As happens in our field of dance and dance education, we find ourselves teaching in unexpected contexts. My roommate is a professional ballet dancer, recently moved to Cairo, and has been asked to lead a program for 3-5 year olds. She wanted a little advice.
So here goes. After 25 years experience teaching this age group in different countries and a number of childhood development courses, I have the following Top 11 Tips to offer.
Reflect on the early days of your own dance education, but never be a duplicate of your teacher. What were the strengths and weaknesses of those teaching methods?
2. Promote Order and Patience:
Have the dancers select props (scarves, bean bags, instruments, placement markers, etc.) one-dancer-at-a-time. Repeat over and over that “sometimes you get a color you like, sometimes you get a color you don’t like so much.” Then have dancers share with a buddy, cooperating to return props. Repetition is key.
3. Learn the local language for potty.
4. Safety First:
Kids like safety. It is cool. Explain why dancers warmup and stretch, why we wait for each dancer and use mats, why we dance on our places, and the ways we make sure everyone is safe and feels good.
5. Different is Awesome:
It is okay to have differentiated instruction at this age and to encourage personality, even when teaching a shared position or movement. (It is my feeling that synchronization can start around age 6 or later.)
6. Remember that non-verbal communication is a dancer’s greatest friend.
7. Dance is Work:
Encourage lots of good and fun stretching, with visual cues for alignment. Introduce the concept of the barre, but no more than 15 minutes and just a few quick exercises. Don’t stay with any activity so long that the dancers develop irreversible, bad habits. Focus on balance, vocabulary, concentration and etiquette. If a dancer hangs on the barre, she goes and sits down for a quick minute. Do not force the turnout more than the dancer’s natural alignment. Laugh every 5 minutes.
8. Preschool Professionals:
Talk to the young dancers like they are professionals. Refer to them as dancers. If a student cries for her momma/daddy, stay patient and calm, hold the child’s hand, come down to her level and offer a Kleenex, and simply ask, “Where do the dancers go?” Dance with the rest of the class with the crying child by your side. Give it a few minutes. If the crying continues, then consider taking him or her out to the family. Try again. Try again.
9. Spotlight Solos:
Teach them to dance in trains, circles, lines, on their marked spots, and with partners. But also encourage them to step out on their own.
10. Nothing is Cute:
Try not to get distracted by the cuteness. Talk about beautiful movement but not beautiful people. Focus more on building trust, confidence, and independence, than on what the dancers are wearing (especially when talking to parents).
11. Keep going to the joy.