Strategies for Early Dance Education

 7 year old (?) Danielle Smith in Holly Mora's ballet class. Photo credit: Linda Smith

7 year old (?) Danielle Smith in Holly Mora's ballet class. Photo credit: Linda Smith

Over the past fifteen years, I've taught students of all ages- from the babies to adults. I've learned much from these experiences, through observation, and from my own training and dance education.

One of the most important periods in a dancer's training is what I will call the "Foundational Years."  Generally occurring between the ages of 6-10, it is during these years that dancers are establishing their movement vocabulary, learning to use the right muscles, and becoming accustomed to more frequent attendance and longer class times.

The foundational years are critical. Every teacher will be not effective for this age group. Let's be clear. Every dancer is not automatically skilled to teach dance. Period. At the same time, not every dancer understands what is necessary to build a young dancer, nor how to convey the information. During these years, the dancer is being properly, or improperly formed for the balance of their career.

Furthermore, foundational classes should not be handed off to young teachers, simply because they are young. It is also often wrongly assumed that teachers should begin their teaching career at this level. Just as every school teacher cannot be a kindergarten teacher (nor wants to be), every dance educator cannot lay the foundation for long-term growth. 

Here are some basic strategies for teaching classes for students in this age range and level of development:

  1. Keep in mind the ages of your students, but still challenge them to reach beyond what is believed to be possible. 
    • Set realistic, achievable goals. Take into account the number of hours/days that your students are dancing, and determine a goal for each season. At the same time, don't be afraid to challenge them to reach levels that a previous group may not have reached at the same age. Students feed off of your enthusiasm. If you expect more of them, they will give you more. This is not to encourage "tricks," this is to challenge their technique.
    • Also, consider the length of time in the classroom. Is it too short, too long? Attending more frequently for a short period of time can be more beneficial than long days once or twice a week. Some young dancers don't have the attention span to really absorb the information over several hours in the same day.
  2. Don't be afraid to vary difficulty levels within combinations.
    • Depending on the type of school you work for, pre-professional vs. recreational vs. competition, this may be difficult. "Fairness" is valued. But, there is more than one way to look at "fair." Is it fair to hold back a student who has, for example, consistently "mastered" a single pirouette and is ready to complete a double pirouette ahead of his/her peers? Is it fair to push students who need to slow down? Could you consider teaching a slower version of a combination to a group who could use more concentrated work on a movement and then encourage them to work towards the faster pace? This method individualizes the instruction while creating an atmosphere of challenge and growth, hard work and reward. Certainly, if you find you are doing too many variations on your combinations, then perhaps there is a need to re-evaluate the levels in the classroom.
  3. While ballet requires focus and discipline, don't be afraid to make it fun. 
    • The fact is, the dancers are still children. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using "fun" music from time to time and even allowing a bit of improvisation on occasion. If you can do that while delivering the necessary information, it is a win for all of you.
  4. Inspirational messages are as important as teaching technique.
    • We all know that technique is important. You have to train the body regularly in order to execute the movement correctly. However, you also have to inspire your students with glimpses of the future. Take some time out of class to share a video. Share points from a dance article. Offer a story about a dancer, or recall an experience from your own past. 

Foundational teachers have the privilege of laying the groundwork for the rest of a dancer's career. Their valuable knowledge is often underrated.  Often times, this is the teacher that decides whether or not a child continues. Surely, you've heard, "I used to dance, but I didn't like my teacher." Or " I loved Ms. Waters when I was younger, she was the best!" or "I only continued to dance because Mr. Smith saw something in me and encouraged me." 

Did you have an amazing "Foundational" teacher? Give them a shout out in the comments and tell us what made them great!