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Head Over Heels About Acro

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Acrobatics builds confidence and offers new challenges

By Tori Melby

Acrobatics has always been an important part of my dance curriculum and as such it’s something that I want to pass on to future generations. As the daughter of a dance teacher, I have continued to give to my students the basics that I received during my dance training. Acro was a big part of that foundation.

Acro is a popular curriculum choice at Dancer’s Workshop, where more than 90 percent of the students take classes in acro or tumbling. (Photo courtesy of Dancer’s Workshop)

If you’re wondering whether an acrobatics program is right for your school, consider this: I have noticed that students who take acro classes seem more confident than those who do not. We attend conventions each year that have audition classes. Usually there is an improvisation section that allows the kids to add to their routine by expressing themselves creatively and impulsively. My students always throw in something acrobatic. Plus, at many of the national title competitions one of the optional competition classes is acrobatics. My students normally do very well; often it is one of their top scores.

On the downside, you might end up juggling schedules because your acro students will also make very good cheerleaders—they are good tumblers, with great balance and agility. Very few of my students who try out fail to make the squad, so I try to schedule my classes around the cheer requirements as much as possible. This makes getting them all there at the same time for dance class a problem. Although I do not lose many students to cheer, the newest craze seems to be competition cheerleading, and accommodating multiple schedules does get harder each year. But in my mind, the benefits of acro outweigh that risk.

Beginners
At my school, Dancer’s Workshop in Sanford, NC, we begin acro with preschool-age children as young as 2 in a combination class of tap, ballet, and tumbling. They begin with basic stretches and then move onto the wedge, which provides an inclined surface that makes learning such moves as pencil rolls, forward rolls, baby crab walks, and back rolls easier. At ages 3 and 4 they begin to work on the mats instead of on an incline, which makes the movements a bit harder. They begin doing push-up backbends, lying on their abdomens and touching their feet to the back of their head, and working on the concept of a cartwheel (which some will get and others will not). Jumping on one foot and playing hopscotch are fun activities that help with balance and motor skills.

With this age group I normally do most of my spotting by hand; however, I do use a karate belt to save my back when the children are working on backbends. I teach beginners ages 6 and over the same way, using the wedge as much as possible. I have them begin with the same skills as the preschoolers, then advance to headstands, handstands, and backbends from standing to floor and up again. Then we progress to one-handed cartwheels, roundoffs, front limbers, and back walkovers. I also begin to introduce running tricks such as running cartwheels, roundoffs, and front handsprings.

Intermediate level
Intermediate classes begin with a full stretch. We then work through the progressions of the basic skills before tackling the harder skills. I try to keep this interesting by combining tricks and making the students do them on both sides. For example, I would give them a combination like this: handstand, front roll, step out, one-handed cartwheel, roundoff, and pike back roll; then ask them to do it to the other side. Then we would progress to walkovers of all kinds, Arabian limbers (any trick that takes off from two feet and passes through a handstand; variations include tuck front, pike front, straddle front, and back Arabian), spotting cartwheels, cartwheel drop splits, elbow stands, shoulder stands, hand walks, simple double tricks (like double cartwheels and butterflies), and back handsprings.

Advanced level
Advanced students do the basics and progress through to aerial cartwheels, aerial walkovers, and back tucks. This is the class in which I introduce specialty tricks such as full reverse walkovers (forward and backward), runarounds, butterflies, six types of Valdez, half reverse tensica, castovers, double back walkovers, triple cartwheels, aerial walkovers holding hands, and so forth.

I have noticed that students who take acro classes seem more confident than those who do not.

Students reach the advanced level at different ages (or not at all); at my school they range in age from 8 to 18. Getting to this level is not necessarily determined by how many years of training they have had; it is how well they adapt to it. I have students who have taken acro for many years and still can’t master the basics of an intermediate class.

In my opinion, the three things that make a great acrobat are a lack of fear (they have to be unafraid to try new things and trust me when I say that they are ready to do something), strength (which plays a major part), and flexibility.

Teacher training and liability
Due to liability and insurance issues in studios today, often teachers are afraid to offer acro because of what could happen if a student gets injured. However, if you hire well-trained teachers who know how to spot correctly, this should not be a problem. I have had more injuries occur with students in tap shoes than I have had in acrobatic classes in 22 years!

When looking for an acrobatics teacher, it is essential to have them demonstrate for you, with a student, how they would spot the various skills. Do they know what they need to protect and the best way to do it? For instance, forward and backward rolls need to be spotted by the hips to keep pressure off the student’s neck. A standing backbend should be spotted by standing in front of the student with one foot between their legs and the teacher’s hands or a belt around the student’s back. This gives the spotter more leverage than if they were standing beside the student. Back walkovers should be spotted from the side of the extended leg, with spotting hands at the back and behind the working leg.

Also make sure that prospective teachers are knowledgeable about the normal progressions in an acrobatic class. In other words, students shouldn’t try a back walkover if they can’t do a backbend from a standing position without assistance, nor a back handspring if they can’t do a handstand.

I address parental concerns about safety by advertising that all of my teachers are certified to teach by Dance Masters of America. I also allow parents to watch while their children participate in a class before they sign up. In the few instances when children have been hurt, I have been very lucky that their parents were understanding. Most of the injuries have occurred when the students were doing something they already knew how to do and were not being spotted, or when they tried something that I had not told them they were ready to do. The easiest way to prevent this, with younger students, is to have them sit and wait their turn. Then you know they can’t be at the other end of the room, behind your back, trying something they shouldn’t.

Teaching aids
There are so many teaching aids for acrobatics, including wedges, octagons, mats, and belts. My favorite is a karate belt, because it is simple to use, lightweight, easy to get on and off, and doesn’t have the hard hooks and latches that swivel belts have. The proper use of these aids comes down to knowing which parts of the body you have to protect for certain tricks. All of this is outlined in the DMA acrobatic syllabus, which can be purchased through their website or from a state or regional DMA chapter.

We have three different sizes of wedges, and they are used for any trick that is easier to do going downhill, from rolls with the preschoolers, to front limbers, walkovers, back handsprings, and back tucks. Octagons are great for tricks in which the back needs to be protected. Again, we have three sizes, and we use them for students of all ages. These are good for limbers, back handsprings, dive rolls, front handsprings, and headsprings.

For advanced moves like front aerials and back tucks and twists, I require two spotters, each of whom holds one end of a karate belt that is wrapped around the student’s waist and twisted on either side. While a spotter’s hands could possibly lose contact with the student, that can’t happen with the belt. Towels make great spotting aids for aerial cartwheels and anything that travels. The spotters stand on either side of the map, holding the ends of a twisted towel, and the student does a running preparation toward them and goes over the towel.

Getting started
School owners who are interested in starting an acro program can find a nearby DMA chapter and attend a syllabus review. Or consider having someone who is well versed in acrobatics teach a class with you and a few students. Let them give you the hands-on training you need to start a beginner group in each age level. The following year bring them back for an intermediate level, and so forth.

In terms of staffing, preschool teachers should have the basic knowledge to incorporate acro into their classes. One teacher can cover the other age groups.

I suggest introducing acro in a summer session or dance camp; however, because of the cost of the equipment (a minimum of three four-panel mats and one wedge, which would probably cost around $800), interested owners should make sure there is enough interest to justify the expense.

At my school acro classes are quite popular; I would say that 93 percent of my students are in either an acrobatic class or a combination class that includes tumbling. We may have 20 kids in one class, but because we have at least two teachers at all times, we don’t have waiting lists. Our classes are divided by age as well as ability. We have a beginner/intermediate class for ages 6 to 10, then an advanced group that ranges from age 8 to 10. We offer the same classes for students 11 years old and over.

At my studio, all students ages 5 and under are in combination classes. However, the Centre of Performing Arts in Graham, NC, where I work with the competition teams and teach some advanced acro classes, has 45-minute tumbling classes for children as young as 3 and Mommy and Me classes starting at 18 months, and they are filled to the rim.

If you’re looking for a way to expand your curriculum, challenge your students, and create more versatile dancers, consider adding acro to your class offerings. Not only does it provide flexibility, strength, and agility, it also gives students a veritable performance edge over those who can’t function upside down.

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August 2014
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