K-12 – Dance Advantage http://www.danceadvantage.net Solutions For All Stages Of Your Dance Life Fri, 12 Jan 2018 12:02:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 Laying The Path To Your Best Work in Dance And Education http://www.danceadvantage.net/evolving-as-a-dance-educator/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=evolving-as-a-dance-educator http://www.danceadvantage.net/evolving-as-a-dance-educator/#respond Fri, 19 Feb 2016 16:00:21 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=43187 A year ago Heather wanted to quit teaching dance. She's back but with new purpose after reevaluating and evolving. Find out what it took to find her way back.]]>


About a year ago, I was ready to leave dance.

I had had enough of trying to convince students, parents, and administrators that there is more to dance than precision and performance. I began to think, “if this is where dance is these days, if this is all that dancers want from it, I need to leave.” I was tired of the fight. I was tired of the struggle. I wanted out.

Many months later, I am back.

I left the environment I was in.

I left the aspect of the field I was living in, however, I didn’t really leave my work. Instead, I honed in on the aspects of my curriculum that still sparked interest and passion: creative process, personal connection, artistic transformation, art as social practice. This is now what I do, full-time, all the time, not in units of study.


I analyzed my work.

I looked at my work from the last decade and noted the processes for working with students (particularly at-risk) in which my strengths truly lived.



Exposing the connections of big ideas and delivering sophisticated content in digestible pieces.


I began to really consider the promise of movement as healing.

Everywhere I was looking, I was noticing students were stressed and pained. Sometimes this was masked in achievement and accomplishment, sometimes in poverty and challenging home lives, but the bottom line was the same.


As soon as I started looking for other ways in which to apply my strengths, interests, and knowledge, doors opened, new partnerships formed, and everyone in my house is happier.


dancing feet    reaching hands


I now offer Creative Self-Care and Project-Based Learning in Healthcare and K-12 settings. I am involved in a community of artists and business people committed to improving our city in real ways. I consult for people and organizations outside of my community and state. I write. I work with people I trust. I meet people who inspire. I am laying the path to do my best work.

One of my clients recently said to me, “When I stop trying to define things, I realize there is nothing to fear. It is when I impose perceptions and definitions that I get stuck.” This summarizes my career in dance and in education.

I was scared of what leaving public schools would mean for me as an educator. How would I be identified? How do I describe my work that doesn’t fit neatly under established labels and categories?

What I have found is that I am able to focus on my favorite aspects of the “work” and make change in my community in ways I only dreamed of doing. I also still work at times in public schools.


When I stop trying to define things, I realize there is nothing to fear.” #dancelife
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Dance career advice

A dad in Nebraska asked if I would share my journey with his daughter as she starts to plan her career goals and college education.

Here is an excerpt:

“If you are considering a life in dance, become a master of dance in all its forms- technique, performance, creative process and choreography, history and theory, production, pedagogy, and somatics.

When you do that, you can do anything you need to do in order to create a life in dance.

Approach dance with an open mind and an open heart. Your definition and relationship to dance will evolve. You will evolve.”


I concluded by mentioning Liz Lerman and the four questions she poses which have been instrumental in helping me arrive at my own truths and forging new paths:


How might these questions deepen the work you are doing?

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On Paths and Pyramids: Reshaping The Future of Dance http://www.danceadvantage.net/reshaping-the-future-of-dance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=reshaping-the-future-of-dance http://www.danceadvantage.net/reshaping-the-future-of-dance/#respond Thu, 02 Apr 2015 14:45:25 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=20980 Competition dance ends at 18 years old. At that point dancers make a choice to buy-in or let go to a different view of dance. How do we help them with the transition?]]>

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]


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When Challenging Advanced Dancers Presents Challenges http://www.danceadvantage.net/challenging-advanced-dancers/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=challenging-advanced-dancers http://www.danceadvantage.net/challenging-advanced-dancers/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 03:30:00 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=20334 Heather works through the challenges of working with "advanced dancers" as she encourages high school company dancers, who feel pressure to perform and meet expectations, to move and think outside their comfort zones. ]]>

“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…

advanced to me, means knowing how little you actually know and acting in a way that changes that.
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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.

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Setting Kids Free To Move and Play in the Classroom http://www.danceadvantage.net/fidget-free-to-move/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fidget-free-to-move Tue, 24 Jun 2014 18:47:35 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=19167 "The Real Reason Why Children Fidget" is an article that has struck a chord with parents and teachers. Heather responds with her observations of middle-school dance class students and the movement patterns and organization she witnessed in other classrooms.]]>

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 http://www.danceadvantage.net/educator-questions/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=educator-questions Thu, 29 May 2014 14:10:59 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=19111 Columnist, Heather Vaughan-Southard shares how to deal with dancers uncomfortable with their bodies and jazz isolations, plus answers more questions from readers on middle school dancers and visual aids in the classroom.]]>

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 http://www.danceadvantage.net/creative-process-whirlpool/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=creative-process-whirlpool Tue, 06 May 2014 14:15:33 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18939 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?

Be Quiet and Let Your Students Listen http://www.danceadvantage.net/appreciation-through-listening/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=appreciation-through-listening Thu, 06 Mar 2014 23:15:38 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18706 When your opinions don't hold sway with your students, consider using Heather's approach and have your dancers listen their way in to the work of famous choreographers. ]]>

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.

“I Hate Dance;” Finding Common Ground http://www.danceadvantage.net/when-a-student-hates-dance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=when-a-student-hates-dance http://www.danceadvantage.net/when-a-student-hates-dance/#comments Thu, 23 Jan 2014 15:48:50 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18565 Right before break, a fifth grade boy chose not to participate at all in my 30 minute class.
At all.

We had a familiar conversation that ended with him saying, “I hate dance. I am never going to dance so I don’t see what I have learn in this class.” And then the bell rang, the school day was over and our two week Winter break began. The conversation has been playing in my mind since.

Common GroundIt isn’t that he or other students haven’t said the same or similar statements before.

In fact, I recently spoke to this student’s dad about his general distaste for dance. His dad referenced this student’s involvement in soccer and suggested I use that when teaching the value of dance. Thing is, I don’t really think this kid enjoys soccer that much, either- at least not in the way that connecting dance to the sport would excite him. My sense is that he enjoys soccer for the steam he blows off- not necessarily the skills he is developing in a technical sense.

Given time and opportunity, I can usually bring these students around to seeing that it is worth listening and actively watching, and usually they end up moving. This latest exchange has prompted a larger scale reflection, however.

I think same old arguments for ‘why students should dance’ used 10 and 15 years ago don’t really work as well now.

Life is different. The learning environment is different. Students’ needs are different.

I wonder – how do we make dance relevant to all students?

The discovery of movement is a glorious thing. It is what keeps us dancing and talking about dance, isn’t it? But what about those that don’t have an innate love for dance and need a reason to buy in? What do we have in common with them?

Bodies and a need to communicate.

Over the last few months, I have revisited some stellar books that are shifting my attitudes about teaching and right now I see an opportunity and a reason to put some new ideas into play.

Here is my recent reading list:
Moving Lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and the Beginning of Dance in American Education by Janice Ross
Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance by Janice Ross

Teaching Dance Studies Edited by Judith Chazin-Bennahum
The Dance in Theory by John Martin
I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom by Danielle Goldman
The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practices in Dance Training

Theory to Practice

Creative movement has been a common element in my teaching of all ages for the problem-solving, higher-order thinking it involves and promotes. Improvisation, as a more formalized link to choreography has also been a natural and important element to my classes, particularly for middle school and high school students.

This semester, however, I am inspired to use improvisation to bring awareness to human movement potential, to treat it as a creative product and not simply a source for generating movement. I plan to introduce this approach even to my youngest students in ways we haven’t moved creatively before.

Why not give students time and space to process how their body works, as it is inclined to work.

Let’s honor our bodies as source material as well as the vehicle for blowing off steam.

Let’s value movement for its technical properties as well as purely functional ones.

Let’s permit students’ bodies do the thinking for them and teach them to value that very thinking- at least 30 minutes a week.

We want to hear your thoughts!

How do you make dance relevant to the students in your classroom?

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Working the Numbers: Math Problem-Solving in Dance http://www.danceadvantage.net/math-in-dance-class/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=math-in-dance-class http://www.danceadvantage.net/math-in-dance-class/#comments Mon, 09 Dec 2013 14:50:51 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18523 K-12 dance educator, Heather Vaughan Southard shares two very different ways she incorporates math and problem-solving into her dance education classes: dancing fractions and budgeting for a production.]]>

Each year, our school offers a “Math Night.”

Teachers offer various activities that endorse mathematical thinking mostly through problem-solving experiences. It is fun; the kids have activity cards stamped and after visiting the required number of stations, they can partake in other fun types of games and enjoy pizza or ice cream.

Illustration by Daniel NgIn the last few years, I have used this to introduce my own type of problem-solving that we have continued in the studio in subsequent weeks.

Although some of these activities could lend themselves to the creation of a dance for formal presentation- I warn you: to do so, artistically speaking, would be highly cliche. I offer this note because I have seen it done and heard the ridicule offered. Wear your “material to promote connected learning” vs. “material as a source for dance-making” filter as you continue reading.

Dancing Fractions


  • To physicalize divisions of the body and bring physical thinking to “fractions”
  • To further examine “isolations”, including multiple isolations occurring simultaneously
  • To provide a strategy for generating movement for composition sketches

Introduction: Dividing into smaller portions of the body, smaller isolations

  • Start by moving whole body (1)
  • Divide body into halves and move correlating parts (1/2): Right/Left, Upper/Lower
  • Divide body into quadrants and move (1/4): Upper Right, Upper Left, Lower Right, Lower Left
  • Divide further into eighths (1/8): Whole arm is divided at elbow, whole leg is divided at knee
  • Divide further into sixteenths (1/16): hand, feet (Think smaller portion, not necessary 16 small parts represented specifically)
  • Divide further into thirty-seconds (1/32): fingers, toes


Students receive equations of adding or subtracting fractions, and create ways to “dance” the problem or series of problems to create movement phrases featuring isolation

Further activities:

Fosse Math: Observe an age-appropriate movement excerpt to identify and discuss use of isolation and stylized movement. Assign a dancer to a group of students in the course and have them “do the math” of the isolations in Fosse’s choreography.

Budgeting the Show


  • To introduce the extent of decision-making required in concert production
  • To model logical thinking in problem-solving
  • To introduce budgeting

Introduction: (there are multiple ways to “play” this game)

Dance Production BudgetPlace cards ($100, $200, $300, choreographer’s choice, in-kind….) within categories such as: Number of performers, Music, Costuming, Lighting, Venue

Begin by explaining that everything involved in producing a concert costs money. Depending on the community, some things cost more or less than other places and some things are donated “in-kind”.

Concept: Choreographers must make choices about their work, and how they spend their budget, based on the following questions (not a complete list)

  • Do you want to make a solo or group work?
  • If you can’t afford both, which is a priority: original musical score, originally designed costumes?
  • Do you have a venue? Is it a union house?
  • Are you responsible for hiring Stage Manager and crew?
  • Do you have a lighting designer?
  • Do you have a set/media designer?
  • Do you have projection needs that may require rented equipment?
  • Are you paying dancers a salary, a stipend, or an honorarium?
  • Will you write grants? When are the deadlines? How does this impact your timeline?


Many students want the fame and glory of the life of a performer but have little understanding of what is exactly involved.

This exercise can be a great motivator for those that “just want to dance” and need to know that their work in technique class needs a jolt of energy and focus. It is also great for those that want a life in the field and are willing to do anything and everything to have it. Even if they choose not to perform, there are a million other ways they have be involved in the arts.

Wondering if these are samples of arts integration, arts enhancement, or arts infusion? Read Let’s Talk Arts Integration.

Otherwise, how are you bringing mathematical thinking out in your teaching?

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Creating Classroom Choreography with Purpose http://www.danceadvantage.net/dance-composition-with-purpose/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dance-composition-with-purpose Wed, 06 Nov 2013 14:45:17 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18448 There are three major strands through which we experience dance: Create, Perform, and Respond. Heather describes how she's been addressing these with her K-12 dance elective students to create a window into their depth of knowledge and to cultivate expression.]]>
A Window into Your Students’ Knowledge and Expression

Over this past year, I have been a member of the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA) funded by the State of Michigan’s Department of Education and the Michigan Assessment Consortium. We have been tasked with creating a blueprint for premiere arts education for the K-12 public education system as well as developing Assessment Specifications and are now moving on to the Assessment Item Development.

Through this work, we have been looking at three major strands through which we experience dance: Create, Perform, and Respond. For me, personally, there have been a lot of revelations within the process of the MAIEA project but perhaps none more than in the aspect of composition as a tool for really seeing students and the depth of what they know.

Cedar Lake Ballet in rehearsal for The Copier. Photo by David Poe.
Cedar Lake Ballet in rehearsal for The Copier. Photo by David Poe.

Traditionally, composition assignments relate to a “theme” or a narrative to be expressed through movement. We have loads of editing tools to develop our voice, our perspective, and our impact on the viewer. However, if only used in that narrow scope, the act of creating dances feels largely like an untapped resource of experience for students’ to mine their depth of knowledge and cultivate their breadth.

Creating to Demonstrate Technical Understanding

This marking period, we have been focusing on “specificity of movement”. This, in particular, has featured how the spine moves, the feet should roll through to extension and flexion, distinctions of weight shift, and carriage of the arms. We have examined each of these concepts from large over-views to detailed information about the anatomy of the body and technical imagery that helps us achieve these movement goals.

I have taught with these concepts present in each of our class segments: conditioning, a modified version of BrainDance, technical warm-up and theory, progressions, and movement studies.

And then I turn it over to the students. In groups, they “create” their own exercises with these principles in place. When it comes to choreographing movement studies, they are encouraged to “predict” more advanced versions of the material I have exposed them to and include those ideas within their work.

Fascinating questions arise and soon their “can we” inquiries leave the request for permission behind and move into “Can the body do this? How? Should we change the order?” The theoretical discussion becomes their own and primes introductions to various choreographers based on the questions they asked of the body, of dance, of an audience.

Creating to Express

Naturally, choreography is a window into where artists “are” in their lives at any given time. In fact, it can be hard for a choreographer to revisit “old” works because they aren’t in the same place in life as when they created it.

This is no different for middle school or high school students and it is a great way for them to measure their development. Pre- and post- tests are common in all subject areas but it can be actually meaningful and fun in dance composition.
Often, we revisit composition sketches developed earlier in the year by viewing the video created, asking what they would do differently now they have more experience and allowing the student artists to make changes. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in editing current work with students that we don’t allow them the process that we as professionals tend to engage in- allowing the dust to settle before we revisit our work with new eyes.

Creating to Respond: Physical Note-taking and Priming Class Discussion

As an “elective” teacher, my class community includes a wide array of learners with varying academic needs, levels, and experiences. One of the most common phrases among students new to my class is, “why do we always have to write?”. The “we” in that statement is the student collective not just the “we” dancers.

Yes, students are always expected to write, yet, there are other ways to measure their understandings, responses, and evolving thoughts that don’t include pen and paper, just as demonstrating their notes about a dance they have viewed through movement excerpts and modifications to address the oral discussion to be shared within the class as I proposed in Measuring Success: Data-Driven Dance.

How are your students offering insight?
Further reading:

Careers in Dance: The Path from Dance Major to Choreographer

Graphs and Charts in the Studio Classroom http://www.danceadvantage.net/visual-aids-for-dance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=visual-aids-for-dance http://www.danceadvantage.net/visual-aids-for-dance/#comments Thu, 17 Oct 2013 13:55:56 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18373 Are you using visual aids like graphs and charts to reinforce concepts in your dance classes? After all, dancers are often visual learners. Here are five traditional academic aids which can be put to good use in the studio.]]>

Not only do dancers tend to be kinesthetic learners, we are also very visual.

Yet, some of the most under-utilized tools in our teaching toolbelts are graphs and charts within the studio classroom.

Using Graphs & Charts to Reinforce Dance ConceptsIn my early teaching, most of my visual presentation of dance concepts came in the form of listing terminology and the modeling of note-taking for dance history. Since, I have come to understand and value the use of graphic organizers to boost critical thinking within the technique setting as well as offering a more well-rounded picture of how dance has evolved and relates to other academic disciplines.

Here are some of the most basic examples widely used in traditional classrooms, yet not as commonly seen within a dance setting:

The Word Wall

Terminology is posted as it is introduced.

Just as some studios pride their collection of trophies, we pride ourselves on our collections of ideas. Rather than simply posting the words and their definitions, we often group the concepts into categories, purposes, or over-arching themes.

Word Wall         Word Wall 2

The T-Chart

T Chart 2You guessed it: this it a chart that looks like a “T” and offers two columns, within which you can sort all kinds of information.

Some of my favorite examples of movement categories: shapes with straight spines and curved, stationary or axial, under curve or over curve, body side or cross lateral, styles of dance, directions or pathways, Western Dance or Non-Western Dance, technical or gestural.

Not only are you sorting ideas, you are also determining how to notate movement in concise ways.

The Venn Diagram

Another common feature: two circles that overlap.

The result: looking for attributes specific to say, two separate phrases, and some that the phrases share.

Venn Diagram 2

Concept Mapping

Concept Map.2JPGThis is a great way to explore concepts that bridge into other academic disciplines and tracking that information.

Examples include: patterns, forces of motion, composition tools, accumulation, uses of angles, theme, and so on.

One of my favorite examples though, is the drawing of a “body” and the accumulation of anatomy/kinesiology labeling. From there, the possible uses of those body parts are explored in terms of technical concepts and terminology and then mapped further to chart the theory surrounding the technical notions.

Concept Map Body

The Time Line

Now for this, I actually like to use manipulatives.

We use “clotheslines” from string or yarn, and use clothespins to sequence choreographers, development of theory, iconic moments in dance history. I enjoy being able to manipulate this so that it feels less static and brings time to life.

We also trade “cards” from time-line to time-line if we are tracing multiple lines at the same time. It is also a great way to spark lively conversation among students – not to mention higher order thinking skills – when they are asked to sequence cards that may be familiar or unfamiliar, hence having to make some educated guesses.

(No picture for this one, but you probably get the idea.)

Won’t this take time away from actual dancing?

I took my time introducing these strategies, mostly because I was concerned about losing valuable “dancing” time in favor of these academic devises.

With practice, though, these strategies have proven to be quick and engaging and have gone a long way in shortening the amount of time I have needed to spend on individual concepts.

What is in your teaching toolbelt?
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Blurred Lines: New Trends in Dance Training http://www.danceadvantage.net/preparing-innovators/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=preparing-innovators http://www.danceadvantage.net/preparing-innovators/#comments Thu, 12 Sep 2013 13:30:44 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18286 In the national dialogue about education reform, the latest trend seems to be emphasizing the skills that lead to creativity and innovation as the best way to prepare students for their future.

I hold that the same is true for dance education.

In looking at the work of current choreographers, it is harder and harder to classify dance neatly into genres. The cross-training that fueled technical development in recent decades has produced artists that are blurring lines organically.

So where are we, as a field, headed? It is anyone’s guess. So maybe our training practices in this decade need a new approach, too.

Cedar Lake Contemporay Ballet by Listen MissyRethinking Tradition

It used to be that if you were a ballet dancer, your training was predominantly in ballet. Same for jazz, same for modern.

Then, it was important to include other training in your repertoire but maintaining them as separate skills to be called on mostly if a choreographer required you to do so.

Now, we are fusing styles, ideologies, cultures, and genres so seamlessly that it can be difficult to know where one ends and where another begins.

Technique vs. Ballet

In my own classes, I have started talking about technique in broader terms and dropping labels such as “ballet”, “jazz”, and “modern” dance until we are specifically talking about stylizing movement or comparing approaches to common elements.

Those things usually occur later in the curriculum (middle school and high school) because the nature of the conversations are quite complex and rooted in movement analysis, not the imitation of lines.

Due to our conversations of Space, Time, and Energy and relating sub-distinctions, in grades K-5, students understand the differences on a deeper level rather than basic recognition. Their dancing is clearer and their expression of the differences in styles of dance are more articulate.

Understanding the nuts and bolts of movement is much more important for developing creativity than recreating the physical pictures of dance.

Conquering ballet-resistant attitudes

In my current position, there is a percentage of families- parents AND students- that are reluctant to study “ballet”. I have taken this re-occurring conversation as a prompt to retool our thinking about dance training and perceptions of dance for students and families.

When using the movement within a non-ballet class, is it still ballet?

This conversation deepens the critical thinking of dance students but also expands the tolerance of families more comfortable with their students studying other styles of dance.

I explain that…

  • This movement exists in many of the styles we will be studying and should be considered technique- an opportunity to discipline the body.
  • The purpose of the movement is not to turn their student into a ballet dancer.
  • Often this movement isn’t offered within a balletic context.

Furthermore, “ballet” is used to serve as a contrast of approaches to movement through movement analysis, just as would be done within various sports disciplines for athletes.

Other metaphors for technical training: grammar in the creative use of language, or the vitamins found in various types of foods.

(See Nichelle’s break-down in terms of letters in the development of words and writing.)

The Outcomes

With this approach, we are able to broaden the conversation- and analysis- more richly.

When watching iconic works of choreography, we are better able to search for how the movement defies gravity or utilizes gravity rather than looking for overly simplified examples of “ballet” or “modern”.

When it comes to creating their own choreography, students have more tools from which to draw. Their compositions reach beyond a regurgitation of steps. They more effectively take risks by rethinking traditions.

Instead, they may consider, “What constitutes an arabesque and can it be done with a different part of the body?” They can also answer why or why not that would be acceptable within a balletic context, or any other.

This also leads to conversations about where this arabesque line may appear in other disciplines- intersecting lines, angles, arguments, physics, leverage, surface area (pique arabesque).

Dancers know more than just dance. As educators, we must empower our students in sharing their understandings derived through dance experiences.

Let’s make this the new trend in dance education and pave the way for creative, innovative thinkers.

Read more:

Have your training methods changed to better equip dancers for their futures?

Tell us what you think about re-thinking tradition!

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Class Dress Code: Function Over Fashion http://www.danceadvantage.net/public-school-dress-code/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=public-school-dress-code http://www.danceadvantage.net/public-school-dress-code/#comments Tue, 13 Aug 2013 13:45:15 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18171 There's value in seeing a student's form during class but, especially in public schools, there are benefits to allowing for comfort and individuality. Here's how Heather talks about dance attire fashion and its function in her dance classes.]]>

Class apparel has been quite an evolving debate for me ever since I started teaching in public schools.

Photo Courtesy of ashleigh290

I recognize the value of seeing the body in order to shape the body.

I recognize the advantage of comfort and individuality in promoting confidence.

Pushing traditional dance apparel – leotard, tights, dance pants- makes sense for reinforcing discipline and presentation. Students “look” like dancers, and for those that value that image- this is powerful. Through the clothes, they assume the identity and can become more serious about the work done in class.

On the other hand, I tend to push sensing movement over imitating the pictures in movement.

Yes, guiding students to make technical corrections can be easier when I see the body clearly, but if they are uncomfortable in the class dress code- does it make the most sense given my approach?

For students that don’t value the look of a dancer but identify with the feel of dancing, a leotard and tights puts them in the wrong mindset and their discomfort impedes their class performance.

Then, there are other obstacles:

  • The lack of adequate changing facilities,
  • The high number of low-income families,
  • The realities of school budgeting, access to affordable dancewear (families don’t have transportation to the local dance store or choose not to shop online for a variety of reasons),
  • And last but not least- it an be a big waste of time sending a group of tween/teens into a small room with mirrors, echoing walls, and no directly supervising adult (I monitor from the hall) with the task of being efficient (and quiet)!

So what makes sense for my program?

Letting the kids be the judge.

Leading them to make the right decision for themselves.

Giving constructive feedback when I think their decisions might not be the best for achieving their goals.

My latest approach has been not grading them on attire, but more adequately grading their performance in class.

Wearing attire that doesn’t support their class work because it is too tight, too short, too low or so on prevents them from dancing their best. So when I talk to them about their performance we don’t debate about fashion, we talk constructively about function. It is a natural consequence.

I, therefore, am not the disapproving adult harping on them because I am out of touch. I am the adult that wants them to do their best and asks the right questions so they see what changes they need to make.

Sometimes that means changing into dance apparel for class. Sometimes that means not fighting the school dress code and being better prepared for their entire day.

Our trust remains intact and we both can do our jobs better.

Other interesting conversations about dance fashion, function, and approach to formality:

  • What are dancers wearing these days in performance? How does it compare/contrast across dance genres?
  • How has the costuming of dance changed class practices, movement vocabulary?
  • How do we relate to people based on what they wear? What assumptions do we make?
  • How do our clothing choices reflect our body image?
  • How is the body celebrated or shamed in current society?
  • How does this reflect movement of social dance? theatrical dance? concert dance?
  • Should classes have uniforms? What would be the advantage? Disadvantage?

This fall I will be using this quote I found on Pinterest to develop a composition unit on some of the ideas listed above. My plan is to cover the mirrors with “Caution” tape with this posted in several places.

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of 'beauty'.

Here is some additional reading on dressing for dance:

The Great Costume Debate: The Controversy Over Age Appropriateness

Writers Offer Dance Wardrobe Wisdom

The Costume “Blackout” Keeps Choreography Center Stage

How will your students be dressing this fall?


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Your Words and Shaping Healthy Dancers http://www.danceadvantage.net/honesty-with-students/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=honesty-with-students http://www.danceadvantage.net/honesty-with-students/#comments Tue, 16 Jul 2013 13:45:17 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=18000 Our job is to teach, not to belittle, but dance carries a long tradition of judgements based upon body type and more. Heather discusses how to speak more effectively with students about health and commitment without the snark.]]>

My relationship to my body has been, like most women – let alone dancers, quite a journey.

Heather Vaughan-Southard teaching a master class at Dance in the Annex. Photography by Tim Motley

My body, when training as a young dancer, seemed to be a determining factor of what I should do with my career and dance interests rather than a celebration of what I can do and how that joy could inform my path.

At 5’2” and weight ranging as a teen at 115 pounds to an adult at 135 (and up), I was first made aware of the disadvantage of my height, then the roundness and over-development of muscles (I had some gymnastic training as a youngster), then gently pushed to generally lose weight, and ultimately try to fit the mold of whatever company for which I thought, or someone thought, I might be a candidate.

Now, as an adult, I still carry the “shame” of my body not living up to the ideal image but my attitude is changing. I still hear the hurtful words from instructors 15 or 20 years ago but I am starting to be able to see the criticisms don’t still apply. Even if they do, it is up to me to determine how much control they have in my life and practices. I finally feel ready to take care of myself and to make choices that are good for me and not just my career. What might have happened if I felt this way 15 years ago?

My role in dance has shifted, it’s true. I am not auditioning anymore. My role in life has changed as well, I am mom to two young kids. My relationship to my body is a current focus whereas in the past the image of my body had been a focus first, with somatics coming second. Over the last year I have lost the residual weight from carrying children and have tried new strategies for movement- running and most recently, Bikram yoga. By reinvesting in my own health – physically, mentally, socially – my consciousness of the plight of young people, particularly young dancers, is heightened.

Setting the Example

In training young dancers, I use the health and wellness of my body and spirit to speak to young women and young men about their bodies. I am honest about my challenges but also my strengths. I give examples of how I overcame challenges or how I continue to work on them. I use this as a way to get them thinking about their own bodies- limitations and strengths- and maybe as a way for them to identify with me as a person as well as a dancer.

I don’t specifically share the harsh criticisms I have endured. When I have heard instructors do this, I felt it became an odd opportunity to “brag” about their perseverance and claim to fame in “who” had doled out the abuse. I gained nothing from the experience except a further concern that I may not measure up or worse, the fact that I may not want to measure up if that is the reality and what might that say about my “passion” for dance.

Choosing Words Carefully

In class, I choose to verbalize the benefits and outcomes of commitment to movement throughout class and throughout the course instead of shaming some students for not doing the work. As dancers, most of us have felt the judgement of a lifted eyebrow or curl of the lips as an instructor’s eyes scan up and down. We have heard the scarring lines that last a lifetime- things like “you fed it, you lift it” or “you’ll never be able to lift a fly”.

My theory, though, is that some students just simply aren’t ready to do the work required – emotionally, socially, technically, physically.

We, as a class, try to focus on the positive and leave the responsibility of choosing “readiness” to each student, with guidance, of course. Soon, the students want to feel the reward, see the reward, and it is contagious. Class engagement improves, the progress of the entire class improves, the program improves- as does empowerment and ownership.

I am not harsh when I explain to a student that they don’t seem ready, I just state the obvious as neutrally as possible – no judgement, no snark. My job is to teach, not belittle.

It can be hard approach to maintain at times, especially when my patience is low and their attitudes are high or when I feel they are selling themselves short. Ultimately though, decision must be theirs. I will not follow them through life, they have to make the decision to do the work.

In Practice

For example, in one middle school elective class consisting of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, only a handful were dedicated to all portions of class- conditioning, warm-up, progressions, phrases, as well as strategies for tracking personal growth in a written portfolio (next year this will include a digital portfolio).

Instead of harping on students for not committing fully, it soon became very obvious that some students were gaining strength and flexibility and others were not. Students were able to feel the difference in themselves and see it in others. They were rewarded with more advanced movement vocabulary that seemed more “interesting” to those that had been less committed- things such as more sustained balances, multiple turns, more risky inversions, and best of all, deeper understanding that led to deeper conversations.

Before long, those that had been less productive started asking why selected students were given harder material, to which I was able to reply, “their hard work has paid off and they are ready for more. I think you could be ready, too, if you reconsider this portion of class. What do you think?”

Not only have we encouraged dancers to commit to the full class experience, we are also promoting healthy bodies through engagement – something we can actually control.

Setting the Tone

Do the snarky comments and dirty looks elicit results? Sure, in the short term. But they can also scar for the long term.

Just knowing that “we all” share the baggage, isn’t comforting to me.

While it is part of the tradition of dance, I don’t think it has to be part of the future of it, particularly when it means ultimately driving dancers away from dance. They may not leave now or in the next few years, but it is likely that they will at some point and when they do, they may not even return to watch dance.

Let’s be clear also, that we are honest in what should be discussed versus what is discussed.

Don’t use body image as an excuse not to have more challenging conversations relating to skill, technique, or your perception of whether or not a dancer will find success.

Being mean and being honest don’t have to be the same thing.

Choose your approach, carefully, you may never know the lasting impact of your words on one’s spirit.

More Dance Advantage reading on health and wellness:

How are healthy dancers developed in your class?

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Revamp and Revise Using Evaluation Results http://www.danceadvantage.net/evaluation-results/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=evaluation-results http://www.danceadvantage.net/evaluation-results/#comments Thu, 13 Jun 2013 13:45:48 +0000 http://www.danceadvantage.net/?p=17878 Heather offers questions and considerations to ponder as you look back at your dance program and curriculum and as you look forward to improving it and making a difference in the lives of your students next year.]]>
Photo courtesy of Dan Gordon

We have discussed what to assess and how (see Measuring Success: Data Driven Dance), now let’s think about how that information can prepare us for a fresh look come fall.

Each year, I need to take a breather right at the close of the year but soon my thoughts turn to preparing for fall and looking ahead to the exciting things that can happen as a result of the hard work

Looking back:

  • What happened?
  • What did you teach? Why did you teach it? How did the students respond? What questions still remain?
  • How did it happen?
  • How did your presentation of material shift through-out the year? What worked best in engaging students and maintaining your own interest? How did the experiences range in type of activity? Efficiency? Engagement? Progress?
  • Whose voices were heard? (see Acknowledging the Person Before the Dancer)

Did you strike a balance with students in sharing and exploring information, experiences, and perspectives?

When you close your eyes, whose voices can you still hear- what were the questions that were asked, answered, or redirected?

What were you really telling your students in how you handled interactions and how you modeled appropriate responses?

Looking forward: 

I tend to think of revising curriculum and practice like adding layers to an onion or artichoke rather than taking them off.

At the core are the people and the relationships we are protecting, developing, and nurturing.

Surrounding those is the content that you delivered last year or years prior, upon which the foundation has been created.

The additional layers are the refinement of that content – the resolution of questions still hanging in the air, the introduction of supporting content that delves deeper into concepts and connections, and the communication of how it relates, why it is important, and what students can do with it.

After examining the work that has just been done, and after having decided what will remain and what will be cast off, I then start to assess how to push the good to the best.

How can I make this more relevant to kids’ lives, more fun to do, more applicable to more personalities?

Can I add technology, can I further challenge their notions of dance, Art, or themselves?

Can I add something unexpected?

Can I trust them to want to measure their progress more accurately?

What do I need to make the difference?

New apps?

New music? Old music?

New sources of inspiration?

More perspectives on how and why dance is evolving?

More information on building class community?

More consideration of what dancers can do with their training even outside the performance and choreography norms? (see Alternative Dance Careers)

More tools to get students thinking about dance? (see Summer Dance: Fiction with Real Insight and Heart)

Or just somewhere to set this down for a while in order to regain some peace and quiet and the strength and innovation that can come with it? (see Summer Strength Training).

More research on the emphasis of creativity in schools and higher order thinking?

Be thoughtful but be realistic. It is summer and deserves to be enjoyed. 5,6,7,8.

How will you be debriefing and revamping for the year ahead?

More useful reading:

Reflecting and Connecting as You Close the Door on Your Year

So You Think You’re Prepared for Fall? Curriculum and TV Dance

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