Change It Up
“My dad always asks me one thing about my dances,” announced Angela. “Am I in the front row?” This set off an impassioned discussion among dancers in my 9-to 12-year-old jazz class, and it became clear that where they are placed onstage determines how they value themselves as dancers.
Typically, I placed the beginner dancers behind someone they can follow; now I changed my plan. “Everyone in this class is important,” I said, “and everyone will be in the front row for part of this dance.” Twelve radiant faces smiled at me.
Giving every child the opportunity to dance in the front row produced positive results. The weaker dancers became stronger when they didn’t have someone to follow; they realized they were responsible for the choreography. All of the dancers grew in confidence in an atmosphere that didn’t emphasize hierarchy based on skill level. They all felt significant.
Once I saw how powerful this practice could be, I decided to incorporate it into my classes. I began switching the lines with every warm-up song. In big classes, I sometimes ask them to rotate their position within each line. I even began having the across-the-floor lines shift their positions in relation to the front of the room and the mirror.
The benefits for the students are tangible. Changing lines forces the shyer kids to the front for part of every class. The students no longer get attached to a certain spot in the studio. The classroom hierarchy has also become less pronounced. In addition, the kids have learned to project from all parts of the room. When a child pulls my focus from the very back of the room, I point it out to the class as an example of how they should be learning to project onstage.
I benefit too: because I tend to watch the people in the front center more, I have a chance to carefully observe every dancer. A great strategy onstage has proved to be a great teaching tool as well.
HARPing on Students
In class, when we talk specifics about a technical approach to a step, many students nod in agreement, some because they see how a small adjustment might help them do the step or sequence better, and others, who are physically present but not focused on trying to understand and absorb the correction, out of habit.
Either way, I often seize that moment to tell them that simply acknowledging a correction—even if they do understand its importance—will not help them improve. There is a way to help students progress from receiving a correction to physicalizing it. I articulate the learning process for them by using the acronym HARP, as taught to me in my yoga teacher training: Hear, Act, Repeat, Practice.
The first step—to hear—means a student must be present in class (which requires consistent attendance) and actively listening. Standing in an alert and attentive posture, making eye contact, and leaning toward me are signs of active listening. I encourage better listening skills by keeping my comments concise, giving personal stories as examples, and asking questions of the students.
Once active listening is achieved, the teacher must move quickly to the next step—act. Give students time to work on this new correction outside of the structure of the entire movement sequence, and without music. This is their chance to put the new information into action.
They will need to do it more than once. Repeating the learning material is an important part of the process. Students need multiple opportunities to apply the new information, and they should do so in various ways. Teachers can give shorter, focused exercises or jump back into the original combination in order to provide students with different ways to work on the new concept.
Next is practice. When the dancers can consistently practice the skill in multiple and varied combinations, the HARP process has been completed.
My students know that when they find themselves nodding, they are at the beginning of a breakthrough but need to take additional steps to progress. HARPing on students can be a positive method of teaching.