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Have you ever questioned whether or not your tiniest of dancers are actually LEARNING anything in your classes? Sure they show up every week, are totally adorable, have a ton of fun...but what are they actually LEARNING? Not to worry, I had these same questions as a preschool dance educator, especially early on in my teaching career. I would dread any time my little dancers would run out to the lobby to see mom and the first question mom would ask, "What did you learn today?" Would my dancers know how to answer? For the longest time, I am not sure they did. It wasn't until I read Anne Green Gilbert's Book Creative Dance for All Ages that I realized that dance could go from being a fun, cute and recreational activity to a whole child learning experience.
"Creative Dance can open up for you your students new worlds of knowledge, creativity and self-expression. Creative Dance can be a powerful tool towards peace because people can learn to solve problems, express feelings, cooperate, accept and value individual differences, gain awareness of their own and other's cultures and engage in an activity that increases rather than decreases self-esteem." ~ Anne Green Gilbert
What I learned from Gilbert's Book about teaching dance conceptually is that our youngest students can learn and grow through dance the most, when our classes become focused and guided on certain principles, those principles being the Dance Concepts.
Today I am excited to discuss Teaching the Dance Concepts, what the Dance Concepts are and why they are important to include into our dance classes.
Why is Teaching the Dance Concepts Important?
The Elements of Dance are the foundational concepts and vocabulary that help students develop movement skills and understand dance as an artistic practice. Dance Concepts and Elements are the framework of movement.
Before I started studying the dance concepts and elements, my classes were pretty standard. I would start class with some typical warm up stretches: a butterfly stretch where we put on our butterfly wings, some pointe and flexes where we looked at our different color ballet shoes, and then a straddle stretch where we baked a pizza. Next we’d stand up and I’d play a Disney song and we’d practice some plies, tendus and twirls. Then we went across the floor and did butterfly chasses, princess walks on our tip toes and maybe some leaps over a teddy bear. Overall, it was a typical dance class that you would expect to find at any dance studio. But I was really not reaching my full potential as a preschool dance teacher and I was missing the opportunity to really teach dance to my students. It wasn’t until I got Anne Green Gilbert's Book, that I recognized that I was a dance teacher and not a dance educator.
Teaching dance classes focused on a concept has changed the way I educate my dancers.
My classes have a focus. Instead of being all over the place with themes and ideas, each week I have one theme and one dance concept. Like October for example. My Theme is Fall in Love with Dance! A weekly Sub Theme is Scarecrows, we talk about the different body shapes scarecrows make - Straight, Curvy, Angular/Geometric or Twisted/Wrapped. I also have a Pumpkin theme where we go to the pumpkin patch and explore sizes. When you focus on one aspect of dance and the elements, I have found that you can now provide a more unique learning experience for your students.
By teaching the dance concepts, I can fully tap into the whole-child. I am not just teaching gross motor and fine motor skills. I am now really tapping into how my students develop. Teaching concepts improves not only their gross and fine motor skills, but also their cognitive development such as their ability to problem solve, learn about the world and how they can exist within it. It can also help with their social and emotional development as they learn how to dance with others in and through space, how they dance with partners, and how dance can help them blossom their own sense of self-expression.
Now my students actually understand why they dance and not just how they dance. When they are ready to move up into a more advanced class, they have a better appreciation for the skills they are learning, and why they are learning and performing those skills. We don’t just stop teaching the dance concepts, we just begin teaching them in a more holistic way as our dancers get older and more advanced.
How Can Teaching the Dance Concepts Benefit your Students?
Let’s break down each concept and what they can teach our students:
Space explores our space and the area in which we can move. Space is 4 fold. First there is the
discussion of Self space. This is the space I dance in when I’m on a spot or stationary. Second there is General Space.
This is the space I move in when I am traveling around or through space. Performing stationary movements in self-space is known as Non-Locomotor movements while studying space traveling around the room is known as Locomotor movements.
Studying the concept of space teaches our students spatial awareness. How many times have you asked your dancers to spread out and instead they literally stand right next to someone else. They have to be taught about space, and how they can exist within the space.
Learning about tempo is a very important skill, since dance is mostly bringing music to life. By teaching students the elements of tempo, you help develop their overall understanding of the way music elements work together to create feelings and impressions. These and other listening exercises will lay the foundation for future compositions and better performances. We start by discussing simple elements such as is the music fast or slow. As we explore tempo, we can also begin exploring more advanced elements of tempo such as acceleration vs slowing down. Finally different rhythms and beats.
The concept of size is important to learn in dance because it will help our dancers with proprioception which is the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body in and through space. By making our bodies different sizes, we can explore additional concepts such as contraction vs extension which is great for overall s. Core-Distal exercises where you contract the body towards the core and extend your arms and legs distally into space is a great way to explore body size in your classes.
Like Size, levels is another great way to improve proprioception and spatial awareness. Additionally lower movements such as crawling and rolls can improve the vestibular sense, which controls the sensations of body rotation and of gravitation and movement.
Directions is a compound element that can be explored in dance. It can begin as simple as the exploration of Body Side (learning how to move the right side of the body in isolation of the left side of the body). This will help with body side dominance (whether a dancer may be right or left handed or right or left brained). Our goal in dance, although a dominant side will always prevail, is to strengthen both sides of the body equally. Directions may also refer to stage directions which help with spatial awareness. Moving from Upstage to Downstage or Stage Right to Stage Left. These concepts will help dancers later when in performance. Lastly learning how to move through space forwards, backwards, and sideways is another great way to improve spatial awareness. Also, reversing a combination or performing a combination in a different direction is great for our brain function and overall cognitive development.
Pathways are another great way to improve overall spatial awareness. An important aspect in dance is learning not only how to perform in self space, but how to perform and move through space alone and with other dancers. Learning different pathways of movement such as straight, circular or zig zag will help dancers navigate their space when sharing the space with other dancers and moving around others collaboratively. This exploration is great for relationships and social interaction and development.
Positional concepts are abstract spatial concepts such as on or off. I am dancing on a spot, now I am dancing off a spot. Additionally, Positional concepts can refer to through, around, inside, outside etc. I can dance through a pathway in a zig zag or I can crawl through a tunnel vs I can chasse around a pathway or dance in a circle around the room. Additional Positional Concepts could be inside and outside. I am dancing inside a hula hoop and now I am dancing outside a hula hoop. Positional concepts are an extension of space and will continue to help our dancers learn about proprioception and how their bodies can move in and through space.
Learning Body Shapes and how our bodies can make different shapes is very important for dance. This can be explored as a simple Head/Tail connection as we can practice making our spines straight vs curvy. Additionally, when most dancers start young they mimic their instructors. Sometimes they may struggle making their bodies look exactly like their instructors. So saying things like, let’s make our arms in a circle for teaching first position, or let’s make a diamond with our legs to teach pliés or a triangle to teach a passé or retiré. Body shapes can be taught as a whole body exploration as well. Can we make our body curvy? Can we make our body straight? This will help dancers with their spinal flexibility and further explore the idea of contraction and expansion as the body shape of straight is an extension of our spine vs a curvy shape is more of a spinal contraction.
Dance is performed with the whole body. So it’s very important as dancers we understand our anatomy and the different muscles and body parts we need to use as we perform certain movements. Anatomy exploration for younger dancers is more simple in terminology and exploration as it can be something like simple body isolations for example let’s move just our head, now let’s move our legs, now let’s move our elbows. Exploring body parts and anatomy with Cross Lateral movements where we cross our midline is important as well. For example touching your right hand to your left foot or your left elbow to your right knee. Cross Lateral movements provide many additional benefits to our brain development and overall body function. As we get older and begin learning more advanced skills, understanding our muscles and muscle groups is very important to learn which muscles we need to strengthen and activate to improve our technique and execution of steps. Isolating our body parts and muscle groups is great for strength building, flexibility and overall gross motor development.
Weight Exploring body weight such as moving heavy vs moving light, is a great way to develop more dynamic movements. Weight exploration can begin in a simple sense of let’s move light as feather by tip toeing now let’s move heavy by marching. Once these simpler explorations of weight are studied we can move to more advanced weight concepts such as weight transfer. It is very important that dancers learn how to transfer weight from one part of their body to the other. This is important when linking steps together smoothly in choreographic pieces or patterns of movement. Energy
Another concept to help build dynamic movement is energy. How dancers approach movements with different energy, force or attack is important. Some movements require more energy than others. Simple ways to explore energy can be dancing like different emotions. Let’s dance happy, vs sad. Let’s dance airy vs sluggish. We can also use energy to explore more advanced energy concepts such as performing movements sharp, gentle, loose, smooth, sustained.
We study relationships to build social and interactive development among our dancers. As dancers we need to learn how to dance by ourselves but we also need to learn how to dance with partners or in groups. Relationships can explore tactile concepts and how we appropriately touch others. I’m sure you’ve had the dancers who complain that someone is holding their hand too tight, or not tight enough. Beginning our relationship exploration through tactile activities is important. From there we can explore more advanced relationships such as dancing facing a partner vs side by side. We can also dance back to back. We can dance in groups in a circle or by connecting in a long line like a train. Learning how to dance cooperatively with others so everyone is safe in partner and group movements is going to build our social and emotional skills as well.
Dance patterns may be described according to combinations of quick and slow steps and often by the rhythm or meter of the music, for example waltz steps (three-count step patterns danced to waltz music), swing steps (four-count patterns danced to swing music), etc. Patterns can also be explored by form. For example ABA form begins with an opening theme, leads into a contrasting theme that compliments the first, and concludes with a return to the opening theme. This conclusion is recognizable but somehow changed in order to bring the piece to its resolution. There is a cyclic feel, a sense of continuity, order and inevitability. A simple ABA theme when first learning dance can be a Plié Followed by a Tendu and Returning to a Plié. Linking multiple movements in a simple pattern can help our dancers begin to learn the basics of choreography.
The process of sequencing is a more advanced exploration of pattern. We can put multiple patterns together to form a sequence of movement. It may or may not tell a story. Linking multiple steps together in dance leads to the creation of choreography.
Those are the 14 dance concepts we study and explore in the Dance to Learn® Program. I look forward to exploring each concept more in upcoming articles. I hope you will join me by subscribing to the blog so you don’t miss any of the upcoming articles.