March-April 2017 | Higher-Ed Voice | A Teaching Lab for Creativity

Some young students put their own twist on side stretches (top), while another shares the joy of jumping (bottom) with interns Aria Faddis and Phoebe Guercio.
Photos by Buffalo James

Higher-Ed Voice | A Teaching Lab for Creativity: Montana college students get hands-on experience teaching kids

by Tamsin Nutter

What are the qualities of a good children’s dance teacher? After a semester of hands-on experience, the college-student interns in University of Montana’s children’s dance class program have clear ideas on the subject.

“An upbeat, positive attitude,” says Hannah Dahl (’17, BFA in choreography and performance). “Kind and encouraging. There is never a ‘wrong’ way to do things. But able to maintain a strong sense of structure,” says Carissa Lund (’17, BFA in acting/BA in dance). “Unlimited patience,” says Kate Gundlach (’18, K–8 elementary teaching licensure).

Dahl, Lund, and Gundlach are among the many University of Montana (UM) students over the past two decades to have benefitted from this teaching lab program offered by the School of Theatre & Dance and started by professors Karen Kaufmann and Michele Antonioli in the mid-1990s. At the time, Kaufmann and Antonioli were adjuncts; both also taught children in downtown Missoula, Montana. When they lost their studio space, Kaufmann approached the School about teaching children’s dance classes on campus. She envisioned a program with two purposes: train university students to teach children in a lab-like setting, and bring Missoula families into the department’s building.

Laurel Sears believes creative movement can provide a strong foundation for any dance education.

“At the time, the whole ‘town and gown’ thing was big,” Kaufmann explains. “There was an interest in trying to make the university more of a place where people in the community would go. The university went for it.”

Twenty years later, the program is still going strong. Kaufmann is the director; UM adjunct Laurel Sears is the current instructor. Sears teaches three class sections: Creative Movement I for ages 3 and a half to 4, Creative Movement II for ages 5 to 6, and Creative and Modern Dance for ages 7 to 10. According to those people who were interviewed for this article, Sears juggles her responsibilities with grace, simultaneously teaching children how to move and college students how to teach.

Instructor Laurel Sears (far right) leads a children’s dance class, assisted by interns (from left) Carissa Lund, Hannah Dahl, and Tori Stanek.
Photo by Heidi Eggert

Classroom as teaching lab

Six interns, two per class, assist Sears each semester, and each one teaches two partial lessons and one full lesson. Some take dance pedagogy, taught by Antonioli, first. Sears holds seminars with the interns at the course’s beginning and end, but otherwise it’s “jumping in,” Kaufmann says, with time for short teaching discussions before and after the children’s classes.

“If some child was crying,” Kaufmann explains, “or there was an issue between two students, the [intern] can see how it’s handled on the spot. But there are also a few minutes after class to talk about it and say, ‘What are some other approaches you could have taken when this student was crying? What other ideas might you have?’ ”

The internship is required for all but one of UM’s dance degree tracks—the BA in dance, the BFA in choreography and performance, the BFA in teaching, and the minor in dance education. (It is not required for the minor in dance.) A few interns come from outside the dance department. When Sears arrived, she reached out to the early childhood and elementary education students in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences who might be drawn to the class as an opportunity to try out their teaching wings working directly with children.

Teaming dance and education students in the classroom has benefited everyone, Sears says. “They learn from each other in how they teach—how to present an idea to a classroom, how to be really clear,” she explains. “Part of the beauty of the setup is that they’re watching each other teach. It’s not like watching an expert. They’re seeing what’s working and what’s not.” The education students often demonstrate skills in lesson planning and classroom management; the dance students, in turn, often demonstrate the importance of movement clarity for kids to emulate, and how to showcase a concept they are teaching through their own bodies.

A creative movement curriculum

After several years, Kaufmann became department head and stopped teaching the children’s classes herself. Each teacher who has been hired since then, she says, has been “very cognizant of building creativity and dance literacy in students.”

Sears, whom Kaufmann praises as “an extraordinarily sensitive teacher,” took over in fall 2015. For curriculum, Sears draws on Kaufmann’s unpublished 1989 manual The Language of Movement. “It breaks down the elements of dance,” Kaufmann says, “and gives a new teacher a lot of ideas for how to share concepts of space, shape, and different rhythms and movement qualities—ideas for how to work in partners or how to relax kids.”

Sears also uses Anne Green Gilbert’s BrainDance sequence for warm-ups, and she bases her lesson plans for all three levels on Rudolf Laban’s movement concepts. “We explore body, effort, space, shape, energy, time, rhythm, movement and effort qualities, body parts, and self-awareness,” she says.

UM’s Dance Program is rooted in modern/contemporary dance, and the children’s classes—you might call them “pre-modern”—reflect that. The 7- to 10-year-olds learn basic moves you might see in a university Modern I class: moving safely to the floor, movements on the floor, supporting the weight in handstands and other inversions, and fundamental positions such as spiraling, curving, and arching. They absorb some basic modern/ballet-based technique and placement, and they begin to compose dances. “These kids are really well equipped to go into a dance class,” Kaufmann says, “and feel totally at home in their bodies.”

Karen Kaufmann hugs a student in the internship program’s early years.
Photo by Montana Kaimin staff, courtesy Karen Kaufmann

Building blocks of dance education

Sears believes creative movement can provide a strong foundation for any dance education, whether in modern/contemporary or other styles. She grew up studying dance in a creative movement–based studio, Pam Erickson’s River Street Dance Theater in Hamilton, Montana. “[That experience] made dance a form that was not about shape, or how you look from the outside, but how you feel from the inside,” Sears says. “That’s how I learned about dance.” She doesn’t discount technique and placement, but starting with creative movement at a very young age, she thinks, opens up the creative side of students’ brains—and teaches them that their own ideas have importance.

Kaufmann shares a similar perspective. “So much of dance when I was a child in ballet was about looking in the mirror and trying to replicate postures and positions,” she says wryly. “I think this program has grown through somatic approaches. And to have children being trained with that kind of sensitivity and kinesthetic awareness is really extraordinary. I think that’s a strength of the program.”

Welcoming the community

Affordability for all children in the community is key, and not paying studio rent has made low prices, even scholarships, possible. The program does little advertising; classes fill mostly through word of mouth. “We get a lot of boys in the older class,” Sears says. “It’s on campus, and sometimes the parents are students or employees. It is pretty inexpensive. And it’s a very welcoming place. It doesn’t feel highly gendered or exclusive.”

The classes help to promote the university, and dance itself, to the Missoula community. Parents are welcomed into the studio on the first and last days of class. From time to time, the older kids have participated in informal dance department showings, bringing in their families as audience members.

“These children could see university dancers backstage and onstage, how they were preparing, how serious they were, warming up, stretching,” Kaufmann says. “And it gave more people the awareness that you can study dance in college! People often think you give up dance after high school, and then you go to college to study something more ‘important.’ So we made dance important for these kids.”

Sears agrees. University dance departments can be insular, she says, and programs such as this one that “reach out into the community” are valuable on many levels. “It’s what higher education should be all about,” she says, “instead of being an ivory tower.”

Some children come back, some go on to study dance, others don’t. But whatever comes next, Kaufmann believes they gain valuable life skills. “Dance teaches so many other skills besides just technique,” she says, “[such as] comfort being in front of people, a positive self-image, body image, courage, respect for diversity, an understanding of self-expression, what it means to be a unique individual with your own ideas.”

Learning what (not) to do

The first day Lund taught solo, she planned a lesson infusing Laban principles into an activity. Lund, who grew up dancing in Tanya’s Dance Co. in Belgrade, Montana, worried the lesson would flop. Instead, the kids loved it—and excelled at the activity. “That’s when I realized that movement is incredibly natural,” she says, “and that children are naturally creative.”

Her second lesson didn’t go so well. “I was so proud of my first success, I thought I could recreate it,” Lund says. “So I made this huge lesson full of characters and a narrative and movements. Well, I shot for the moon and hit a black hole. There was lots of confusion, and the kids became bored really quickly. I was praying for our 30-minute class to end.” Afterward, she talked it over with Sears and felt better. The class hadn’t been a loss; the kids had all moved, laughed, and left fairly happy. Lund just needed to learn to simplify her lesson plans.

Program interns Aria Faddis (left) and Emily Curtiss (right) work on their own technique in contemporary modern class at University of Montana.
Photos by Buffalo James

Dahl, a former figure skater from California, says the internship taught her to appreciate how much time and effort teachers put into lesson planning—and how hard they work in class. “I never realized how taxing it is to teach, dance, and move while talking the whole time,” she says. “I don’t think I found a balance between being energetic and not overdoing it—after each class, I was always ready to take a nap.”

Gundlach, a Montana-born and Idaho-raised education student, wanted to learn how to incorporate creative movement into classroom lessons and daily school routines. She left each children’s dance class feeling inspired. “The importance of movement really stuck with me after observing the amount of growth each kid experienced,” she says. “Children need to move, and they loved the opportunity to dance with their peers.”

A future in teaching?

Many of the students who intern in these classes don’t plan to be children’s dance teachers. Yet post-graduation, not a few contact Kaufmann with the news that they are teaching kids. Some ask for help with lesson plans or approaches. “I think it is really essential,” Kaufmann says, “to give college students studying dance some first-hand experience in an area in which they could support themselves.”

Dahl, who would like to dance with a company after graduating this spring, is a case in point. Previously, teaching never interested her. But she enjoyed both her internship and Antonioli’s dance pedagogy class and now feels differently, saying, “[Teaching is] a real possibility in my future.”

UM’s children’s dance class program is about more than job training, of course. There’s also the joy of exploring dance with a roomful of little kids. “When you’re a college student, you’re around 18- to 22-year-olds all the time,” Kaufmann says. “So to go dance with 15 4-year-olds—it’s just a delightful part of your day.”


DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter lives in Berkeley, California. Formerly a marketing writer at MoMA in NYC, she trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School and danced with Regina Nejman & Company and others.