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I was recently tasked with leading the modern dance portion of Boston Ballet’s Citydance program – where over 380 third-graders are offered free dance education at Boston Ballet’s studios. Chosen students take a weekly ballet class, coupled with a rotating “Dance Discovery” workshop ranging from hip hop to Haitian folkoric to flamenco. As the lead for the modern week, I had to design a 35-minute workshop engaging these young beginners in the world of modern dance. Since modern is hard to distill down into a quick all-encompassing definition in the best of circumstances, and most resources about teaching it to young students assume they are both older than 8 and that they will be taking an ongoing class rather than a one-off workshop, I went into this with 5 main challenges:

Photo by Liza Voll Photography for Boston Ballet

Photo by Liza Voll Photography for Boston Ballet

  1. How do I explain modern to these kids without a huge history lesson/film viewing?
  2. How do I give them the tools to recognize modern dance when they see it?
  3. Which movement/technical elements should I prioritize?
  4. How do I relate this genre to the other training they’re receiving?
  5. And, how do I make them EXCITED about modern dance?

I ended up with the following structure (brief introduction, keeping them moving with some intensity throughout the lesson), and had pretty solid success based on engagement, perceived understanding, and movement achievement. Let me know your thoughts!

Introduction [3 min]
  • Framing modern as an “experiment” – the result of dancers asking questions, starting over 100 years ago right here in the US. HOW can we move? What if we CHANGE the “rules” of ballet and other traditional dances? What if I change my spine from straight to curved/mobile? What if I do my dance sinking down instead of rising up? What new kinds of stories can I tell with my body if I move differently?
  • A few dancers made whole new sets of rules/ways of training based on their questions and investigations – i.e. Martha Graham was interested in the spine and made Graham technique; Jose Limon was interested in how we fall and recover and made Limon Technique; Lester Horton was interested in the strong lines we make in our bodies and made Horton technique. These people had students who asked their own questions and made changes, and those students had students, all the way to today!
Warm-Up [7 min.]
  • Let’s start with our own experiment!
  • Lower the ceiling to about a foot off the floor; make a shape underneath the ceiling. Raise it back up and make a shape reaching as high as you can. Introduce the word LEVEL
  • Demonstrate the journey we can take in the space between the lowest level and the highest level (We could just be practical and stand up straight, but that’s not very interesting! HOW can we travel from bottom to top? Introduce the word PATHWAY and encourage use of different body parts as leaders)
  • With music, take 16 counts to travel up and 16 to travel down. Then cut it in half to 8 each, then 4, then 2, then 1
  • Encouraging musicality and understanding of tempo; physicality; understanding of level and pathway; our options as movers (the simple journey from the floor to standing can be an investigation) 
Basic Technique Introduction (Floor) [10 min]
  • Staying on the floor, sitting cross-legged
  • Invite students to place one hand on their top vertebra, and one their bottom vertebra. Feeling how mobile the spine is between their hands (flexion, extension, twist, tilt, cervical spine mobility, etc.). Think of it as a fifth limb that can help us move
  • Introduce contraction/”c-curve” and high arch, with neutral in between
  • Then sit in fourth, using one hand on the floor as an anchor. Explore twists and tilts, with imagery and encouragement to move from the core
  • Encouraging awareness of the spine, building core strength and alignment (Graham)
Phrasework [15 min]
  • Teach the “meat” of the phrase first (continuing with contraction and high arch but moving the feet and finding plie in parallel and turnout)
  • Add on simple beginning that touches on spinal melt-down and roll-up; curved vs straight shapes in the body
  • Add on simple ending that touches on long lines radiating outward; sensation of SWING and recovery in both arms and full body; heaviness/resistance vs lightness/free flow (just by shifting right and left with each quality, using images of peanut butter vs air)
  • Encouraging full body movement and coordination between upper and lower; moving in a grounded way; using spinal movement when standing; feeling the different weights we can create in our movement (Limon); understanding of what “movement quality” refers to and how it changes the expression/story

 

Photo by Liza Voll Photography for Boston Ballet

Photo by Liza Voll Photography for Boston Ballet

I talked a lot about “opposites” and finding them in the body (heavy vs light, big vs small, high vs low, curved vs straight), and encouraged students to keep asking questions and to notice what qualities they’re using in their other classes (free flow in port de bras, sharpness in hip hop, etc.) and how the movement would change if they changed the quality to its opposite.

 

I noticed students using their whole bodies and focusing on physicality in a new way, as well as starting to sense the minutiae of their spines and how they can powerfully take up space in the room, which was all pretty beautiful to see.

 

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