Tag Archives: Dance Teaching

Dear Diary

7 Nov

This is a great article from Dance Teacher Magazine’s November issue describing one teacher’s approach to getting students in touch with themselves and their dancing. Marty Sprague’s has her high school dance students journal after dance exercises to reflect and think critically. I personally think it’s a fascinating approach with a lot of merit. Thoughts?

Dear Diary

By Lisa Traiger

How journaling enhances the high school dance class experience

At Rhode Island’s Providence Academy of International Studies, dance teacher Marty Sprague’s high school students are exploring movement qualities. A small group shifts into slow motion as if pushing through pudding; another group investigates what it means to pop and twitch; and a third group explores the difference between flinging and floating. The classroom vibrates with chatter and movement. Then Sprague calls “time” and the students head back to their desks to think, reflect and write about what just happened. One student writes about the connections she made with her group. She also notes that another student jumped when he should have fallen to the ground, but, she writes, “Overall, I loved my dance performance.”

Sprague, who has been teaching at Providence Academy since 2003, knows that most of her students aren’t on track for professional dance careers. Instead, she uses movement to teach critical-thinking skills. Two of her chief tools are pen and paper. “Writing is thinking,” says Sprague. “And when students reflect [in writing], they have a record of their growth and of what they learned. It makes the creative process visible to them.”

In today’s high school classrooms, where the importance of test scores and college admittance rates outweigh pointed toes and perfectly executed arabesques, critical thinking is a prized commodity. Movement triggers this process; journal writing makes it concrete.

At the beginning of each semester, Sprague, who teaches three periods of dance to mixed-grade-level classes, explains that journal writing will be a crucial component. “It’s really important that you set up your expectations early,” she says. Sprague’s students maintain a notebook of reflections, which they leave in the classroom. About four or five times a week she stops her class a few minutes early and calls the group together to write about their experiences. She gives the students an open-ended prompt, which can be as simple as “Why do you think we’re learning this?” [see sidebar for more prompt ideas]. With this question in mind, her students compose a few sentences responding to the day’s work, such as an exploratory group movement session covering shape, floor patterns or weight sharing.

The fast pace of Sprague’s 52-minute classes doesn’t give her many opportunities to interact one on one. Journaling helps her better understand what her students are thinking about and how they’re thinking, allowing her to monitor their progress and the depth of their learning. “When I read even their short three-to-four sentence responses in their journals, I think, ‘Wow, this kid’s got it,’ or ‘Hmm, next class I better think about this because a bunch of students are wondering the same thing,’” Sprague says.

Martie Barylick is a former English teacher who now teaches a yearlong arts elective at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, New York. The course includes music, theater and dance, and Barylick team-teaches four sections—one for each grade level—with the school’s music and theater instructors. As in Sprague’s classroom, journaling and other reflective writing are integral to her approach. Among their many writing assignments, including performance critiques and choreography proposals, Barylick’s students compose in-depth reflective self-evaluations about four times a year, and her students periodically write anonymous evaluations of one another. (To ensure considerate feedback, a teacher reviews the response before the evaluated student receives it.) Before her students begin writing, Barylick leads in-class discussions, demonstrating the types of ideas she wants them to tackle—both questions about the exercise or unit, as well as questions about themselves (for example, “What did you learn about dance?” and “What did you learn about yourself as a dancer?”).

Barylick’s and Sprague’s students journal in class. While Sprague’s students write, she slowly wanders through the classroom reading their responses, sometimes jotting a note in the margins of a student’s journal. Or she may affix a sticker, a simple way to give positive reinforcement. Barylick also tries to comment on most of her students’ reflections. “Kids look for my check marks and underlining,” Barylick says. Feedback lets students know their comments were read; a question probing why a student felt a certain way or a smiley face next to a meaningful observation keeps students motivated and engaged.

Both Sprague and Barylick include journaling and other written assignments in their students’ final grades. Neither worries much about grammar, punctuation or spelling when they read reflective writing; instead they’re interested in what’s going on in their students’ heads.

One of Sprague’s favorite assignments is having students write letters to their parents. “They write a response to a question or about an activity we’ve done that week, explaining it to their parents,” Sprague says. Before the students take the letters home, Sprague reads them, adding a comment to each. “Then the parents read it and write back to their students on that paper.” The assignment builds the parent-school connection, and it demonstrates that the learning in dance class goes far beyond mastering steps. DT

Journaling for All Ages

Marty Sprague and Martie Barylick say their journaling exercises could be adjusted for middle- and elementary-school–aged children. They suggest very young students could draw rather than write their responses.

The Creative Spark

Marty Sprague often uses prompts to guide her students’ journal entries. Questions should allow students to explore their thoughts on the page. Here are a few suggestions for students working on a group choreography module:

—What did you do on your dance study today?

—How did you and your group explore the movements and decide which versions/variations you are going to use in your dance study?

—How long is your dance so far? What are you going to do next?

—Is your dance study complete? Are you and your group ready to perform? Answer why or why not.

—What do you like best about your dance? What would you change, improve or add?
Lisa Traiger teaches dance appreciation and writes about the performing arts from the Washington, DC, area.


NDEO 2011 Conference

4 Nov

The National Dance Education Organization has just announced their 2011 conference dates – from October 19-23, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN.

Topics of discussion for dance teachers will include: How many roles do we play? How are we identified and how do we identify ourselves? Are we teachers, artists, administrators, dancers, interpreters, choreographers, writers, mentors, historians, and/or advocates?  How are we creating paths into the future for ourselves, our communities and our profession?

These conventions are designed to help us all share our expertise, stories, questions and creative spirit so we ALL learn and strengthen dance throughout America.

Comfort in the iconic…

3 Nov

Many times in the classes I teach I turn to choreography variations from numerous classic ballets to give my students some exposure to the technique required of a professional. Today I taught a private lesson with two very talented students who are working on the black swan pas de deux segment from Swan Lake – quite possibly one of the most difficult pieces of ballet choreography of all time. As I was teaching them the intricacies of the piece, memories flooded back to me of when I played the role of Odette/Odile several years ago. I will never forget how epic it felt to be performing something that has remained a classic for over 100 years since its premiere in 1877 by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and that certain elements of iconic choreography such as this remain unchanged over that immense time span (like Odile’s 32 fouettes or the dance of the six swans). So, in honor of nostalgia and ballet’s vast and rich history, here is Odile’s pas de deux and solo fouettes from Act 3 of Swan Lake with Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Ballet.

The Politics of Casting Shows

30 Oct

With holiday dance shows right around the corner, I thought I’d share this fantastic article about casting performances. In my experience it can be a tricky thing because it’s always a challenge to be diplomatic and still make sure everyone is in the best role for them – it isn’t nice having to hurt students’ feelings if they aren’t good enough for the part they really want!

Theory & Practice: The Politics of Casting

By Leigh Kamping-Carder

Establishing a casting process that’s both fair and (relatively) drama-free

Last year, when a large ballet academy held auditions for its annual Nutcracker, the studio owner knew that five “absolutely brilliant girls” coveted the role of Clara. But the owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, knew that one girl would leave the audition disappointed, since there were only four parts. “I’ve never had the scores so close and I’ve never had to eliminate a dancer so clearly qualified,” the studio owner says. “I just didn’t have enough performances to go around.”

The owner’s dilemma is likely familiar to any instructor who casts for recitals or competitions. Rewarding talented dancers while giving every student a chance to perform is tricky. But as long as you give every student an equal shot, establish open communication with dancers and parents and alleviate jealousies before they turn into full-scale conflicts, every casting session can be a teaching opportunity.

Ensure Fairness

First, it helps to choose choreography that allows numerous students to play special roles. “I try to pick pieces that afford me the luxury of having many solos,” says California Conservatory of Dance Director Melissa Allen Bowman, who tries to give about 90 percent of her dancers distinctive parts. Or adapt a classic to suit your needs: Joan Robinson Borchers, founder of California Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA), has expanded her Nutcracker, adding overture dancers, junior maids, a Rose Queen (who would normally be Dew Drop) and a Dream Fairy. With four casts, that means roles for 75 students—and a chance for even the weaker dancers to get stage time. “That gives more girls a chance at plum roles,” Robinson Borchers says.

More importantly, make sure every student gets a fair shake at those roles: Don’t play favorites. For some studio owners, including Bowman, that means holding auditions that put casting choices in the hands of choreographers or neutral judges, rather than classroom teachers. “It’s tough because it puts the dancers on the spot,” says Bowman, “but they seem to feel that it’s fair because everybody gets a shot at it. Everybody.”

Jana Belot, director of Gotta Dance, goes one step further: She outsources casting to a panel of professional dancers who oversee a 600-student audition day. “It’s about the process of learning how to take your work ethic in the classroom and bring it with you to an audition,” Belot says. Every year new students surprise her with their talent, ensuring different students are cast from year to year, she adds.Gotta Dance dancers are scored on specific steps and memorization skills using a numbered scale, with the top 100 scores going to the studio’s Showstoppers company, and the next 300 scores going to the Dynamite dance team. For lead recital roles, Belot pulls from the top scores and considers appropriateness for the role and body type. This year, as if to highlight the democratic nature of the process, half the solos went to dancers who weren’t leads last year.

But Belot’s approach isn’t for everyone. Bowman is wary of hiring professional dancers, who aren’t necessarily familiar with the way children learn and perform, to evaluate young students. “We teach these students every day,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, “so we have a really good idea for who’s going to be right for certain roles.” Hoover has developed a process that she thinks preserves a sense of fairness while keeping casting choices in the hands of choreographers and stagers: Every student learns performance choreography, and most casting decisions are based on in-class performance, attendance, commitment and suitability for the role.

Last fall, Hoover began teaching students George Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations for BAE’s February recital. As the dancers worked on the pieces, both students and teachers recognized the strongest dancers, Hoover explains. She also double-casted and used understudies. For those who missed out on the solos, Hoover was happy to explain why (maybe they failed to take extra classes or languished in the back of the classroom every week) and to encourage the hopefuls. “It’s like a garden,” she told them. “Sometimes the daffodils will come up in spring, and we love the daffodils. But just because the roses bloom later doesn’t mean we don’t love the roses.”

No matter what method you use, transparency and honest communication are always critical to successful casting. In the weeks leading up to the final decision, explain the casting process to students. Be truthful about their abilities, but emphasize that dancers lose out on roles for countless reasons: lack of preparation, weakness in certain techniques, inexperience with auditions or simply not being suited to a role. Give them confidence in your objectivity. “Today you are all strangers to me,” Robinson Borchers tells her students on audition day, “and no matter how much I adore you, that will have nothing to do with the decision I make today.”

Minimize Fallout

Of course, even a fair and transparent casting process can make rivals of classmates. “Are they catty? Yes, I’m sure they are; they’re kids,” Belot says. But studio owners can minimize jealousies. Belot requires cast members to sign a contract that, among other things, forbids them from talking about rehearsals during class time. Robinson Borchers has a “standing rule” that students must be kind, but she knows that that won’t always be the case—and warns her students accordingly. “We teach them early on in class that if you’re a good dancer, then someone else is going to talk about you,” she says.

Ironically, it is often the parents who are angriest when that list of names goes up. Mothers call Belot wondering why their senior dancers failed to secure a solo in their last year of classes; the Gotta Dance director is perfectly willing to show students their scores. Hoover, however, takes a different approach: She chooses not to speak to parents about casting decisions. Whatever policy you choose, it’s important to educate parents about the casting process, either in person or in a newsletter. “We tell parents that if their children don’t get the roles they want,” says one CAPA handout, “it doesn’t mean that they failed in any way. It is simply that, on that given day, with all the variables, they were not the right person for that role.”

As for the girl who lost out on the part of Clara, she decided to try out the next year for a different role. Time has healed the rift between the girl’s mother, who “went ballistic” when the decision was made, and the studio owner. “It’s very hard to hold firm to your policies,” the studio owner says, “but it is the only way to keep the trust and respect of your students and parents.” After all, not getting a role is often as constructive for dancers as nabbing the Nutcracker lead. “Along with learning how to do a tendu in ballet,” Hoover says, “is learning how to accept disappointment and turn it into a positive.” DT

Dance? There’s an app for that

26 Oct

The National Dance Education Organization is apparently working on a series of dance education apps for the iPhone, which I think is a genius idea due to the fact that mobile apps are becoming more and more accessible. The first app in the series, Say Ballet, is a reference glossary of dance terms that has been hugely successful and used by people in over 35 countries. Their newest installment, Say Jazz, also has voice recognition technology so students can practice properly pronouncing terms, videos of how to execute steps, combinations to learn, and term practice quizzes.

Click here for the full article, and go to http://www.ndeo.org for more news and events from the organization.

When Dance Styles Collide…

25 Oct

When I choreograph performance pieces for my ballet students, I generally stay firmly in the classical ballet zone (I’m obviously a bun-head to the core.) I think the biggest reason for this is the majority of the ballet classes taught at the studio where I work are technique only – meaning there are only a few ballet choreography classes that have numbers in recitals, etc. so I have tried really hard over the last few years to make sure the style is well represented as what it is. However, this year I have decided to branch out a little bit and experiment with some style crossing in my choreography. Tonight I started a number in my advanced pointe class for our holiday show this December, using music from Tony Bennett’s Christmas album. The piece is an awesome mix of quick pointe work with a heavy jazz influence (complete with fan kicks and cakewalks en pointe, flicks, and layouts), and I was so pleased and surprised this evening with how much fun the girls had with it. These particular students are all extremely talented and always dance passionately but it was really fascinating to watch how naturally they merged the two styles. Normally they all have very clean ballet technique, and they were actually able to keep that while adding the sassy attitude required of jazz. This has me thinking what other kinds of meshing I might try…and what some of you might have attempted in the past. Please share your own style-meshing endeavors!

I found this really gorgeous duet I wanted to share – It’s a perfect example of when blending styles results in true art. Enjoy!

The value of analogies…

21 Oct

Never thought grammatical devices could be useful in a ballet class? I depend on them.

Subtlety is everything when you teach – how you phrase a correction can make the difference between it flying in one ear and out the other, and your student having a moment of epiphany that changes the way they dance. I was reminded of this tonight in a prep-for-pointe technique class I was teaching. The students are all around eleven or twelve, and just on the verge of having fundamental technique secure enough in their muscle memory that they can start to focus on nuance. One student that I have in particular has almost unlimited potential – she has incredible feet and strength, and an innate sense of grace that can only come naturally. However, she has problems with her alignment and sitting in her standing hip. I have given her continual corrections on these points and encouraged her to be conscious of what her body is doing, but until tonight nothing had clicked.

I was having the girls work on single-leg relevés and balancing in passé for strength, and as usual this girl was sitting so she could not get her balance because it was throwing off the rest of her alignment. Finally, in a moment of cleverness I told the girls to stop and visualize their hip flexor muscles (the ones that run from the top of the hip bone in the front down to connect with the quadricep) as rubber bands. If they sat in their hip the band would be loose, but if they could visualize themselves stretching that band as far as they could they would be in a proper position to hold their balance. I had them try again, and bingo – the student I mentioned held her balance like it was nothing for a good 15 seconds on the first try! She was so excited that something finally made sense to her, and the entire rest of class she performed like a brand new dancer.

Moments like these make teaching so fulfilling, and remind me that while working with students we must constantly try new approaches to get technique to set in. Does anyone else have any favorite analogies?

Legendary teacher Lynn Simonson gives her alignment-teaching strategies

The Epiphany