Lauren Warnecke is a fellow blogger and dance teacher. With a BA in Dance and an MS in Kinesiology, Lauren is a unique voice in the online dance community. Her website, Art Intercepts is “bridging the gap between experience and evidence” with a look into how science overlaps, meets, influences, compares, and even contrasts with dance training. With the goals of improving dance education, teaching practices, and overall health and wellness, Lauren is providing a reliable resource for dancers and dance teachers.
Dance is a craft that is largely passed down from teacher to student. This is something that I personally find to be a both blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s an indescribable feeling to know that as a teacher, I play a small part in creating the rich history of dance and sit on a teacher-pupil lineage leading back to the greatest of ballet masters. However, it is a history comprised largely of anecdotal and subjective information passed down through an oral tradition that is rarely corroborated by members of the scientific community.
Most teachers likely agree that demonstration and practice are critical to the success of dance students, but to what extent should the instructor encourage doing over watching or vice-versa?
Two research studies (5, 12) involving young children learning complex dance movements support every dance teacher’s belief that modeling as an instructional tool is especially important in learning motor skills, especially with younger children. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to demonstrate as fully as possible, especially with beginners and young children, if you want them to get the most out of your demonstration (13). Kids have a natural tendency to imitate anyway (6), so what better way to get them to learn the basics of dance then to give them something (that is, you) to follow!?
So what happens when I get old and can’t demonstrate? An instructor who can no longer demonstrate may find it helpful to bring an assistant into the class who can model the exercises full out. The use of a model appears to be especially important in mastering the qualitative form of movement, which is of obvious important in dance education.
What about pre-professional and professional dancers? As the students grow older and their movement vocabularies grow broader, accurate demonstrations are not nearly as essential to higher-level dance students. Indeed, most dancers have stories about their old, strict instructors who sit in an armchair barking out exercises and pounding out the beat on the floor with a cane….. I digress. Because more experienced dancers have already programmed the necessary vocabulary, it is simply a matter of rearranging them in different patterns (1). Instruction in the case of older or more advanced students can therefore be accomplished through vocal instructions and “marked” exercises. It’s important to note once again, however, that demonstrations are the best way to communicate the qualitative aspects of movement, so marking should not be a casual or sloppy endeavor. You should mark it how you want it to look!
Young dancers can watch you all day long, but in the end, they must be given the opportunity to practice. Watching a demonstration before practicing a motor skill may be most beneficial for long-term learning (5, 12). Furthermore, children require more practice than adults to master a skill (10).
Should you be saying anything to them while they practice? Should they? To really maximize the effects of practice, it can be very helpful to ask your students to “say and do” a skill at the same time, in other words, using self-instruction. In one study, three to five year old dance students learned a gross motor pattern more quickly through modeling, praise and self-instruction than by modeling and praise alone (11). However, it should be noted that in this study the use self-instruction tended to drop over time. So eventually the incessant “tombe, pas de bouree, glissade, saut de chats” that your kids say over, and over, and over, should eventually (and thankfully) internalize!
When in doubt, call on our old friend the metaphor. Another tool all dance teachers are intimately familiar with is imagery. Imagery has been shown to enhance dance performance and, likewise, previous dance experience and familiarity with a skill facilitates the dancer’s ability to accurately picture the movement in their minds (2). Using metaphors and imagery are invaluable tools to utilize both during practice and in corrections.
In A Nutshell
Given the dualistic nature of dance, in which both accuracy and aesthetic quality are both essential to success, watching and doing appear to play equally important roles. A former teacher of mine once wrote, “A strict tradition governs the structure of a ballet class. It is a tradition based on logic, trial and error, and natural evolution” (7). Indeed, dance is steeped in traditions passed down from student to teacher. Modeling, verbal feedback, and practice are essential components of an effective dance education, but it is not always understood why they work or in what combination they should be used. Here are some general suggestions to beef up your teaching skills and maximize the potential of your students:
1. Demonstrate, and demonstrate correctly especially with young students.
2. If you mark, they’ll mark, so bring in an assistant if necessary to provide full-out demonstration. Marking is okay for advanced students, but be sure to maintain the correct qualitative components of the music in your demonstration
3. Practice. Give your kids enough dedicated time for them to practice and master the skill!
4. Use self-instruction, metaphor and imagery. Have the dancers say the steps while they are doing them, and give them enough mental images and metaphors so they know exactly how to perform the steps correctly.
- Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D. E., Grezes, J., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2005). Action observation and acquired motor skills: An FMRI study with expert dancers. Cereb Cortex, 15, 1243-1249.
- Cross, E. S., Hamilton, A. F. de C. & Grafton, S. T. (2005). Building a motor simulation de novo: observation of dance by dancers. NeuroImage 31, 1257-1267.
- Fox, P.W., Hershberger, S. L. & Bouchard, T. J. Jr. (1996) .Genetic and environmental contributions to the acquisition of a motor skill. Nature 384, 356-358.
- Hagendoorn, I. (2004). Some speculative hypothesis about the nature and perception of dance and choreography. Journal of Consciousness Studies 11, 79-110.
- McCullagh, P., Stiehl, J. & Weiss, M. R. (1990). Developmental modeling effects on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of motor performance. Res Q Exerc Sport 61, 344-350.
- Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198, 75-78.
- Paskevska, A. (1992). Both sides of the mirror: the science and art of ballet (rev. ed.). Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company.
- Pineda, J. A. (2008). Sensorimotor cortex as a critical component of an ‘extended’ mirror neuron system: does it solve the development, correspondence, and control problems in mirroring? Behavioral and Brain Functions 4, 47-63.
- Stevens, C., & McKechnie, S. (2005). Thinking in action: thought made visible in contemporary dance. Cogn Process 6, 243-252.
- Sullivan, K. J., Kantak, S. S. & Burtner, P. A. (2008). Motor learning in children: feedback effects on skill acquisition. Physical Therapy 88, 720-732.
- Vintere, P., Hemmes, N. S., Brown, B. L. & Poulson, C. L. (2004). Gross-motor skill acquisition by preschool dance students under self-instruction procedures. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37, 305-322.
- Weiss, M. R., Ebbeck, V. & Rose, D. J. (1992). “Show and tell” in the gymnasium revisited: developmental differences in modeling and verbal rehearsal on motor skill learning and performance. Res Q Exerc Sport 63, 292-301.
- Williamson, R. A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Markman, E. M. (2008). Prior experiences and perceived efficacy influence 3-year-olds’ imitation. Developmental Psychology, 44, 275-285.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and editor, focused on dance and cultural criticism in Chicago and across the Midwest. Lauren is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, editor of See Chicago Dance, and founder/editor of Art Intercepts, with bylines in Chicago Magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Media publications, among others. Holding degrees in dance and kinesiology, Lauren is an instructor of dance and exercise science at Loyola University Chicago. Read Lauren’s posts.