Exploring Limitations With Your Students

In my middle school classes for the last few weeks we have been conducting “research” and comparing our process to that of the 5-step scientific method.

Photo by Roxanna Salceda

Photo by Roxanna Salceda

I started by posing the question, “Are there limitations in dance?”.

  • Through discussion, we realized we needed to define dance.We finally resolved to use two contexts: dance (as in the personal interactions we have with dance situations such as classwork in all its different forms, concert preparation, performance, and reflection) and Dance (the broader scope of the field of dance that contains people, companies, organizations, and jobs which also can be really difficult for middle school students to wrap their brains around).
  • Next, we needed some movement.To get us going, I taught a lengthy movement phrase that drew from the technical concepts we’ve been working in the last few weeks. Now we started to make observations about the work. They were easily able to identify the familiar concepts and technical requirements. But we took it further- we “mapped” the phrase to make further objective observations.
  • The first map was done by placing pencil to paper and “drawing” the action from a bird’s eye view.I modeled and when I finished, I asked what they saw. “A mess,” they answered. They were right. But then we started to talk about the lines making up the mess and we agreed that there were only circles or straight lines- no wavy lines, no zig zags. We decided that one attribute of this phrase that we wouldn’t have noticed from a close up view was circles and straight lines.
  • The second map was done with arrows and marked the directions of weight shift.We had to decide first if the arrows were indicating stage directions or directions based on the body and we selected the latter. We ended with side to side, clockwise and counter-clockwise, and diagonals. There was no forward and back.
  • With these two observations in tow, or “findings” we applied them to new movement.The kids created phrases limiting themselves to these ideas and they were shocked at how full their creations were even though they had such narrow parameters in which to create. So our discussion relating to limitations now started to include discussions of freedom. A “T” chart keeping track of the comparisons was now necessary.
  • We assembled formal phrases representing these findings, so now we have 3- the original phrase, the circles/straight lines phrase, and the weight shift directional phrase.I had to attend a conference for two days and during that time, the kids reversed the phrases and continued to track their observations in subjective terms- things that relate to themselves as performers, choreographers, students. We saved one of the reversed phrases, bringing us to 4.
  • The fifth and final phrase was developed of an a new idea that emerged as a result of our research.We had been so direct in how we were applying our observations in new contexts, we started thinking about the indirect ways we could approach them- as if there was an external limitation that our pathways needed to negotiate: over, under, around, and through.

stretching fabric


At this point, we started also talking about dance in critical, yet constructive terms with the following prompts: I notice…., I wonder….., I might…..

I notice allows them to think and comment objectively without value statements such as “I like this, that was good,….” and we can thoughtfully answer “why” to whatever they have said.

I wonder allows them to ask questions and this has been the most profound portion for me as a teacher as I witness how they think and we list options for future research.

I might puts them in the shoes of the choreographer and gives them the task of thinking about what they would try differently next time, which leads to their next movement experience.

  • Now the kids are really set free. With 5 phrases in their bodies and in their minds, they are now ready to “reimagine” what the potential dance could look like. Editing is no longer scary, it is no longer a battle of my movement versus their movement, and their choreography is no longer so precious it can’t be changed. Best yet, it is actually their choreography and not steps ripped out of music videos.

For more strategies to get your students creating, check out 12 Devices for Developing Contemporary Choreography.

Where next?

Probably the counter concept: freedom, followed by how movement can support narratives based on these themes.

How could we create dances for (instead of about) freed slaves or other liberated people?

What other social contexts relate to this theme? How do these impact students lives currently?

How could we put this work into social action? How could we use dance to bring awareness to our collective social concerns and how can we make a difference in the world.

We’ll decide our journey as we proceed together.

How are you working with the limits in your classroom?

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