While regular technique class is the backbone of a young dancer's training, it's also important for all of your dancers—from the tiniest to the most accomplished—to experience creative movement, improvisation and dance making. “Even at age 5 or 6, if the child makes up her own dance, I see a better performance," says Ellen Robbins, a New York City modern teacher and director of Dances by Very Young Choreographers.
Choreographing helps students think more creatively about every aspect of dance, and it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Several veteran teachers who work specifically to develop choreographic skills in students share with DT their tips for guiding the dance making process.
When it comes to encouraging creative movement, Christy Wolverton of Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, Texas, begins with improvisation. She finds that the “freeze dance" game, in which she puts on music and the kids dance around, freezing in one position when the music is turned off, is great for students ages 4 through 10. “They absolutely love it and it encourages them to move freely," Wolverton says.
Ellen Robbins' student Beatrice March. Photo by Faye Ellman, courtesy of Robbins
Young dancers can also benefit from slightly more structured improvisation. In improv classes for children 6 through 10, Robbins has the students choose partners who are responsible for watching each other during a guided exercise. Each classmate has to tell her partner one thing she liked and one thing that could have been done differently. “I try to get them interested in looking at and appreciating dance," she says. “I want them to learn how you can tweak something to make it more effective."
In her weekly summer choreography class for students ages 10 and up, Anne Kramer, owner/artistic director of Dance Etc. in Milford, Ohio, emphasizes the use of prompts. “Some kids get very emotional or stressed out when they try to create," Kramer says. Prompts ease that anxiety by giving them a place to begin. For example, Kramer will write out different steps on slips of paper, have her students pick two at random, and then ask them to use the steps in a short movement phrase. Or she'll have her students stand in a circle and pass around a prop (a hula hoop, a stuffed animal, a hat), asking each one to come up with something to do with it—quickly. “That gives them almost no time to analyze their decision, so they just act intuitively," Kramer says. Accessing that natural movement intuition helps them explore movement fearlessly when they begin to choreograph.
Choosing a Topic
Alice Teirstein, founding director of the Young Dancemakers Company summer dance ensemble—a group of New York City public high school students who create and perform original choreography—says her biggest challenge is getting young choreographers to come up with their own ideas, since most students gravitate toward clichéd topics or things they've already seen. She helps her students discover what's meaningful to them personally by giving them a provocative statement to think about. “I'll say something like, 'You are inheriting this world,' and then ask them, 'What pleases you about that? What doesn't please you? What do you want to change?'" Teirstein says. “Or I'll ask them more generally what's going on in their heads, what's on their minds. What do they want to create a dance about?" In the past, her students' choices have included a solo piece about a girl's self-image and self-confidence, a humorous dance about body language, and a piece about male bonding and friendship.
When it comes to choosing music, most teachers have specific guidelines, finding that limiting the options can make the decision less overwhelming. Robbins prefers that her students use classical music. “Pop music tends to be repetitive, but classical has kinetic excitement," she says. “It has depth, structure to hang a dance on, ambiance and nuance."
Both Robbins and Teirstein stay away from musical selections with words. “Lyrics cannot be disregarded," Teirstein says, and dancing to the words can stifle or constrain a student's natural movement instincts.
However, what's most important is that students find a piece of music that speaks to them. If their choice doesn't fit whatever rules you decide to use, hear them out. An impassioned dance comes from music the choreographer is passionate about.
Guiding the Process
Before Teirstein allows her students to start creating their pieces, she has them spend several days improvising with choreographic tools. “I ask them to explore the ideas of time, space and energy, and how you can use contrast," she says. One exercise, for example, might be to show anger through two contrasting types of movement, illustrating that you can depict that emotion both by flailing your arms and by remaining still.
Once the actual choreographing begins, be available to your students. “When students are first starting to choreograph, you're holding their hand through it; you're giving constructive criticism," Wolverton says. Students under the age of 11 or 12 will usually need constant supervision as they're working. If the choreographer is in her teens or older, quietly observing a few rehearsals and giving feedback only at the end is an unobtrusive way to help.
No matter the age of the student, don't be overpowering or insistent about your advice. “My tendency is to give too many suggestions for things they could do," Kramer says. Instead, be sure to ask them if they want help before giving your opinions. “And make sure to praise them, especially when someone is struggling," Kramer says. “It's important to allow students to create freely and experience the process, even if it takes a while."