What are the 5 dance skills that you think are most important for your students to learn?
As I’ve written in the past, I initially struggled to answer this question. Quality dance training can positively impact students in so many ways: physically, of course, but also socially, emotionally, creatively, cognitively, and even spiritually. How could I choose just 5 dance skills from such a wide range of benefits?
To explore the question in greater depth, I’ve separated my answers out over a few posts, each looking at a different “category” of skill. This post is about the top 5 creative and performance skills I try to teach my dance students. Previously, I’ve also written about the 5 dance technique and movement skills I think are most important across all dance genres and styles, as well as 5 social and emotional skills that students learn through the dance. Click on the hyperlinks to read each of these posts!
Dance as a performing art is inherently creative and performative. When students watch their teachers and try to recreate the steps and shapes presented, they are creating their own physical reality: How can I take what I see and make it happen in my body? Every attempt becomes it’s own little performance, as students “put on” the movement and share the experience in front of their instructor, peers, and eventually an audience.
So often, however, we as educators allow the creative and performance elements of dance to fall to the wayside in the pursuit of technical excellence. We wait until our dance students have got the choreography perfected to focus on how they engage the audience while performing it. We introduce improvisation to our advanced students as vehicle for “showing off” what they can do; rather than using it throughout their dance education as a tool for understanding and applying dance technique. We encourage or even demand uniformity of expression rather than allowing our students to find their own voices within the movement.
In The Holistic Dance Teacher approach to dance education, creative and performance skills fall under the umbrella of dance Artistry. Artistry refers to the creative and performance skills that are valued within any given dance genre. How does a dancer use their technique, combined with expression and imagination, to communicate with an audience? It is important to note that each dance genre will have its own approach to artistry, valuing a different set of creative and performance skills. Within each genre, every students’ artistry will and should be different based on their own experiences, preferences, and personality. The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach recognizes that it is our job as educators to help our students find their own artistic voices within the context of the genre. However, there are certain creative and performance skills that cross dance genres and can be applied within most dance styles.
Throughout my career I’ve studied and taught in a wide range of settings: studios, colleges, K-12 schools, conservatories, and community programs. I’ve worked with students from age 2-60, some of whom where stepping foot into the studio for the first time in their entire lives, and some of who had been dancing even longer than I have. I’ve led classes for dancers in the midst of their careers, trained students with professional aspirations, and taught novice students who love dance and those who were forced to be in class because of their school curriculum.
My training and teaching experience is limited to ballet, modern dance, contemporary, improvisation, jazz (a mix of authentic and concert styles), and creative dance. I have a great appreciation for tap, Hip Hop, and global movement practices, and I’m always looking to diversify and decolonize my teaching practices. However, my perspective is largely informed by my experience in Western concert dance styles.
The range of theses experiences has taught me the importance of instilling good creative and performance skills to all dance students, not just those with professional dance ambitions. Whether they go on to a career on stage or in the boardroom, the ability to think creatively, observe keenly, communicate openly, and commit to their actions will serve all students.
With all that in mind, here are 5 of the most necessary creative and performance skills I teach my students, along with some ideas for incorporating them into your own classes:
1.) Observe and Embody Details – In order to perform movement exactly, students must develop keen observation skills and learn to embody what they observe quickly and efficiently. These are skills unto themselves, and must be taught just like we teach musicality, placement, and vocabulary.
- The Challenge: When do we find the time? In an 1 hour class (or maybe you get 90 minutes, if you are lucky!), it can feel difficult to find the time to introduce another level of learning to your class. But making time to instruct students in how to observe movement, and giving them time to really learn how to embody their observations, will give them a leg up in master classes, auditions, and rehearsals throughout their training. It will also help them develop observation skills that will benefit them outside the studio!
- My Advice: When teaching new material, guide students through the “Look, Listen, Do” model. First, instruct the students how to look at movement, gathering details on the body shape, use of space, and movement quality. Then, inform them of verbal cues that are provided as you talk through the material. Verbal cues may give help hints about the tempo, rhythm, and quality you expect in their performance. Finally, show students how to efficiently mark the movement, keeping the essential elements of the movement.
2.) Be Present with Others in Time and Space– One of the most important lessons students can learn through dance is how to be with others in real time and space, not hiding behind screens and memes. When students dance together, they are connecting kinesthetically, sharing a special part of themselves with their peers.
- The Challenge: Students can sometimes uncomfortable really dancing together – making eye contact, for example, getting into one another’s space, or touching in partnering activities. They need time and directed activities to develop comfort in these areas. Once they develop this comfort, they will be able to interact more authentically on-stage.
- My Advice: Incorporate partner activities into every class. This can be as simple as having your dance students face one other and make contact while they perform basic exercises like plies and tendus. Simple weight bearing exercises, like counterbalances, can help students become comfortable making physical contact and being in one another’s personal space.
3.) Be Part of An Ensemble – When dance students move as a group, they learn to open their eyes and see one other, to engage their kinesthetic sense and feel one another, and become part of a moving community together. They learn that everyone plays an important role in this dancing community, and that together, they can create something more beautiful than they ever could individually. What a powerful metaphor for the role of community in life, as well!
- The Challenge: Dancing as an ensemble is hard! That is especially true in “this day and age,” in which Instagram can turn almost anyone into an overnight celebrity, and anything less than a starring role is looked down upon by many dance students – not to mention their parents. It is important, but difficult, to teach students to value being part of the corps, the chorus, the ensemble – and to recognize the lessons learned from those experiences.
- My Advice: Use class time to encourage students to dance together as an ensemble. Many current dance trends to encourage students to “feel the music” rather than stay with counts, and “express their inner selves in the movement.” These are important dance skills, of course, but so is the practice of communing with others through movement and expression. Teach corps or small group dances, such as the “Little Swans” variation from Swan Lake, or encourage dancers to perform class combinations in complete unison, trying to match each others’ timing, quality, and nuance!
4.) Embody an Alternate Reality – An important stage of child development is the ability to play pretend. When children learn to use their imagination and “be” someone or something else, they learn that there is more to the world than their own experience. This translates into their ability to dance as if they were a character, as well as to express a range of feelings, emotions, and moods in their dancing.
- The Challenge: Over time, we lose this sense of imagination, play, and adventure, in our lives and in our dancing. Dance training moves away from the fun and freedom of creative movement, and becomes increasingly focused on technique, flexibility, and strength. When students are then asked to embody a character in a classical or theatrical piece, or evoke a mood or passion in a contemporary work, it can feel foreign and unnatural.
- My Advice: Practice, practice, practice! Incorporate performance exercises based on characterization into you classes with all ages. (Here is a blog post with a few of my favs!) Teach classical variations or excerpts from musical theatre and make the embodiment of the character as important as the technical performance. Create class phrase work based on emotional qualities, and encourage your students to find their fullest physical expression – not just faces!
5.) Improvise Authentically – When students in any genre or style find an improvisational style that is most true to them, they learn more about their own alignment and placement, technical abilities, and choreographic style! Becoming a competent, authentic improviser in the dance studio can instill a sense of empowerment, spontaneity, and confidence in their daily lives as well.
- The Challenge: Too often, improvisation becomes an outlet for a student’s favorite physical tricks. To improvise authentically, however, students must find a more organic movement expression that goes beyond leaps and turns.
- My Advice: My favorite tips for improvisation can be found in this blog post! You might also be interested in The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities, with 25 ready to use improv exercises to promote students’ technical, artistic, and social-emotional growth.