Dance Teacher Tips

How to Help Your Students Create Dances of Their Own

Anne Kramer, owner/artistic director of Dance Etc. in Milford, Ohio, with her students. Photo by Jorja Vornhder, courtesy of Kramer.

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.


Sparking Creativity

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.

Selecting Music

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."



The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox