Use Games To Teach Your Youngest Ones

Teaching dance through familiar childhood games can be a great way to enliven the routine you have already established in your beginning ballet or creative movement class and can make learning fun for young students. Many games can be adapted for the studio. Here are some ideas to help you get started and some guidelines for safe and enjoyable ways to use games in the classroom.


Before introducing any activity, develop with your students a core of simple steps such as skipping, marching or a princess (or prince) walk on demi-pointe. Then, add basic arm movements such as swan arms, salutes or swimming through the air. Practice these at the start of each class to help students memorize them.


Follow the Leader

This is a great game for grabbing students’ attention at the beginning of class and teaching simple movements. You can begin by being the leader and having everyone line up behind you. Have students pay attention to who is in front of them, and tell them to stay behind that person. For very young students, this is as much of a challenge as following your lead!


Start with a simple step that uses just the feet or just the arms. Increase difficulty as students improve. For example, begin with a march and add a salute after they have marched for a little while. You can lead the group in a big circle or a snake, and vary the pattern to keep students on their toes.


Older dancers may take turns being the leader. You can give them direction by telling them which steps to do, or let them come up with their own combinations. Change leaders often so that everyone gets a turn.


Simon Says

Using Simon Says is a good way to work on complex steps or introduce new ones, because it allows you to break down larger movements into smaller ones. Adjust the rules of the game to make it age-appropriate. Avoid hurt feelings by starting over often, rather than playing until there is a winner.


Red Light, Green Light, One, Two, Three!

Listening for directions, students move toward you when you say “green light” and stop when you call out “red light.” Your younger students can work on balance and following instructions, while older children practice ballet movements. Tailor this game to the studio setting by asking students to do a dance movement, such as standing in arabesque, when you say “red light.” You can even teach a combination, and then use it in the game for practice. Red Light, Green Light can also be played in slow motion if things get too rowdy in the classroom. One of the rules can be, if you move after the teacher says “red light,” then you have to go back to the starting point.


Red Rover

Great for creating a friendly environment in the classroom, this game is also useful for teaching students each other’s names. Naturally, you do not want to use this game with the break-through element, which can be too dangerous for dance class, but rather as a means of calling students over one at a time (or in pairs if some have short attention spans).


To begin, ask the children to line up on one side of the room, while you stand on the other. Call out, “Red rover, red rover, let Sarah come over—doing the princess walk.” Once Sarah joins you, whisper in her ear whom to call next, so that you can call the next student together. Vary the movements by choosing from your repertory of basic steps, paying attention to students’ different abilities. Pretty soon there will be a chorus of voices calling out and the class will be having a great time.


Name That Tune

This game is an effective way to teach students about dance music in any type of class. Use selections that students may hear in the future, such as The Nutcracker, Singin’ in the Rain or I Got Rhythm, depending on the discipline you teach. Older students can try to recall the steps that go with the music.


How to Keep Control

There are a few things to keep in mind, such as noise level. Children who are having a great time are usually very loud. This is not appropriate in a studio and can make it difficult to maintain a good learning environment. Sometimes, a talk beforehand about listening carefully can be helpful. Also, stay aware of the energy level in the class at all times—you can usually sense when things are getting too wild. When this happens, shift to a slow or quiet activity to settle things down.


Another consideration when using games in the classroom is the rules. All of the students should know exactly what the rules are, and they should be explained every time a game is used (See “Memory Game” on the left to find more games and their rules). Children often forget things from week to week, so you’ll want to refresh their memories.


Use your imagination to come up with games of your own, or to totally revamp games that you want to use. You can change any rules to make a particular game suited for the dance classroom; the more creative, the better. For example, you can use games for a part of your class, as a type of reward or for the full session—it’s entirely up to you.


There are many fun activities to choose from. Perhaps you like the hokey pokey, hopscotch or remember another game that you really enjoyed when you were growing up. Children love to learn the chicken dance and they look adorable doing it!

Teaching dance through games is a fun way to get your students involved and keep their attention. They will look forward to playing their favorites and get excited about learning new ones. It is also a great way to stay fresh as an instructor.



Freelance writer Catherine L. Tully teaches dance at Trinity High School in River Forest, IL, and has more than 16 years of teaching experience.

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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.

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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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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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