Tips for First Time Dance Teachers
Tips for First Time Dance Teachers
The Dance Unit – for some it is a time of play and joyful movement, for others it is as welcome as a trip to the dentist.
There is general agreement in the world of education that dance is a good thing. Mountains of research tell us that through dance we gain physical fitness, mental stimulation, personal and cultural awareness, and valuable lessons in civility and co-operation. Dancing stimulates every part of the brain, develops all eight kinds of intelligence, and increases academic performance in other areas of the curriculum. Through the centuries dancing has filled many needs – ritual, recreational, social, therapeutic, romantic and creative.
For these reasons, dance is included in the curriculum of every province and territory in Canada. However, for many teachers the dance unit is a thing to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, delegated to someone else, or skipped over completely.
I’m here to convince you to try. Great joy and learning await, and you may find, as others have, that your students look forward to their dance lessons and are more focussed and civil afterwards. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Ignore the groans.
It has been demonstrated to me countless times that children love to dance; reluctance to participate is based more on fear of the unknown than genuine, informed aversion. When dance is presented with enthusiasm and accompanied by quality music, children are genuinely thrilled with the pleasure and challenges they find. You wouldn’t toss math out of your curriculum because some of the students object, would you?
Your biggest ally as a teacher of any subject is self-confidence. Your belief in the value of dance will give you the strength to ignore the inevitable resistance. “We hate dancing! Do we have to dance with girls? Eeuww!! I touched a boy’s hand!” Dancing elicits strong emotions, both positive and negative, and this can be taken as a reason to avoid it, or it can be seen as evidence of its incredible power and potential to transform individuals and groups.
2. Go dancing.
The very best preparation for your dance unit is to get out and dance yourself. This could be at the local salsa club, a contra dance, or with your family in the living room. Whenever possible, take a dance workshop at a conference or your local community centre. When you dance, you internalize the moves and thus are more able to present the figures with confidence. Even more importantly, you experience the frustration of confusing left and right, and feel the anxiety that arises when it comes time to choose partners. Dealing with these drawbacks (they never completely go away!) will give you empathy when working through the same issues with your students.
When preparing a dance for your class, be sure and dance it through to the music yourself, perhaps using a few students, colleagues or friends to help. In a pinch you can recruit your vacuum cleaner or your beagle – anything so that you physically dance through the moves. I have been leading dance for decades, and still go through this process when presenting a dance that’s new to me.
3. Do dances that move you.
Most curriculum guidelines are purposely vague, leaving it up to the teacher to choose the kinds of dance that will achieve learning outcomes. Are you more comfortable with the open possibilities of creative dance, or with the structure and tradition of folk dances? Can you see yourself leading singing games, or tackling the challenges of ballroom dancing, or would you like to fall back on old standards like London Bridges and the Virginia Reel? If you are enjoying yourself, your students will too.
4. Find quality resources.
There are some great dance resources out there and plenty of crap; the difficulty lies in telling the difference. Start by finding a colleague who teaches dance, and ask for their recommendations. Listen to their music and see if it is makes you move. I find that recordings that use real musicians are much more inspiring than synthesized music.
Good places to start: Community Dance Project www.marianrose.com
Folkstyle Productions www.folkstyle.com
Creative Dance Center www.creativedance.org
5. Get used to the music.
For people unused to moving to music, it takes some time for the rhythm to sink in. Before attempting to teach dances, put the music on as background for other activities. You may also want to play the music and ask them questions about it.
6. Start simple.
This point is as important for you as it is for the kids. Don’t assume that you have to do a ‘difficult’ dance to keep them interested – simple moves done to captivating music is the best recipe to lower the intimidation factor for both you and your students. This is true at every level; I am regularly amazed how teenagers and even adults can be engaged with simplicity and a touch of silliness. Dances that require copying or following (Seven Jumps, Grand March, Spiral) are a good place to start.
When they are warmed up, try a dance that is a bit more of a challenge for everyone, perhaps something that requires a different formation, specific steps or creative input. No need to get fancy until you are all more comfortable. Then end the session with something familiar that you don’t have to teach at all, such as the Chicken Dance, the Hokey Pokey, or another spiral with a different leader.
7. Expect some chaos.
It’s difficult to demand the same kind of attention in the dance class that you would in the classroom. When students are new to dancing they can be nervous, and a common reaction is to regress into silliness. This will subside as they become more comfortable and engaged but in the meantime, cut them some slack and work on your best theatrical crowd-control techniques.
Likewise, be easy on yourself. Dance instruction requires mental facility and verbal precision; at some point you will inevitably say the wrong thing and cause mass chaos around the room. When this happens, just laugh about it and ask your students to help you out of the muddle.
8. Be aware of different learning styles.
As always, you will have students who learn visually, aurally, and kinesthetically, tendencies that are magnified in the dance class. Give the visual learner plenty of opportunity to see the steps they are meant to perform; use demonstrations and diagrams, show dance videos or take them to a live show. For the aural learner you must hone your verbal accuracy, and look for several different ways of describing what you want them to do. Kinesthetic learners (and I believe that this applies to all students to some extent) need to get moving as soon as possible, as they are less likely to figure things out from the verbal instructions.
9. Keep it light.
It seems that the fear of failure is magnified when we are moving to music – non-dancers frequently tell me that above all, it is the possibility of looking foolish that keeps them on the sidelines. Your best tactic is to find humourous ways to deal with reluctance and the inevitable slip-ups. Be willing to laugh at yourself and be wrong from time to time. Enthusiastic participation and a sense of fun are your primary goals – precision will come in time.
10. Keep it regular.
Children love tradition. When you dance on a regular basis, be it daily, weekly, or once a year, it becomes normalized, and they begin to look forward to the experience.
Teaching dance has been a wonderful experience for me. It has been an immense amount of fun and has taught me much about myself, the social life of children, and the fine art of teaching. I wish you the same and more.
Marian Rose is a dance educator, musician and community organizer from Vancouver, BC., creator of the popular "Step Lively" series of dance books. She trains dance teachers across North America through workshops and apprenticeships, and over the past decade has taught more than 50,000 students to dance.
Visit her website at www.marianrose.com.
This article was first published in Canadian Teacher Magazine, Winter 2006. Used with permission.