Letting your students experiment with choreography is crucial to helping them develop as artists.
Among the many things you have to teach young students-proper technique, discipline, performance etiquette-how to choreograph is probably not high on the list. Yet students can reap marvelous benefits from learning the basics of dancemaking.
"If we want them to be more than just technicians-if we have expectations of them as performing artists-choreography is a way for them to find out who they are through exploratory exercises and challenges," says Diane Jacobowitz of Dancewave in Brooklyn, New York. "This is for the teacher who can see the bigger picture." (For more on Dancewave, turn to "Reaching for New Heights" on page 80.)
Teaching composition, whether it's adding five minutes of improvisation to a technique class or designing an entire hour lesson based on dancemaking concepts, opens the door to self-expression for dancers of all ages. Rather than compelling students to always repeat steps by rote, which can lead to burnout for even the most technically gifted dancers, choreography frees them to express their feelings and delight in the knowledge that they have created something important and meaningful.
CLASSROOM CONCEPTS & ACTIVITIES
While advanced students naturally will be able to use more difficult movements, dancers with any level of experience can experiment with choreography. Emphasize that creating a piece is about more than simply putting steps together; telling a novice to "go and make up 32 counts" is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on using choreography concepts, games, suggestions and exercises to encourage students to move, and then show how that movement becomes choreography. "Give them things to dance about," says New York City-based master teacher Ellen Robbins. "Without improvisation, there is no source of inspiration for the movement; it's only steps. The passion is what's important."
Anne Green Gilbert, founder and artistic director of Creative Dance Center in Seattle, includes a choreography section in all of her classes, even for ages 3 and 4. She sets up a scenario that allows students to work on specific choreographic concepts. For example, her youngest students do a "dance game" in which they are introduced to "energy" by dancing in different dynamics-their movements must be "sharp," "smooth," "shaky" or "swinging." Another week she talks about high and low levels, or plays with verbs-"poke," "chop" or "brush" the space.
Starting at age 6, students discuss concepts such as exits and entrances, or how a dance needs a beginning, middle and end, just like a story in a book. Green Gilbert instructs them to enter the stage space with a slow movement, create a rhythm with a partner, then exit with a fast movement. "Give them concepts, vocabulary and skills, and the time to play with those skills," she says.
Robbins starts weaving choreography games into her classes for 5-year-olds. Students make a "dancing sandwich" by beginning with a skip, doing another movement, then ending with another skip. Or they move from stiff to wiggly, change from a caterpillar to a butterfly or dance from happy to angry. She also gives them story outlines-they're ice skating and fall down; they're sleeping, the alarm clock rings and they have to rush to get ready for school; they're lost in the woods-to help them create their own movements.
Critiquing each other's work is an important part of the process, one that even 5-year-olds can participate in, Robbins notes. "We watch each other's pieces, talk about what looked good, what could be better," she says. "After a time, they just talk to each other. I don't even have to enter in."
Jacobowitz begins with students ages 3 to 9, who learn to make up movement to fit a story. (Perhaps it's walking through peanut butter or floating down a river.) To "cook spaghetti," they start out stiff …