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."

Dance Teachers Trending
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

2019 has been rife with fantastic holiday songs that are simply BEGGING to be choreographed to. From Pentatonix to Kacey Musgraves, these bangers are the perfect match for your upcoming holiday-themed jazz class. Use each song for different elements of class (warm-up, across the floor, combo, etc.), or have your students get in groups and assign each one a different song from the list to choreograph to. The options are endless, but the general feeling of joy will be the same.

YOU'RE WELCOME! And happy holidays, everyone!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alvin Ailey surrounded by the Company, 1978. Photography by Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, all rights reserved

From 1961 to 1994, legendary photographer Jack Mitchell captured thousands of moments with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now, this treasure trove of dance history is available to the public for viewing via the online archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The collection includes both color and black-and-white images of Ailey's repertoire, as well as private photo sessions with company members and Ailey himself. Altogether, the archive tracks the career development of many beloved Ailey dancers, including Masazumi Chaya, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Donna Wood and Dudley Williams—and even a young Desmond Richardson. And there's no shortage of photos of iconic pieces like Blues Suite (Ailey's first piece of choreography), Cry and Revelations.

We couldn't resist sharing a few of our favorites below. Search the collection for more gems here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by CJ Harris, courtesy of PHILADANCO

Each anniversary celebration of a dance company might also be considered a lesson in dance history and a study of endurance and perseverance. Thus the 50th anniversary of PHILADANCO is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable legacy of founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown as a source of inspiration for students, dancers and colleagues nationwide.

PHILADANCO is a resident company at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and kicked off its 50th season on October 5. Brown and the company will participate in the International Association of Blacks in Dance's 32nd annual conference, January 14–19, in Philadelphia. And you can catch the company throughout the U.S. in 2020, including February performances in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 13-year-old daughter has always been flexible, but last year she suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor from an overstretch position. Since then I have told her not to participate in over-splits or other extreme positions. Is that the right thing to do?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

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

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox