Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
An active commercial dancer, Katy Spreadbury is renowned for teaching 4- to 7-year-old dancers on the JUMP Dance Convention circuit. She’s spent over a decade honing her craft, and the results are visible to anyone who pokes their head into one of her baby ballerina classes. Beyond her chipper enthusiasm, Spreadbury has a unique ability for engaging kids as young as 3. Here, she shares a few of her teaching tips with DT. See her in person this month at the Dance Teacher Summit.
Dance Teacher: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when teaching young children?
Katy Spreadbury: One of my early mistakes was coming into a room of 3- to 5-year-olds using dance language as though they already knew it. It wasn’t fair, not only because it was a foreign language, but at that age they’re just coming into their own bodies.
Now I use imagery to put them in the proper position without talking to them in a way they don’t understand. For instance, we pretend we’re balancing a glass of milk on top of our heads. You ask them how they would do that, and they all sit up nice and tall to the point where they’re using their muscles to separate their vertebrae as much as they can. And then the girls pretend to put on earrings, and I ask them to show every inch of those earrings that dangle all the way down to their shoulders. That gets them to press their shoulders away from their ears.
So you can get their bodies generally in the right position, and the kids are having fun because they’re playing pretend. They don’t know that they’re working; they’re just stretching their brains and playing with their bodies. The idea is to eventually wean them off this imagery and wean them off these games, but at that age they aren’t prone to work. You can’t push them like a drill sergeant, because they’ll just leave or cry!
DT: What about the boys?
KS: I adjust the imagery so they don’t need to pretend they’re wearing earrings. The boys imagine balancing pencils under their ears instead. Sometimes I’ll ask them to move something for me, like a book bag, because they’re “strong boys,” so they’ll move it over to the side of the room and feel very proud. Or if the girls are working on splits at age 5 or 6, I’ll have boys do jumps or something that feels a little more gender-appropriate to them.
It’s funny to use this word at age 5, but you don’t want to emasculate a little boy. You don’t want them to feel that they’ve traded in soccer or football for dance, that they’ve given up something masculine for something less so. The more you can make the classroom appropriate for masculine behavior, the better. Ignoring them and treating them just like the girls is not a great idea, and it’s usually the reason they leave.
DT: How do you attend to a crying child without derailing the whole class?
KS: It depends on the level of emotion you’re seeing. Sometimes you can see the tears start to come or the lip quiver, and all it takes is a moment to help them to feel safe again. I’ll just go sit next to them and compliment them on something they’re doing well. And usually a hand on them is helpful, because it reminds them of their mom, of whatever comfort comes from home. So if it’s just a hand on their shoulder saying, “Wow! Your earrings look amazing!” and then asking them for a high five, that takes them out of their own emotions and brings them back into the room and into that feeling of fun. So if I catch it early enough, the tears won’t come at all.
If I miss that moment, and they’re at the next stage of feeling upset or vulnerable, I might tell them I need them to be my special helper. They’ll sort of start to nod, and then I say that I need that special helper to be smiling, and they’ll start to muster up a smile. Or I’ll ask them to come sit next to me in the front of the room, and I’ll figure out a way to create the next exercise around them, meaning they get to demonstrate. Then they’re excited, and hopefully they forget about the tears. —Andrea Marks
Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; by Mia Stringer, courtesy of Katy Spreadbury