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?

Creating Classroom Choreography with Purpose

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. [Read more…]

Creative Process: 10 Ideas for Moving Beyond the Steps

I view dance as THE liberal art.

When working within the concert dance realm, we combine movement with music, acting, and principles of visual art while exploring topics in other academic disciplines. This helps provide meaning behind each motion and informs the process by which we create.

When I hear some K-12 (and studio) dance educators talk about the works they and their students present, I often feel they are missing what I consider to be my favorite part of teaching- getting kids to think about real things in real ways. This should include the field of dance.

IMAGE A winding path cuts through a grassy park IMAGE

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” - Don Williams, Jr. --- Photo by Ian Sane

But what if your career has never ventured into professional dance performance? What if your college dance experience only explored a small number of methods in making dances? What if your understanding of process means little more than practicing dances over and over until they are “performance ready”? What does “performance ready” even mean?
Concert Dance, to me, is determined by process- the ways movement is inspired, how it is developed, edited, and finally presented. The style of dance is irrelevant in many respects, it is all about the intent and the journey, which lead to the product.

If this idea is new to you, here is a ten-step list of how to engage in a process. The order of these events could certainly be played with, as could the methods for determining these events. [Read more…]

One With The Music: Accompanying Dancers Part One

Have you ever wondered about the view from behind the piano keyboard?

How does someone become a dance accompanist? And how might a dance school welcome and make room for an accompanist in their studio?

Richard Maddock, an experienced dance accompanist will share his story in this two-part interview… Plus some helpful tips, what he feels is most important in the communication between teacher and pianist, and the tremendous respect for dancers which comes from 25 years of witnessing their training.

Richard is currently Head Accompanist at The Pia Bouman School of Creative Movement and Ballet, in Toronto, Canada. Richard’s full-length CDs for dance and creative movement have garnered enthusiastic praise from dancers worldwide, including me! I reviewed several of Richard’s CDs right here on Dance Advantage and have been pleased to set my ballet classes to his works since.

I have included videos featuring Richard’s accompaniment and compositions. Feel free to press play so that Richard can accompany your reading as well!

1st Adage

Watch this video on YouTube.

How did you get started as a dance accompanist?

My older brother had been playing for a ballet school for a few years, and he asked me one day if I would like to try and fill in for him as he was going away to university. Even though I was only fourteen years old at the time, I was able to sight read very well and thought that it was a wonderful opportunity to make money doing something I loved to do – play the piano!  I have been playing for ballet schools ever since.

Thinking back, did you discover anything about working with dancers/dance instructors that was at first a surprise or unexpected?

The very first ballet class I played for was a big surprise, because I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me by either the teacher or the dancers.  I walked into the studio and the first person I saw was the teacher (who seemed to me to be very old), holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a cane in the other!  She smoked her cigarette while she taught, and made sure to let the dancers know that she was quite able to use the cane if necessary!

Dancers were expected to have the perfect bun, professional outfits, to be at the studio half an hour early to do warm-ups on their own, and to be at the barre at the minute that their class was to start.  No one was allowed to talk unless they raised their hand and any questions had to be relevant to what they were doing.  If any of these rules were not followed, they were kicked out of the studio and were not allowed to come back in for that class.

The teacher was very kind to me and I remember feeling that it sort of came naturally to me to play for dancers.  I know that I was nervous, especially playing for the adult dancers.  I was very small and really looked young at the age of 14 and I think that the dancers thought that I was going to play horribly. Thankfully, all went well!

Do you work improvisationally in the classroom, from sheet music, from memory, all of the above?

The majority of studios where I have played follow the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus.  For these classes, from pre-primary all the way up to Solo Seal, I play the repertoire that is specified in the RAD syllabus.  During these classes (depending on the teacher and how close or far away they are from the exam date), “free work” is also a part of the class, so I watch and listen to the teacher setting the exercises and improvise accordingly.

I don’t have a repertoire of compositions that I have memorized to play when “free work” is called for.  I prefer to create in the moment, guided by what I see, by the energy of the dancers and the feeling in the room.  Quite often, I also play for “free classes” as well (for which there is no set syllabus), and these are the classes I prefer to accompany.

Battements Tendus Ballet Studio Inspirations Volume Three

Watch this video on YouTube.

The Dance Between Accompanist, Teacher, and Students

When working with a teacher for the first time, what do you like to try to communicate, establish, or glean before you begin class with him/her?

This is a hard question to answer, because for the last ten years or more, I have played mostly for the same teachers.  There is an understanding on both the part of the teacher and myself that they can focus on their class and trust that I will be giving what they need from me, musically speaking.

If a student teacher filling in for someone, I can usually see if they are nervous about working with an accompanist.  If this is the case, I take time before class to reassure the teacher that they have no need to worry and that they just need to focus on the dancers. Usually after the first few minutes of class, they realize that I am with them and doing all I can to help make the class go well. I see the teacher and I as two artists working together to create a successful class for the dancers.

As a teacher gives instructions before each exercise, what is it most important that he/she be clear about?

What is most important is that I see them marking the exercise for the dancers in the tempo that they want.  For free classes, it is also important to get a sense of the dynamics of the particular exercise.  Usually all that I need to see is the first 8 or 16 bars of an exercise and then (while the teacher continues to set the exercise) I wait for the melody to “appear.”  I think that every accompanist would most likely answer this question differently, though.

You’ve played in classes with young children. Are they ever distracted by your presence and do you or the teacher do anything to prepare the children?

Generally, I don’t think that young children are distracted by my presence, because I am there from the first day they start dancing.  If it is the very first class that the young dancers have ever taken, the teacher will gather all the children around the piano and we will be introduced to one another — and this is usually all that is necessary for them. I am careful to maintain a low profile in class, to be quiet and to avoid talking to the teacher or the students while the class is being conducted, unless absolutely necessary.  I want the focus to stay on the music and on the teacher!

If the children are used to another accompanist playing for their classes, and all of a sudden one day I am there playing for the class, then they are usually quite curious about me and ask what happened to the other pianist.  But again, an introduction is all that is usually required, and they quickly re-focus on the teacher and carry on dancing.

Run Like The Wind Music for Movement and Imaginations CD

Watch this video on YouTube.

In Part Two Richard gives his thoughts on the basic necessities for a studio that wishes to have a dance accompanist. Plus an inspiring description of his view from the piano bench.

Do you or have you considered using a live musician at your school to accompany dance?

Why or why not?

Richard Maddock Music — CD Review and Giveaway!

Richard Maddock is an accomplished musician as well as a seasoned dance class and exam accompanist. He is currently Head Accompanist at The Pia Bouman School of Creative Movement and Ballet, in Toronto, Canada and has written, performed, and engineered eight CD’s for dance in the last three years. I recently came across Richard online and he graciously offered five of these discs for review here, on the blog.

To top it off, he agreed to donate nine CD’s to give away to nine lucky Dance Advantage readers!

Music for Movement and Imaginations

Ballet Class & Creative Movement (for children ages 3 and up)

musicformovementI’m not currently teaching preschool ballet, but this is a CD I wish had been around a few years ago when I was teaching younger children! Dance teacher and collaborator, Kelly Jones-Hart has developed a class structure that effectively blends the conceptual exploration of creative dance with basic ballet technique. And with over 40 tracks, there is plenty of material and alternatives to spread over many classes. The disc provides brief notes on each track explaining its possible uses in class. The notes are not a how-to manual. Some familiarity with creative dance methods would certainly increase the variety of ways you could use the musical material. However, plié, tendus, relevé, ballet walks, sauté – it’s all here – forming a cohesive lesson format whether you are comfortable with creative movement concepts or simply looking for a way to enliven your children’s ballet classes.

Musically, the selections are simple but engaging. Composer, Richard Maddock knows when to keep the beat “readable” so that young dancers can stay in time with the exercise. And, he is playful, adding flourishes and fun when trying to inspire little imaginations. There are a variety of “freeze” dance selections with random pauses, and a group of compositions designed for Enchaînment (combination of steps or concepts). These often switch tempo or meter and could be applied many ways to whatever you are working on with your students. Also included are seven “Dance-a-Story” arrangements. In these, the music changes and progresses in a way that suggests a plot or sets a scene. Two sample stories are included in the album notes and a general outline is offered for the others but, the music itself will encourage your own creativity.

Although this is most certainly music for young dancers, I appreciate that the musical cues and changes are subtle and that the compositions have an elementary sophistication compared to some of the “baby ballet” albums out there. Because of this, the CD could be functional for children’s classes well beyond the preschool years, extending the usefulness of this album.

For further detail or to preview some of the tracks, click the image above.

Ballet Studio Inspirations: Volume Two and Volume Three

Richard creates from a colorful palette of musical hues. His compositions for dance classes are expressive. It is easy to find inspiration in the material for the choreography of exercises because he paints attractive landscapes of sound. But, it is the lyrical quality of the songs that also make these tracks enjoyable to dance to. They encourage the student to perform the exercises rather than just complete them, which makes a teacher’s job easier in the long run.

balletstudio2Volume Two includes 14 compositions, beyond the 31 barre and centre selections, which are recommended for pointe work. And overall it has rather lengthy tracks, particularly for barre. As a result, this CD is probably more appropriate for advanced students than beginners. Containing an hour and 20 minutes of music, the disc offers plenty of selections to mix and match for different lesson plans. What I found unique about this album was its delicate orchestrations. Though the piano is the focus, there are textures added beneath which suggest the richer dynamics of an orchestra without overpowering the dancers during class.

ballet3Volume Three, on the other hand, is special for its purely piano sound. Recorded on a Concert Series Grand while corresponding class exercises were performed, this album more closely resembles the experience of having a live musician at your disposal, a luxury that few dance studios enjoy. Though in the notes it suggests that the music was composed to compliment a pre-professional level ballet class, I feel that this CD might be more adaptable to varying levels than the previous disc. The shorter tracks have much to do with this. The compositions, consistently featuring 64 bars of music, also seem more symmetrical overall.

On both discs, it is helpful that the selections are ordered and titled according to how they might be utilized in a class. However, the compositions could be easily rearranged (perhaps on your iPod or mp3 player) according to preference. I also appreciate that the liner notes include the time signature of the piece, how many bars (measures) are available, and note changes or breaks in pattern. Knowing these details can make choreographing exercises a much smoother process.

For further detail or to preview some of the tracks, click the images above.

As Creation Unfolds: Part Three and The Garden Within

While the first three albums are definitely designed for class use, these two albums include longer compositions more suitable for creative or improvisational dance, or composition. Again, I visualize landscapes as I listen to Richard’s work. Most tracks have a contemplative quality.

ascreationthreeAs Creation Unfolds Part Three is the shorter (i.e. fewer songs) of the two albums. However most of its tracks are well over four minutes long. A favorite on the disc is “The Newborn Fawn.” Its skipping rhythms make it the most dance-y of the compositions and, as the shortest track, it could certainly be used for a lilting ballet in your next recital. “Woodland Nymphs” is another standout. I instantly recognized this one as a great fit for a creative dance class. Beginning with gentle pauses and gradually increasing in tempo, I picture children making shapes and exploring in a scarf dance. Incorporating several changes in texture, the music seems to have “events” that could easily be turned into a story dance.

gardenwithinOn The Garden Within, the selections “Oh What Wonders” and “Gently Guiding,” in particular, produced movement images and motifs in my mind as I listened. Their lyrical melodies and slightly more stirring tempos make them relevant for phrases or class choreography. My most pleasant surprise came at the end of this body of work, however. The final track, “Moving Forward” is underlined with percussive elements. This, coupled with its Asian-inspired gongs and chords, give the song a Cirque du Soleil vibe. What I find most compelling, however, is the tempo fluctuation in the piece. Of all the tracks on these two albums, this is my favorite.

The Garden Within and As Creation Unfolds Part Three are both filled with lovely compositions. They are a pleasure to listen or meditate to, making them ideal for relaxation, yoga, or stretching (inside or outside of class).

For further detail or to preview some of the tracks, click the images above.

All CD cover images are the photographic work of Kim Fiocca.

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Richard Maddock Compositions
Inspiring CDs for Ballet Class and Choreographic Work