Just how much western codified dance technique should we be teaching in our beginning classes?
I often wrestled with this question, but this year more than ever. Before this year, I worked with a program I spent 12 years establishing, so the standard had already been instituted. Students entered the program knowing technique would be a strong component of their dance education. Each class lasted a year, and each beginning student held certain expectations idolizing the seniors and alumni before them. So, technique in the beginning classes was more than the norm, it was an established expectation.
This year, as I enter the second semester of my new Brooklyn-based school, I wonder if I am doing it all wrong? I began the year pushing a strong technical foundation, because it had worked in the past. However, as the first semester proceeded I wasn’t sure if this was the right path. Each beginning class is only a semester long. There were no seniors or upperclassmen with strong technique for the beginners to look up to.
Even the course title, Introduction to Dance, insinuates that the class promotes a general overview of the broad topic of dance. Although I want to honor the integrity of codified technique, I’m not sure this is the right backdrop for sole technique. I have come to the conclusion that the inclusion of strong technical foundations are based on a couple things: performing arts expectations, beginning course title and length, and the established future vision.
Performing Arts Expectations
The overall vision of the entire performing arts department should be a driving force in the way we develop our beginning classes, as these beginning students are the future of the department as a whole. Many performing arts departments have a large overarching vision of creating a program where the arts are valued and hopes that their students continue their art, possibly even majoring in their art, once they graduate. However, even with this vision the support of the school in general may make obtaining this vision a difficulty. If the performing arts are seen as fun electives then it will be difficult to endorse a vision of solid technique. Be sure to share your vision with the school and gain buy-in from all stakeholders to build a strong technical foundation.
Beginning Course Title & Length
The title and course description, as well as the length of the class are important in the decision to either build a strong technical foundation or to share technique while still providing a general albeit short-lived dance education. This falls into a depth vs breadth discussion. If the course is an Introduction, stated in the title, and short (a semester long), then it is difficult to really hone in on technical skills. As dance educators, we know it takes years to perfect technique, so unfortunately if that is the focus of introductory courses like these, then there will be very few experiences in that class.
This is precisely what I learned this first semester. I was so adamant about teaching technique, that it wasn’t long before the students got bored, and their boredom created disruption, and their disruption hindered the enjoyment in the class for all.
Established Future Vision
Finally, without an established future, it is difficult to convince students the importance of technique because they have nothing to look up to. When the program is established the students can see concrete examples of the process they are going through. Without it, they don’t necessarily know what they are working towards. We could show professional videos, or even take them to professional shows, but those are professionals and seemingly out of reach. So this places us in a Catch 22. We can’t build a strong future without building strong foundational skills at the beginning, but it’s hard and not necessarily convincing to harp on the foundation when there is nothing tangible to look forward to.
What I am going to try to do (not that it is the right way, but I will certainly follow up and let you know if it was successful) is do a general overview in the semester-long introductory classes. Then as they enter the second semester, help students to understand the importance of the foundational technical skills and help them to concur that if they decide to continue that they are essentially saying to take them to the next level, and make them the strongest dancers they can be. Although, it will take a couple years to build the established future and dancers to admire, hopefully this will be a step in the right direction.
How we establish our programs, where we place the focus, and our future visions are always going to vary. All of it depends on the teacher, the administration, the school, and the community. But regardless, the most important factor should be the students. Build programs that help students explore, experience, and appreciate dance…no matter what!
Piquès & Pirouettès
Next Week: Standards & Strategies
National Core Arts Standard 7: Perceive and Analyze Artistic Work
Next week we will continue with unpacking the national core arts standards with the 7th of 11 articles highlighting the new national arts standards Each of these articles provide lesson seeds, assignments, and assessments for the the new core arts standards!
Typhani Harris is a dance educator and mentor teacher who has been on the boards of both the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (CAHPERD) and California Dance Education Association (CDEA). Recently, she has made a cross-country move and is now an instructional coach in Brooklyn, New York. Having begun as a high school English teacher, it has been her mission to bring theory and research into the traditional dance class, and in 2009 she won the Music Center’s Bravo award for excellence in Arts Education. Typhani is currently on a mission to help teachers Stop Teaching and Start Reaching their students, check out the unTeacher Lab at stopteaching.org