Look Around and Learn
It is important for students to understand that one of the greatest resources they have in the studio is the other dancers. Teachers can provide strategies that allow students to really use the dancers who surround them for their benefit.
In my college classes I start by asking students to write a one-page letter identifying which dancer(s) they most like to watch. For studio classes, I ask dancers to fill out one side of a 3×5 card. They don’t name the other student; instead they list qualities and actions that make him/her appealing to watch.
Next, I return the card or letter with notes indicating which qualities I feel are most important for the student to follow up on. Then, during class, I direct students to take action, incorporating those attractive qualities into their own dancing. I encourage them to “steal” the inspiring moments they observe and to make them their own.
Students should place themselves where they can absorb another dancer’s positive qualities—behind someone at the barre to emulate his timing, next to the person who travels confidently through space, or in the opposite group in order to study an admired classmate’s choices. Focusing the students’ attention away from body type, I encourage them to observe qualities or actions that they can try to develop in themselves, such as lightness, stability, and timing.
I’ve used this letter-writing technique for many years, and I’ve seen that it has helped students to see examples of how confidence, risk-taking, a strong work ethic, and a thoughtful approach to taking corrections contribute to other students’ development as dancers.
The goal is not to make students feel pressured or competitive but to elevate the positive energy in the classroom. The letter-writing technique can help create an environment in which dancers are aware and engaged in the process of witnessing and sharing with one another.
Chalk It Up
Struggling with order and behavior in your preschool class? Tackle that terror with simple sidewalk chalk.
There are endless ways to use under-your-feet art to grasp attention, instill discipline, and introduce a sense of fun and whimsy. Even students as old as 7 or 8 will respond positively if you bring out the chalk on an attention-challenged day, while younger children never seem to tire of it.
In the transition time from ballet to tap, I draw two rows of evenly spaced, staggered circles, facing the mirror. Students who put on their shoes quickly and quietly pick which circle to stand in. This encourages good behavior and saves time—everyone finds a “dance space” without fuss.
While sticker dots can serve the same function as chalk circles, the latter can also be used for teaching purposes—“Let’s march around the circle,” for example, or “Hop inside; now jump your feet outside” (to teach jumping from first to second). On classes near holidays, instead of circles I draw (very basic) shamrocks, Christmas trees, hearts, or ghosts.
To teach diagonals, I draw gigantic matching flowers in two corners and smiley faces in the other two. “Now when it’s your turn, skip from flower to flower, then from smiley face to face.” No more cutoff corners!
For first position, I draw hearts that just fit their feet. “Now, stand in the heart and ‘kiss’ your heels together.” V shapes help older students who are struggling to find the diagonal tendu in croisé devant.
On special days, I break out the whole box of chalk and let everyone draw. This results in a wild mess of shapes and patterns—plus lots of smiles. We all dance in our own shape for a bit—pliés and bourrée turns, perhaps—then skip around the room before returning “home” to our own shape.
Cleanup is easy too—hand out tissues and have all the little Cinderellas “scrub” the floor before the final curtsy of class.