From the Top—Again: Keeping repetition fresh and fun for students and teachers
By Kathryn Boland
It’s been one of those days. The energy in the studio is off, and your students look more bored with each brush of the foot in a tendu exercise. You saw an eye roll, maybe two. And in a ballet/tap combo class, the little ones were more interested in playing with each other’s hair than working on their shuffles. You love teaching, but days like these make you feel tired. You’re repeating the fundamentals over—and over, and over—again. If this scenario sounds familiar, you’ve faced one challenge inherent in dance training—repetition.
Diane Gudat, a teacher at The Dance Company of Indianapolis, describes repetition in dance training as “the only long-term method that produces results.” Tricia Gomez, global director of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance in Redondo Beach, California, explains that repetition works by creating neural pathways and developing muscle memory, both of which are particularly evident in young dancers.
Repeating basic elements of technique, phrases, and choreography also helps dancers (again, especially young ones) build confidence. Lisa Tran, owner of West Valley Dance Academy in Chatsworth, California, says that learning movement through repetition can be rewarding—it makes students feel like they’ve mastered something. And they have. Parents too can see concrete evidence of their children’s progress by noting the changes in movements and steps they’ve seen their children do repeatedly.
It’s after gaining command of basic technique that advanced students develop the finer aspects of dance technique—and that happens, in large part, through repetition. Having that foundation, Gudat says, “frees the dancer to concentrate on the more artistic aspects of performance.” Of course, she points out, repetition in itself won’t guarantee that students advance in their technique, because repetition can be mindless—in which case the neural pathways built and muscle memory created won’t necessarily yield the results we want.
“Bad habits build up,” Tran says, “and the only way to counteract that process is with repetition of proper technique.” Ideally, though, teachers will forestall those bad habits, by observing students carefully and making corrections before they go off course.
Despite the importance of repetition in dance training, some students get bored and frustrated; as a result, they may become less invested in their training. Doreen Freeman, owner and director of Doreen’s Dance Center in Colchester, Connecticut, points out that in a social media–focused world, students (and their parents) are used to getting immediate results, even if it’s just from a Google search. Social media can negatively affect even students who are devoted to dance—they see impressive dancers on TV, YouTube, and Instagram and want to be able to perform like them. They don’t always understand that it takes years of consistent and repetitive practice to get to that level. And, rather than apply themselves in the studio in an effort to gain the needed skills, Gomez says, students try to do things they’re unprepared for, and sometimes get injured.
There’s one more downside to repetition, which Gudat points out: dance teachers have to compete with the many less-demanding activities available to students, many of which offer the same satisfactions as dance but with less work. In fact, sometimes all that’s required is participation. This means teachers have to find ways to make repetition more palatable—even fun and rewarding—for their students.
Strategies for students
A simple reminder—that learning anything requires dedication (and repetition)—can help to motivate some students. Tran likes to remind her students that there’s always something to work on, always room for improvement; after all, even professional dancers do pliés and tendus every day. Gomez says she reminds her students that “in order to really get something, we have to practice, practice, practice,” and Freeman makes it a point to explain why she asks her students to repeat phrases and choreography: because “it makes them better dancers,” she says.
For younger students, it’s important to find ways to hold their interest. Gudat likes to use themed classes, which allow for developmentally appropriate creativity and fun. In an animal-themed class, for instance, she says that “becoming a butterfly, hopping like a bunny, and wiggling like a worm are all examples” of ways children can stay engaged while moving creatively. Using scarves in a port de bras exercise, or practicing the rhythm of a tap phrase by pounding on the floor or stamping the feet, can keep young ones actively participating, she says. (For more ideas from Gudat, see “Repetition Through Play.”)
Tran recommends having the little ones demonstrate for one another. Most of them are eager to show what they can do, she says, and they get excited when they succeed.
Freeman likes to use a game to emphasize that technique needs to become second nature (not something students have to think about) in order to dance and perform freely. She asks her students how they can tell themselves to point their toes, straighten their knees, relax their shoulders, engage their core, and spot a turn—all at the same time, while performing. Then she has them improvise while she cues them to do these things. She says they usually end up laughing when they realize that what she’s asking is impossible. Then she reinforces the idea that in order to perform at their best, students need to repeat the fundamentals until they become muscle memory.
For older students, Gudat believes that making them feel included in the creative process helps them stay engaged; to do so, she uses improvisational exercises. These work best when teachers introduce very basic improvisation to young dancers (such as in those themed classes), before the “awkward pre-teen years hit,” Gudat says. Then, when those self-conscious years do hit, the students will be more likely to feel comfortable improvising. Improvisational exercises not only help students feel engaged; they also can add interest by breaking up the repetitive portions of class.
Tran says that the key to keeping older kids interested in honing technique, even when it gets repetitive, is to offer motivation by keying into something they’re interested in or piquing their interest in something new. For example, sometimes she has students do research projects on dance-related topics, such as the anatomy and physiology of muscles. She also recommends integrating a step or phrase from one of their performance pieces into a repetitive technical exercise. This helps students understand that if they want to perform at their peak, they have to stay engaged in the exercise.
For more advanced students Tran suggests changing the rhythm of an exercise or movement phrase, especially in jazz and tap. The mental challenge of adapting something new into a learned sequence requires focus, making the sequence seem less repetitive. Plus, playing with rhythms can enhance the dancers’ musicality.
Tricks for teachers
Dance teachers can also experience boredom and frustration with repetitive aspects of class. To counter those negative feelings, Gudat recommends engaging in activities that inspire and motivate, including going to musical theater and opera performances, visiting museums, reading dance publications, and watching videos of dance and other art forms. “Dance is a living art form and is constantly changing,” she says, so “constant study is necessary.”
Gomez too emphasizes the importance of continuing education, in a broad and inclusive sense. She suggests venturing into topics like anatomy and physiology and business—subjects that can provide information and insights about teaching or studio ownership. She also thinks it’s important to attend conventions and workshops, even if the time and money spent might not seem worth it at first. “You might walk away with just one big idea,” she says. “But that one idea could revolutionize your teaching, your business—maybe even bring in a whole new group of students.”
In the classroom, Tran recommends a change of perspective for teachers—literally. She says it’s easy to focus on very talented students, or those who need extra guidance; consequently, teachers can miss what the other students are doing. Devoting more attention to students who are usually observed less often or intently can help teachers to see new aspects of these students’ dancing or skills to address. This simple act of shifting the gaze can reignite a passion for teaching.
For teachers, changing a class format, such as doing a floor barre in a ballet class or adding an improv circle to a tap class, can revitalize them—and students as well. Homing in on the “finer points of dance technique,” as Tran puts it, can decrease the monotony of teaching. And it can remind teachers that there is always something new to discover, even during the 16th consecutive tendu or shuffle.
Most important, when teachers stay positive and enthusiastic, Gudat says, students very often feel the same way. “The most valuable skill a person can bring to the dance classroom is a playful spirit,” Gudat says. “If the teacher is having fun, the students will follow right along. To quote Mary Poppins, ‘You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!’ ”
Kathryn Boland is a certified yoga instructor and registered dance/movement therapist based in Massachusetts. A former DSL intern, she has a BA in dance from The George Washington University.