Thinking Out Loud: How to Create a Modern Dance Curriculum
by Nicole Sasala Lobuzzetta
Now that studios can purchase dance curriculums—some with playlists included—I’ve been asking myself, “Where is the art in teaching modern dance? Is the performance the only artistic aspect? Or could we teach with the intent to foster creative growth, take risks, and push artistic boundaries?”
Seven years ago, I begged the owner of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, to let me add an advanced modern class. That one class has grown into 18 modern classes for dancers ranging from 5-year-old beginners to advanced high schoolers. I focused on three aspects when developing our modern program: how to maintain technical and artistic consistency when the definition of modern dance is so broad; how to differentiate between levels and challenge students based on age, experience, skills, and artistry; and how to encourage technical and artistic growth in each student.
The school now has a detailed, multi-level modern dance curriculum. By explaining my process, I hope that I can encourage fellow teachers to create thoughtful, personal curriculums and lessons that maintain originality and creativity, help instructors to teach multiple levels, and offer students consistency throughout their progression.
Create curriculum based on the growth you envision for your students and what your teachers are capable of teaching.
I started by considering what would benefit our most advanced students. What technical skills and movement-based concepts should I teach? What artistic growth should students be able to demonstrate? From there, I created my advanced modern dance mission statement, which reads, “This level places emphasis on performance quality and emotion throughout the entire class, precise execution of technique, demonstration of comfort in weight-sharing and partner work, a unique voice in both improvisation and set choreography, and the ability to create choreography using deep emotional, musical, or spatial prompts. The dancer at this level comes to class regularly, stays positive during physical and emotional challenges, and is able to push him- or herself without constant guidance from the teacher.”
To implement the mission statement, I focused on more specific skills so that I could be clear with the teachers about what to teach. My seven categories were movement concepts (e.g., grounding, fluidity in and out of the floor), floor technique (e.g., Bartenieff, Big X work), center floor/standing technique (e.g., spinal curves, footwork), traveling technique (e.g., triplets, prances), turns (e.g., chaîné in plié, tilt turns), inversion work (e.g., handstand variations), and partnering (e.g., counterbalances, lifts). Such a list can be personalized and expanded or compressed to fit your school’s specific needs and classes.
After addressing advanced students, consider what material is technically and emotionally appropriate for other age groups and levels. Use your mission statement to define expectations for student growth, to create a safe environment that allows dancers to take bigger physical and artistic risks, and to offer teachers support and consistency while encouraging their artistry and creative approach to the material. It benefits students to experience different styles of modern and of teaching, and it keeps teachers inspired and connected to the material artistically.
It’s important to create curriculum based on both the growth you envision for your students and what your teachers are capable of teaching, based on their experience level and training. (For example, don’t center lessons on Graham technique if your teachers aren’t versed in it.) Once you have a complete curriculum, consider it from beginning to end to ensure that there’s a clear trajectory of increased expectations in technique and artistry; creative growth for both dancers and teachers should always be a priority. As modern department lead at the studio, I meet with our modern teachers several times a year to review the curriculum and make additions or changes based on their suggestions. I also observe each teacher at least once a semester to discuss curriculum challenges, classroom discipline, technique questions, and more.
By maintaining dialogue with your teachers and allowing your curriculum to be an evolving document, you can invite fresh perspectives while assuring that the focus remains on all students’ technical and artistic growth.
Nicole Sasala Lobuzzetta has a BFA in modern dance performance and choreography from Ohio University. She has taught dance for more than 15 years and is the modern department lead at All That Dance in Seattle, Washington.