwirth agrees: "There's this climate of fear and covering your back, because everything's a potential lawsuit." During her 20 years in Berkeley Unified, she has adjusted her approach to physical contact with students. "The field has evolved, especially as we've learned more about children and trauma. If there's a shift in approach, it's really about making sure everyone in the room feels safe," she says.

When she does use touch to demonstrate an activity, Gutwirth is quick, direct and sticks to light touch to the shoulders, back, arms and hands. For something like sculptor-and-clay, she'll demonstrate on the student first and then let the student demonstrate on her, so the last image the class sees is the kid having power over the adult.

Use Creative Alternatives

For students who shy away from a hands-on correction from her or from physical contact with other students, Johnson incorporates moments where they can give physical feedback to themselves. She'll direct the entire class to place a hand on their abdominals while standing at the barre, or on their quads in a tendu, and then feel the difference between engaged and relaxed muscles.

Johnson is also a fan of imagery. For example, having students stand in first position, she'll tell them, "I want you to pretend that you have a raindrop on your shoulder, and it rolls down your arm and off the tip of your finger."

Read Your Students

Overall, just using common sense and gauging students' responses to touch will go a long way. "Feel out your crowd. Some students are going to be more OK with it than others," says Johnson. "Pay attention to how students react when you touch them."

Gutwirth stresses the importance of always asking permission, both as a teacher and encouraging students to do so among themselves. Not only will it help avoid conflict, but it empowers students to say no when they're uncomfortable.

Johnson adds that taking the time to build a foundation of trust and open communication can help students become more comfortable with physical contact from a teacher. "I work hard to make sure the students are having fun in an environment that they enjoy. I believe that if a student trusts you as their teacher, they're going to learn better from you, and there is much less likelihood that there are going to be issues."

The Conversation
Getty Images

Q: Our dancers' parents want to observe class, but students won't focus if I let them in the room. I've tried having them observe the last 10 minutes of class, but even that can be disruptive and bring the dancers' progress to a halt. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dance Teacher Web
Courtesy Dance Teacher Web

Dance students aren't the only ones who get to spend their summers learning new skills and refining their dance practice. Studio owners and administrators can also use the summer months to scope out new curriculum ideas, learn the latest business strategies and even earn a certification or two.

At Dance Teacher Web's Conference and Expo, attendees will spend July 29–August 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada learning everything from new teaching methods to studio management software. And as if the dance and business seminars weren't enough, participants can also choose from three certifications to earn during the conference to help expand their expertise, generate new revenue and set their studios apart:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

Keep reading... Show less
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Shared via Dance Teacher Network Facebook

I'm a part of a popular group on Facebook called Dance Teacher Network which consists of dance teachers across the country discussing and sharing information on all things dance. Yesterday morning, I spotted a photo shared in the group of four smiling young boys in a dance studio. And I couldn't help but smile to myself and think, "Wow, I never had that...that's pretty damn amazing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Marr

When Erica Marr discovered ballroom dancing in her late teens, she instantly fell in love with the Latin beats and strong drum lines that challenged her musicality. After shifting her focus away from contemporary and jazz, she began studying with elite ballroom coaches in New York City and quickly earned a World Championship title in her division.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Q: I own a studio in a city that has a competitive dance market. I've seen other studios in my community put ads on Instagram and Facebook for open-call auditions in April, long before most studios have finished their competition season and year-end recitals. Is this fair?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: How can I improve my pointed feet?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
YouTube

Did you know there is an annual contest in which scientists turn their PhD research into dance? Well there is, and it's even better than you're imagining! I mean, honestly, if our grade-school science teachers had us turn our schoolwork into dances, we may have enjoyed chemistry a bit more 🤣.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
New Miami City Ballet corps member Itzkan Barbosa and her mother Miriam Barbosa pose atop a mountain of Itzkan's pointe shoes. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy of Miriam Barbosa

On the morning of May 1, Miriam Barbosa posted a photo of her daughter, Itzkan, on Facebook. The image itself is striking—Itzkan stands smiling on pointe in front of Miami City Ballet, where she has spent the last year as a pre-professional student, perched atop a mountain of old pointe shoes of all different sizes. But it's the story behind the picture that's inspired so many people to comment their congratulations and appreciation. The photo contains every single one of Itzkan's pointe shoes, from her very first pair up until the moment she got her first professional contract as a corps member with MCB last month. The image not only calls attention to the hard work and dedication necessary for young dancers to achieve their dreams, but to the sacrifices parents make to help them get there.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox