12 Tips for Teaching Tots

Managing, engaging, and interacting with young children in an active setting like a dance class can be extremely challenging.
Photo by Tommy Wong

Photo by Tommy Wong

I have found that classes for dancers under six or seven require the most preparation, the most energy, and the most patience.

A young assistant once stated, “I had this big idea of how the kids would act and how the class would be, and this is more hard work than what I thought.”

She is very right. It is a lot of hard work and a teacher that does it well may seem to know magic the rest of us don’t. But really, it’s all about problem solving.

Below are strategies for dealing with the short attention spans and behavioral challenges typical of the preschool (3-6 years) age group — and maybe even older!

1. Add layers to the movement

When teaching basic dance skills, repetition is important. Keep skill practice interesting by layering your instruction with imagery. Find occasions to play pretend that will also enhance their understanding.

For port de bras exercise, you can ask children to pretend that the wind is blowing their arms out (for demi second), or encourage them to become pancakes and “flip” as they practice three-step turns.

Bringing their attention to a special quality within the movement can improve their focus as well. For example, encourage them to “eat up the space” with large movement in leaps, make their whole body sharp like a knife during marches, or point out the level changes in jumps/sauté and have them try to make their highest level higher each time.

2. Keep the class moving

A common mistake in teaching classes with young children is to spend too much time on a single activity.

For students under six, five minutes on any one thing is usually the maximum. Generally, I try not to spend longer than 10 or 15 minutes in any one formation or on any one portion of the class (in a circle, across the floor, standing in lines, etc.). Children are easily distracted and their attention wanes quickly.

Always plan more activities than you have time to include. If you see that you are “losing them,” do the kids and yourself a favor by wrapping it up and moving on to the next activity.

3. Light up the room

Young kids enrolled in a dance class are there to have fun. It is not yet truly satisfying to “work hard” at something even if they think it will please you.

If it doesn’t feel like playing, they’re far more likely to be inattentive.

Therefore, it is imperative that your energy level be high throughout the class, that you vary the tone of your voice, and that you aren’t afraid to be a bit goofy or over-the-top. You should be the most interesting thing in the room!

Bonus tip on vocal volume: I sometimes like to whisper when students are getting too noisy because it adds an element of surprise and because they have to quiet down to hear me.

4. Participate and model behavior

With older children it is sometimes necessary to limit your demonstration or participation in the actual moving/dancing portions of class.

Young children, however, take all of their cues from you.

If you are asking them to pretend they are in a dark forest as they creep around the room, then you must be in that forest with them at least part of the time.

If you want them to perform with 100 percent of their energy, then you have to give 150 percent.

Modeling behavior is also important for showing children how to behave. Ask the students what is the proper way to sit or stand while waiting on their spot or number, then show them, and then have them practice it with you.

5. Offer “Dancer’s Choice”

The freedom to choose is empowering, particularly for children who are learning to become independent in their thoughts and decisions.

Try to include a chance for your dancers to make a choice at least once in each lesson.

However, be careful about offering unlimited possibilities. Children do best when they have an “either/or” alternative. This can be as simple as occasionally allowing children to choose if they’d like a blue spot or a red spot to stand upon (just make sure when offering these types of choices, you have enough of each so that no child gets “stuck” with something).

Every so often allow the class to vote for doing échappé or balancé for this lesson, practicing the other next week. You can also offer opportunities for children to make decisions in their movement. For instance they may choose between dancing sharply or smoothly (quickly/slowly, happily/sadly) around the room. They may choose to make a round shape or an angled shape (balanced/off-balanced, big/small) when they finish their exercise across the floor.

In fact, this ability to choose is what makes creative dance a powerful introduction to movement and dance for children (and, in fact, all people).

6. Enlist and recruit a misbehaving child

A chronically misbehaving child can be like a little thorn in your side. If you’re familiar with the advice to keep your enemies closer than your friends, this tip is similar.

Instead of constantly reprimanding the child, enlist his/her help in some way. Ask her to be your helper when handing out props, or recruit him to make the check marks in the attendance roster. Sometimes your faith in the student as you offer them this responsibility is all the incentive they need to behave better.

If you can identify the portions of class which are most difficult for this student (during recital practice, across the floor, etc.), these may be your best opportunities for recruitment.

7. Avoid making promises you can’t keep (line leader problem-solving)

Children are a lot like elephants – they never forget!

Therefore, I’ve found it best not to make too many promises that I can’t (or won’t remember) to keep. When there is turmoil over who gets to be line leader, it may seem a grand solution to promise a child that “next week” they’ll be the leader. The problem is that you’ll rarely remember that appeasing promise.

Instead, the victim of your faulty memory will remind you after you’ve already broken your promise and then more promises will need to be made.

Some teachers use a detailed chart or system for choosing line leaders. My solution may not be perfect but I typically choose (at will) a line leader during the warm-up circle. When the decision is made long before the moment of actual leading, it seems to lessen the disappointment of not being chosen.

I make it clear in our classroom rules/procedures that this is a privilege they can lose due to poor behavior. Should this occur, they must choose the new line leader that will take their place. I try to be fair, but my selection process is typically rather arbitrary. When met with discontent, I reply kindly but firmly “I know it is disappointing not to be chosen this time but you’ll get a turn another day!” (Notice I didn’t say “next time.”)

8. Offer positive feedback at every opportunity

Children respond well to positive feedback.

Continually be on the look out for things that are being done well. This gives the class a chance to model the appropriate behavior.

If the majority of the class is messing around, look for that one child who is doing SOMETHING (anything) right and single them out rather than reprimanding the whole class. You’ll definitely get more mileage out of saying something positive (“beautiful arms, Suzie” “that’s a high jump, Becca!”) than overstating negatives.

Try to be specific. “Good job” doesn’t have much power all on its own so really keep your eyes open for specific things that are being done properly.

9. Limit negative attention

A child will eventually stop responding to his/her name if it is said over and over in a negative way. In fact, if a student receives negative responses a lot at home they may already be well-practiced at the skill of “tuning you out.”

Interestingly, you may need to hone your own skills in this area because it is often better to ignore bad or distracting behavior (if no one is getting hurt) than to draw attention to it. Negative words like “No,” “Stop,” and “Don’t” should be used sparingly — usually only when there is risk of danger or injury.

For some children, negative attention is preferable to no attention at all, in other words, they will look for ways of getting your attention if you don’t first give it in a positive manner.

10. Say what you want to see, even if you don’t really see it

For instance, let’s say no one is pointing their toes. Instead of saying “Point your toes!” say “Thank you for pointing your toes!” or “I see beautiful, pointed toes!” and you may be surprised that suddenly the children all point their toes (even if they wouldn’t have if you had specifically asked or told them to).

Use the same method for all kinds of behaviors, including waiting quietly, keeping hands to oneself, quickly changing shoes, etc.

This tip transformed my teaching. The concept may seem obvious, or perhaps just a silly matter of semantics, but it is powerful. I can’t take credit for the “Say and see” wording or concept, however. It comes from one of my favorite resources, Creative Dance for All Ages by Anne Green Gilbert. In fact, many of her ideas have worked their way into my teaching and are likely to show up elsewhere within this list.

Photo by Dianna Mullet

11. Assign objectives that heighten anticipation

Repetition and routine are extremely important in a class for children, however, if the same skills are done the same way each week, the children are bound to get bored.

Even if you work on the same skills each week,  you can still give the kids creative objective that will increase their anticipation toward participating, As in layering, these “assignments” are easy to change from week to week.

For instance, if you practice gallops across the floor, tell the class they must gallop a special dessert to their friend on the other side. When taking turns, ask each child what kind of dessert they are offering.

Next week, perhaps they’ll take a special balloon to the other side. Just make sure you inform the class of what you’re going to ask and what you expect of them before the exercise. Something to the effect of, “Now we’re going to do brush walks. When it is your turn, I’m going to ask you your favorite color. Keep it a secret until it’s your turn! After you tell me, you can do your walks across the floor and pretend to paint that color with your feet.”

This method gives the children something to look forward to and think about as they wait for their turn.

12. Use distraction and redirection

When children begin to get bored, are tired of waiting, or are seeking attention, they often complain, ask to do something else (like visit the restroom or get water), or fidget.

During moments in which it is important to finish an exercise or task, refocusing your students’ attention, or distracting them is key.

If a student is hounding you for a water break during arabesques be clear and firm that “Right now we’re dancing.” Then, in an energetic tone, swoop in with something that will refocus their attention like, “In fact, I’m pretending to be a beautiful bird while I do my arabesque! What kind of bird are you?”

Waiting for a turn can be difficult, sometimes just having something to hold while standing by can be calming for a child who is forced to sit tight. When asking large classes to take turns crossing the floor, I have offered the next children in line something sensory like scarves (or a stuffed animal) to hold until it is their turn, at which time they pass the object to the person behind them who is waiting.

In a class which has an especially hard time waiting, each child could keep a scarf and you could suggest different ways of using it as they practice a skill.


Keep a few things in your “back pocket”

It can be hard even for experienced teachers to phrase things in the clearest way possible, make up creative suggestions or distractions on the spot, or switch gears when needed.

Therefore, think about the skills you practice in class and come up with a few images for each that you can whip out at appropriate moments.

Try to anticipate problems or situations that may arise and rehearse your manner of giving instructions just as you would rehearse the combination that you are giving the class.

Always have a few “crowd pleasers” handy to gather scattered attentions or revive a spiritless mood.

Keep these things in your “back pocket” so that they are there when you need them.

Practicing Magic

Improving skills for working with preschool children is not a magic trick. It comes down to thoughtful practice and assessment of what works and what does not.

Watching a child enjoy dance and get excited about movement — now that is magical!

Whether you are an assistant or a professional, I hope you have found these tips useful in your classes.

Tell me what you think of these 12 tips! Other teachers reading the blog will welcome your thoughts, and so will I!

Teaching Piqué Turns

A question was posed during a recent DanceStudioOwner teleseminar – When and how should piqué turns be taught? Given my recent Piqué Turn How-To, I thought I would expand into my process for teaching this turn. I am offering my own thoughts and method which are based on my experiences as a student and teacher and not on a particular ballet syllabus. In fact, much of this approach could be applied to jazz or other dance forms as well.

When and How

As this was the nature of the question, I believe, I am going to stick to explaining my methods for teaching piqué tour en dedans (or pirouette piquée).

My timeline for introducing and teaching both the elements of this movement and the movement itself:

photo by edenpictures

Preschool-8yrs: Students add a passé in their ballet walk practice across the floor. With young ones, I sometimes refer to these as “flamingo walks.” At the preschool level, students practice these in parallel (stretching the knee and pointing the toe on each step). At age 6 students can practice these turned out and later I have them practice pas marché across the floor (with a small piqué onto demi-pointe but without plié on the descent). At this stage I encourage stepping onto a straight leg for pas marché, however I’ve found that not all students do this consistently and need lots of reminding as this requires a lot of control to do well.

6-8yrs old: Students enrolled in a Pre-Ballet class/Ballet class practice retiré facing the barre, then with one hand on the barre (on flat and later demi-pointe), then during centre practice (usually flat only). They also be practice pas marché (as mentioned above).

8-9yrs old: At around age 8 (maybe 7 for experienced dancers) I begin teaching piqué retiré facing the barre. I have students move sideways one at a time down the length of the barre so that they have the support of the barre while trying to find the right reach of the toe that will allow them to step onto a straight leg without lifting the working hip. Later, partially because piqué turns include a swivel of the hip which squares the hips toward the direction of travel (see my explanation of this in a former post), I have the students move their piqué retiré forward with one hand along the barre. In this exercise the hand that is on the barre is the same as the supporting leg, opposite the gesture leg. This allows students to practice the closing of the arm to 1st position (5th en avant – Cecchetti). Be sure that students are keeping the barre arm in front of their body as they move forward.

9-10yrs old: When most students in the class show understanding, control, and good placement while executing their piqué at the barre, I then move this practice to the centre. I encourage the students to try and find their balance on the leg each time, occasionally “surprising” them with a FREEZE! and challenging them to maintain this balance until I say GO! It is important during this stage to remind them to draw the foot down the leg as they descend and to utilize the same working-leg preparation as they would in the turn. (Note: Around this time, I also begin teaching piqué arabesque along the barre and across the floor.)

10 and up: When most students demonstrate good control, placement, and balance in piqué retiré without turning, I then add the turn. If the students have been solid in their practice and progression up to this point, generally this transition is relatively smooth. However, adding a turn is a big change and can “throw off” or “psych out” some students. In this case, be encouraging and remind them that all of the same principles apply, going back to the more simplified version if and whenever necessary.

When piqué tour en dedans has been mastered, I will begin to teach other versions of this turn including piqué tour en attitude, en dehors, and en arabesque (usually in that order).

Progression for older beginners

Photo by Jeff

Photo by Jeff

When working with students brand new to piqué turns (or those who perhaps need some re-training in this area), no matter their age, I begin their study just as I would my pre-ballet students: facing the barre, working on a proper retiré. Older students my be able to progress more quickly, but I follow the same progression, always looking for understanding and application of concepts from the majority of the class before moving on.

Perhaps in contradiction to myself, I want to add that there is something to be said for just giving something a whirl. What do I mean by that? It is OK to occasionally break from this seemingly strict progression and let students (at whatever age or skill level) try things once in a while, particularly in turning. This is because sometimes students’ instinct in turning can take over and actually be a useful tool in teaching or correcting the version without the turn! Also, taking too rigid a stance with your structure may bore students. It is important to find a balance and allow students to see how care and diligence in “the basics” improves and informs their execution of more advanced steps.

A Note on Using Imagery

By Gisela Giardino

By Gisela Giardino

I’ve found imagery to be an extremely useful tool for aiding understanding and performance of the technical aspects of dance. Some of the images I present to students regarding piqué turns can be found in my last post, but there are certainly others.

I hope you found this helpful. I welcome your thoughts on this progression of study and any other ideas you have on teaching piqué turn. Posting in the comments here opens discussion and allows others to see varying methods of instruction. My way, is certainly not the only way!

Let’s Hear it for the Boys!

photo by ravenmaven

photo by ravenmaven

A while back I did a post entitled Encouraging Boys to Dance. It had a good response and I was even asked to submit an edited version for the PTA (National Parent Teacher Association) website.  It is my firm belief that boys should be encouraged to dance by dance teachers and parents in particular. After all, there are many who would discourage them – we should be making it an easier choice for young guys who may have an interest in the art form.  Sadly, many dance schools seem completely geared toward females (maybe without even realizing it), effectively turning young men away.  Dancers thrive in an environment where they feel comfortable to be themselves and safe from judgment or abuse.  Therefore, dance schools and parents must make an effort to provide this environment for boys in dance.

Check it out!

I recently came upon two blogs which are the primary purpose of this post.  They are excellent resources for male dancers and their parents.  The first is My Son Can Dance, a chronicle of one dance mom’s experiences with raising a boy who dances.  Teachers, dance moms, and male dancers should definitely take note of this site! The second is Boys and Ballet, essentially a collection of news articles from around the globe that feature boys or men in the dance world (specifically ballet but other genres are occasionally featured) – an excellent resource that can act as a source of encouragement for young men involved in dance.

While we’re on the subject…

Here are some other links:


Children’s Books (great for your studio waiting room or home library)

Participate – WordPress now has PollDaddy!!


The mindset plays a very serious role in how we dance. Negative self-talk is damaging and has a way of oozing out to the people around you, actually affecting the performance of others. For instance, a little joke, a negative or sarcastic comment about your dancing can lead to another dancer feeling worse about any problems he/she may be having in the class. Even your teacher may feel as though she is failing the class in some way or respond to your negativity with more negativity.

At their best, negative comments accomplish absolutely nothing and, at their worst, succeed in increasing doubt and even hurt feelings throughout the class.

Once I had a teen in ballet class that seemed so unmotivated and negative. I could tell she liked barre but felt uncoordinated in center work. Her confidence was low in areas outside of dance and it was reflected in her lack of presentation with her upper body. I was determined to see her succeed in class, mostly because I could see that she didn’t believe she could. There was just no ignoring her, either! She was very negative about anything in class that she “couldn’t” do and used her quick wit to complain or put herself down, ruining everyone’s experience. I often felt horrible about the class afterward but, I knew that there was more to her actions than what was on the surface. I didn’t give up.

That year we did a dance with a variety of characters and I decided to play up the strengths in her lower body and letting her arms free flow as it fit for that particular character. Obviously we still worked on upper body in class but in the dance she was just as important as all the other characters. From that point on she was a different kid and improved her port de bras by 200%.

To illustrate how far she’d come, I wrote her a note at the conclusion of the year and encouraged her to avoid taking a step backward next year. You see, I was leaving and wanted her to keep going forward with a new teacher. I reminded her that a new instructor would have different and important things to teach her and asked her to imagine her progress if, from the beginning, she willingly responded to guidance without any negativity or fear.

Maybe you can identify with that student. Perhaps you are feeling insecure or uncertain. It’s easy to be afraid of something new, something untried, and of not being good enough at what you do try. Your strengths can and will shine more brightly than any weaknesses if you allow them. This is a lesson I think every dancer has to learn, myself included. In fact, it’s something I still struggle with every time I take a class that is challenging. Once you learn to truly appreciate what you do well, the areas in which you need improvement (which can seem overwhelming at times) will become less of a hindrance. Feeling good about yourself will unlock your full potential as a dancer, and possibly in other areas.

Others have lots to say on the topic of negative self-talk and/or positive thinking:
Dance (in this case belly dancing) and negative self-talk (the themes in this article can apply universally)
Psychology of Dance (also see an excerpt of this book here)
The Power of Positive Thinking
Enhancing the Body/Brain Connection
Train Your Brain: A Teen’s Guide to Well Being
Improve Your Attitude in Dance Class

How has negativity (yours or someone else’s) affected you in a dance class?

What are some things you can do to help “positively charge” the atmosphere?

Bullying in Dance Class

What does a bully look like?

We tend to picture a bully as a big, tough, boy that picks on those smaller or younger than himself. However, there has been a lot of discussion lately within educational circles about bullying and we are slowly learning that bullies come in many forms. Although dance can foster understanding and a sense of community among young people, dance classes are not immune to episodes of bullying.

Boys in dance often receive taunting, teasing and physical harassment from sources outside their dance school. Sometimes the effects of this bullying can have serious consequences as they did for one young man in Derby, England. It is not as widely recognized, however, that male students can sometimes be bullied by females in their dance classes. After all, boys are typically outnumbered and often a subject of fascination for the females in a typical studio environment. In fact, girls are every bit as capable of bullying as boys, however their style or methods of tormenting usually differ.

Girls tend to practice what is called relational aggression. They manipulate, taunt, and tease on an emotional level that often flies under the radar of teachers. Here are some sources that will help you spot and understand relational aggression in action:

A Teacher’s Role

In all cases of intimidation, there are usually adults that excuse bullying with, “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls,” feel that bullying is just something everyone must deal with at some point in life, or consider the behavior as part of a phase that will pass. Even though certain age groups are more prone to experience or exhibit bullying behavior, students deserve to learn in an environment that is safe from abuse. Dance classes for pre-teens and teens are a social, as well as an educational environment where cliques and competition can flourish. In addition, students often bring their school-lives into the dance studio despite being urged to “leave it at the door.” Dance teachers can help to combat problems by learning to recognize episodes of bullying and adopting a no-tolerance policy on destructive behavior in their class even before it becomes a problem.

Why stop bullying?

It’s been my experience that students thrive when they are free to create, succeed, and fail in a class without the stress of facing snickers, rude comments, or pressure to join in on bad behavior from other classmates.

Need more reasons?

The Stop Bullying Now! website has a concise list (please visit their website for details and more information on bullying).

  1. Many children are involved in bullying and most are extremely concerned about it.
  2. Bullying can seriously affect the mental health, academic work, and physical health of children who are targeted.
  3. Children who bully are more likely than other children to be engaged in other antisocial, violent, or troubling behavior.
  4. Bullying can negatively affect children who observe bullying going on around them–even if they aren’t targeted themselves.
  5. Bullying is a form of victimization or abuse, and it is wrong. Children should be able to attend school or take part in community activities without fear of being harassed, assaulted, belittled, or excluded.

If your pre-teens or teens are already engaging in bullying behaviors,

What can you do in your dance classes right now?

Take some time out of an upcoming class to sit down with the students and create rules about bullying. Having a heart-to-heart right after an episode occurs may embarrass the bullied student (which is not the point) of the exercise. However, now is better than never. Essentially, as soon as you feel prepared to address the subject calmly and objectively, go for it!

Start out with a discussion about what constitutes bullying.

  1. Ask the students to come up with a list of actions that they would consider to be bullying (whispering and giggling, rolling eyes, etc.).
  2. Next, have them create a set of rules to follow in class that will stop bullying.
  3. And finally, come up with appropriate consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure the rules are clear and concise so that the bully can’t talk their way out of punishment. For example, No Whispering. That means no whispering… period. Doesn’t matter what the whispering was about because they will try to convince you that it wasn’t malicious. Stick to the rule and the consequence every time.

I’ve also found it helpful to create, in general, a supportive environment in class.

  1. Encourage students to clap for other groups after they’ve crossed the floor or performed in front of the rest of the class.
  2. Offer comments like “good try,” “don’t give up,” or “you nailed the timing, Susie!” in addition to corrections is helpful, and don’t forget to praise students who exhibit supportive and positive behavior.
  3. Demonstrate constructive criticism, teaching students to look for positives and “needs improvement” in others’ work, then make it a point to provide opportunities for students to practice constructive criticism (Teach students how to properly offer constructive criticism. Be careful! If there is already a lot of negative behavior running through the class, do not allow bullies to use this exercise as another opportunity to intimidate or belittle. If this is a problem, consider holding off on allowing students to practice criticism until behavior and attitudes have improved overall.)

What to do if bullying continues.

Pull aside the offender after class. Provide specific examples of his/her bullying and/or breaking the rules, make it clear this is not acceptable, and let him/her know that this is a warning that will be followed with specific consequences if the behavior does not stop. It may also help to pull the bullied student aside and let him/her know of your plans to end the bullying so that he/she feels some reassurance that you are aware of the problem and are taking action to prevent it.

There are lots of ways for parents and teachers to deal with and prevent bullying. The links I’ve included above offer suggestions, as well as support for victims and even more links on the subject of relational aggression.

Have you been bullied in a dance class? If you are a teacher, how have you prevented bullying behavior in your class/school?