The image of a dance teacher may be of the expert standing in front of a class, and the class mirroring their exact movements. However, in reality, the dance teacher takes on many different roles in the Primary/Elementary school classroom.
The dance teacher may indeed be demonstrating movement as the expert. This could be in any number of dance genres. But more generally they are seen in the classroom as co collaborators, stage managers, onlookers, or creative leaders.
Dance, in all of its forms, goes beyond mastering a series of steps. Dance is an ideal tool through which to teach students about physical literacy, movement concepts, self-worth, self-expression and relationships. Dance is also a large and rich part of our culture and our society. Students engage in dance to express their cultural identities, to problem-solve, to convey artistic ideas, and strengthen their social interactions. (Melchoir, 2011)
Dance teacher as Creative Leader
Of course, in any classroom there needs to be a certain amount of explicit teaching and in the dance classroom this is no different. Specific movement need to be broken down, through slow and scaffolded steps, so students have the skills and strength to master them safely.
Dance teachers are constantly monitoring children’s physical abilities to determine what individual movement challenges they may have. The teacher may stand in front, facing the students, so that they can observe, adapt, give encouragement, and physically and/or verbally instruct.
This explicit teaching may occur using whole class activities or smaller groups. The teacher could teach a prepared movement sequence as an introduction to a fundamental concept, theme, or dance genre. It could also introduce vocabulary that links to a piece of choreography that the children will be watching. Or give information about a cultural and historical context.
The teacher as expert will be followed by an activity that allows children to further explore symbolic connections or add their own movement. It can also be a starting point for performance that will empower children to feel confident before performing their own work. Alternatively, it may give children a chance to experience a broader palette of dance elements than their experience has presented for them.
As well as physical skills, the role of creative leader, may be used to cover dance vocabulary or provide transparent links to literacy, numeracy, or another learning area.
Dance teacher as Stage Manager
In this role the teacher sets up the movement tasks or problems for the children to complete. They set the stage for the creative exploration, providing a range of stimulus. These tasks can be structured using the choreographic processes, by viewing others dance, interpreting stories, responding to music, or other stimuli.
It is essential to include resources that will encourage engagement and motivation but also evoke curiosity about making movement, dance and meaning.
These activities are designed to support children’s engagement in dance. This is achieved through tasks that spark children’s curiosity and natural inclination to want to move. They then become enthusiastic creators moving through improvisational play, concept exploration, movement skill refinement, towards performance.
The teacher’s role is to provide these tasks and act as a kind of timekeeper while keeping in mind that the creative process needs flexibility in its timetable. They support the creative process as it unfolds, making suggestions and providing support, while refraining from taking an active role in the exploration.
The teacher often suggests extensions or further development of the movement ideas. They may reiterate the children’s ideas using dance specific or descriptive vocabulary. This is crucial expanding students’ ability to describe their dances and the dances of others.
Dance Teacher as Co Choreographer
The teacher is not the driving creative force when taking on this role. It is important not to be seen as the expert, high in status, but taking a small supporting role that allows the children to take the lead.
The teacher as a collaborator gives children the opportunity to speak as co-creators. They have responsibility and ownership over the creative product.
This kind of role still requires a great deal of planning to ensure that you have the necessary stimulus to take the direction the children are most interested in. Many dance teachers use this as an opportunity for formative assessment as they have an inside view of a child’s thought processes as they plan and create.
Being a co choreographer in the dance classroom is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to model collaborative skills like listening, sharing and compromise.
Dance teacher as Audience
Firstly, in this onlooker role, the teacher stands back and observes from nearby. I have often found that cleaning up props or other stimulus from around the room allows me to ‘eavesdrop’ unobserved.
Of course, in this role you may also like to offer brief suggestions or make comments. However, the point is for the children not to be disrupted as they create.
Secondly, the onlooker role is that of ‘Teacher as Audience’. This is the perfect chance to show the class how to be a good audience member.
Avoid interrupting or distracting the performance with instructions. Rather just embrace what they have created. The time for comment will be through a time for class or personal reflection.
Resist the temptation to always be the audience when you are assessing. This can make children very tentative about performing if they know they will always be marked.
The dance teacher’s role is crucial for learning
Dance benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Children learn cognitive skills such as creativity, problem solving, divergent thinking, and language. They build the ability to develop social relationships, regulate their emotions and behaviours.
Enjoyment is crucial for learning and child-directed dance activities motivate students to engage in learning. Teachers playing a range of roles in the dance classroom enable children to focus on the parts of the dance activities that fulfill their needs. It helps fosters self-reliance and confidence in a supportive and collaborative creative environment.
Melanie G. Levenberg, Tess Armstrong & Ingrid L. Johnson (2020) Teaching Dance for Understanding: Reconceptualizing Dance in Physical Education, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 91:6, 3-7, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2020.1770519
Melchior, E. (2011). Culturally responsive dance pedagogy in the primary classroom. Research in Dance Education, 12, 119–135.