Be Quiet and Let Your Students Listen

Sometimes your students need to hear someone else’s voice to know you are speaking the truth.

A microphone at radio station by Allessandro Bonvini

Photo by Alessandro Bonvini

Teaching composition, dance history, and theory can be among the trickiest topics for a middle school dance class. Attempting to share with 11-14 year olds what you, as a dance-lover, hold dearest is hard.

Dance Appreciation has a Back Door

Do you show students clips of a choreographer’s work and then spend time trying to convince them it changed the world as we know it? I suspect most of us present the work of iconic choreographers this way.

This semester, I have been sneaking in the back door to dance appreciation and bringing my students in with me.


Merce Cunningham demonstrates a movement in a compisition class at Laban Centre

Includes Marion North and Fionna McPhee. RefNo: LA/D/12/4/1/38, Laban Archive, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Rather than starting our Merce Cunningham indulgence by watching, we started with some old-school listening. I played an interview of Bill T. Jones from NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2009. (Preview this before playing it in your own class.)

My students tracked their questions, the things they didn’t understand, and the people they’d never heard of before. I filled in some of the gaps for them and helped them sift out the most important details.


Then, I asked them to share their imaginings of what Cunningham’s work might look like.

In the interview, Jones mentioned the works of visual artists Cy Twombley and Jackson Pollack. So I shared images of two of their works.


We attempted to imagine how this translates to dance and what this means for movement and the arrangement of time, space, and energy.

At this point, a sixth grader offered,

“I think his work is an oxymoron; it looks random but is completely organized.”



Next, I showed student pictures from selected works and they set to work creating brief movement phrases that feature the three elements they, the class(es), selected as the most important:

  • Intention without plot
  • No hierarchy of space
  • Any movement can go into any other movement

The result was the most sophisticated, varied, and thoughtful movement compositions my middle school students have ever made.



In week 2, we applied chance operation and had great fun rolling dice to determine order, music, and costuming.

Their responses included:

“You really have to pay attention to what is happening on stage while you are performing.”

“Interesting relationships happened at random that looked planned.”

“I get now what you mean when you talk about exploring movement.”

Believing is Hearing

Throughout the week we continued to listen and watch – Cunningham, his dancers, other artists, and each other.

This time there is no “convincing” students that Cunningham changed the world. Because Bill T. Jones said so, they were curious to know what all the fuss is about. Because they were curious, they were much more willing to go on the journey and explore.

You don’t need to take my word for it, either! Try teaching dance appreciation by listening first.

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard

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