What are the 5 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 skills from such a wide range of benefits?
To explore the question in greater depth on the blog, I’m separating 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 instill in my students, ones which I hope you will also work toward in your own classes!
Dance as a performing art (as opposed to social practice), 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 they’ve got the choreography down to focus on how they engage the audience while doing it. We introduce improvisation to our advanced students as vehicle for “showing off” what they can do; rather than 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.
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 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 that in mind, I humbly present the top 5 creative and performance skills I think your students should develop through their dance training.
Help your students set and achieve creative and performance goals with The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancers.
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. (Are you feel uncertain as how to guide students through this process? I’m available for consultation and teacher professional development!)
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, or sharing 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 facing one other and making 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 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 students – and 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 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 their is more to the world than their own experience.
- 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 interest 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.