by Meg Gronau
I just came home from three of the best classes I’ve ever taught. This isn’t totally earth-shattering news, because as a teacher I am always trying to improve – so my classes SHOULD get better and better as time goes by.
One reason today went so well was that I felt fully prepared. Now, I learned long ago – about 13 years ago, when I was first teaching dance to preschool-aged children – never to go into class unprepared. An unprepared teacher faces a terrible fate in a room of preschoolers.
For preschoolers in particular, I need to over-prepare. Not only do I need to know the choreography cold (not just having gone over it once, but be able to perform the dance fully without checking notes as I go – which is a challenge because I am notoriously slow to commit choreography to memory), I also like to have a list of optional activities to fill the class.
Because preschoolers are a funny lot. Many of them have no previous experience in a classroom, heeding instruction and dealing with group dynamics. Some are shocked and horrified the first time they have to wait their turn to speak, or go across the floor, or get an adult’s attention. Some have big feelings when they find out that Mom, Dad or a beloved grandparent isn’t staying in the room during class. And a preschooler is always the center of his or her tiny, momentary universe. I cannot tell you how often, right in the middle of a dance, one of them will suddenly holler something like “Miss Meg Miss Meg! My grandma is coming to visit on Thursday.” Thanks for sharing that, Bella. Can you tendu with me?
So I’ve found it’s a good idea to have lots of options for each class. I always start the same way, because I know kids appreciate consistency (preschoolers require it, and – who am I kidding? – even adults in dance class enjoy a warm-up where they know what to expect): we do a large-muscle warmup to “get our hearts pumping and our muscles warm,” followed by “ballet exercises” (modified barre) and stretching. But after that, I keep several different tricks up my sleeve.
If the class is really excited about the themed material (a favorite session was Cinderella, which delights most of the little girls), we typically go right into one or two of the “Cinderella” themed dances, which are fully choreographed. I might take a moment to review some of the specific steps (port de bras or glissades, for example), but then I just turn on the music and narrate what I’m doing so the kids can follow me in the steps. There are usually about 3 songs like this each session, and I try to do at least 2 of them every week to keep the kids interested.
But some groups of kids are not into the material – this even happens some weeks with otherwise-very-popular themes. If I sense that I might have trouble keeping the kids’ interest, I bring out my props. For preschoolers I have a big parachute, a set of chiffon scarves, a set of hand-sized stuffed animals, and a set of musical shakers. Sometimes I have songs that I use with the props, and sometimes we find ways to use the props creatively without music (though I usually have SOME music, even just in the background).
Another option is “across-the-floor.” The kids love this and I do, too. For them, it’s a chance for them to feel special dancing all by themselves (and I try to come up with a specific, positive comment for each child during their turn). For me, it’s crowd control: yes, you have to sit and wait for your turn. Yes, everyone will have a turn. I also get a chance to really see each child’s personality come out through their creative expression. For us all, it’s a chance to turn the volume down while the kids learn how to be a good audience member, how to take turns, and how to share time, space, and attention.
Finally, I have a long playlist of “Creative Movement” songs. Many of these have built-in choreography, where the song tells you what to do. My secret fear is that kids and parents can see through this, and view it as a waste of time; yes, anyone can do the “Hokey Pokey” at home. So I work hard to make sure the kids stay moving the whole song. I do different things with different songs, but as an example, when we do “Animal Action” (which many of my students recognize from Sunday school or preschool), I use the break between animals to reinforce ballet steps we are working on. When we do the “YMCA” I have very simple, repetitive, but high-energy choreo we do for all the verses (not just the chorus). Other songs, I help the kids use their imaginations to come up with their own movements, and I allow all kinds of crazy ideas (“Sure, Cinderella can take a train to the ball! And yes, I’d love to see a giraffe when we get there!”)
In addition, one of the great things about Mayer Arts is that Gina provides theme-specific “creative movement” songs as part of each session. These are often classical pieces pulled from the ballet of whatever theme we are using. Using these is a great opportunity to introduce kids to classical music. Also, the lack of song lyrics lets the kids really use their imaginations to invent their own movements (typically along a VERY loose story line I use to help get them started). It’s also a chance to use our props again.
With all these tools it is incredibly easy to fill a 45-minute class. And when something isn’t working, it’s great to have a ton of other options right at my fingertips, to keep the kids engaged and keep me sane.