On Paths and Pyramids: Reshaping The Future of Dance

Recently, I spent two days proctoring a standardized test to high school juniors. Due to the rules involved in what I could and could not do while proctoring, I had a lot of time to think. Thankfully, Sarah Anne Austin’s article for Dance/USA, “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme” gave me a lot to think about.

Read it. It is important.

Of the many valuable points made, I poured over one especially while circulating the test room – the standardization of dance.

Since coming to this school, I have had several conversations with dance friends- choreographers, performers, dance-makers- about my current experiences working with competition kids. Having worked primarily in concert and academic dance, working with competition kids has been a shift for me; an important one.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the Sidewalk Begins… or Ends

Within these conversations, my colleague usually alludes to the fact that there are aspects of competition dance that go against what we, concert/academic dancers, feel is important about dance but also that it doesn’t lead to anything.

Competition dance ends at age 18. At that point, these dancers choose to buy-in to college dance or choose to let go of dance with few options in between.

As dance academics, this is often when we first interact with these dancers. We can be smug. Sometimes even smug enough to shake our heads when this adjustment is hard for these students and they wear their booty shorts to modern class.

…The very class which may or may not be retitled to contemporary because it has become a true contemporary class or because we think that title will draw better enrollment.

Or we shake our heads because these students have an aesthetic cultivated over many years that hasn’t included any dance-for-art exposure. How low-brow.

We, concert/academic dancers, have been reluctant to admit that the challenge of choosing a path happens to us but it isn’t when we are 18. It is when we are 25, 35, or older. It is at an age at which we are able to rationalize the meaning of dance in our lives and reflect how it has shaped our paths to successes we never imagined to have at 18, when we planned for exclusive careers as performers and choreographers.  

It is also a critical point in time when we address the standardization of our education as artists on a personal level. When we don’t have a clear system to comply with or circumvent. When we don’t have a political playback for our role in a program/department/field. When we address personally how we measured up or didn’t and now we must decide the role of dance in our lives as well as what to do with it. 

At this point, many of us are just as heavy-hearted and confused about what to do and how to do it as our 18 year old students grappling with the same question. The thing we have cared for so deeply seems not to exist in the way we perceived it and choices must be made.  

The Charge of Young Dancers

I shared Austin’s article with my students- many of whom are about to enter college dance programs. I told them I would help them unpack the fear and I have never seen the entire pack so attentive for an entire discussion.

I explained to them that they are the Hybrids.

They are the dancers who will be shaping dance in a way that will connect and combine their dance experiences – competition, concert, commercial – all of it.

They are the dancers who will have the courage to put down the labels of high art, low art, contemporary, jazz, ballet, flamenco, street… just as Ohad Naharin and other power-houses listed in Austin’s article have introduced.

They are the dancers who will enjoy returns upon their investments in service-learning and community-building based in sharing, not just dance performance, but practices in creativity through dance.

They will have to. These are the careers that used to take place after a performance career. Right now, these are the careers happening simultaneously to the performance/choreography careers. These will be the intentional experiences that college programs will be promoting not as a second thoughts but as a main paths for careers in dance.

Why? Because college is standardized too. Careers and jobs are what matter, not education, which is the second thought.
Reshaping the future of dance

Preparing Hybrids for Their Futures

So how do I plan to prepare the Hybrids for a future different from my own path?

  • By collaborating with them.
  • By discovering with them the connections of our worlds and our aesthetics and the people that are making important work regardless of labels.
  • By giving them time and space to create, to make mistakes, to build references through technique and history, to introduce a myriad of processes for problem-solving and art-making.
  • By offering them an opportunity and responsibility to take control of their education, really, and allow them room to make good-dance that speaks to our audiences as well as our dancers. Even if it reaches beyond my taste. Especially if it reaches beyond my taste.
  • By expecting them to do something with their experiences- their mastery of the dance and the worlds they know.
  • By reminding them that art is cultural.
  • By giving them movement experiences that add to their repertory of movement sensations and methodologies.

Next year, we aren’t competing my work or guest artists’ work. We will be competing their work.

They are the masters of their domain. Better let them start owning it.



pyramid cloud” by Tiffany Day is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropped and text added]

Where the sidewalk ends” by Ryan Dickey is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropped]


When Challenging Advanced Dancers Presents Challenges

“How do you challenge the advanced dancer?”

I was asked this last year in my interview when I went from my position in a K-8 school, where I worked with urban kids, to working with high school students in a suburban district. It’s a question that keeps floating around in my mind.

I think my answer was, “It depends on how you define advanced.” I went on to explain how I think a student would answer that question and how I would address their needs through that definition.

Now that the school year is rolling along, though, I grapple with how to reconcile how students define “advanced” and how I do.

The students I am currently working with range, across the program, from those that have never studied dance and thought it’d be fun, to those with some studio training, to the hyper-trained competition dancer clocking 30 hours a week at a private studio. I even have a kid taking dance because he lost a bet. (Boy, am I glad he did- he’s a character that adds so much to the energy of the group).

Youth Dance Company

Brandywine Ballet Company by Jim, The Photographer is licensed CC BY 2.0

What is challenging the advanced dancers?

In the advanced level, a “company” consisting of dancers in grades 9-12 who auditioned for placement, the difference naturally feels most obvious. Yes, there is a gap between the philosophy of their studio experiences that the philosophy I offer, mainly rooted within concert dance but for the most part we’ve been navigating that quite well. I think it is the stress that is holding us back the most.

The students I see now have incredible pressure to perform at the top of their game, in every game. They are expected by their parents, their teachers, their counselors, and themselves to have high test scores, high G.P.A., and high achievement in whatever “activity” they participate.

In the dance class, I see them putting a lot of energy into the movement they already do well and the movement they like. If challenged beyond those comfort zones, the effort shifts as well as the engagement.

  • Their body language tells me they will tolerate the class but are really just waiting for it to be over.
  • Their writing tells me they feel vulnerable and fear judgement.
  • Their bodies tell me they need corrections and when I give them, their faces tell me they are afraid of being told they’ve made a mistake.

I know the kids well enough now to know they aren’t lazy and they aren’t searching only for compliments. They are under a lot of pressure.

So, how DO I challenge advanced dancers?

I explain that…

Also, I dim the lights. I use a soft voice. I explain why we do what we do.

I invite them to focus on who they are and not always on how they perform.

I hope they start to think beyond themselves. I structure group experiences that feature physical thinking, collaboration, and humor.

What it means to be an advanced dancerI request they make some mistakes intentionally so they develop skills on how to handle mistakes made unintentionally. I point out my own mistakes. I put them in scenarios they can’t plan for.

I push them to think and speak and write and make, then think and speak and write about what they made.

I show them a lot of videos and interviews that expose them to real artists working in dance, speaking about taking risks. I give them permission.

I ask them what they learned instead of how they did.

I try to make them laugh instead of cry. I ask them to share what they are reading.

I remind them that life is happening right now, not when they get their scores or their college acceptance, and it is happening as we are together. We may as well enjoy our time together and make something with it. Rigorously.

As it turns out, it isn’t so different from what I do with my beginning dancers, though the “advanced” dancers tend to feel more uncomfortable.

There are days they’d rather I “just clean” the choreography. As a teacher, that discomfort makes me feel the lessons are urgent and the learning is critical.

For my at-risk kids, the work felt urgent because I wanted to give them an “out”. For these kids, it feels urgent because I want them to have a way back “in”. To be and not just do.

Setting Kids Free To Move and Play in the Classroom

Have you seen “The REAL reason children fidget”article from balancedandbarefoot.com?

Have your friends shared and re-shared and commented that they feel this is speaking about their child, their students, their neighbor kid, well, all kids? Yeah, me too.

Here is what I am seeing in society at large:

Movement needs are ignored.

Movement is undervalued.

Movement, for many, is painful- physically and/or emotionally.

Yes, as we know and tout regularly, movement is the key. Movement unites, it unlocks, it communicates.

When Young Children Hate School

Photo courtesy We Come To Learn

Here is what I am seeing in my school and in my own classes:

(Now, I should mention that apart from a middle school gym class, our school no longer offers physical education classes with a specialist (same with library). This, I would like to believe, was not an easy decision on behalf of our district, but one that was done nonetheless. But this article isn’t about that….)

As a movement facilitator, my job is getting harder and harder.

Even in a building in which dance classes are offered since kindergarten, and even in the 3.5 years I have been teaching in this building, I have witnessed a steady decline in students’ ability to control their bodies in class. I see elementary classes for 30 minutes, once a week.

For a while, I was concerned it was my curriculum.

I still reflect on this daily. But the classes that are buying in are REALLY buying in. And my emphasis within the curriculum is sensitive to the kids I have in front of me. So there must be more to it…..

For a while, I was concerned my classroom management skills were somehow in decline.

I still reflect on this daily. But the classes that are functioning well are REALLY functioning well. And my management strategies are sensitive to the classes I have in front of me. So there must be more to it….

At the beginning of the year, all teachers were asked to spend time in other classrooms during what had been “planning time”. (This goes back to the district’s decisions that this article is not about.) This time, though, gave me an opportunity witness how movement was organized in the general classrooms. It was eye-opening.

The classrooms that had practiced procedures for how and when to move around the room, happened to also be the classes that maintained their composure when they entered the studio.

These classrooms also seemed to acknowledge that learning improves after rigorous activity were more apt to follow through on their physical education expectations and less likely to take away recess when behavior was less than ideal.

And then there were the other classrooms.

I noticed that in the classrooms that had little organization of how to move through the space, also had little organization in how dialogue flowed. Kids moved at random and spoke at random. This led to larger issues over the course of the year. These were the classes, that at concert time, performed lecture-demonstration examples of what happens in a “typical”dance class at our school rather than learning a dance that incorporated the skills they had embodied.

So here is how I adjusted my own role in facilitating movement in my building this year and it is what I propose we all do.


  • talk about how to organize movement to ease transition in general classrooms. This is something I think all teachers are now being held accountable for as it leads to a significant loss of instructional time when the minutes are added up!
  • promote the critical thinking skills developed through creative movement, even for upper grades. We will call it physical problem-solving.
  • push rigor in all ways we move students- physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It will require we do things differently than others and even from the ways we have taught before.
  • not be afraid to rethink what is “performed”in front of an audience. We can’t function at the “it is what is always done”mode anymore. (Should we ever do that, anyway?)

While creative movement (creative problem-solving) is widely accepted for young children, it is equally important for older grades, yet challenging socially in the tween grades. Believe it or not, even the middle schoolers enjoy PLAY!

Let’s set the guidelines and set them free to move and explore.

 Tip: Clear, thoughtful prompts, not often used in traditional “dance”contexts will be important here. Neutralize the territory and think of it is a math-integrated dance class, for example

Using more creative movement in your classes will likely impact what students will be able to present on-stage. There are a million different ways this could “look”, each of them exciting. Take some risks and if worried, include all the positive “whys”this program might look different from years past in your program note or curtain speech. It might just become the new norm for your program- how exciting for audiences to not know what to expect each year and what a good education for them, too!

And you know what? It was more fun for me, too.

What are you seeing in YOUR classrooms and studios?

How are you using structured and non-structured movement to help the fidgets?

You Asked: Following Up on Great Questions

Over the last few weeks, I have received some terrific questions on past articles that really deserve a post of their own.

Here are a few:

In response to Graphs and Charts in the Classroom:

“How much time do you spend on visual aids, etc. in a normal class?”

Using Graphs & Charts to Reinforce Dance ConceptsThe amount of time I spend on visual aids depends on the type of visual aid, the lesson, and the level of familiarity students have with the visual aid.

For example, in the beginning of the year, I spend more time explaining how to use the aid to organize information as well as the information itself. So, usually within a 45-minute class period, of a class that meets daily, I may spend 20 minutes.

However, as we progress through the year, and the students become comfortable with the type of aid, this goes much faster – even as little as 5-10 minutes.

In response to Managing the Middle School “Shut-Down”:

“I can so feel you – Middle School definitely is a difficult age. I love that you pointed out how strict Middle Schoolers can be when it comes to styles! It is something I have experienced for a while but have never quite named so. I think it is because these kids are finding themselves and as that is a difficult age to do at that age they label themselves and everything around them. But I love the aspect of dancing without styles, definitely gonna add that to my classes next semester. Just one question: How do you call those classes?”

I simply refer to these classes as technique classes.

We explore “anatomy in action,” identifying how the body moves in isolation and as a whole, explore the physics of movement, discuss theory, and more. Lately, we have started to discuss “styles” but we do so from a critical perspective first.

I ask them to pull out pictures from magazines that represent as many styles of dance possible. We then sort and classify the pictures, while critically thinking and verbalizing how we’ve arrived at these labels.

  • What are the attributes of the lines of the body?
  • How are we imagining the movement that would come right before or right after this frozen shape?
  • Why do we associate these things with the chosen labels?

Then, we compare these attributes (isolation, quality, alignment…) to what we know about these concepts and talk about cultures within dance: commercial, concert, traditional, ritual, ethnic, genre-based…

We also talk about the other arts elements, such as music and costuming, that come up as we identify trends.

We discuss dance as a primary art and when it is secondary; how the relationships between the arts can and should be determined by the project and the artists involved.

“There are two more problems I have with my Middle Schoolers right now: First, I have a Jazz-class and as they are beginners I like to do lots of isolations to introduce them to the style. I have experienced though that especially young girls become extremely body-aware in this time and are afraid when it comes to ribcage/hip-isolation. I am going to give it a try next semester by labeling these body parts as “ribcage” etc. instead of what they might be thinking of. Still, would you enforce isolations or due to the age start with a different part of jazz technique?”

Isolations are such a large part of jazz that they can’t be avoided, nor should they.

I never really shy away from movement with any age group but I do consciously consider how much time I spend on movement that may make students uncomfortable. To use your example of rib and hip isolations, we may spend more counts isolating other parts of the body while we still include the ribs and hips within the series.

Talking about the body anatomically is a great way to neutralize fears, provide valuable information applicable to dance as well as other subject areas, and nurture positive body awareness. Focusing on the skeletal and muscular structures pave the way for discussing injury prevention and can inspire further study into kinesiology and physiology. Future career interests can be awakened and all because we are teaching “isolations” in a thoughtful way.

I also find this method of teaching allows students to connect ideas across genres and deepens our conversations in technical theory and performance methods.

Stuent dancers leaping

Photo by Jeffrey Smith

“Also, I feel like Middle Schoolers tend to leave their creative dance – comfortable zone really fast. The younger ones often are delighted when they get to be creative, but after about half a year in Middle School they usually want to be like the “teens”. To them, this means learning longer and “cooler” combos in class, but it does certainly not mean to them no longer playing freeze dance at the end of the lesson and doing a lot of technique exercises like my teens do. I have made the experience that they really want to move on but feel like I am the one holding them back as I want to rely on technique etc. Do you have any advice for me?”

If you are finding your tweens are wanting to dabble in both worlds- creative movement and longer movement phrases, try it and see how it feels.  I would likely turn technique into a phrase that also includes some creative problem-solving, or task-based prompts.

I think often teachers fall into the trap of approaching technique as a series of very serious actions. There is no reason, though, that technique needs to always be scripted or serious!

Here is what I mean:

If you tend to teach warm-up as a series of exercises, try linking them together to develop an actual movement phrase. Add a few other important elements: a turn, an extension, level change- high and low, rhythm change,  and directional change and all of a sudden technique becomes a cooler, longer phrase.

Further the work by adding a change of music with each run in order to change quality, or ask students to think of the phrase in terms such as over, under, around, and through.

Allow them to modify the phrase- add locomotor movement between movements, add stillness, or emphasize their favorite parts- to suit their needs and creative voices .

Take turns watching in small groups. Now technique has moved into structured improvisation and choreography. They could even try stylizing the technical components as they would appear in various genres of dance.

Not only will your students understanding of dance deepen, your understanding of them as artists and people will, too.

I hope this answers your questions AND continues the conversation.

Check out my other articles and join the discussion!

Helping Dance Students Enter the Whirlpool of Dance-Making

How do you explain dance-making and its creative processes to middle-school or entry level high school students?

Recently I opened the dialog on creative process in my own class with the image of a whirlpool.

black and white photo of a whirlpool

Leading questions:

Have you ever been to a water-park? Have you ever been in the whirlpool?

For those that haven’t been, imagine this: There is a circular pool that has a single entry/exit point. Once in the pool, you begin walking in a circle. The more people there are, the more force there is and soon you are riding on a current, having to decide when and how you exit.

The creative process can be a little like walking in that pool – entering, whirling, and having to choose when to exit.

Initiating Conversation

Let’s start with at the beginning, at the initiation. Turn to a partner and tell them what you had for breakfast.


Who initiated that conversation? How did the person respond? Did they have the same breakfast? Something similar but different? Something totally different?

Leaving the concept of breakfast behind, develop a movement phrase or a movement “situation” in which one of you leads and the other(s) respond. Remember that your responses may come in the form of a movement echo, similar movement, or contrasting movement. You may have elements of improvisation and/or choreographed movement.


After giving students a few minutes to work, I offer a visual.

Asking a student to volunteer, I improvise and encourage him/her to respond to the movement I produce. We soon discuss, as a class, what stood out and the meaning we were able to infer.

We then return to the concept of the whirlpool as it relates to the creative process.

What is the entry point?

Most commonly, the entry point for dance-making is inspired by a story or a song. We typically use choreographic devices to support the meaning we intend to convey through movement. In that sense, meaning leads and movement follows. Yet, that is only one method.

Using the choreographic device of initiating movement as a means to infer meaning offers another entry point into the whirl of creativity that many middle school and even high school students may not have considered.

What if?

At this point, we flood the board with “what if” scenarios for potential dance-making:

What if the dance is performed in the wings but only an arm or a leg is occasionally visible from stage.

What if the entire dance is in low space, on a chair, what if the audience is onstage and the dancers are in the house? The possibilities are endless.

I have found that in their studies, we are able to find examples of choreographic tools listed in such sources as Blom’s The Intimate Act of Choreography.

Tools such as instrumentation, fragmentation, repetition, embellishment are used organically- serving as the gold for us to mine rather than the tools with which we do the mining.

How are you talking about the creative process?