Help your dance students rock their recital dancers
Creating choreography for and with my students for recital or other performances has become one of my favorite parts of teaching. But if we are being honest with one another, creating and cleaning choreography can also be one of the most stressful aspects of the dance teacher 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, keep them interested during the rehearsal process, and clean the choreography and get it ready for the stage. Students may get easily bored during rehearsals, and the choreography cleaning process can be draining for all involved. Not to mention the fact that dance teachers will often create many, many pieces of choreography every year, between competitions, winter concerts, and recitals – choreography burnout is a very real thing!
There are ways to make the entire process easier however! This blog post features 5 tips for creating and cleaning choreography for dance students – whether it is to be performed at competition, recital, auditions, or in the community. You’ll find strategies for involving students in the process of creating the choreography, using teaching practices that help dance students learn more effectively, and making the rehearsal process fun.
5 Tips for Creating and Cleaning Choreography for Dance Students
Give your dancers ownership in the choreographic process
When students feel as though they played 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, this could be as simple as letting them choose their opening or closing pose. Older students might be able to create a few 8 counts of choreography, help design formation changes, improvise during the introduction of the music, or even take responsibility for an entire section of the dance. No matter how you choose to incorporate students’ creative perspectives 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.
Meet the students 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 also 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 choreography 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 dance 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 with the choreography but also keeps them working hard to meet new demands on their dance technique and artistry.
Engage multiple senses when teaching and cleaning the choreography
Often, teaching choreography becomes a game of “follow the leader,” and the process of cleaning the choreography 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 choreography 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 and cleaning the choreography. Here are some ideas:
- Say the names of the steps in the choreography 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 in their head as they listen to the music.
- If students are mature enough, you can give them, or 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.
Use play to engage dance students in the choreography 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 dance 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 of learning and cleaning the choreography. A few playful strategies for rehearsing and cleaning choreography 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.
- The Holistic Dance Teacher Choreography Cleaning Bingo. Grab your free copy of this done-for-you, fun and effective game to help you drill and clean choreography here!
Keep the dancers on their toes during the choreography cleaning process
Rehearsing and cleaning choreography, 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 as you clean the choreography include:
- Change the music. Try slowing the music down or speeding it up, or having the dancers perform the choreography 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 choreography 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 choreography 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 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!
Don’t forget to grab your free copy of The Holistic Dance Teacher Choreography Cleaning Bingo Game today! Plus, ignite your creativity and strengthen your choreographic skills with these other resources from The Holistic Dance Teacher: The Holistic Collection of Choreography Adventures,The Holistic Choreography Planner, and The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Choreographers.