Making the most of your once-a-weekers
By Julie Holt Lucia
Recreational dancers make up a huge part of many dance studios’ enrollments, and they often bring in the top dollar per class in tuition. Most teachers see these dancers only once a week, for an hour or less at a time. Since we’re trying to give them as much instruction as possible over the course of a school year, that’s a very limited amount of time.
Not only are we introducing these students to new skills and teaching them to master old ones, we’re also trying to reach them personally. We want to seek out those students who might have a future in dance and coach those who struggle into success—all while not losing sight of the middle-of-the-road kids, most of whom just want to have fun in class. We want all of our students to come away with a well-rounded dance education because you simply never know who will be the next Sarah Lane or Rennie Harris.
With such a short amount of time to work with, though, how do we take these recreational classes beyond the dance steps? How can we keep these dancers engaged for the long term? There are ideas and tools we can use to reach every child, as long as we remain flexible with our strategies and continue to communicate a passion for dance.
Just like our counterparts at academic schools, we dance teachers need to realize that different teaching approaches work for different students. Although dance is largely taught by demonstration, we all know there is much more involved than having students copy your movements. We want them to learn and retain the material—a challenge in one short class per week. But by using easy-to-implement, practical ideas periodically throughout the year, we can squeeze in as much learning as possible. These methods will become like little surprises for your students and add little jolts of energy to your teaching process.
A whiteboard is a great addition to any dance classroom. You can spell the names of steps, write out the counts or musical phrasings, draw figures and shapes, and explain patterns and formations. With vocabulary terms, using the whiteboard throughout the year helps the students get into the habit of recognizing the steps in words; even young children who are just beginning to read will catch on quickly with repetitive use. It’s a great way to help the dancers grasp tricky vocabulary words, particularly French terms. When you show your jazz students that “chaîné” looks like the word “chain” and also means chain-linked, you make it easier for them to remember the step the next time they go across the floor.
Another great classroom tool is a TV or laptop computer. Using it takes up too much class time to do it frequently, but occasionally showing a clip from a famous ballet or musical can be awe-inspiring for students who aren’t exposed to much dance outside of the classroom. For example, after the first semester or so of classes, when some of my beginner ballet students are getting the hang of the basic terminology, I will take a few minutes out of class to show them a clip from Swan Lake, a ballet many of them have never seen. (Barbie of Swan Lake, which most of them have seen, isn’t the same, but they’ll recognize the music.) I ask them to watch for steps that look familiar, and inevitably, they pick out arabesques, pas de chats, and pas de bourrées. Watching the video clips helps us discuss how even the professionals practice the basics over and over again and then continue to use them in more complex ways. And of course, the young students are always wowed by the dancers on pointe.
Watching routines from Broadway shows and other performances can be just as exciting, and as with ballet, they can lead to a discussion of familiar dance steps as well as dance history. You may find yourself explaining about Fosse or Robbins or the Rockettes to your older students. With younger students, you may simply help them compare and contrast two show routines.
Although you can’t show video clips too frequently for fear of taking away from actual dance time, doing so is a fun way to change up class time during a lull and a great way to inspire your dancers. For this reason, in addition to keeping a small collection of dance DVDs on hand, I have a Netflix account with a queue of dance videos ready to go.
Lesson plans are invaluable for our classes, but sometimes deviating from them is the best way to teach class on a particular day. Maybe a student asks a thoughtful question about the style of ballet you’re teaching, which leads you to explain some of the differences between the Cecchetti and Vaganova methods. Or maybe someone has to sit out due to an injury, and that leads you into an informal chat about why dancers warm up the way they do and what they should do if they think they are injured.
You never want to stray too far off track since class time ticks by so quickly, but there are always moments with your recreational students when you’d better take advantage of an opening. After all, you might not get another chance.
Sometimes spending 5 or 10 minutes on a productive game is well worth stepping away from the lesson plan. Especially when the dancers’ eyes begin to glaze over, a dance game is a fun way to keep the lesson going while energizing the atmosphere. You can make a game out of almost anything, and it doesn’t have to be long or complex. In fact, it’s usually more exciting if it’s simple.
A whiteboard is a great addition to any dance classroom. You can spell the names of steps, write out the counts or musical phrasings, draw figures and shapes, and explain patterns and formations.
From guided improv using a step or phrase you were working on that day, to Jeopardy or Pictionary-style quizzes on the whiteboard (have students take turns demonstrating the step you write out or draw on the board), just about any off-the-beaten-path activity can be presented as a game. You don’t have to have a winner or loser; the satisfaction of accomplishing the task should be enough.
Outside of class
Recreational dancers might look forward to class and show off around the house, but most probably don’t think too much about dance when they’re at home or school. Still, it can be beneficial to urge your students of all ages to seek out dance information in places other than the studio.
Encourage them to look for dance books or videos during library trips and attend performances. Tell them to write down comments about what they see or find or jot down questions for you about the dance world. Then you can designate special sharing days, like a dance version of show-and-tell. You can share too. For instance, let your ballet students pass around a pointe shoe while you explain what it takes to dance on pointe. Or share with them your favorite dance book or story, pointing out familiar words or photos.
By encouraging them to look for dance outside of class, you may pique a greater interest in dancing in your students. But not all children—even the ones who are interested—will have the opportunity to do extras like this outside of class, and we need to be careful not to make anyone who isn’t interested or cannot participate feel left out. A good way to manage this is by offering everyone the chance to share (when appropriate) but clearly stating that simply listening is fine.
Try a new dance
All of the students at my school get the chance to try a new style of dance during their regular class time, usually once a year. Because our recital date can vary year to year, we usually try to slip this time in toward the end of the school year, either to alleviate the stress of recital time or to wind down afterward. The recreational kids love it, and often it leads them to try something new in the summer or the following school year.
During the designated week, the teacher picks another style of dance to introduce during class (sometimes taking into consideration student suggestions). It’s always a style that the school already offers and that is age-appropriate.
The dancers don’t need to have the proper shoes or change their dress code since it’s just for one day. The class is usually structured like a short version of any other: warm-up, across the floor, combination, stretch. It’s enough to introduce how the new style feels different from what the dancers are used to and why it might be interesting and challenging.
Finding a happy medium
You may not want or need to use every trick in the book while working with your recreational students, but it’s worth experimenting with those classes to see what small things you can introduce that might serve as an extra incentive. Incorporating one or two of these ideas into your curriculum may help your school keep those trusty recreational students hooked on dance.