Growing up, I trained in all styles of dance and played a musical instrument, the piano. I could easily and proficiently count music, read music, and identify an upbeat or downbeat. Now, as a teacher, I notice that many students, across varying ages and skill levels, struggle with the musical components of dance instruction. Phrasing, tempo, and rhythm are concepts that require detailed explanation and practice in execution and understanding in all styles of dance. Here are a couple of exercises I have integrated into my classes to work on teaching rhythm and helping our understanding of music:
Finding the 8-Count:
There are so many times that I’ve asked a student to find an 8 count. And, they struggled. The understanding of musicality and musical phrasing is an essential part of being a successful dancer, teacher, and educator. In dance, counts are the road map to success. Musicality strengthens a performance into an experience.
Take the time to review rhythm. Explain the different possibilities for timing and counting. This will make your students more adaptable as they work with other teachers and instructors.
Exercise: Round Robin Counts
We will open a class with round robin style counting exercises. Students will take turns finding an 8-count of phrasing in the music, and they will “pass” the phrase onto another dancer who will work to continue the phrasing and counting of the particular music. To notate the phrases, we clap or march and say the counts out loud. For this exercise, we vary types and tempos of music used.
Occasionally, I will stop the lesson of regular classes to “find the 8 count!” Students learn to be ready for it- which means they are diligently counting in warm-up, across the floor progressions, and in combinations. This skills transfers to shows, dance teams, and auditions. It is a valuable part of their dance education experience!
Activity: Teaching 8-Count in other Languages
Here’s a fun Classroom Activity- teaching your students to count to 8 in different languages!
SPANISH: Uno / Dos / Tres / Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Siete / Ocho
FRENCH: Un / Deux / Trois / Quatre / Cinq / Six / Sept / Huit
ITALIAN: Uno / De / Tre / Quattro / Cinque / Sei / Sette / Otto
This is a fun, educational (and applicable!) activity for all ages/levels.
Teaching With Counts
When I teach choreography with counts, I like to have the students repeat the counting to reiterate the importance of phrasing and timing. I tell them we are using the counts as our road map, and to stay on the same journey, we must use the same map.
Phrasing, Tempo, & Rhythm
I will teach a brief segment of choreography (8 or 16 counts), and we will practice executing it at different speeds:
It is important that students understand the process of counts and the ability to manipulate speed and tempo.
With time and repetition, these exercises strengthen the dancers’ understanding of rhythm, musicality, and phrasing, improving their overall performance and understanding of dance.
To complete the arm lines on the body, the fingers must be placed and engaged. One of the most prominent and noticeable choreographic errors may be found in “sloppy, floppy fingers.” It breaks the line of the body and is terribly distracting. Thankfully, with some specific critiques and dance instruction, we can fix that!
First, it is important to specify the placement of the hands and fingers.
For example, when a teacher says “hands on hips”, does the phrase mean:
No specification? (all students will likely do it differently)
Blades on hips with the thumb separated from the fingers and the fingers pointing down?
Fists on hips?
Or, if arms are directed to be placed in a “high V”, are the expectations:
Palms in? Or out?
Fingers together? Or apart?
Thumb connected or attached?
Specificity is key to uniformity. When students struggle to grasp the placement of the fingers, take pictures. Show them the difference.
When the fingers curl or move from their placement, a student may not even realize it.
Take the time to encourage specific, purposeful, and detailed movement. It will encourage your students to take direction and pay attention to detail, which will improve their overall performance!
How do you maintain your accountability as a dance professional?
Here are some thoughts for maintaining your relevance and staying refreshed:
Research New Ideas
Network with Other Professionals
Continue Your Education
Reflect on Your Career Progress
Consider Progress & Evolution
Have A Responsibility to Share
The responsibility to share promotes the practical application of research, network, education, reflection, and progress & evolution.
Find Your Outlet
As an example, with The Dance Exec, I enjoy the process of finding new content and information about our industry. I enjoy thinking through my teaching and choreography style to see what and how I can improve and evolve as an instructor.
It expands my network and worldview, and in turn, it makes me approach all of my work with a unique perspective.
What is your outlet for professional accountability? What do you do to make yourself the best professional?
Connecting with students is imperative to the lasting success and legacy of your business. You have an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life and inspire their appreciation for the performing arts. Being a dance teacher is a huge role, responsibility, and opportunity, and it should be taken seriously. The following tips will help you connect in meaningful ways that are fruitful for yourself and your students.
TIP 1: Be a Role Model
When you work with children on a regular basis, it is important you take your job seriously and that you strive to be the best role model possible. Students should never see personal vices (cursing, drinking, smoking), and you should always have the students’ best interest at heart with each and every interaction.
TIP 2: Be Realistic with Expectations
Some students may choose to pursue a professional career in dance, but, for many, the experience will be about building self-confidence, leadership, physical fitness, poise, discipline, time management, and an appreciation for the arts. Even the students that are not destined for professional careers are important, and you should treat them with an equal level of significance.
TIP 3: Be Knowledgeable
When students come to you inquiring about professional opportunities and avenues for personal growth, be prepared with an accurate and helpful response. Familiarize yourself with area dance programs, conventions, summer workshops, colleges, benefits of varying majors, conservatories, industrial work, theatrical work, theme park work, agencies, etc. You should know every avenue available to students; they are relying on you for that information.
TIP 4: Be the Teacher
When instructing students throughout their lives, it can be difficult to maintain professional boundaries; however, it is critical that those boundaries exist for the relationship to be effective in the child’s development. In order for the student to have respect for you as an instructor, there must clear boundaries in place. Communication should only be managed through professional outlets (i.e. the studio), and owners/instructors should avoid unprofessional relationships via social media outlets (remember, you are the adult, so the student is relying on you to utilize professional protocol).
TIP 5: Be Truthful
Always be open and honest with your students. Inform them when they are doing great and let them know when they can improve. If students respect your truthfulness, the relationship will flourish and grow.
TIP 6: Teach More than Steps
The dance world is full of history, knowledge, and culture. Make sure students know their terminology, origin of steps, and important figures and moments in dance history.
At the same time, instill lifelong values in your students; teach them to be strong, productive, good-willed citizens and leaders. You can do this through community service events, supporting their artistic and scholastic endeavors, and offering them multiple avenues to express themselves and acquire leadership roles (Work Study Programming, Junior Membership Organizations, etc.).
TIP 7: Resist Parent Influence
When working with children, parents’ behavior can easily influence the treatment of a child in the classroom setting. Try to rise above this desire and objectively view the situation from the child’s perspective. Your kindness and professionalism will go a long way in impacting the student, and it may even result in a change of heart from the parent.
TIP 8: Refrain from Judgment
Sometimes, students need to leave the studio to venture on another path in life (whether it be a relocation, studio change, activity change, etc.). If you approach these changes with support rather than resentment, the students/parents are only going to respect your business and brand.
When one door closes, another usually opens. Celebrate the opportunity and take solace in the fact that the change was likely for the benefit of all parties involved.
If clientele have a positive exit experience, they will share it with others and will recommend your studio. The Dance Exec’s Studio makes a point to let people know that “our door is always open.” And, countless times, we have had clients return.
There’s nothing quite like that moment when students finally master a new skill and you can see the excitement and pride in their eyes, knowing that you helped them reach this incredible achievement. You know all too well, however, that these moments don’t just come out of thin air. They require a lot of work from both you and your students to inspire them to be their best and to make measurable improvements following dance critique.
While some dancers will have a natural knack for picking up new moves, others will require much more coaching and critique to get them where they need to be. Providing the feedback is only a small part of instructing dancers. You need to help them apply dance critique so they can modify their movements. Otherwise, they’ll just become discouraged at receiving constant feedback without knowing how to actually implement the changes you’re expecting from them.
Providing Constructive Criticism
The first step in getting a student to apply dance critique is to deliver your feedback in a constructive way. This is especially the case for young dancers who may not be used to these opportunities for improvement. If feedback is framed in a negative way, dancers can end up too discouraged to keep trying. They’ll think there’s no point in working at it because they just aren’t any good, which is definitely not the mindset you’re trying to foster.
The dance blog Boundless recommended that constructive criticism should be specific, objective and concise. Approach the student positively and don’t belabor the point. If you act too apologetic or over explain, it may signal to the dancer that what’s being said is a negative thing. If you’re practical and to the point you can provide feedback without a dancer even feeling criticized.
It’s also important that you offer guidance for how to improve. Telling a student what she’s doing wrong won’t do her any good if she’s not sure what changes need to be made to make it right. Likewise, vague feedback that just tells her something isn’t working doesn’t let her know which area he or she needs to focus on. Is it foot positioning, or is the problem starting in the hips? A student needs to know where the mistakes are to then make adjustments. Changes are that if a student already knew what wasn’t going right, he or she wouldn’t be doing it.
One way to make a student more receptive to dance critique is to lead with a genuine compliment. If she’s starting a routine well, point out how strong her introduction is. Follow up by telling her it could be even stronger if she does x, y, z in specific areas of improvement. If a student has been struggling with a certain move but has been slowly improving, tell her that she’s gotten much better and that you think she can go even further.
Learning Centered Teaching suggested that instructors focus on the future and not the past. Don’t dwell on what has be going wrong. Direct your conversation to what can be done to get even better going forward.
Motivating Students to Take Action
While giving feedback correctly will be enough for many students to start making adjustments, others will need an extra push. You could be the very best there is at providing constructive criticism, but some students still won’t be able to apply what you’re telling them.
If you have a student who just can’t seem to make the changes you’re asking for, you may want to discreetly pull them aside for a more direct conversation. Don’t assume you know what the problem is. Go into the conversation with an open mind and remember that your goal is to help the student improve, not to chastise her for imperfection.
For students who don’t understand: Dance Advantage reported that instructors should try to ask students questions to help find the source of their difficulties. Ask her if she feels like she needs help with anything specific and see if she’s aware of what’s not quite working. You can then ask more pointed questions specific to the issue at hand. Does she feel any pain when she tries the move? Is she confused about any part of a routine? Inquiries along those lines can help you uncover the source of the problem so you can give more specific feedback.
For students who resist feedback: You may run into students who are just not receptive to any kind of criticism, however. These students will insist they are doing everything correctly. They may even get so combative that they tell you that you are the one who’s wrong!
Try not to take this personally. Chances are good that these students have a hard time feeling vulnerable. They may have high expectations for themselves, or low self esteem. Be understanding and try to relate to them with your own early dance experiences. Say it’s easy and understandable to feel it’s going perfectly because they can’t see it from the outside, but that you think there’s room to be even better. Don’t frame feedback as a lecture on what they’re doing wrong, but rather present it as an opportunity to get even better.
The most important thing for you to do is go into every dance critique interaction with good intentions and the goal of helping students improve. With that mindset, you’ll be much more effective in helping them grow.