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."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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