Great Beginnings

Andrea Fenwick-Trench welcomes her DiscoverTots with a fun Freeze Dance.
Photo by A. Deran Photography

Ease students into class with an opening ritual

When you step through the studio door, do you shake off the day and refocus on the lesson to come? It’s not always an easy transition, but educators understand its importance, and most work out their own method for making it happen.

But what about students—who, just like teachers, often show up at the studio door with swirling thoughts and tired bodies? One way educators can help students make that transition is through an opening (or welcoming) ritual, be it a short meditation, group game, chat time, or focused physical activity.

“Opening rituals are important to set the tone of each class and create a welcoming environment where all students feel safe and accepted,” says Nicole Belanger, dance education director at Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. While taking attendance, Giordano faculty members regularly ask students to respond to a Question of the Day, such as “What is a step you’ve been practicing at home?” or “What is your goal for today’s class?” Belanger says, “This allows students to refocus their energy on class instead of all of the outside stresses that occurred throughout their day.”

“OK, let’s get to work and keep those smiles in our hearts.” —Deb Meunier, Fusionworks Dance Academy, Lincoln, Rhode Island

DSL asked several veteran educators to share their best methods for transitioning students into class.


Start-time buffer. When teaching little ones, it’s important to have a welcome ritual in place that students can expect each time they come to dance class. In our DiscoverDance program, that ritual is the Freeze Dance. Dancers enter the studio, choose a colorful prop (an excellent distraction for students who have difficulty leaving their grown-ups), dance off their excited energy, and get their listening ears ready to learn.

Freeze Dance serves as a buffer between the official class start time and when we are ready to dive into our lesson for the day, and is especially useful for late arrivals. —Andrea Fenwick-Trench, Elite Dance Academy, Homer Glen, Illinois


Yoga poses during warm-ups challenge Kaelyn Gray’s Jazz 5 students.
Photo by Kaelyn Gray

Agenda explainer. I greet all dancers ages 3 to 9 individually as they enter class. Once they put their bags away, they go to their assigned spots and wait for my instructions. I show them three things on my vision board that we will work on until our water break. I want them to feel comfortable about the class and to know what to expect. —Julie Kay Stallcup, Revolution Dance Center, Montrose, California


Physical wake-up. I incorporate basic yoga poses into jazz class warm-ups, threading balancing and strength into these positions to challenge students mentally and physically. Our studio’s oldest team members often do these poses before class, or as warm-ups during competition season, which unites them and gets them all on the same breath.

My younger jazz classes do a more rigorous warm-up of cardio and stamina: four rounds of 16 jumping jacks and 16 runs in place, concentrating on keeping shoulders pressed down, chest radiating light, and feet peeling off the floor like a Band-Aid. —Kaelyn Gray, Expressions Dance Theatre, Crescent Springs, Kentucky


Head-to-toe checklist. For ballet class for ages 7 to adult, I start with a body alignment checklist. In parallel facing the barre, we make sure weight is properly distributed on the balls of the feet, knees are tracking properly over the toes, the abdominal wall is engaged, shoulder blades are sliding down the back, the pelvis is in a nice neutral position, the neck is long and not tense, and our eyes are open and taking in information.

For modern or contemporary class, I always start by asking students to massage the soles of their feet. This helps stimulate the neurological pathways and prepares dancers for the weighted and grounded movement that we will practice during class. When they stand again, they can feel a difference. Melissa Chisena, Janice’s DanceWorks, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania


Using a class’ dance routine music during intro exercises refreshes the memory of students, such as these at AileyCamp Miami, says Pioneer Winter.
Photo by Eyeworks Production, courtesy Adrienne Arsht Center

Teen talk. I start class for teen students in a circle and ask a short question of the day, such as “What’s your favorite book?” or “Do you have a job outside of school?” or “Do you have siblings?” Answering these questions doesn’t take too long, and gets them talking. This helps shy or quiet students feel included and lets them know that they have a voice, and it helps classmates get to know each other better. Nol Simonse, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley, California


Starting with a smile. This is a wonderful and warm way I have used for years to start classes of tweens and/or teens. I call out to everyone: “Raise your hand and tell us something that made you smile today. It doesn’t have to be about school or dance—just something that made you smile, like what you had for breakfast.” I’ll throw out a simple pleasure of my own that made me smile in my day, such as how I smiled as I turned the key to the studio, or when I thought about our class time together.

I find that this two- to three-minute ritual is a positive sharing that bridges our verbal and non-verbal worlds. Then I’ll say, “OK, let’s get to work and keep those smiles in our hearts.” Deb Meunier, Fusionworks Dance Academy, Lincoln, Rhode Island


Focus and investment. In a studio setting, kids are coming to you out of school. Maybe they had a long day; maybe they were bullied. I’ll help them focus by asking them to remember what we did the previous class. If they were working on a dance, I’ll have them run the dance first—even before our warm-up. They don’t run it full out, but just as a way to remember where we are. They can forget a lot from one Tuesday to the next—sometimes they will act like they never saw that dance before in their lives. Or I will use the dance’s music during our warm-ups. Pioneer Winter, AileyCamp Miami instructor, former owner Miami Dance Studio


Adult students focus their minds and ground their bodies during a quiet meditation before modern class at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.
Bottom photo courtesy Nol Simonse

Appreciation. I start classes this way for ages 14 and up: “For hundreds of years dancers have begun their day by gently placing their left hand on the barre. As we begin class this morning, I ask you to feel a connection to all of the beautiful dancers who came before you. The work that I’m going to bring to you has been passed down from Maestro Cecchetti, to Mme Nijinska, to Luigi, to me, to you, and from Mme Vaganova, to Mme Gabriela Taub-Darvash, to me, to you. You are now part of this great tradition. Be present and find your place in this lineage. Feel the energy in this room, the energy of all the magnificent dancers trained here. Let it fill your body and your mind. Let it fill your heart, leaving room for nothing else. And let your love, dedication, and desire for dance flow out into the room as you become part of our history for the next generation.” —Bill Waldinger, Joffrey Ballet School, New York City, and private studio guest teacher


Meditation. In modern dance class for adult students we start sitting, soles of the feet on the ground. We roll our spines out from the tailbone to a full position on our backs, arms open wide, palms up to the ceiling. We seek a place of rest and relaxation by deepening the breath and noticing gravity pulling us down toward the earth. We quiet the thinking mind. From this resting place, we reach our arms into the air, touch our faces, and begin gently rolling the skull back and forth. From this centered and relaxed place, we can begin waking up the body. —Nol Simonse, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley, California