It’s almost recital time! Creating choreography for and with my students has become one of my favorite parts of teaching. But if we are being honest with one another, it can also be one of the most stressful aspects of the job. There can be a lot pressure to make a piece of choreography that excites the dancers and the audience, teach it to the students in a way that is appropriate and engaging, and keep them interested during the rehearsal process. Here are some of my favorite tips to help students rock their recital dances, from the first rehearsal to the big day on stage:
1.) Give your dance ownership during the process of creating their recital dances. When students feel as though they play an important role in the process of creating their dance, they often feel more responsible for how it looks on stage. There are many ways to get students involved in the creation of their choreography. For younger students, it could be as simple as letting them choose their opening or closing pose. Older students might be able to create a few counts to contribute to the main movement phrase, help design formation changes, improvise during the introduction of the music, or even take responsibility for an entire section. No matter how you choose to incorporate students’ creative voices into your dance recital choreography, make sure to give them plenty of the following:
- TIME to work on their section, as rush leads to panic.
- DIRECTIONS on what they should be doing and how to do it; remember to be clear, specific, and age-appropriate.
- SUPPORT as they work, making sure to help students navigate potentially tricky group dynamics.
- FEEDBACK during the process by watching their work-in-progress and giving both praise and ideas for revision.
2.) Meet them where they are at, but don’t be afraid of a little challenge. As I’m planning dance class material throughout the year, I try to think of progressions and center floor combinations that would work nicely as recital choreography. When it comes time to work on their recital dance, the students have already had ample time to work on a lot of the material throughout the year. This allows me to “meet the students where they are at” by providing them with choreography that is familiar and comfortable. I then give them some sections that might be a little more challenging: a faster tempo, a challenging technical component, a complicated transition between formations, or an improvisation section. This balance of comfort and challenge allows students to feel confident but also keeps them working hard!
3.) Engage multiple senses when teaching or cleaning the choreography. Often, teaching choreography becomes a game of “follow the leader,” and the cleaning process makes teachers feel like they are yelling at a brick wall. Some dancers are very capable of watching the instructor and copying their movement, or picking up verbal cues in the cleaning process, but others need more support to fully understand, embody, and remember the dance. It can be helpful to engage multiple senses when teaching the choreography:
- Say the names of the steps out loud. First, ask students to stand still and listen, then repeat what you say. Then, say the names of the steps while dancing the choreography, and ask the students to do the same.
- Ask students to stand still and watch you do the recital choreography, without moving. This allows them to fully view the details of the movement and transitions.
- Give verbal rhythmic inflection as you show the choreography. Make a little song that indicates the movement and tempo using a variety of silly noises. This might feel silly, but many students will connect with that silliness and remember!
- Have the students lie on their backs, close their eyes, and visualize the choreography as they listen to the music.
- If students are mature enough, have them give one another tactile prompts for the choreography. For example, brush the arm to indicate the initiation of a port de bras, guide the foot to brush a grand battement, give a little push to start a traveling section. This is best done in two or more groups, without music, and with the understanding that the “dancing” students are not working to perfectly execute the movement, but to use the tactile information from their partner to help create little sensory prompts that will help them remember the choreography.
4.) Use play to engage them in the learning process. I am a huge fan of play as a learning tool in the dance studio. Of course dance is hard work, but research suggests that using games, silliness, challenges, and creative activities engages students in the learning process, stimulates the brain to receive new material, and strengthens intellectual, physical, and social-emotional abilities, especially in young students. The more you can make the learning and rehearsal process fun and exciting for students, the more engaged they will be in the process and the deeper their understanding will be. A few playful strategies for rehearsing and cleaning dances include:
- Freeze Dance. Have one student at a time sit out and be the “DJ.” While the dancers are running the piece, the DJ stops the music and the dancers freeze. The DJ then evaluates the students – are they making the correct shape? are they all together? are their lines and formations appropriate? After giving their notes, the DJ turns the music on again and the dancers resume. Allow the DJ to stop several times throughout the piece.
- Face Off. Have two dancers face one another and perform a selection from the dance mirroring one another. This means that one dancer will be performing the movement on the opposite side. The learning here is two fold. First, when the dancers are looking at one another, they will be more aware of their lines, shapes, transitions, and quality of movement. Secondly, the process of inverting the movement and performing it on the other side will force the dancer to analyze what they are doing more thoroughly, allowing for deeper and more lasting learning.
- The Worst Dance You Can Do. This is especially fun with little ones! Allow the dancers to do one run of the dance as poorly as they can, making all the mistakes with technique, timing, and performance quality that they can think of. (Just make sure they are being safe and not putting anyone else in danger with their choices!). After the run, ask each dancer to name one thing that they did wrong, and how they should fix it for the next run.
5.) Keep them on their toes during rehearsals and the cleaning process. Rehearsing a piece, especially with young children, can be a challenging process. Students get easily bored repeating the dance over and over again, yet they need that repetition in order to be read to perform on-stage. Some ways that you can keep rehearsals interesting for students include:
- Change of the music. Try slowing it down or speeding it up, or having the dancers perform to an alternate recording, such as an instrumental or cover version that is similar, but not quite the same.
- Allow time for peer feedback. Have the dancers perform in two groups. Allow one group to watch the other and give constructive feedback, either by assigning each observer a specific dancer to watch and respond to, or allowing them to comment on the entire group’s performance. Often, the students will give the same corrections that you have been giving for months, but hearing it from a peer might suddenly make it “click.”
- Change the facing. I find that having the dancers perform the piece facing away from the mirror is one of the most effective ways to prepare them to perform on-stage. It can feel overwhelmingly challenging to some students, but with time and support from you it can be a highly effective rehearsal tool.
- Change the quality. Give the dancers some unique prompts to help them change up the quality of movement. They might imagine that they are dancing on the moon, or on a hot sand desert, or underwater. Although they will not perform the piece with these qualities on stage, it will help the students to explore new dynamics that they can incorporate into the choreography as appropriate.
- Tell a story. Have the dancers tell the story of the choreography (or whatever story they feel when dancing it) as they a performing the movement. The vocalization will add a new layer of complexity to the performance, and will encourage the students to connect with their emotional experience while dancing.
- Ask them to teach you! Ask the students to teach you (or another teacher if available) to teach you the choreography as if you had never seen if before. Be sure to ask lots of clarifying questions to make sure they know the details of timing, space, quality, and line!
BONUS TIP! Giving their best performance on recital day is only one of many goals that students will have during the year. Help them set concrete, attainable goals and make a plan to achieve them using The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancers. This digital tool provides specific brainstorming questions to help students determine their big dance dreams, examples of goals to help them grow in their technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills, and a worksheet that help them plan for success!