A Creative Movement Independence Celebration for The Differently Abled

            "Equality is not in regarding different things similarly, equality is in regarding different things differently." - Tom Robbins
          Celebrations of independence often bring to mind visions of parades that include bands with big bass drums, firing cannons and rifles, loud motorcycles and horns, and none of these celebrations would be complete without a culmination of fireworks.

            For some children these celebrations are a nightmare.  These are the children who are sensitive to any type of noise – they include those with sensory processing disorders and those on the autism spectrum, and they are often found right in the middle of creative movement classes.

            In honor of America’s Independence Day, I thought I would use this week’s post to share a lesson plan that I use to help my students experience all of the celebrations without the noise and fear that can sometimes accompany them.

            I use John Philip Sousa’s marches, and I let them play continually throughout our class which incorporates different rhythms, marching in several different directions and pathways, and lots of level changes and jumping.

            We discuss the parades that might be happening to celebrate the holiday, and then we have our very own parade.  Each child gets to have a turn as the leader and decides what imaginary instrument we will play.  We have a great time playing trumpets, flutes, trombones, base drums and bells.  We all end this activity by waving our imaginary flags and scattering throughout the room.

            Our celebration concludes with our firework display.  We begin by counting together and jumping up and exploding into fireworks on the number 8.  We then do the same counting to 4 and then 2.  At this point I assign each child a number (1-4), and he or she must explode when I call his/her number.  I begin by calling numbers individually and then begin grouping them together.  For the grand finale the students may choose when they wish to explode while the music plays, and I watch the dazzling display.

            Our job as dance educators makes us responsible for all children, and this class gives them the chance to experience the celebration without trepidation or fear and is great fun.  If you try it, let me know how it works for you!

Choosing a Dance School That's Right for You

“It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”                                                                -  Roy Disney

         Choosing a dance school can be a challenging, and sometimes overwhelming, experience considering the number of possibilities that are available.

         The first thing to consider is the school’s philosophy.  Some schools are competition schools where performing and competing are the major emphasis while other schools may offer non-competitive performance opportunities a few times throughout the year.  Competition schools require expensive, sometimes custom-made, costumes, extra rehearsals and a commitment to travel to competitive events.  Non-competition schools may also require costumes for performances, but they tend to be less expensive, and the performances throughout the year are usually local.  Both types of dance education are valid but have different philosophies and a different emphasis.

         No matter what the type of school, it is important that the facility be one that promotes healthy dance training.  In addition to having enough ballet barres (fixed or free-standing) to accommodate the number of children in each class and mirrors, the studio should also have a wood floor.  The ideal floor is a sprung floor covered by marley, but any wood floor that will absorb some of the shock when landing from jumps or relevés will help decrease the impact on the dancer’s body.  Concrete floors covered by tile provide no shock absorption and increase the stress placed upon the dancer’s body.
         The teachers should be knowledgeable about human anatomy and healthy dancing.  They should understand the significance of a thorough warm-up and should be knowledgeable about the techniques they teach.  Teachers should never expect students to force their bodies into positions that are anatomically inappropriate, nor should they ever use their body weight to force a student’s stretch.  Whether a teacher has a degree in dance or professional experience is not as important as the approach the teacher uses.

         It is the dance educator’s job to nurture the student’s passion as well as technique.  Dance is difficult, and older dancers spend many hours in the studio each week.  Without passion, dance will simply become work.  Although dance teachers should be strict and demand the discipline that the art form requires, they also need to help their dancers remember how much fun dance can be.

         Prospective students should always take a trial and/or a placement class to determine how classes are conducted.  It is important to be certain that most of the class time is spent on technique and that preparations for performances occupy a minimal amount of class time.  Usually small amounts of class time will be devoted to preparing a piece for a year end demonstration or performance during the last 8-10 weeks of class.

         Classes for young children should be developmentally appropriate.  Prior to the ages of 7 or 8, children should not be expected to be part of strict technique classes but should instead be introduced to dance through creative movement activities.  More information on appropriate classes for this young age group can be found in my earlier post, Creating Passionate Young Dancers.

         Regardless of the age of the prospective student, parents should also ask questions about classes for older children to learn about the dance educator's approach to teaching.  It is important that older dancers do not begin pointe work before the approximate age of 12 so that they are developmentally ready.  Dancers on pointe should also have several prior years of training and be expected to be taking several ballet classes a week.  Additionally, parents should ask for the opportunity to observe an advanced class.  It is important to see if there is a progression of skills as the students grow and get older.

         Sometimes when a student decides to change dance schools, he or she may be placed into a level that is below his or her expectations.  My last post on progression goes into detail on the specific reasons why a student may be held back, but it is important to remember that each school levels its dancers differently.  Although the parent and the prospective student may be frustrated and disappointed, it is important to listen to the educator’s reasoning and take some time to think about what he or she has said.  Oftentimes a dancer with previous experience may initially be placed into a lower level to work on reversing some bad habits that may have developed and will then progress quickly through to a more advanced level.

         Although choosing a dance school may seem overwhelming, it need not be.  It will take some time and some research, but in the long run it will be worth it.  When you register your child for a dance class, you are entrusting a dance educator with your child’s developing body and psyche.  The experience should be a learning one but also a healthy and positive one.

Student Progress: Why Slow & Steady May Win The Race

"Plié is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master."                                                -Suzanne Farrell

            As spring performances and recitals conclude and summer plans begin, students will begin receiving information about level placements for the next school year.

            Since the educational system normally advances students each year, dance students and their parents have grown to expect the same type of advancement when studying dance.  The U.S. educational system offers twelve grade levels while most dance schools only offer five or six levels of dance for students ages 8-18.  Clearly this system cannot accommodate level advancement each year nor should it.
            Life has become a race to advance and achieve as quickly as possible, and parents often beg for checklists of what steps their children must know to advance to the next level.  It is difficult for parents to understand that simply knowing the steps is not enough for dancers to advance.  Dance is not simply about doing the movement.  Since it is a performing art, just as much, if not more, emphasis must be placed on how the movement is performed.  A plié is one of the very first steps a dancer learns, and although it is a bending of the knees, there is much more involved to execute a technically sound plié.  In a correct first position plié all five toes must remain stretched on the floor, the dancer’s weight must be centered over the balls of his or her feet, the outward leg rotation must be held from the hip, the knees must track over the toes, the pelvis must align with the ribcage, the ribcage must remain closed, the shoulders must be open and dropped, the sternum must be lifted and the head must be held high.  Once that is all accomplished, the dancer can begin adding port de bras, or arm movements.

            Dance steps can be compared to a cake.  Just as a cake must be put together and baked before frosting and decorations are added, steps must be learned and performed correctly before timing can be changed, variations of the step can be taught, the steps can be used in combinations and arm or head movements can be added.

            Moreover, dance steps build upon each other.  That same beginner plié is what must be used for preparing for and landing from relevés, turns and jumps.  There is a definite difference between learning a step and executing it well enough to be able to build upon it.  Sometimes the difference can be subtle and difficult for parents and even the dancers themselves to understand.

            It is of no advantage to a teacher to hold back any student who is ready to progress.  When a teacher recommends a student remain in the same level for another year, it is either to perfect certain movements, to wait for the body’s muscles to develop more strength and/or flexibility or to prevent the frustration that will occur if the dancer is advanced too quickly.  Dance movements are so difficult to master that there is always a challenge available no matter what level class the dancer is in.

            Although a dancer may be disappointed when asked to remain in a level after working hard, it is important that the student learn to cope with this disappointment.  The student will have to face future disappointments in life and in the dance world.  There will be summer camp rejections, roles not received, contracts not offered and promotions not granted.  The small disappointments along the way will teach the dancer how to face and cope with the larger ones that may be encountered in the future.

            Lastly, repeating a level can, and should, be seen as a confidence building opportunity.  Dancers who have already learned the basic steps at their level can begin to embellish them and work on performing them.  These students will be seen as role models in the class, and as a result, they will develop the self-confidence and determination that is a large part of dance education and is necessary to perform and succeed in the dance world.

Hydration for Dancers

            "I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man."         ~Henry David Thoreau

         Staying properly hydrated is extremely important for everyone and is of special concern to dancers who engage in regular physical activity – sometimes in very warm weather and at outdoor performances.  The human body uses water for tears, to lubricate joints, for digestion, to transport oxygen and glucose to muscles, to transport metabolic wastes like carbon dioxide and lactic acid away from muscles and as sweat to cool down during exercise.

            When we exercise, our body temperature rises, and we begin to sweat.  When the sweat evaporates, our body is cooled down, and this action keeps our cells from overheating and beginning to die.  In addition to water, sweat contains the electrolytes sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, which help regulate fluid levels and muscular reflexes.  It is important for the dancer to replace both the lost fluid and the lost electrolytes.

            Not all drinks are created equal, and dancers need to know the best thing to drink to stay hydrated and healthy.

            Soda should be avoided for several reasons.  The carbonation bubbles in soda create a bloated feeling and will likely give a feeling of fullness before providing hydration.  Soda contains large amounts of refined sugar and has no nutritional value.  A 12-oz can of Caffeine Free Pepsi contains 10 ¼ teaspoons of sugar, which can create a sugar high while offering little hydration value.

            While fruit juices are also high in sugar, they contain vitamins and nutrients.  They are not the best option but are a healthier choice than soda.  Consuming the actual fruit is preferable since, in addition to hydration, the body will reap the benefits of the fruit’s phytochemicals.  Phytochemicals have been shown to have antibacterial and antioxidant qualities and play a role in fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

            Sports drinks are often recommended as a hydration solution for those who are active.  These drinks will hydrate and contain electrolytes.  Unfortunately, sports drinks contain high fructose corn syrup (manufactured sugar), food dyes and such a small amount of electrolytes that a person would have to consume large amounts of them before seeing any effect.  Renowned dietitian, Nancy Clark, recommends making your own electrolyte filled sports drink that avoids the corn syrup and dyes, using the recipe below:

                        ¼ cup sugar
                        ¼ tsp salt
                        ¼ cup hot water
                        ¼ cup orange juice plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
                        3 ½ cups cold water

1.     In the bottom of a pitcher, dissolve the sugar and salt in hot water.
2.     Add the juice & remaining water; chill.
Yield:  1 quart

             A fairly recent addition to the beverage aisle in stores is vitamin water.  Vitamin waters are high in caloric content and contain small amounts of added vitamins.  During exercise, blood is diverted away from the digestive system so the small amounts of vitamins these drinks provide have little chance of being absorbed by the body.

            Plain old water is still the best way to keep the body hydrated during exercise.  It is important to drink small amounts before, during and after exercise to keep the fluid levels balanced in the body.  Eating a salty snack like pretzels before exercising will help the body retain some fluid, and eating recovery foods like yogurt, salted nuts, pizza, pretzels and bananas will help replenish the electrolytes lost in sweat while dancing.

How to Increase Turnout Safely

            "Turn-out is something a dancer does, not necessarily something he has." - Anne Woolliams

            Since turnout is an integral part of ballet technique, it is important for dancers to learn how to turn out and maintain it in ways that are healthy for their bodies. 

            The hip is the only ball and socket joint in the leg.  This type of joint allows for movement in all directions and provides the ability to rotate the leg outwardly, or turn out.  The amount of turnout a dancer has is largely pre-determined by the angle and length of the femoral neck, the facing of the hip sockets and the flexibility of the muscles of the hip.

            The hip joint is formed where the head of the femur, or thighbone, fits into the socket, or acetabulum of the pelvis.  The neck of the femur forms an angle, between the femoral head and the long shaft of the femur that allows the femur and pelvis to connect.  This average angle measurement is about 15°.  When the angle is less than 15°, the legs will naturally rotate outward, but if it measures more than 15°, the legs will naturally rotate inward. (2)

            Outward rotation also occurs naturally if the hip sockets, or acetabula, face sideways rather than diagonally forward.

            Those with a longer femoral neck enjoy a greater range of motion at the hip joint.  However, a shorter femoral neck limits the range of motion because the femur comes in contact with the outer rim of the pelvis.

            The muscles surrounding the hip include those that flex the thigh, extend the thigh, inwardly rotate, outwardly rotate, adduct (pull the leg toward the midline of the body) and abduct (pull the leg away from the midline of the body).

            Unlike the previously mentioned bony structures, muscles can be changed through exercise.  Ballet dancers often ask which muscles they should strengthen and/or stretch to improve their turnout.  The answer is a simple one – all of them.  All of the muscles surrounding the hip perform more than one function.  There is no muscle that acts only as an outward rotator.  Moreover, it is important to remember that ballet dancers perform exercises that always require an additional action to turning out.  A grand battement to the front requires flexion, a grand battement to the back requires extension, beats require adduction and dégagés require abduction.  When these exercises are being performed, the muscles of the opposite hip must also work as stabilizers to keep the dancer’s standing leg steady, turned-out and lifted.

            By strengthening and stretching all of the hip muscles in a conditioning program, the dancer will increase the range of motion at the hip joint.  This greater range of motion will allow for increased turnout, and the strength training will provide the dancer with the ability to maintain that rotation during exercises.

quadriceps stretch
seated frog press           
In Dance Kinesiology, Sally Sevey Fitt provides a hip conditioning program which includes single leg lifts to 45 degrees  while lying on the back and the stomach, stretching the hamstrings while lying on the back and holding the legs in second, stretching the quadriceps, the seated frog press, the yoga sit stretch and the lying knee press. The lying knee press involves lying on the back with the feet hip distance apart. The knees are allowed to fall in and are then actively pressed together for 20 seconds. This action is followed by allowing the lower body to twist to the right while the left leg is rotated inward to stretch the outward rotators and is then repeated for the right leg. (1)
yoga sit stretch
            A word of caution….A stretch that dancers often use to increase turnout is known as the frog and is done while lying on the stomach.  This stretch needs to be AVOIDED!  The position of the legs places unnecessary stress on the ligaments of the knee and can do more harm than good.

            By using a supplemental conditioning program to strengthen and stretch the muscles surrounding the hip, dancers will establish a greater range of motion and develop the strength necessary to hold positions.  Exercises done in class specifically target the outward rotators while supplemental exercises will keep the hip healthy and prevent dangerous muscular imbalances from occurring and causing injuries.

(1) Fitt, Sally Sevey. Dance Kinesiology. New York, NY:Schirmer Books; 1988.
(2)Wilmerding, Virginia & Krasnow, Donna. Turnout for Dancers:  Hip Anatomy and Factors Affecting Turnout. International Association of Dance Medicine and Science; 2011.  Retrieved from http://www.iadms.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=325.