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?

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

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