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.

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