What one teacher learned after five years in public schools

Richter teaching tap to Philadelphia fifth-graders

Kat Richter is founder and artistic director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, an all-female rhythm tap company based in Philadelphia. As an experienced teaching artist, she also runs the ensemble’s Outreach Residency program, which provides north Philadelphia students with free tap shoes and weekly lessons. Here, she shares her best strategies for teaching in public school settings.

When I volunteered to teach in an after-school program my senior year of college, I thought I could handle whatever these kids would throw at me. After all, I’d been teaching in studios since I was 14. But I was wrong. Within about 20 minutes, I was standing on a desk screaming at the top of my lungs as two fifth-graders brawled on the floor. It was not my proudest moment, but after five years of teaching in both Baltimore and Philadelphia schools, I have learned from my mistakes. For studio teachers, venturing into K–12 territory can be a rewarding but challenging change of pace. Here are the strategies I find helpful for managing a classroom, empowering nondancers and developing a successful working relationship with public school teachers and administrators.

Seek out a relationship with teachers and parents.

It’s important to make sure that you communicate with classroom teachers, administrators and parents. Introduce yourself: Let them know what you’re going to be teaching, how you’ll structure the classes and what support you’ll need from them. Don’t assume classroom teachers are going to help out; oftentimes, they’re pressed for time and are banking on grading papers or checking their e-mail during their “break.” And if you need an assistant aside from the classroom teacher, ask for one. Even though a parent volunteer may not be a trained dancer, he or she can help with tying shoes or bathroom breaks, and this will allow you to focus on teaching.

Work with what you have.

Although some public schools have great (or at least adequate) facilities for dance, most don’t. I’ve taught on tile floors with desks pushed to the side, in a men’s wrestling room with wall-to-wall mats and in a gymnasium where a weekly cardio session for special education took place during my dance classes.

It’s easy to get frustrated when the physical environment isn’t up to snuff, but instead of feeling overwhelmed by shortcomings, focus on finding small solutions. When I was teaching in Baltimore, I wasn’t allowed to mark the floor in any permanent way, so I printed out and laminated pictures of famous tap dancers, taped them to the floor before each class and instructed students to find a dancer to “stand with” when they arrived. This was a great way to bring some much-needed order into the classroom and to sneak in a bit of tap history in the process.

Make everyone feel welcome.

When dancers come to a studio, it’s usually because they want to be there. This isn’t always the case in a public school setting, especially if students are self-conscious and think they can’t dance.

Call-and-response exercises are great for boosting confidence, while also teaching rhythm and musicality. By following a simple “I go, then you go” format, even students who think they are “bad dancers” can replicate and eventually create their own rhythmic patterns.

It is also important to establish a clear entry routine for each class, since this can set the tone for the entire session. In my tap classes, students enter in a single file, then sit down and take off their street shoes. Once I have their attention, I explain what we’re going to do and give them specific directions to get started. Only then do we put on our tap shoes. A structured entrance helps to pave the path for structured movement, making it easier for nondancers to adapt to new expectations and a new environment.

Be sensitive to individual learning styles.

The residency program I’ve directed for the past two years includes about a dozen special education students, in addition to a large number of ESL students. I’ve started using a white board to write down the names of steps and directions for improvisation exercises or choreography activities to make sure that students can both hear and see what’s going on. I don’t always replicate this practice in the studio, but when I do, it has a positive effect on student retention and comprehension.

Meet them halfway.

As dance educators, we are passionate about what we do. This doesn’t mean, however, that all fifth-graders share our enthusiasm for rhythm tap, classical ballet or postmodern dance. One of the greatest difficulties I faced when I first started teaching in public schools was matching my expectations with those of my students and their parents. I wanted to teach the history of tap and expose students to jazz music. They, however, hated my “elevator music” and wanted to play basketball instead.

This doesn’t mean you should give up; it just means that you need to be realistic. Ask your students what music and what types of athletic activities they like and find ways to meet them halfway. In my case, I took suggestions from my students on music and we agreed on a half jazz, half hip-hop playlist. You can also try using familiar cardio exercises for your warm-up, such as jumping jacks and sit-ups. By setting them to music, you can gradually shift students from a gym class mentality into dancer mode.

The benefits of a new experience

I teach very differently in a public school than I do in a studio setting, like going over what we’re going to do that day and introducing new themes and concepts before we start dancing. Changing up my approach helps keep me from burning out. Plus, it’s different—and a lot of fun—to have boys in my classes. The majority of my studio classes are all girls, but boys in the public school settings bring a new energy into the classroom. DT

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and artistic director of The Lady Hoofers.

Photo courtesy of Kat Richter

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by spinkickpictures.com, courtesy of Mitchell

"Popular music has an overall energy that lends itself to the street-jazz style," says Derek Mitchell. But over the last eight years or so, the choreographer, who also teaches contemporary, jazz funk and musical theater, has noticed a lack of great musicality and interesting lyrics. As a result, Mitchell's music searches often gravitate toward the classic hits from artists like Prince and Janet Jackson. "Rarely do I hear a new song that makes me go, 'Oh, I want to dance to that!'"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Andy Mogg, courtesy of Marin Ballet

As a young student, Becky Erhart Moore did not go on pointe with the rest of her class. "My teacher felt I wasn't ready, so I wore flat shoes when everyone else wore pointe shoes," she says. "My mom had to deal with my tears for weeks!" Moore, who is now artistic coordinator and faculty member at Marin Ballet in California, says that the setback she experienced as a child motivated her to work even harder. "When I finally went up on pointe with my class, it was that much sweeter."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Courtesy Harlequin Floors

Just like your car, your studio needs periodic tune-ups to keep it humming along smoothly. If you take the time to address a few small fixes, your business will stand out. And you don't have to break the bank, either—you might be surprised how low-cost, DIY improvements can make a surprising difference.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Students in Pulinkala's Cocoon. Photo by Robert Pack, courtesy of Kennesaw State

When Ivan Pulinkala was preparing for his interview at Kennesaw State University to create the school's first dance program, he figured the whole thing would be a lark, at best. After all, the New Delhi–born choreographer had just gotten his green card, which meant he could teach anywhere, and Kennesaw, Georgia (a half-hour outside of Atlanta), wasn't his first choice as a location. But after doing a scan of collegiate dance in Georgia, he began to change his mind. "I thought, 'Wow, if someone starts a big dance program at a public institution, the market's wide open,'" says Pulinkala. "There were some good programs, like Emory University, but they were niche—private and expensive."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Getty Images

When your students graduate and move to the big city to pursue their dreams, they'll almost immediately discover that there's a void left where your studio once was. Not only will they miss your instruction and daily support, but they'll miss having a physical space to work through challenging movement, polish their technique and improv with no one watching. Help them with their adjustment period by telling them about the studio spaces they can rent out when they need some one-on-one time with the mirror and the music.

Here are five for you to share with them—you're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Gabriel Figueredo in a variation from Raymonda. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP.

This week, more than 1,000 young hopefuls gathered in New York City for the Youth America Grand Prix finals, giving them the chance to compete for scholarships and contracts to some of the world's top ballet schools and companies. Roughly 85 dancers made it to the final round at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater on Wednesday. Today, the 20th anniversary of YAGP came to a close at the competition's awards ceremony. Read on to find out who won!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Kyle Froman

A few years ago, Mary Ann Lamb got a phone call from Ann Reinking, who was choreographing a production of The Visit starring Chita Rivera. Lamb was thrilled when Reinking offered her the role of Young Claire without even asking for an audition. "And then she said, 'In the first act, you're going to play Chita Rivera when she's a 17-year-old virgin,'" Lamb says, "and I'm like, 'What am I gonna do? I'm like 50 years old!' I started panicking. My dream was to be in the room with Ann Reinking and Chita Rivera, but I was scared to death I was going to make a fool of myself."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: A student of mine recently got a bad sprained ankle, and it's been weak ever since she returned to class. Are there any exercises you suggest to strengthen it?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
YouTube

"WOD" is back for Season 3, and once again, the internet is loving it! How much do they love it, you ask? Well they've watched many of the dances millions of times, so it's safe to say—A WHOLE LOT! We did some research and discovered which dances have been watched the most since Season 3's premiere, and the results may surprise you.

Here are the top-four most viewed "WOD" videos of the season so far! Let us know your favorite over on our Facebook page!

Keep reading... Show less
Unsplash

When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: As a dance teacher, which products do you prefer, Apple or Google?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

The one thing that can unite all of us on April 15 is the fact that everyone hates doing their taxes. Though they are necessary, they are exhausting and time-consuming, and just plain no fun for anyone!

To help you cope, we've captured what doing taxes feels like through a series of dancer memes.

YOU'RE WELCOME!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox