Teaching 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."

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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