How to Help Your Students Develop Their Creative Voices

Dana Genshaft has only one rule for budding choreographers at San Francisco Ballet School: No cartwheels or splits allowed. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet School

Ask a 5-year-old to make up a dance, and she'll probably skip around the room, impulsively moving to the music. But give the same assignment to a teenage dancer, and the student might clam up, unsure what to do. Even mature dancers can feel reluctant to create something new, especially if they've never tried their hand at choreography. "I wasn't exposed to the art of making dances until I was in college," says Lauren Giordano Curran, faculty at Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. "I felt self-conscious because I had never had that experience."

It's easy to overlook the vital practice of helping dancers develop their creative voices, when so much of dance training tends to focus on technique and repertory. But teachers can introduce the art of making dances in age-appropriate ways, giving students the tools they need to choreograph and the confidence to do it.


Start with Improv

"Making dances starts with improvisational concepts first," says Janis Brenner, artistic director of Janis Brenner & Dancers and on faculty at The Juilliard School in New York City. When working with young dancers, harness their creativity by having them build on one idea at a time. Play with space in the room, for example: Where is front and back? How can they move on a diagonal?

Giordano Curran likes to start with a basic shape, like a rectangle, or even an animal. "Give them something they can really imagine, then they can mimic what they see," she says. "Getting comfortable with improv at a young age will make choreographing easier for them, more natural."

As students mature, try offering classes on improvisation, which could then lead into composition or choreography. "Get them to think creatively about movement rather than pre-learned steps, styles or techniques," says Brenner. "It should be mandatory, like jazz or ballet. Then they can really apply the joy of moving into their own unique vocabulary."

Offer Parameters

Students need structure to help guide their improvisation and, eventually, their choreographic approach. "When young people aren't given parameters, they can feel pretty intimidated," says Brenner. "They end up trying to do tricks to impress rather than thinking about movement invention." With more experienced students, Brenner suggests working with abstract concepts like space, time, shape and motion. "Each little motif becomes the guiding principle that allows you to stay in the idea."

Music can also provide structure. Giordano Curran selects age-appropriate songs for students so they can "tap into an idea and connect to it"—songs offer built-in narrative ideas for dancers to draw from. Brenner will quietly play atmospheric music in the room while students improvise, watching as movements take on their own phrasing and dynamics. Once the material is set, Brenner talks about how music can influence the experience. If students start presenting their dance to Bach, for example, she will then have them try the same movements to a song from Björk. "They'll see movement in a completely different context and feeling," says Brenner. "Show them how a choreographic phrase can be so many different things depending on what you do with it."

Lauren Giordano Curran of Gus Giordano Dance School, Chicago. Photo courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School

Work Together

When students start to choreograph, put them in pairs or small groups so they don't feel like they're being put on the spot or judged in any way. Dana Genshaft, contemporary teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, sometimes organizes students into groups based on material they've created. "Each group has a flavor and ingredients I feel would be most successful together," she says. She then gives each group a choice of three music options and lets them run with it. "The goal is to allow students to make choices together. The kids learn how many choices there are in choreography and how to filter their decisions based on logic and aesthetic."

Brenner sometimes asks dancers to work in pairs, and then each duet teaches their choreography to a new couple. "All of a sudden you've got a quartet," she explains. "They have to explain what they just made up and develop a language for directing or imparting movement information." Some students might show the choreography, while others articulate what they've done in words. It's an exercise for students about how to share and develop new material.

If you can empower young dancers to move creatively and consider movement theory, you are nurturing a new generation of choreographers. "Teachers can help with the building blocks," says Genshaft. "Allow students to experiment when they're young, and they'll walk away with a growing respect for the choreographic process. Maybe they'll be motivated to try it again."

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Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

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Genshaft in Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

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