How I teach modern dance to children

Raegan Wood designed the children's modern dance curriculum at the Paul Taylor School in New York City.

Raegan Wood stands in front of 14 5-and 6-year-olds, huddled at one side of the large dance studio at The Taylor School. Spreading her hands widely, Wood signals the doors of an imaginary elevator opening, leading the students to the "ice-skating room." The petite dancers begin to glide across the floor: two boys imitate hockey players skating backwards, and all practice jumps and accidental on-ice spills before the magic elevator doors start to shut.

Students relish their trips on the magic elevator—they push imaginary buttons and mimic its rising (or lowering) to visit multiple rooms like the "windy room" and the "speedy machine room." But what they don't know is that this 10-minute game actually challenges them to explore elements of dance: dynamic energy range, shape, time and space. Adapted from an activity Wood's own children learned in a creative movement class years ago, Magic Elevator has become a fixture in her classes for children at The Taylor School in Lower Manhattan, where she designed the new youth program for ages 4–17, giving students a solid modern dance education with a Taylor-style twist.

A dance educator for over 25 years, Wood's DNA practically contains a gene for teaching: She was literally born at the American Dance Festival—her parents, two Graham dancers, were leading a class at the festival when her mother went into labor. And after attending University of California Berkeley, where her parents became the directors of the dance program, Wood danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for seven years.

"Once I left Paul, I started teaching. It seemed like a natural thing to do, since both of my parents were educators," she says. "Every dinner conversation was surrounded by dance—I lived and breathed it from the time I was born." And when PTDC moved to a new, spacious location in 2010, Wood approached Taylor about starting a youth program. "I had just gone back to Temple University to get my master's in dance education, and it was the perfect opportunity to build a youth program that would service the community and beyond," she says.

When designing the program's curriculum, Wood felt it was most important to continue Taylor's creative legacy, "allowing the students in every class to develop their own creative voices," she says. The program starts with classes for ages 4–6, and along with creative movement activities, Wood incrementally introduces basic modern dance technique, drawing upon Taylor's aesthetic when she can. Students first learn Taylor’s arm positions: "Taylor scoop, double scoop and high-V"; and her 7- to 9-year-old students practice Taylor's “Aureole runs,” a traveling step incorporating arm coordination and torso opposition. By the time teen students reach advanced classes, they have a solid technical modern dance foundation and begin to learn Taylor repertory and investigate and analyze his choreographic style.

The program emphasizes dance-making and creative exploration. "I introduce the concepts of space, time and energy, and how those elements can be manipulated by choreographers. But I don't sit and lecture my kids; I'll think of inventive ways to get them to explore those concepts," she says. The creative play activities (like Magic Elevator) allow students to move freely and at the same time make choreographic choices in order to express themselves.

Though she teaches all levels at The Taylor School, Wood's real knack is with the youngest students. Using imagery for every exercise and step, she gets kids to stretch and strengthen their bodies and helps improve their coordination. Sitting or standing in good posture is referred to as one's "bright star shining"; contractions take the shape of "big hugs"; and a series that resembles a yoga sun-salutation includes animal imagery like "tiny, little bugs," "angry cat backs," "puppy-dog tails," "grasshoppers," "snakes" and "jaguar tails."

Wood's students learn to not be afraid of falling or using the floor, and they develop a modern dancer's sensibilities from a young age. "Modern dance, and certainly Taylor dancers, are in and out of the floor all the time," she says. "I'm trying to help them gently develop strength and confidence to go in and out of the floor with ease, power and grace."

Here, Wood and students Stella Nakada and Zachary Basile demonstrate a "bottom roll" into a "push-off," two basic elements of modern dance floor-work, and Taylor's Aureole runs.

 

A native of Berkeley, California, Raegan Wood trained with her parents, David and Marni Wood. She received a BFA from Montclair State University and a master's degree from Temple University. A member of Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1982 to 1989, she has also performed with David Parsons, Christopher Gillis and her sister's dance company, Ellis Wood Dance. She has taught at the university level, including Barnard and Juilliard, and she has designed curricula for dance programs in K–5 schools in New Jersey. Apart from teaching 11 classes weekly at The Taylor School, Wood is currently a faculty member of the dance department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and an administrator at the Peridance/ Capezio Center in New York.

Stella Nakada, 6, and Zachary Basile, 9, both live in New York City and are students at The Taylor School.

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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