Dance History in the Classroom

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Kick off the new year with teaching inspirations in four dance traditions.


Now is the perfect time to introduce a session on story ballets, while young students are still in thrall over December's Nutcracker performances. You can simultaneously expose children to the idea of classical period ballet and involve their imaginations. For this lesson plan, you'll need a picture-book version of the story, such as Daniel Walden's The Nutcracker, an adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffman story, or George Balanchine's The Nutcracker by Joel Meyerowitz; a recording of the music by Tchaikovsky; old costumes; and a Nutcracker doll-one that you don't mind children handling.

First, tell the story simply, showing pictures. Students can examine the Nutcracker doll at the same time. Then introduce the name "Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky" and the job of the composer. Then choose some elements for them to improvise or act out from Act I. The Party Scene, the Children's March and Battle Scene can involve all your students. For Act II, choose a few countries and help them improvise dances based on the music and some basic movements. The Chinese, Russian and Arabian variations often capture the imaginations of little children.

Next comes the famous "Waltz of the Flowers." Distribute costumes from your costume room, or let them hold artificial flowers in their hands. You can use the props in a guided improvisation. As a grand finale, have a class demonstrator perform the Sugarplum Fairy variation in full costume. Inviting parent to watch the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" is always a nice touch.

You can use a similar lesson plan for intermediate students, adding information about the story's author, E.T.A. Hoffman, and the composer. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write music for the ballet in 1892 and finished it in one month. Although his lyrical and dramatic music for the Imperial Russian Ballet, including Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, are his most famous works, he was more interested in writing music for opera. You can also discuss the use of pantomime and gesture in classical ballet, perhaps having students take the parts of Clara, Fritz and the relatives in the Party Scene.

In addition to discussing Hoffman, Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa, you can also teach older students about modern versions such as Mark Morris' The Hard Nut. Advanced dancers who have learned the Sugarplum, Mirlitons, Spanish and Chinese variations can perform them for younger students.


Children's dance specialist Rosemarie Boyden of Boston has been teaching for more than 51 years. To encourage her youngest students to express themselves while learning a little of the history of modern dance, she plans a lesson around Isadora Duncan. All you need is some real or artificial flowers and music of your choice-in keeping with the traditions of Duncan, perhaps a soothing Chopin waltz.

The teacher takes on the role of the Queen who is tending to her garden. As the Queen falls asleep in her garden, each child picks a flower from the front of the room, places it on the Queen and falls asleep with her. As the Queen wakes she commands "Away with you!" and the children scatter, dancing away.

Teacher Bernie Van Epps of Canandaigua, New York introduces the basic movement concepts of Duncan style to her students-- such as skipping and running-and then shows pictures of Duncan in motion. …