Disclaimer: teaching dance to children has left me in tears on more than one occasion so I can tell you that I am no expert in this matter. But, as life necessitates, I have taught many dance classes to kids over the years and therefore have acquired a specific set of skills to handle these occassions:
1. Don’t Expect to Teach them to Dance: Or should I say, don’t expect them to teach them to dance your way, or any particular way but their own way. I have a beef with most of the dance education from my generation. I’m not talking about my dance teacher, she was fabulous, but I’m speaking to the prevailing ideology from my generation which was to teach kids to move like someone else. Really what you should be focusing on at this point is the sheer joy of moving and learning their bodies. Keep the expectations low. Dance education, at least in the Bay Area, has come a long way on this, but we still have a ways to go. I’m speaking more to the little kids. Around 8 years old you may be able to start really teaching technique, but before that it is a freedom dance all around.
2. Transition Quickly from One Activity to the Next: You must give the illusion that you are one step ahead of them. In truth, they are way smarter and faster than you are but you cannot let them know that. If you’re using music have it ready. Be close to your music if at all possible. Have a lesson plan, be prepared to deviate from it, but whatever you do, when you decide to move on know what is coming next and have your music ready.
3. Have a Thorough Lesson Plan but be prepared to Toss it All Out the Window: Have a lot of different ideas (see #7), have a good solid game plan, but then be prepared to improvise. There are so many factors that come into play when working with kids. Energy level, group dynamics, levels of experience, whether or not everyone had a snack or not. These can all be true of adults as well, but at least with adults they are mostly socialized and conditioned to accept what you say and go along with your plan (unless you are teaching to adults in Berkeley, then. . . well, it’s a whole other story). It really does help to be prepared, but you will do yourself a big favor if you can listen to the needs of the kids that day and be flexible.
4. Don’t Try to Be Their Friend: This is how I’ve ended up in tears. Let me tell you a little story: There was a teacher once who went into a classroom “auditioning” for a teaching job. She was nervous and when she’s nervous she is overly nice. And tries to crack jokes to lighten her mood. Well, this made the children think that this was the tone of the day. Cracking jokes! Undermining authority! Whoo hoo! and so you can imagine when the class was turned over to her how the rest of the day went. No one listened to a DAM#$* thing she said. And she cried. She waited until she was in her car, thank heavens, but it did happen – oh yes.
5. Don’t Fall Into the Scapegoat Trap: There is always gonna be that one kid that really gets to you and pisses you off. Maybe they have a lot of energy, or a bad attitude, or someone told their parents they have ADD or whatever but what you must do is FIND A WAY TO LIKE THEM. You must. Otherwise they will suck all of your energy like a little parasite and you musn’t let them. It teaches them bad habits. Tap the deep well, as my mother would say, and find a way to see what makes them shine. Give them their moments to shine so they can acquire energy in a healthy manner, and do the rest with others in the class so there is a healthy pattern established. Do it as soon as possible.
6. The First Encounter Sets The Tone: You can reference the story in #4 of the teacher who started by joking with the kids. Bad idea. Better to be more mysterious and slightly serious with kids than overly excitable. They are already full of energy. You must balance them. Remember, they are looking to you as the authority figure and so you should seize these first moments to establish the tone. Say less than you may want to. Speak quietly in order for them to have to shut up to hear you. Show them you are in control. Later on you can show your more fun side. And of course, you should always be loving. But not their friend!
7. Have a lot of Tricks in Your Bag: You should have a “toolbox” of ideas. Watch teachers who are known for their kid skills. Observe other kids’ classes, take teaching workshops, pay attention to children that you know and the ways that they play. What engages them? What do they love? My friend Hannah used to have, at all times, the following articles in the trunk of her car: veils, plates for balancing on one’s head, hip scarves, fans, paper, color markers, song sheets. She knows that kids LOVE props and at that time she was teaching a lot of classes to kids. She had an actual physical toolbox in her trunk, but you could also have one in your head. Games to play, exercises etc. How can you use what they love to do, to help them through boring things like technique exercises? You should have 10 approaches to any movement. Continually update your toolbox with new tools.
8. Don’t Make It Too Hard – or Too Easy: There is a balance when teaching to kids of making the level just difficult enough that they are encouraged to try for it. Kids need goals that are really tangible. This brings to mind one teacher I know who stands on a chair holding a tambourine high out to the side so the kids have to bang on it as they jump past in their grand jete. This an actual physical goal, but you get the idea. Make it too hard and they will be discouraged, but too easy and they grow bored.
9. Use the Space: Kids can’t focus on one thing for too long. Or stay in one place. Use this to your advantage. Take them in across the floor work that sweeps across the room, then do a different activity in a circle. Make them face away from the mirror for one exercise. Make lines. Work in pairs. Switch it up. If there’s a bar, find a way to use it even if you aren’t teaching ballet. Take them down on the floor for a stretch. Use levels and the entire room.
10.Whenever Possible Make It A Game: Games and imaginary play are the way that children engage with the world. This doesn’t mean it needs to be competitive. It is just a way of clarifying. Making dance into a game gives what they do a clear goal and should help to clearly define the movement. It should take the emphasis off of instructing them, and place it instead on challenging them in a fun way. It Instead of “kick higher,” try, “kick over your head in the mirror! Did you do it?”
One last note: Remember that dance and movement are natural to children. Any dance education should foster the joyful spark that exists in every child while challenging them to learn more about themselves and others. At the end of class I want a child to love not just movement more, but their bodies and their selves.
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