Dance is not a passive act. No matter if our students are warming-up their bodies in preparation for moving, participating in their regular technique courses, taking the stage in performance, or observing one themselves, we are constantly asking our students to actively engage with the form. Yet, it can often feel like our students’ minds are miles away from their bodies; though they attempt to move through a phrase they lack presence as if they are on automatic-pilot, simply going through the motions. There is no one answer to the best way of assisting dance students to participate fully in a process, however here are some ideas to reconsider…
What’s the “Buy-In?”
Why should our students wholly commit to their dance studies? What’s in it for them—what do they have the potential to gain? Is it to satisfy some requirement? How bout to appear cool/hip to others? To have fun? To challenge themselves? To receive the opportunity to move, because they love it? These reasons for taking a dance class all have one thing in common: empowerment. All require using dance as a tool for a person to become or experience more than they currently are.
When we acknowledge empowerment as a “buy-in” for students, we can use this principle as a guiding force in our decision making process in our teaching practices. Let’s say, as an example in phrase making, you want to structure a phrase for your students around softness; perhaps assert the power of softness at the beginning of the phrase with movements that are at a higher intensity/healthy end-range of motion. This may allow students an opportunity to feel strength in what may be perceived as an unlikely place, before exploring its more vulnerable contents. How about when verbally trying to encourage and constructively critique our dancers in their execution of exercises? If we are guided by empowerment we have a healthy alternative to shame-based encouragement: the feedback stops relying on observations of deficiencies and instead sees the effort and pushes for more.
Incorporation of this idea doesn’t have to come all at once. By simply asking what your motivations are in small self-reflections on a daily/weekly/monthly basis can challenge embedded learned behavior and actions.
Where “Saying Yes” and Self-Regulation Meet
There is a popular theatre game that is often used with students in relation to participation in improvisation called, “Yes Let’s.” While you can get the general idea of how to play here, “Yes Let’s” is routinely employed by teachers to illustrate the importance of saying “yes” in the arts; that when you say yes to possibilities, you are able to explore and grow with fantastic results. There are several other ways of saying this, whether it’s “lean in,” “commit,” “go full-tilt,” etc. No matter what words are used dance teacher routinely ask our students to greet their work with acceptance and an openness to explore.
How can we best aid in this process, which both empowers our students and acknowledges their individual voice and presence? One way is to reinforce their ability to self-regulate. If a student is able to use their body awareness to make decisions like whether they should make an adjustment or simply modify a movement for an injury, then they may feel empowered to make informed decisions on how best to participate. At the same time if we can guide our students through high-stress periods by incorporating small classroom rituals into our courses, we can facilitate the release of tension so our students are more attentive to current requirements. Classroom techniques for student self-regulation comes in countless forms so if you would like more resources please click here.
Review Standards and Reaffirm a Productive Work Ethic.
As teachers we are always balancing standards. Our own, our governing bodies, and depending where we teach, state’s as well. Standards can be a source of inspiration, something to aspire to. If your students are not engaging as much as they could it might be time to review, and perhaps rethink, some of your standards around what a productive work ethic looks like with your students.
The work that takes place in a dance studio is never just about movement. It involves taking chances and challenging yourself. Building a vocabulary of understanding between peers, while engaging in group processes. Understanding execution, while building new skills. All of these things happen in most academic classes—so why should a student approach the work in a studio dance class with any less integrity than they would a math class? In the end each student must decide how they will be present in class, how they will meet a teacher’s and their own personal expectations, and what’s important to them in their education. This can get lost, and in some cases, never firmly established. By taking the time to lay the foundation of standards and course expectations, and by periodically revisiting them, your students will have a clear structure in which they can work.
Sometimes the most effective action we can take is to step back to allow our students to find their own way in the process. This means they may not be a 100% present in class. They may not do their best work. They may fail, when the answers are right in front of their faces. Our job as dance teachers is not to micromanage every instance of a student’s dance education, but to open the door to the world and possibilities of dance. It is our students’ job to walk through that door. Let them.
…Zackary Forcum works as a Dance Teaching Artist and is a MFA Dance Candidate at Mills College while sitting on CDEA’s Greater Board…