Body Talks: Telling Movement Stories in Dance Class

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I’ve started taking a course at Brock University about teaching the Dance curriculum, and I am so excited! Dance was not part of the Ontario curriculum when I was in school; it was at the discretion of the teacher whether it was taught. I vaguely remember doing line dancing in elementary school at some point and I vividly remember doing the Hustle in grade 7. I still remember the terrible haircut of the guy in the Hustle instructional video (unfortunately I do not remember the Hustle or I would film myself busting a move and post it for your viewing pleasure).

A lot of educators (and people in general) seem to have a fair amount of anxiety concerning dance. There seems to be a concern about embarrassing oneself, about “not being good at it”. Well, I’m no prima ballerina, but I love dance and I’ll let you in on a little secret so you can enjoy dance too: once you accept the fact that, yes, you probably suck at dance, it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable. What I mean by that is once you take the pressure off yourself to be perfect and just focus on expressing yourself, you’ll find that’s when your dance skill improves.

Some people naturally have a way with dance and can improvise or learn moves with ease. I…am not one of those people. I’m uncoordinated  and in order to learn dance moves and routines I have to practice a lot, but that’s okay because when you’re presenting, all people see is you totally rocking it. They don’t know if you spent one hour or ten hours practicing. Soooo I don’t devote too much time to crying about my lack of dance prodigy status.

Dance is all about your attitude. If you are moving with confidence, regardless of how weird the move, it will always look better than someone timidly giving half-effort. This is something you will have to teach your students because many of them will be nervous about dance, especially in middle school where to be embarrassed is tantamount to gravest injury. So get over your own hangups if not for your own benefit then at least so you can be a good teacher for your students!

Something I was surprised to learn about teaching dance is it is NOT about learning choreographed dance routines. I’m sure that can play a small role in Overall Expectation 3 with cultural appreciation, but the majority of dance class should be devoted to students using their bodies as an instrument of expression. That means you can’t throw on a video and have students learn the Hustle *single tear*.

So what can you do then to get students moving and expressing? This is some of the fun and thought-provoking stuff we’ve done in class thus far:

Syllable Dance Combo

Begin with students in a circle. Each student must perform a movement or several movements depending on how many syllables are in their name e.g. “Maddie” would have to do two moves. The rest of the class then mimics the movement twice.

Once everyone has had a chance to make a movement, group students according to syllables e.g. do not put three people with 4-syllable names in a group. Have the students make a movement phrase combining all the names. Once everyone is ready, the class performs and then reflects on the performances, pointing out elements they found effective.

After the reflection, have students return to their groups and refine their dances, incorporating any elements they admired from other groups, or new ideas they thought of through discussion. With my group for example, we had initially performed in a straight line, but decided to make better use of space by performing actions while walking towards one another from the corners of the stage and introducing a change in direction at the end.

This activity could easily take up 2 classes depending on how much time students need to rehearse.

Laban Movement Dance

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This activity requires the use of the Action Pak Dance Resource located here, but you could make a variation on it if you wanted to. The resource has 70 cards with creative action words on it based on Laban’s principles of movement. In groups, we randomly got a selection of cards and from there had to narrow down which of the cards we would want to perform in our dance.

The important thing to note here, because I have no doubt many students will fall prey to this temptation: performing the movement on the card does NOT mean pantomime. That is a drama technique, and that is not the point of the exercise. So for example if the word was “pull” you wouldn’t play tug-of-war on stage. You need to think about what type of movement is pull, and how you could abstractly express the essence of the movement, not necessarily the movement itself.

That sounds complicated and academic but isn’t when you get down to it. Think about the difference between a “melting” and a “falling” movement. If you were to perform those movements without thinking, I’m guessing if you discussed it afterwards you would’ve noticed that melting was slower than falling, melting probably involved more contortions, and probably gradually spread once you got to the floor. Falling would probably be faster and when you fall, you fall all at once, not in pieces.

This was a fun activity and stimulated good discussion in my group about what the essence of the actions were (we had pull, explode, and slice).

These are just a couple activities that could be done in the classroom that gets away from having students learn choreography and deals more with dance as a storytelling method. To play you out, here is the Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen number “Choreography” from tWhite Christmas, which juxtaposes “dancing” and “choreography” in an entertaining way:

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