Among the many things you have to teach young students—proper technique, discipline, performance etiquette—how to choreograph is probably not high on the list. Yet students can reap marvelous benefits from learning the basics of dancemaking.

“If we want them to be more than just technicians—if we have expectations of them as performing artists—choreography is a way for them to find out who they are through exploratory exercises and challenges,” says Diane Jacobowitz of Dancewave in Brooklyn, New York. “This is for the teacher who can see the bigger picture.” (For more on Dancewave, turn to “Reaching for New Heights” on page 80.)
Teaching composition, whether it’s adding five minutes of improvisation to a technique class or designing an entire hour lesson based on dancemaking concepts, opens the door to self-expression for dancers of all ages. Rather than compelling students to always repeat steps by rote, which can lead to burnout for even the most technically gifted dancers, choreography frees them to express their feelings and delight in the knowledge that they have created something important and meaningful.

Classroom Concepts & Activities

While advanced students naturally will be able to use more difficult movements, dancers with any level of experience can experiment with choreography. Emphasize that creating a piece is about more than simply putting steps together; telling a novice to “go and make up 32 counts” is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on using choreography concepts, games, suggestions and exercises to encourage students to move, and then show how that movement becomes choreography. “Give them things to dance about,” says New York City–based master teacher Ellen Robbins. “Without improvisation, there is no source of inspiration for the movement; it’s only steps. The passion is what’s important.”

Anne Green Gilbert, founder and artistic director of Creative Dance Center in Seattle, includes a choreography section in all of her classes, even for ages 3 and 4. She sets up a scenario that allows students to work on specific choreographic concepts. For example, her youngest students do a “dance game” in which they are introduced to “energy” by dancing in different dynamics—their movements must be “sharp,” “smooth,” “shaky” or “swinging.” Another week she talks about high and low levels, or plays with verbs—“poke,” “chop” or “brush” the space.

Starting at age 6, students discuss concepts such as exits and entrances, or how a dance needs a beginning, middle and end, just like a story in a book. Green Gilbert instructs them to enter the stage space with a slow movement, create a rhythm with a partner, then exit with a fast movement. “Give them concepts, vocabulary and skills, and the time to play with those skills,” she says.

Robbins starts weaving choreography games into her classes for 5-year-olds. Students make a “dancing sandwich” by beginning with a skip, doing another movement, then ending with another skip. Or they move from stiff to wiggly, change from a caterpillar to a butterfly or dance from happy to angry. She also gives them story outlines—they’re ice skating and fall down; they’re sleeping, the alarm clock rings and they have to rush to get ready for school; they’re lost in the woods—to help them create their own movements.

Critiquing each other’s work is an important part of the process, one that even 5-year-olds can participate in, Robbins notes. “We watch each other’s pieces, talk about what looked good, what could be better,” she says. “After a time, they just talk to each other. I don’t even have to enter in.”
Jacobowitz starts with students in the fourth or fifth grades, who learn to make up movement to fit a story. (Perhaps it’s walking through peanut butter or floating down a river.) To “cook spaghetti,” they start out stiff and straight, “jump into the pot” and slowly become loose and wriggly, then roll out and end on a plate.

Once the creative juices are flowing, students are ready for more serious concepts. Jacobowitz suggests teaching a phrase of eight counts, then asking students to create variations on it—changing the tempo or rhythm, altering the level or doing the phrase backward. Or, she says, teach the first two phrases of a piece of music, and ask each student to contribute one additional phrase.

Jacobowitz also splits students, ages 8 and up, into groups of three to six and teaches each a simple variation. She starts the music and lets each one enter and exit at any time, allowing individuals to leave their groups to dance with another. Exercises like these not only show how a dance is made, Jacobowitz explains, but encourage dancers to work together as a unit.

Classical music can be a wonderful inspiration, adds Robbins. Take a suite such as The Carnival of the Animals, and give a two-minute solo to each child. Allow them to come up with their own scenarios and movements to match. Chopin might inspire an 8-year-old to become a woodland sprite, while Stravinsky might conjure up a more dramatic scenario—one of Robbins’ students did a dance about a melting ice cream cone that she tried to eat faster and faster, only to have it melt onto the ground. “A tragedy in a minute and a half,” Robbins recalls, laughing.

Getting Teachers Up to Speed

One of the reasons many teachers resist teaching choreography is that they never formally studied the subject. Brushing up on composition tools and concepts by reading books or attending workshops can help.

For years, the dance world was so focused on turning out technical dancers, Green Gilbert says, that creativity and self-expression were often left behind. But there is room for both. When she guest teaches at serious ballet schools, she has those preprofessionals choreographing within a half hour by explaining concepts such as doing a step in canon, changing the dynamic or taking a straight-line movement and traveling in a zig-zag instead. “Ask your students, ‘What could we do here? How could we change this?’” Green Gilbert suggests.

While kids will generally enjoy the fun and freedom of dancemaking, parents may sometimes complain that the time should be spent on technique. Jacobowitz often has to explain that studying choreography allows dancers to express themselves, to use dance to speak to the world the way a poet uses words. In fact, many choreographers today demand that their dancers contribute to the movement. Even apart from dance, it teaches students to solve problems, to think independently and creatively, and even how to organize.

“They get so much pleasure from making up movements—not just waiting for the teacher to give it to them by rote,” says Robbins. “The children care about something because it is theirs, and that’s a personal investment that’s good for life.” DT

Karen White is a freelance writer and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox