Persuading teens to join a dance class is only half the battle for K–12 teachers. Once students are on board, creating a safe environment for them to learn without having to worry about how they look or whether their peers will sneer is the next step.

For Diane Rawlinson, a dance teacher at Wheeling High School in Illinois, the key has been an improvisational practice—or what some might call a philosophy—called InterPlay. InterPlay combines improvisation, speaking, singing and storytelling in a dance environment that’s rooted in affirmation and community building, rather than critique and technical achievement. Dance educators like Rawlinson, one of the first to be certified in the technique, have made it the basis of their teaching. “My kids do InterPlay every semester to learn not only to respect each other, but also to see what everybody brings to the environment,” she says.

InterPlay is an ideal method for teaching teens because of its all-accepting atmosphere. There is no right or wrong in the practice. “People try new things; they’re less reticent,” says Phil Porter, who founded the practice along with Cynthia Winton-Henry in 1989. “Your ability to act is freed up. And just to be able to affirm teens is huge—there are few situations where we can wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ to someone.”

InterPlay exercises are designed to develop students’ ability to observe each other and work together in nonjudgmental ways. In an exercise called “noticing,” for example, each student improvises in the center of a circle for 10 seconds. The other students identify movement they see, without attaching value. This teaches them to watch and describe without critique. Another exercise called “walking, stopping, running” has them pair up to walk, step and run together, in sync, to build kinesthetic awareness. In “matching your partner,” dancers follow their partner using the same energy, not just the same movement. Another exercise called “hand to hand,” which can be an introduction to contact improvisation, has students touch one hand to their partner’s hand and begin with mutual pushing. “This shows that you’re dancing with someone who is strong, who is not a pushover,” explains Winton-Henry. “They’re getting bits of information about what’s permissible.”

Rawlinson remembers a semester when her InterPlay practices were truly tested. She was faced with a class that included five male students, all unique individuals, from different social circles in school. “Within three weeks, they were able to do contact improv together—high school boys from completely different backgrounds in a class of primarily girls. It wasn’t just the five guys being nonjudgmental—it was the entire class being nonjudgmental,” says Rawlinson.

Rawlinson has found InterPlay to be a useful precursor to teaching technique. She now begins each term with InterPlay so that when it’s time to tackle technique, students already feel comfortable. “They’re not worried if they do a leap and it’s not the most graceful thing in the world,” she says. “Because they know no one else is looking at them with judgment.”

Nothing could make InterPlay’s founders happier. “We were interested in broadening our understanding of what it means to move and how people move,” says Porter. He and Winton-Henry were professional dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area when they teamed up to create InterPlay, and today they also direct WING IT!, the InterPlay professional ensemble. “We wanted to focus on improvisation—movement, singing, speaking—all the things the body can do and how movement can affect people and personal development and the power of those forms to create community.”

And the community continues to grow. More and more teachers are attending the InterPlay Leader Training Program, and they leave as InterPlay leaders—essentially certified InterPlay instructors. The program—composed of multiday workshops, regular group meetings with other participants, reading and writing exercises and practice teaching sessions—introduces attendees to the core forms and philosophies of the practice, how to teach it, how to create InterPlay’s welcoming and affirming atmosphere, how to use InterPlay forms in different settings and how to self-evaluate as a teacher. It’s also possible to attend InterPlay classes without enrolling in the training program. Most sessions take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, InterPlay’s home base. But classes are also taught in other states and countries. (Visit www.interplay.org to find out if there are any in your area.)

Porter and Winton-Henry are thrilled that InterPlay is proving useful in so many places around the world, since bringing people together is one of their goals. At Wheeling High School, InterPlay has done more than turn reticent students into open-minded dancers. It’s broken through social barriers. In dance class, Wheeling students are asked to say “thank you” if they accidentally collide, because in InterPlay’s mistake-free ideology students should never apologize for human contact. At Wheeling, that attitude has transcended the walls of the studio, and dance students from different social groups who would never have interacted before now say “hi” to each other and “thank you” if they bump in the hallway. Think what that could mean on a global scale. DT

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.

photo by Brent Rawlinson, courtesy of Diane Rawlinson

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It can happen so quickly. One moment a promising student is strong and pushing their way forward to success, and then suddenly they begin to evaporate before your eyes. Research has consistently shown that dancers are at least three times as likely to experience an eating disorder compared to the general population. So even if you are doing everything "right," you may still find yourself advocating for the wellness of a student battling disordered eating. By setting a proactive groundwork of support and confronting the issue head-on in the studio, you may have the power to change the movement of disordered eating in dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

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

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Instagram
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox