Dance Teacher Resources

Thinking about teaching: Why teach young people choreography?

Photo by Ato Suprapto.
Photo by Ato Suprapto.

When programing classes for your school in 2017, consider opportunities for teaching choreography. Choreography empowers students to think of themselves as a creator, rather than a mimic, or a disciple. Many technical capacities can be taught by allowing students to choreograph, such as musicality, dance vocabulary fluency, expressive elements, and direction and spatial awareness.

Terry Simpson, of Terry Simpson studios in Adelaide, has some very simple strategies for using choreography in the classroom. “Sometimes I say, ‘You make up the plié, you do the tendu’,” Simpson says. “And musically, it is great for them. You notice what they understand about music this way. I might also say to them, ‘It is an eight-bar ending, can you make up something to end this exercise?’, and we might use that. Often in a creative way, rather than a technical way.”

Through choreography, students develop an embodied, as well as an intellectual, understanding of the value and length of steps, time signature, tone and musical genre. Creative and expressive elements of dance can be limited or overlooked in syllabus work and training for technical proficiency. Through choreography, dancers get to assert what they value in dance and performance, and follow what creatively excites them rather than interpreting what their teacher finds interesting.

Simpson explains, “Dancing is often about following instruction and the rules. To offer them the opportunity to be choreographing means that they have to drive the creative force rather than you. Particularly with children who find it hard to express themselves, it encourages them to think about how they feel about dancing. It gives them a voice. On the other hand, for the child who loves to create, it is an opportunity for them to show what they love to do. Very often if you have really creative kids, if as a teacher you are open-minded about it, you can incorporate their work.”

Choreography can also increase dance vocabulary fluency. Students can find out about steps in the body by finding steps through movement, and also by discovering how to talk about what steps can be used in what ways. Through choreography, students learn the logic of linking and transition steps, and the shape of movement phrases. Teachers can refine students’ understanding of direction and spatial awareness, pathways through space, and how these relate to individual steps, by allowing the student to choreograph floor patterns with simple steps.

Charisse Parnell from The Dance Connection in Western Australia says, “Even at a young age, there are different activities we include in our classes to help them arrange movement which eventually forms choreography. Such as ‘Phone Numbers’, where each number relates to a movement such as ‘pose’, ‘jump’, ‘turn’, ‘freeze’, ‘roll’, et cetera. Then they create an extended sequence with their own phone numbers. As they get older, we use other tools such as the very useful ’16 ways to manipulate a motif’, universal writing, structured improvisation tasks to help create new movement.”

Some syllabi already have compulsory choreography elements, and tertiary institutions will expect a student to have experience in choreography when they audition. Teachers can equip students with these skills so that they are not at a loss when they audition. Some eisteddfods and competitions also have categories for entrants who want to compete with their own choreography. If a school or syllabus doesn’t access these types of things, teachers can introduce choreography to their school with a choreography workshop in a holiday program before considering programing a regular class.

Parnell says choreography “gives students the tools to create and explore and empowers them to develop their own ideas. Some dancers have an innate ability to create. You can see from a young age who will be our choreographers of the future.”

Thanks to Terry Simpson and Charisse Parnell for their insights into this topic. For further information on their schools, contact: Terry Simpson Studios at www.terrysimpsonstudios.com.au, and The Dance Collective www.thedancecollective.com.au.

By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.

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