As we approach the start of another dance season, many of us are spending time polishing our lesson plans, perfecting our playlists, developing assessment tools, and brainstorming recital and concert ideas. But the “clean slate” of the new season also affords us – and our students – time to break old bad habits and start great new ones. In the Responsive Classroom methodology, the first six weeks of school are considered crucial. Teachers who adopt Responsive Classroom follow specific steps to ensure that their students start the year in a way that sets them up for engaged and productive learning. Dance teachers can apply the a similar mindset during the first six weeks in the studio to help set their students up for success throughout the year.
Starting a new dance class or rehearsal process? Check these blog posts: My Favorite Introduction Games for Dance Classes and My Favorite Team-Building Dance Games. You’ll also love the Back-to-Dance Bundle, with 4 great resources to help you get to know your students, encourage them to set and achieve new goals, and help build a strong and supportive community in your dance classes!
Here are my top four habits to start in the first six weeks of the dance season:
1.) Encouraging your students to show up, on time and in proper dress: As educators, we know that students simply cannot improve if they are not regularly present in class, from start to finish, and dressed in a way that will keep them safe and help them focus. Instilling the importance of these practices during the first six weeks of class will help students and their families develop good habits.
Make sure that your attendance, make-up, tardiness, and dress code policies are clearly listed in all studio materials or in your class syllabus so students and parents are aware of them from before classes start.
Discuss your expectations often with students and families often during the first six weeks. Explain why attendance is crucial (it’s the only way to improve individually and keep the class moving forward as a group), why tardiness is disruptive and dangerous (the late student distracts their peers, and missing warm-up could result in injury), and how dress code helps students learn most effectively (it addresses safety issues, limits distractions, and helps the teacher see and correct potentially dangerous alignment issues).
- For new students, provide plenty of resources on why dress code matters, where to buy dress code items, and how to properly fix hair. Handouts, in-class demonstrations, and videos posted to your program’s social media accounts are all great options!
- Create dress code options that are inclusive and make students feel comfortable, regardless of their shape, size, or skin tone.
- Consider incentives for perfect attendance and dress code adherence on a monthly or quarterly basis. The immediacy can be more effective than waiting until the end of the year to acknowledge good behaviors!
- Plan an observation time within the first two months of lessons so that students have a chance to apply their skills and families can see that the learning starts from day one.
- Make sure that you are making the most of the first 5 minutes of class. You don’t want to give students or families the impression that the beginning of class doesn’t matter that much as it will only encourage tardiness. Make sure that your class starts off with a meaningful, engaging ritual, such as an energetic warm-up or a fun introduction game that students don’t want to miss!
- Remember that the first six weeks are a time for setting expectations and informing students of consequences. There will certainly be learning curves as students and families adjust. Be kind and give some grace at first. A nice option for these first weeks is to have a stack of reminder slips with the expectation and potential consequence that can be discretely handed to students or their parents after class if is late or not dressed properly.
2.) Creating a consistent class routine: Kids thrive on routine, and having consistency can help them feel safe and comfortable while also supporting their learning. I have found this to be especially important for pre-school and middle school students. The class routine should be designed to reinforce etiquette expectations, from how they enter the studio to how they say thank you at the end of class. A welcoming opening ritual can help students transition into class more easily. Structured warm-ups, with some room for variation from week to week to fit with your class theme or goals, helps students prepare their minds and bodies for the challenges to come. A basic class outline that stays more or less the same from gives students an idea of what to expect and may even help mitigate behavioral issues that arise from anxiety or fear of the unknown. Cool downs and closing rituals, from a formal révérence to a casual high five on the way out of the studio, help students process their class experience and leave on a positive note.
- If you are worried about students getting bored or parents getting suspicious of too much repetition, change the focus of your warm-up and cool-down each week. Some ideas include adding level changes, playing around with different tempos, and changing up the movement quality or direction. Small changes help keep things fresh while still providing the comfort of the class routine. More ideas on that can be found in this blog post.
- Spend a good portion of the first six weeks helping students adjust to the routine and become comfortable with it. Take time to explain the importance of each part of class: Warm-up prepares our bodies and minds for class. Progressions help us improve our technique. Phrases and combinations challenge our memories and help us apply what we are learning in new ways. Cool-down helps our muscles recover and our minds reflect on what we’ve learned. Help students navigate class transitions with focus and master basics before pushing complex technical elements.
- If you want to give your lesson plans a refresh and ensure that you are creating a strong and consistent class routine, check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning.
3.) Cultivating a positive class culture: You likely want your students to develop certain attitudinal habits, such as respect for self and others, focus and disciplined work, energy and enthusiasm, and kindness. The first six weeks should be a time to cultivate those attitudes and create the kind of culture you want for your class and studio. This can be done through activities designed to bring out these qualities, such as partner exercises to develop teamwork and empathy, and goal setting to help students find their internal motivation. It is also important to talk to the students often about your expectations for their attitude and behavior, and to enforce consistent and compassionate consequences when these expectations are broken.
- Remember that your class culture starts even before the students walk into the studio! Take time to greet students and parents in the lobby before or after class if your teaching schedule allows. Make it a goals to know not only all of your students’ names, but also as their primary parent or guardians’ (when possible) by the end of the first six weeks.
- Teaching social emotional skills is an important part of our role as educators, and the process should start in the first six weeks! My favorite ways to teach social and emotional skills through dance can be found here.
- In the first six weeks, you should focus on getting to know your students well, so that you can best support them throughout the year. Are they introverted or extroverted? Do they thrive on attention or withdraw when you correct them in front of others? What kind of music do they respond to? What hobbies or interests do they have that you can connect to their dance training? The Back-to-Dance Bundle includes great resources that will help you get to know your students, help them set goals, and create a strong and supportive community in your class.
4.) Squelching bad movement habits: It is important to address your students’ postural and movement concerns in the first six weeks of class. For pre-schoolers, it might be the “W sit” or toe walking. For older students, it could be not getting all the way over the box of their pointe shoe, not reaching to the end of their kinesphere, or slouching between exercises. If you allow students to start the year off with sloppy habits, they will only get harder to correct. Address these fundamental issues before incorporating new or advanced technical elements into class.
- For little ones, it can be a good idea to have a set waiting posture, such as “ballet sit” (with one leg out and the other crossed over as in a Degas painting), butterfly with tall back, or a mermaid sit with legs to the side, to encourage good posture and energy in transitional moments of class. I like to provide students with several options that they can choose from and allow them to shift between them as needed. Some students have difficulty maintaining a set position for long periods of time, so giving them a few choices can be helpful.
- For older students, spend some time correcting the postural issues that come with modern life, such as swayback resulting from tight psoas muscles due to sitting too long, or hunched neck and rounded shoulders caused by texting. Remind students to be cognizant of their posture both while dancing and in transitional class moments.
- During the first six weeks of class, it can be fruitful to spend significant time on conditioning exercises to help make these corrections. Encourage at home practice with a checklist of these exercises and incentives for completion. Of course, postural corrections probably won’t happen in those first six weeks, but by the early focus will help set students up for success throughout the year. You can track their progress with photos and videos, helping them to see the results of their hard work!
What habits do you like to focus on in the first 6 weeks of class? Share in the comments so we can learn from one another!