Creative tips for teaching tots to dance.
Many studio owners in North Texas would agree the majority of their business comes from teaching ages 2-5. But teaching tots can be challenging, especially for teachers who are used to teaching older, more advanced students. These teachers are going to encounter unfamiliar situations, including assisted bathroom breaks, meltdowns and constant horse play. If you don’t know the correct way to handle these youngsters, you are not going to enjoy teaching them. Luckily, some veteran preschool dance teachers have offered to share their tricks and tips for successfully teaching a room full of tots.
FUN AND GAMES. “One of the biggest challenges when teaching preschool students is changing our thinking, because at this young age it is not developmentally possible to think of ballet in terms of technique,” says Cindi Lawrence Hanson, owner of Gotta Dance in Plano, TX. “The dance that younger children enjoy is the movement to music,” Hanson says. “They want to learn how to do that, but it has to be presented within their capabilities, within their comfort levels,” she adds.
This is where games, props and make believe come into play. Laura McPheeters Glenn, who has been teaching preschoolers for Toby’s School of Dance in Richardson, TX for 35 years, says her students love Miss Puffy, the circle dance, broken dolly for Christmas and follow the leader. When it comes to teaching technique Glenn says, “The best way to get them in first position is to cover their spot with their feet and peek-a-boo, turn out toes to see their spot. We also do port de braswith arms (flying bird wings, angel wings and fairy wings) and jumps we call popcorn,” Glenn adds.
Hanson also uses props in her preschool classes. “It can be very helpful to dance with a chiffon scarf or a ribbon stick to make movements bigger or softer,” Hanson says. “Numbers on the floor help direct the children where to start and finish their steps. And a soft doll or stuffed animal can be fun to turn with or partner,” Hanson adds.
TEACHER TRAINING. Patience, love of children and experience are key qualities studios owners look for in their preschool teachers. “Most people would say patience, which is important, but more importantly the teachers need to love their students and really want to be their teacher,” says Bessie Waddill, owner of Studio B in Dallas. “This creates a more positive environment and strengthens your connection with them,” Waddill adds. “You also need experience with this age group because no matter how good a dancer you are, teaching little ones is a gift,” Glenn says.
To train new or less experienced teachers, Hanson recommends creating a class format everyone should follow. “It’s important to have a formula of success as well as a track to follow,” Hanson says. “There has to be room for fresh ideas, but this structure helps the children to know what to expect at dance time.” Waddill agrees that a structured class can aid in the students’ development and in their learning process. “The little ones need consistency and discipline,” Waddill says. “It not only teaches them how to memorize but it teaches them about classroom structure and environment,” Waddill adds. It’s also recommended that teachers watch other preschool classes and in some instances take a preschool class. “I have my preschool teachers take my class and I teach them the same as I would my little dancers,” Waddill says. “This way they can see and hear how I teach and from a student’s perspective.”
Teachers also need to be prepared for the behavioral challenges that come with teaching tots. “Not every 3 year old has good listening skills and not all have a spirit of compliance,” Hanson says. “It’s important for students to keep their hands to themselves and not to chatter,” Hanson adds. She recommends using phrases like “eyes on the teacher” or “catch a bubble in your mouth” to grab their attention.
“My best advice is to go into each class for preschoolers with a determination that it will be fun for them,” Hanson says. “If you can light a fire of interest, this could be the beginning of many years of dance for them.” Waddill adds, “The best advice for the little dancers is to LOVE THEM!”
This piece was originally published in the Feb.-April 2012 issue of DANCE! North Texas.