As a dance teacher, you have responsibility for teaching a lot of different skills to your students. There is technique, of course, and musicality, artistry, discipline and spatial awareness. You may also realise you have a role in building their emotional resilience as much as you build their physical strength, flexibility and resilience. But I wonder, how often do you think about your role in facilitating and encouraging their creativity? After all, dance is an art form, and when people think ‘creativity’, they often think about the arts.
Most experts on creativity agree that a thorough knowledge of the field or knowledge domain is a prerequisite for creativity. In the context of dance, this can relate to technique, style, history etc. Clearly, it is important that you teach these things to your students. But problems arises when the creative impulse is extinguished in the pursuit of technical knowledge and skills. Or when the student comes to believe that the behaviours and characteristics required for creativity (such as experimentation, risk taking, exploration, curiosity, openness to new things, and the important role of failure in learning) are not desirable.
Just like the ability to coordinate yourself, to execute specific steps, and to pick up and retain new choreography need to be learned and practiced, so does the capacity to be creative. I work with adult dancers mainly in a contemporary dance context. The capacity to let go of pre-learned steps and to contribute in a creative way to a choreographer’s vision is vital. What I have found is that dancers who have had primarily studio training find it very difficult to let go of their technical steps, to improvise, to complete choreographic tasks. There is a great deal of fear and inhibition when it comes to creating something yourself, rather than copying a step provided by the choreographer. In my opinion, it is better to sustain the natural creativity of the child while you teach them technique, than to try to recover it after it’s been lost.
Unfortunately, in the day-to-day of teaching, it can be easy to forget about creativity and focus on more pressing objectives, like how well you place in dance competitions, exam results, covering a syllabus, putting on the end of year concert, and getting more students enrolled so your studio is financially viable. I’m sure the list goes on. If you’re like most people in the world, you have so much to juggle that you may think creativity is important, but you just don’t have the time or head space to think or to add something extra into your list of things to do.
To help you out, I’ve put together a list of 8 things you can do to encourage and support creativity in your dance students, that shouldn’t add too much to your workload.
These tips are based on some of the fundamentals of creativity, such as experimentation, curiosity, practice, tolerance of risk and failure, communication and reinforcement, broadening knowledge, search for challenges, idea generation, and the physical and social environment.
Tip #1: Allow for individuality
In most dance styles, students are expected to mimic a teacher’s movements exactly, and groups of dancers are meant to all move identically. This is important, but in only teaching students to learn movements by rote, you send an implicit message that being able to copy someone else exactly is the most important thing. To counter this, make sure you regularly give students a chance to incorporate something of their own into a class. It can be something as simple as asking students to set their own arms to an exercise, or giving them a chance to make up a combination for the class, or including an exercise on free movement to music.
Tip #2: Praise students when they do something creative
The things that you praise, and the things that you criticise, send strong messages to students about what is valued. If the only praise given is when someone is doing exactly what they are told, or repeating something exactly as you asked them to, then the student will think this is the only thing that is important. So make sure that you take notice when a student experiments a little, when they take a risk, when they show initiative, when they are curious and ask questions, or when they use imagery to describe something.
Each child has their own strengths. Some may be creative, some may be technical, some may have a great memory. The important part is to ensure that you provide some reinforcement for each of these types of skill sets. By praising creativity in one child who is particularly creative, you send a message to all the children that creativity is valued.
Tip #3: Encourage students to experiment
Experimentation means exploring, finding new ways to do things, taking reasonable risks, and being prepared to fail sometimes. Of course, physical and emotional safety is paramount in dance training, and I would never recommend encouraging students to do anything that could result in a physical injury or emotional scar. You can allow students to experiment through an improvisational exercise, asking them to try different things in executing a movement to see how it effects the execution of the movement, or asking them to share an image or an idea that they use. Again, it’s about communication. In this case, communicating that trying something new is good, that trying something and failing is fine, that when you fail you use it as a learning experience, and keep on trying.
Tip #4: Get students to improvise often
A popular definition of creativity is “coming up with something new”. This may be something that is new to a person, to an organisation, or to the world. Improvisation is one of the best paths to get there. It doesn’t have to be ground breaking. It can be as simple as putting on some music and asking students to move in response to the music. The trick is to push the boundaries regularly and in bite sized chunks. Whether you teach in a dance form that draws heavily on improvisation (like contemporary) or one that doesn’t (such as classical ballet), I encourage you to develop an improvisation tool kit that you can use with your students. A Google search will give you an abundance of ideas and methods.
Tip #5: Encourage students to expand their experience beyond the classroom
To be a great teacher, you need to do more than just provide content and instruction in the classroom. Aim to inspire your students to be self-directed in their learning and to seek out information in an area where they have a special interest – it could be music, technique, choreographers, anatomy. By expanding their knowledge independently, students will develop a rich bank of knowledge and experience to draw on when it comes to coming up with new ideas or new ways to do things.
You can do this by making sure your students know about dance performances they can see live, or can find on the internet. Encourage them to look beyond dance, to theatre, visual art, photography, architecture, and literature. It can be as simple as letting them know about something outside of class, but will be even more effective if you provide time for them to share their experiences, or if you organise group outings to performances and events, or you set them some kind of homework.
Tip #6: Encourage students to collect ideas
It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s another to remember it later. Encourage students to capture their thoughts and ideas. You might ask them to keep an idea journal, to keep clippings from magazines, to draw pictures, or collect other items that they find interesting. Having an opportunity to share ideas will also motivate students to take note of their ideas. Perhaps offer some time in your class to talk about their experiences or ideas, or a notice board where students can display things, or include something from a student in a newsletter, website, Facebook group, or any other methods you think of.
Tip #7: Let students explore what interests them
Not all students learn in the same way, and not all students are interested in the same things. If you give your students the chance to also indulge their own interests and spark their own curiosity, they will be more engaged. Take the time to recognise the strengths and interests of each of your students, and give them a chance to shine in those areas. Don’t just offer opportunities to the children who have the right physique, the best technique, or the best memory. Think about how you can give opportunities to the children with the most imagination, the best ability to improvise, the most curiosity.
Tip #8: Encourage collaboration
Most of the best ideas come about when people get together and share their ideas, so make sure you give your students that chance to collaborate. You can do this by getting two or more students to work on something in class, to set them a homework task they can do together, giving them the chance to create their own dances and present either in class or at a separate performance (in studio or theatre). Even something as simple as breaking into groups and talking about some tasks they’d like to do gives them a chance to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.
Consider the 8 ideas outlined in this article to be your starter pack. They provide you with a strong foundation for building creativity into your dance teaching practice without having to do too much extra work. But I do encourage you to reflect on the value of creativity, and on the things you do and say each day as you teach. Do these things send a message that creativity is a good thing, or do they send an inadvertent message that creativity is not high up on the priority list?
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.
About Jo McDonald
Jo McDonald is the founder and artistic director of Adelaide-based dance organisation Move Through Life, as well as the founder of creativity consultancy The Dragonfly Solution. As a dancer, choreographer, artistic director, song writer, and visual artist, Jo understands only too well the challenges and barriers to creativity, as well as how to get around these barriers. With The Dragonfly Solution, Jo works with individual artists to overcome creative blocks, to define their creative vision, to map out a path to achieve their vision, to become emotionally resilient as an artist, to be a sounding board and coach, and to help artist to be accountable for their vision. She works with parents and teachers to encourage creativity in children, to recognise the things that may discourage their child or student’s creativity, to communicate the value of creativity, and to support them as a key person in the creative journey of a child. She also works with organisations and leaders to understand how their management / leadership style can encourage or inhibit creativity, to establish physical and social environments that support creativity and new ideas, to solve problems, to recognise and seize opportunities, and to develop a culture of creativity. Contact Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org.