Making Space for Creativity in Your Dance Class

It’s okay to sometimes be a little uncomfortable when you’re teaching. This might sound surprising to some, but it is a fact that I’ve found to be true. I have found this sentiment to be most true when I am working to allow space for creativity in my dance class. Now that I’ve said that, let me give you a little background.

As an elementary teacher for 6 years now, I have spent several years working to find my teacher voice, establish my authority in the classroom, develop my warm/strict mechanisms, and to really just own the idea that I am the “expert in the room” (a validating phrase that I heard frequently at one organization where I taught for two years). But with all of that, sometimes we forget about allowing kids to create. We forget about all of the detailed lessons based in the theory of constructivism that we developed while training to become educators. We forget to make space for our students to experiment, take calculated risks, and to build in their own learning environment.

Also, besides forgetting, sometimes we just get comfortable. We get into a groove, our students enjoy it, we get positive feedback and no complaints (classroom teaching heaven, am I right?), and we decide to not fix what isn’t broken. The problem with that is: stagnation. I believe I heard recently on one of the podcasts that I listen to: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” Call us dramatic if you want to, but I’d bet that for most of us creatives, not moving or making causes us to feel like there’s a piece of us that isn’t really living. (#createordie)

Since we artists, educators, and creators have the intention to always be growing, learning, and making, we have to allow our students to do the same. We have to let them discover the joy that comes from ideating, making, and re-making.

So, let’s get uncomfortable. Sometimes, this can be as simple as adding a song to your class that fits within your lesson plan, theme, or unit, but that might not give you the desire to move in a way that is comfortable for you. It could be as simple as slowing down or speeding up the tempo to a piece, changing the direction of a movement, or releasing some control during a portion of class and passing the ownership of the learning completely to your students.

When you allow yourself to be uncomfortable and force yourself to create in an unfamiliar space, you are modeling successfully working through unfamiliar experiences to your students. You are encouraging problem-solving. You are demonstrating new ways to compose dance using various movement elements. You might even simultaneously challenge and empower your students to trust their skills, in movement and in life, even when the unexpected occurs. And, in the process, you might remind yourself that you have the power to do the same.

Cheers to the discomfort! Let’s keep creating.

The Importance of Music in a Dance Class

Though I have occasionally had a specific movement or feeling in my head around which I wanted to create a piece of choreography, I typically choose the music for my dance classes before I plan the rest of the class. The music is my foundation, my core, my bass. This is because I believe that the music used in a dance class lays the foundation for the energy, atmosphere, and overall experience of each class.

I’ve always been a lover of music, though. As I child, I used to visualize movements to songs while riding shotgun in the car with my mom, coming back from Pier 39 on a Friday night. I remember that it was almost as if I could envision my future through music and movement. I wasn’t exactly choreographing in my head, but I would see movements that matched the songs we used to sing at the top of our lungs. And I felt safe and comforted. I felt hope and joy.

I also studied music as a child–piano lessons for several years, a youth vocal ensemble (which I think caused me to realize that singing was not a particular talent of mine) . . . . We sang a lot in my private elementary schools as well. I’ve said before that when I picture my childhood, I think of sunshine and music. [Insert your eye roll here.] (Sorry, not sorry. My childhood was awesome.)

In college, I completed about 5 courses in music (including Physics of Music, Psychology of Music, and Ethnomusicology while studying abroad in Marburg, Germany).

With that for my background in music, I think I always assumed that most people were the same way. I thought that most people who grew up dancing would feel a similar connection to music and its power to define a dance class or to make or break a movement experience. After working with many dance teachers over the years now, I have come to realize that this is simply not common. Some beginning dance teachers simply don’t seem to have the same connection to music that I’d always previously assumed was innate for those of us who call ourselves dancers. (Side note: The topic of identifying as a dancer vs. as a dance educator will be a future blog post. It’s a thing.)

With that said, I want to make it clear that I believe that dance is still dance, even if we are moving in silence. I understand and respect the rhythm of life and the melodies and beats that are still present, even when no bow brushes strings and when no stick strikes a snare.

However, I’m still all about the music! I’m sure I’ll have to write more about this later, but for now I want to stand united with those who use music as the driving force for their dance classes. I also want to tell you that if you’re looking for some help with choosing music for your dance classes, I’m working on a little something that you might find useful.

More to come!

Stay tuned.

Formulating Your Educational Philosophy

I can’t remember if it happened after I left New York City or later. Perhaps it was when I landed back in my City by the Bay, with the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” still fresh in my head, ready to take on the world as an entrepreneur and dance educator. Maybe it was after I completed my Master of Arts degree in Curriculum and Instruction, eager to shape the minds of the next generation. Somewhere in those couple of years, I decided that one of the most important things to develop before beginning to teach anything to anyone was my philosophy of education. (In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I may have spent a few weeks iterating this philosophy during my year as a graduate student and teaching resident . . . .)

It made sense to me that before presenting myself to the world as a fancy educator, I should know what I stood for and for what I did not stand. While I now have a little short and sweet philosophy typed up on my teacher website (which I haven’t worked to maintain in a few years now–sorry, not sorry! I’ve been building other things in this world!), I think I used to have a super deep, lengthy few paragraphs posted.

However, after successfully teaching, recruiting teachers, and training teachers for the past decade or so, I’m now completely satisfied with the conviction that a teaching philosophy is an ever-evolving construct. It may sound cliché, but it is true: In my years of working as an educator, I have been so transformed by the students with whom I have worked that it would be impossible for me to not learn and change from those experiences. My work with students from the ages of 1.5 to 45 (that’s just a guestimate . . . dancing keeps us looking young wink) and my work with children in classrooms across the United States has moved me toward becoming a more enlightened, sensitive, accepting, and loving human and a more skilled, prepared, responsive, and aware dance educator and youth development professional.

So if your personal philosophy as an educator currently isn’t in complete cohesion with all of your other identities, or if you feel like your ideas are changing and your view of the world is expanding with each new hour of teaching you have, keep dancing and keep teaching. Your view of yourself, your understanding of the world, your ability to create meaningful experiences through movement . . . it is all only going to get better.

Where Can We Teach Dance?

I taught my first official dance classes in Ramstein, Germany. But that’s a story for another time.

When I moved back to California after my year of living in Manhattan, studying dance education, and becoming an American Ballet Theatre Certified Teacher, I wanted to hit the ground running and begin teaching dance anywhere that would have me. I was eager to use my newly inherited experiences and developing philosophy as a dance educator.

Though I had not yet earned my Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of the Pacific (the university from which I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and also from which I am currently earning a Doctor of Education degree — Go Tigers!) or completed an intensive teaching residency with Aspire Public Schools, I was already a zealous teacher, yearning to create my dance classroom.

While I briefly taught dance for a private health club and also at the music studio where I first began Dance Daze, I never actually ended up teaching dance for any dance studio outside of Dance Daze. I’m proud that almost all of my experience teaching dance comes from work that I have done through my own businesses.

Through my work with Dance Daze, Inc. and Dance Daze in Schools, I have taught at a number of schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, started dance programs at charter schools in New York City and in Washington, D.C., formed partnerships with universities, developed service-learning internship programs, mentored college students from China, and more.

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Dance Education Lab‘s very first program in Los Angeles, California. I had a wonderful time moving with incredible humans on the beautiful campus of Loyola Marymount University. We were under the direction of the fantastic duo Jody Gottfried Arnhold, DEL founder, and Ann Biddle, DEL founding faculty, for the weekend. I believe it was Jody Gottfried Arnhold who said that dance education is the grassroots movement of dance in America.

With that, I want to state that dance can be taught anywhere. In addition to the above, I’ve personally taught dance on playground blacktops under the California sunshine, in crowded classrooms full of desks, and recently in carpeted rooms inside of synagogues.

It is our duty as dance educators–as those on the ground keeping the movement of dance education in America alive and growing–to bring dance into as many spaces as possible.

So, where can we teach dance? Everywhere.

Where are you currently teaching dance?

Best Wishes, Aiyu!

aiyuLast Tuesday, December 4, 2012, we bid farewell to our wonderful W. T. Chan Fellow Intern, Aiyu Li, who came all the way from China to work for Dance Daze®! During her time in the states, Aiyu studied at UC Berkeley, led a Dance Daze® creative movement and tutoring program at Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland, supported our fundraising and development efforts, and interviewed wonderful nonprofit leaders in the fields of arts and education. We are so grateful for the opportunity to have met and worked with such a lovely young woman, and we will miss her greatly!

Read some of Aiyu’s blogs on the Dance Daze® Intern Blog: