Dance Exploration Lesson Planet

Dance exploration is what I’m offering, I told them. We’ll be listening and responding to different types of music and asking ourselves ‘what makes a dance, a dance?’ Those who chose to stay at least brought their fair share of curiosity which was actually a brilliant start.

We began with crosstown traffic. Half groups line up facing each other several meters apart. The goal: to pass to the opposite side without bumping into others while also responding to the music. An easy on-ramp. I ask them to use different pathways, to try alternating levels as they go. How are they using their arms? What kinds of shapes are they making as they travel? In the process, I vary the music from West African drumming, to a lyrical romantic soundtrack, to workaday pop, to a high energy Bollywood tune. They move, they adapt.

Next, we learn to imagine our own box that is as tall as we can jump, as wide and deep as we can reach. Here is where we can experiment with non-locomotor movements: twisting, turning, curling, stretching, kicking, extending. I say we, because I find my own box and play inside it. Some students turn to watch me. And I catch them wondering. But I continue and they, too, discover the possibilities within their own boxes.

I ask them to pick two or three movements they tried in their box and really liked. They then shared their moves with a partner and found ways to combine their ideas. Again, I offered two slightly different selections of music to experiment with. Depending on the vibe, pairs were asked to share their work in progress and often we had a couple of pairs share at a time to reduce performance anxiety. Some pairs also chose not to share.

If time was left, pairs could join forces and continue to build on their creations.

In the space of 4 days of classes, seeing each grade level group two times, I learned so much about what’s possible in short time frames. Opening the door for individual discovery and creativity to then creating a shallow on-ramp for simple collaboration with the option to add complexity if students chose…

If students chose… Students experienced many, many opportunities in the 40+ minutes to choose, choose, and choose again. Which movements to each kind of music, which partner, which group, which combinations, what kind of performance? All possible because…still playful. No grades, no evaluation; instead appreciation, fun and surprise.

And it mattered that I provided guidance while also participating. I was not as separate from them as they might have expected. By modeling discovery and fun in my own box, I gave a taste of what’s possible. Even the most hesitant movers found an in to exploring their response to the environment.

My loose ideas for structuring a dance exploration workshop for elementary students evolved over the course of the week. I learned to adapt to my audience. With Pre-K I quickly found out that storytelling provided a useful frame for channeling their energies. With tough customers I had to remind myself to not take it personally and to simply ask what might help their engagement: different music? Working alone or with a different group? In most cases we were able to locate a positive solution.

I write all this now as a way to remind myself weeks, months and years later what was possible, successful and worthy. Our MADD (Music, Art, Dance and Drama) Week provided occasion for me to prepare differently. To provoke and receive students’ invention and creative energies in ways that humbled and surprised me. I gave myself and my students license to genuinely explore, test and develop our own approaches not only to dance but to collaboration and community. So much more than any lesson plan could ever articulate.

Choreographing Pop Danthology

Last spring I made an offer to the 5th graders:  If any students were interested in forming a group to create a dance to perform in the annual all-school dance performance, I would gladly coach them and help them prepare.  About 2 weeks later, one student handed me a list of names plus titles of the songs they were considering.  Wow! Not only were there about 10 names on the list but they included boys and girls!  Apparently they had already begun organizing at recess and negotiating which moves to which music.

This was an entirely new experience for me. Traditionally, the whole grade had worked during PE on a choreography that I created and that we usually performed at some end-of-the-year event. And while this model proved efficient in several ways, turning the project over to the students to organize and develop unleashed all kinds of unexpected benefits.

So after about three weeks, the group had run into problems.  The boys were suggesting movements that the girls didn’t want to do and vice-versa. And they had changed the music from a summer hit to a popular youtube mash-up. I invited them in at lunchtime to show me what they had. The group had shrunk from the original 10 down to about 8 with a couple of hangers on.  Still I was  impressed with their initiative and bravery.  I listened and watched. There were several good ideas, especially for the beginning, and all of the students seemed to like the music. I made a proposal: Over the weekend I would study the music, think about some possible movements which might fit and then we would come back together on Monday and see where we were.  There were some sighs of relief and a renewed sense of faith that all would be well.

Initially I was overwhelmed with the speed of the music and the constant changes. How am I supposed to choreograph anything to this?  It took a few listening run-throughs before I understood that by listening to the lyrics and getting the mood for each section, the dance practically choreographed itself. Even better, because the kids already knew the mash-up by heart, matching steps to lyrics made all of it much easier to memorize and perform the first 3 minutes and 30 seconds of it. Bringing my suggestions back to the group turned out to be an easy sell. They were happy with the moves and they also knew that time was running out.

Our performance in front of families and students from the whole school community became an instant hit. The crowd loved the music, began clapping as the dancers became more animated and overall, we could hardly have celebrated a more successful experience.

With all the talk in education circles about what kids need in order to be prepared and ready for their next stages of life, I often feel overwhelmed with all the demands to simultaneously increase engagement, rigor, critical thinking, joy, academic outcomes, media literacy, social responsibility, fitness results, health awareness, differentiation, and so on and so on.  Taking a chance on kids by handing over the controls, offering some guidance both in the process and the product, allowing myself to learn a new thing or two*, and having fun with my students – The whole thing made for an exceptional unit of work – in learning, in performing, in collaborating, in accomplishing.  My students and I did more than choreograph moves to music, we created a whole new pattern of interaction that bears repeating, refining and remembering.


*I also investigated Daniel Kim’s story (He’s the creator of the mash-up) which you can see here. Well worth watching in understanding how a highly gifted individual managed and manages his intolerance for boredom.