Structuring Your Preschool Dance Class

“Come on in and find a spot!”

That’s what you will hear at the top of my class.

Do my students run in circles? Nope. Hang on the bares? Nope. Scream and make funny faces in the mirror? Nope. Throw spots? Nope. They find a spot in the circle.

My young students know exactly what to do when they enter my room. Do yours? If not, a “Do Now” assignment (come in and sit down on a spot) may change your teaching.

Your students need to know what is expected of them, no exceptions. A class structure is how you let them know.

An empty dance studio with little movers waiting at the door

Creating The Structure

First, assess the space.

How can you configure the space so you are using all of it but not moving around too much? It’s a fine balance.

For me, I teach in many different spaces in a week, so each space has it’s own spacial configuration, but my structure remains the same. Each class has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end.

Maria’s structure:

Warm- up -Begin in a Circle

Across the Floor – Move To The Wall or if there is no wall that’s accessible I use a tape line.

Center Exploration/Prop Dance – Open Space

Group Dance/Choreography – Open Space

Goodbye – You choose, the wall, line, or circle.

Of course everyone’s class structure is different, there is no right way to do it, but it is important to have one. If you don’t, the little ones will walk all over you, literally.

Moving Within The Structure

It’s important to keep the structure routine every week. So once you choose the structure that works, stick to it.

If I ever so slightly try to switch the order, I can feel it starts to affect my students. If I skip something, they let me know. Sometimes if I even say something in a different way they will call me out!

Once you have the structure it’s easy to move within it. You can change things within the structure a lot.

I do a new Exploration every couple weeks. It starts from the same place (the line) and ends in the same place (the line). But, in the middle we visit the playground, and explore under the sea animals.

I handle Across the Floor is the same way. Introducing new steps is a breeze because they always start by sitting on the line, listening for their name, taking their turn, and then sitting back down on the line.

You can ask them and teach them to do anything within the structure you have set.

Across the floor with scarves

Photo courtesy Malashock Dance

Disguise The Transitions

Part of a successful structure is having successful transitions. Some young children have difficulty transitioning but in dance class there is a way to disguise the transition. For example:

“Who can hop on one foot over to that line?” Viola! You have made the transition without their knowing it.

Another one I love to use is “Show me how slowly you can crawl over to that line.” I like that one because it gives me time to transition into the next thing too.

Make The Structure Work For You

Now that you have the spots, and the wall or the tape line, use them to your advantage.

Are things getting a little chaotic? Send them back to the line and try again. It gives them a sense of place. That’s the place we go back to before we do something else or new. They know it!

Collecting The Props

Collecting the props should also be incorporated somehow. Again, making the transitions within the structure seamless.

Maybe you have a song that sings them goodbye? Maybe you ask them to wear the spot on their head like a hat to bring them to the pile. Maybe they dance one at a time and drop their scarf into the basket.

When they know what to do with it and where to take it, collecting props is easy on you too. Let them pick up the dots for you, there is no reason you need to pick up 20 spots on the floor when there is a child for each one! Right? Right!

Structure = Success

Sometimes people will say, “that class has too much structure.” I don’t believe it. If you allow the dancers to move, create, and have fun within a structure, there can never be too much of it.

There are many moments in my class that have a “loose structure” but I am still in control of the structure before and after.

At school, children work within a structure. If they didn’t, classrooms would be forever out of control. Children need direction and a place in a class setting. Dance class needs the same thing. You must have a structure if you want maintain a successful preschool dance class.

When I was a new teacher, the hardest part was finding a structure that worked. What worked for one class, didn’t work for another. Or one part was really successful but then one part was still off.

After tweaking for 7 years, the structure and tips above are what works (and what hasn’t) FOR ME.

So, what’s your structure like?

Do we have a similar outlook or have you had a different experience? I would love to hear what works for you! 

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Early Childhood Dance Educator at Maria's Movers
A passionate advocate for early childhood dance education, Maria Hanley Blakemore teaches ages 18 months to 6 years, 6 days a week. Maria currently designs and implements ballet programs for the young families and after school division at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, Maria teaches creative movement, creative ballet, and parent/toddler classes at Dancewave Center and The Mark Morris Dance Group. Maria holds a Master’s degree in dance education from New York University (2007) and a Bachelor’s degree in dance performance from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania (2005). She also serves on Dance/NYC’s Junior Committee and is a member of the National Dance Education Organization. Maria is the founder of Maria’s Movers, a program that offers dance, movement and yoga classes to boys and girls in their early years. She authors the blog Move. Create. Educate. (www.mariasmovers.com), where she shares her creative ideas about teaching young dancers.
Maria Hanley Blakemore
Maria Hanley Blakemore

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Comments

  1. We always started seated in a small circle in the centre of the room to greet each otherand talk about what we will be doing. Then we warm up in a big circle. Then I get them to stand on the line in their spots. I don’t use dots, I just teach them their spot. We start everything either in the circle or on the line. (My littlies are 4 and 5, I don’t have any students younger than that.) We always end with a curtsey/bow. My older students follow a very similar pattern.

  2. I really prefer to teach pre-schoolers in a smaller studio rather than a very large one. I find it’s more intimate. You don’t have to strain your voice giving guidance and cues and you can use the centering power of the whisper to gather them around you. I find kids go wild more easily in a very large space and it’s that much more challenging to get them back to their line or “home base”. I completely agree about the necessity for structure. Giving them this secure consistency allows them the confidence to be creative and explore without fear.

  3. My studio is large enough that I felt I did not have the kids sufficiently “contained” for control purposes. So now I tape a good sized rectangle on the floor and call the area in the rectangle our “dance space.” This keeps kids away from mirrors and barres and allows me to “contain” them better. I believe they feel “safer” too, knowing there are some spacial limits.

    We enter the dance studio and immediately “walk on the blue line” all around the dance space (twice if I need more time) and sit on the side opposite the mirror. From there we stretch and greet with a little stretching game. (Always the same game each week.) From that point forward all of our activities start on a “side of the dancing space” (a line) or in the middle where there is an “X” taped on the floor. I do have a word wall where we meet to discuss the day’s dance element before exploring it. But again, we sit on the tape in front of the word wall.

    I have had parents happily say I am not very structured and that’s why they love my program, but I think they are mistaking structure with tedious barre work, which I don’t do in any of my Creative Dance classes. When they come in for our first Parent Observation Day, I think most of them see the structure and are surprised and impressed with how it well the class flows. Over the past four years I’ve had one or two parents leave my program after voicing that they found it to be too structured. It sounded so funny to me, like they’d like to pay me to let their kids dance around the room for 45 minutes. It kind of tickles me: All my lesson planning, and all you want is to rent the space so they can dance? That would be SO much easier!

    Structure with clear parameters, lots of creativity, smooth transitions, and freedom to express themselves through movement makes for a perfect preschool class.

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Spacial limits are awesome! Good idea! I also agree with you that the flow of class is very important. Transitions are everything!!

    I love that you have a word wall, but all of your dancing takes place in the box. I also think that structure means different things to different people. I have had people leave my program because “there wasn’t enough standing in line and doing steps.” ugh!

    I believe in the structure and creative dance so much, that I’m not willing to change. We know it works! Right?

    Thanks for sharing your ideas with us, I really enjoyed reading your comment!

    • We do know what’s right and we learn through trial and error. There is plenty of time for lines and steps later in ballet and jazz. My goal broaden a child’s passion for dance so that if s/he sticks with it, s/he will have the patience for lines and steps that will inevitable come later. I suspect a lot of kids stop dancing young because of that sort of structure.

      My school teacher husband reminds me, “When on the outside, it’s easy for us to think we know how something should be done. We were all once school kids, but that doesn’t mean that we know how to be a teacher.”

  5. Please add me to your email list.

  6. Such great advice thank you! Does this sort of thing work for toddlers though? Ages 18mths and older? I have a couple of 3 year olds but majority are 2! There are about 20 when they all turn up with parents and sometimes it gets very loud!!! I wish I could just have the children in the room without the parents but when I tried this the children weren’t very happy!!! Any advice would be gratefully received!!!!
    Jenny

    • Hi Jenny,

      This works for 2 year olds too! I can’t stress structure enough. Try to embrace the grown-ups in the room. Make it fun for them too! Set up the expectations at the beginning. If you do that your grown-ups will remember that they are there for their child to get something out of dance class, not just for social hour.

      If you are interested in ideas, my blog has many, and I also just released a toddler curriculum. Check it out here: http://mariasmovers.com/curriculum/

  7. I Love this conversation and would like to be on your email list. BTW what are the stars made from or where did you get them?

    Thanks so much!
    Cindy

  8. Miss Shelia says:

    I am wondering the same thing about the stars … I am in desperate need of just that thing. Where did you obtain these elusive marks. I understand that they are available in circles and squares as well, but alas my copious internet searches have been futile. Please share.

    Miss Shelia

  9. Hi Cindy and Shelia,

    You can get them on Amazon! http://www.amazon.com/Games-Color-Class-Boundary-Markers/dp/B000YPQO92/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1377532217&sr=8-4&keywords=Star+Spots

    They are awesome! I hope you are able to get them and use them!

    Best,
    Maria

  10. Hi there. Thank you so much for your advice on class structure. I recently started my studio and had 2 classes where my toddlers ran all over me! Today, after reading your message and planning the structure, it was amazing. Thank you thank you!
    Julie

  11. Hi Julie,

    That is so great to hear! I’m so happy it helped you, especially for the toddlers! Keep me posted on how it’s working out, and what questions you have. :)

    Maria

  12. Hi Maria, I agree about structure. Apart from anything else, it’s great preparation for kids to work within boundaries at school and in life! As regards putting away props: We tend to use a lot of props and I always play “cleaning up music”. It’s just any lively music. The kids tune into the liveliness and will often do a little dance as they’re packing away props. It happens quickly and efficiently because of the music. Cheers Edna

  13. I’ve been teaching Preschool dance for 4 years now, and I have learned that repeatitiveness is definitely what works best for my students.
    Every class we start out by gathering in a circle holding hands, and sing “the circle song”
    Make a circle in in in, out out out, in in in, make a circle out out out, hello, hello, hello
    Make a circle down down down, up up up, down down down, make a circle up up up, hello, hello, hello
    Make a circle round and round, round and round, round and round, make a circle round and round, now, sit, down.
    That’s where I take attendance.. usually when I call their name I let them show me a twirl, or how high they can jump.
    We then stand up and sing and dance to a “hello” song…

    With that introduction we do various activities that change week to week, but with sticking to the same intro the kids know what to expect and get familiar with the class as time goes on. :)

  14. Another tip for “spots”:

    I use “Polka Dots” and I simply just cut circles out of cheap colourful table place mats from the dollarstore!

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