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Elementary Dance IntegrationTechnique
There are many ways of integrating arts and academics in an elementary dance program. Dances that have survived in any given culture often have a story behind them that is passed down through an oral or written record. The Italian Tarantella is a good example of a very old dance with a legend attached.
When I teach the Tarantella to my fifth and sixth grade I start by sitting with the students and tell them that the dance was created by the Gypsies, as a cure for someone who had been bitten by a Tarantula spider. The Gypsies believed if the dance was performed correctly, the poison from the bite would leave the body. At this point I ask the students whether they think the dance would be fast or slow. After we establish that the dance is fast almost to the point of being frenetic we talk more about the Gypsies. We discuss their nomadic lifestyle, the fact that they lived in camps and were outside most of the time. We also discuss their clothing and the fact that their dancing would not be constricted by the corsets and robes of the aristocracy, that they would most likely be in lose ragged clothing that would give them a full range of movement.
After we finish our short discussion I teach four steps of the Tarantella which takes about a half an hour. At this point I don't focus on refining the steps, I want to keep the lesson moving fairly quickly. We review all the steps one more time, and then I ask for a volunteer to be our choreographer. I ask the choreographer to set the scene, some dancers may start onstage miming building a fire, cooking, or chopping wood, whatever the student decides. They also choose different people to enter in, and as the scene begins to build, someone is bitten by a Tarantula. That person starts the dance and then the other students join in. I have the choreographer decide the order of the steps we just learned and the placement of the dancers on-stage. I play authentic music and the students perform the dance. The next time I meet with the students, we review and refine the steps, and then I chose a new choreographer. This time through the scene and the dance are on a new level and the students offer many ideas to their director.
This is a fun and creative way to learn a dance. The students are taught not only the movement, but also the context and meaning that the dance had to its creators. In this way, the students are then able to better appreciate the dance within a cultural and historical context. In addition, they have the opportunity to put the information together and make it their own.
I have had student N in my dance class for the past 5 years since he was in the first grade. N is a sensitive boy who struggles to keep up in my class. Now, going into the 6th grade, he will still interrupt me during instruction to tell me he doesn't understand how to do what I am describing or demonstrating. After constant reassurance that he is not required to do the step perfectly the first, second, or even third time, he still often gets extremely anxious when presented with new material.
My first big break-through with N came when he was in the 4th grade. We were studying European history and I was setting a Renaissance Court dance on his class. When I am setting a dance, I sometimes chose the strongest students to be in front as leaders, and sometimes I line the students up in random order to allow a student who usually hangs in the back of the room an opportunity to come forward and shine. In this particular instance, I had decided to use a randomized approach, and N ended up in the lead position. I allowed him to struggle in this place for several rehearsals until several days later I quietly told him that if he wanted he could trade places with another student so he could be more comfortable on stage. N very quickly responded that no, he wanted to continue to work where he was. The evening of the concert, even though he was very nervous, N went onstage and did a great job.
Last year the elementary curriculum was centered on American history and I choreographed a dance about slavery for N's 5th grade class. The dance was to be performed at our Middle School Dance Concert. During the intermission of the concert, I heard N, backstage, laughing like I had never heard him before. When I asked him what was so funny, he told me that during the very first movement that he did on stage, the back of his pants split wide open. I had seen the piece from the wings and there was absolutely no indication that N was in trouble. He finished the dance with grace and poise. I have worked with professionals who would have exited the stage at that point, and yet N stayed out there, finished the piece, and was able to laugh about it.
N continued to grow in my class over last year. Even though he still struggled in learning the more difficult steps, and was concerned that he could not get things perfectly the first time, he continued to take risks. Our final project of the year was a performance assessment that required the students to choreograph a solo about a person or event in American history. N chose to do his solo on World War II. Most of the students worked independently during class time but N still required constant assurance that he was doing it right. I was able to work with him and tell him that he was on the right track. I think it was the first time he really believed that he could use his body as an instrument to express himself. N's solo was outstanding. It was precise and moving at the same time. I was extremely proud of him but it wasn't until this summer that I found out how proud he was of himself. A colleague of mine, a friend of the family, told me that N performed his solo at the family reunion.
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