We’ve all been there …
Ms. Shannon? My (stomach, big toe, left elbow, eyebrow, etc.) hurts so bad I can’t even move right now!
Ms. Shannon? I fell off my bike two days ago and banged up my knee and my mom says I can’t dance until I go to the doctor for my appointment next Tuesday.
Or my personal favorite ….
Ms. Shannon? My mom forgot to pack my dance clothes. Can I take ballet in my jeans or tap in my flip-flops? (Isn’t it funny how it’s always poor old mom who forgets these things!?)
With cold and flu season upon us, and spring sports season just around the corner, it’s even more likely that we will encounter dance students who need to sit out of class for one reason or another in the next few months. I’ll be honest, I used to get really bothered when students asked to observe class, especially for seemingly minor issues. It can be incredibly frustrating for us as dance teachers, who have competition and concert dances to clean and recital choreography to finish and exams to prepare our students for. However, we can’t control what are students do outside of class, or how they are feeling when they get there, or even if their dance bag gets packed properly. Of course, we wish that they would do all that they can do avoid injury and illness, and we certainly should encourage them to participate in class as much as they are able. But there are times when observing is just unavoidable, and in those instances, I’ve learned that there are some real, concrete ways that we can help our students benefit from the experience of observing class.
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Here are some of my favorite things to do when your students need to sit out of dance class:
1.) Dance with your upper body. Most of the time, students who are feeling a little under the weather or have an injury can still at least mark some of the movement presented in class. One of my favorite approaches is to have the observing student sit in a chair with good dance posture (pelvis as neutral as possible, core engaged, long spine) and dance with just their upper bodies. The dancer is to follow all class combinations as best as they can, practicing the port de bras and epaulment for each. Be sure they are focusing not only on the placement and movement of the arms, head, shoulders, and torso, but also the appropriate dynamics, quality, and musicality. Students will quickly learn how much more they can be using their upper body when dancing full out, and will hopefully apply that lesson when they return to class. They will also get a great workout for their core and arms!
Bonus tip: Have the dancer articulate, either in a journal or verbally, what it felt like to dance just with their upper body, and how they can apply this to their dancing in the future.
2.) Go beyond just “taking notes.” I can’t remember how many times I was told to “take notes” when I was injured or ill and observing class as a student. The truth is, most of the time these notes weren’t very good – and I’d put money on the fact that your dancers’ aren’t, either. Dance students, especially younger ones, often need explicit direction on what exactly to look for when observing class, and how to put those observations down on paper. Be sure to give them plenty of questions and prompts to help them observe more carefully and articulate what they see.
Bonus tip: Keep some laminated copies of The Holistic Collection of Dance Class Observation Worksheets – Beginner/Intermediate and The Holistic Collection of Class Observation Worksheets Intermediate/Advanced on hand in every studio. The collection includes a set of 5 unique worksheets that can be used by students as they observe class due to injury, illness, or other reasons. The dance class observation worksheets cover dance technique, artistry, creativity, and social emotional skills, while engaging students in a deep and rewarding dance class observation process. No more scrambling to figure out what students should take notes on – with these worksheets, the work is done for you!
3.) Notate the choreography. During rehearsals for my first professional gig as an understudy for a piece in a dance company, I took notes on the choreography after every rehearsal. I knew everyone’s part – and the director created a new role in the ballet just for me because of it. Written notation can be a powerful tool to help dancers learn and retain choreography, and it is a great skill to practice when observing dance class due to illness or injury. Research has shown that when we take pen to paper and write something, we are more likely to remember it. Help students develop their own notation style by encouraging them to use dance terminology, pedestrian language, or even sketches and doodles to help them keep a log of each combination taught during class.
Bonus tip: In the era of easy access to video, students have come to expect recordings of choreography to help them practice at home. Try carving out some time during class or rehearsal for them to notate the choreography instead, and see if it improves their retention and performance.
4.) Be the assistant. Keep observers engaged by assisting you during class. They can take attendance, start and stop the music, keep notes on the choreography, count out loud to keep students on beat, write down your corrections while you observe the dancers, or even give constructive feedback of their own. In cases of prolonged injury, you might even ask them to come up with a simple warm-up or combination that they can “teach” to the students from a chair.
Bonus tip: At the end of class, ask the student to share what they experienced as your assistant. You can use this as the starting point to share what goes into teaching, both in terms of preparation and during class. Most students (and their parents!) have no idea, and talking about it may develop a new appreciation for what you do day in and day out!
5.) Get to the heart of the matter. It is important to check in with the observing student, and give them time to talk about how they are feeling. Some students rarely sit out and will feel devastated each time they have to do so. Others seem to always have an excuse that keeps them on the sidelines, but there may be something deeper going on that keeps them from participating. In your discussion with the observing student, you can get a feel for how they are handling their illness or injury. You might also learn about real or perceived fears, insecurities, or situations originating outside the studio that are causing them to disengage from class.
Bonus tip: Make a note every time a student opts to sit out, and at what part of class. If you notice patterns – its always during frappes, for example, or when you ask the class to improvise – be sure to address that with the observer. Maybe they are performing the movement incorrectly, causing pain, or perhaps they need more direction and encouragement to feel successful. If the issue persists, inform the parents and see if there are underlying issues that need to be addressed by a doctor, PT, or counselor.
There are many ways that you can help students make the most of their time spent observing dance class due to illness, injury, unpreparedness, or other reasons. In fact, I would even argue that sometimes students can take away more from a productive observation session than they do from dancing in class! It’s tempting to have students just sit on the sidelines when sick or injured, but I think it is part of our due diligence as dance educators to make sure that these students are getting a learning experience. (And, as an added bonus, you might find that students who are “habitual observers” actually have fewer observation days and start to participate more in class when they are tasked with doing productive work instead of just sitting out!)
I’d love to learn more about your strategies for working with injured or ill students. Please share in the comments!
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