July 2017 | IMHO | Enjoying the Rhythms of Early Childhood Dance Class

by Amanda Whitehead

Experiencing music kinesthetically is one of my favorite parts of dancing: for sheer movement pleasure, give me some lush Tchaikovsky or bouncing electro-swing. Like me, few of my students can resist moving to music, and I enjoy preparing classes attuned to my students’ musical development and their pleasure in music, as well as letting classes have rhythms of their own.

Most children are born with the capacity to become rhythmically competent—that is, to make “body movements [that] consistently coincide with the beat of the music.” (See Kenneth K. Guilmartin and Lili M. Levinowitz, PhD: Music and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers.) Their marvelous little brains take in the sounds around them and decode the patterns, then begin experimenting with how to reproduce them. Children are best at this kind of learning between birth and about 7 years old. (For more on musical development in infants and children, I recommend Guilmartin, Levinowitz, and the Music Together organization.)

I view a class session as a full-length composition, with downbeats, upbeats, crescendos, and rests.

As an early childhood dance teacher, I can’t assume that my students can march on the beat. However, I can assume that they are hardwired to try! I can expose them to a broad range of tempos—fast, slow, medium, extra-fast—and diverse meters: rhythms we count in eights, threes, or fives, for example. I can dance along with them, modeling clear, steady beats and demonstrating enjoyment in experimentation. I can experience the satisfaction of rhythmic movement in unison with them, and I can give them chances to improvise on their own.

My students have their own biological tempos, too; their heartbeats and breath run on faster internal rhythms than mine. Musically, they tune into microbeats (Gordon’s term for subjectively small subdivisions of rhythm) more easily than they do to macrobeats, and their movements, no matter how fully executed, take up little time. Keeping this in mind, I choose music with enough beats per minute to give the tiny dancers the pleasure of successfully moving their bodies to the music.

I view a class session as a full-length composition, with downbeats, upbeats, crescendos, and rests that can be adjusted to serve the needs of the participants. Some class groups need to sit in a circle to focus, and some need to burn through big movement first. Some brains tire quickly, and some bodies need more rest. Once I know what my students respond to, I can plan a class that begins in control, builds in exertion over time, takes a break in the middle, and even lets the energy explode at some point. I can quiet the children before handing them over to their parents or other teachers.

Letting music drive each of these activities is one of my favorite class management tools. A familiar chant with accompanying motions can focus attention. Contrasting tracks of music can encourage contrasting movement qualities. Having the students sing choreographic instructions to an accompanying melody helps them memorize the sequences.

Responding to music appears to be a biological imperative for young humans, and this creates tremendous opportunities for teachers. It also creates responsibility if we are teaching children during the window in which they develop much of their rhythm competence. The pleasure I derive from dancing to music is the key to handling that responsibility. Young children learn best in play-rich environments with adults who model enthusiastic participation. This means that I can use music I enjoy, even something as complex as Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in pre-ballet class. My students will gain pattern-recognition skills whether or not they can count in phrases of nine, as I will enjoy the drama of the music. We’ll identify repeating melodies—though I know they are called motifs, the students will enjoy simply noticing when the melodies recur. They’ll link phrasing to storytelling while I notice how the instruments layer over each other, and the musical landscape will make dance class a place we all want to return to every week.


Amanda Whitehead grew up in The Washington Ballet school and company. She has taught ballet, modern dance, and creative movement in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2007, and performs with ahdanco and FACT/SF.