When Pre-Ballet Class Gets Deep: How I accidentally taught my students to discuss mourning & worry.
Like many teaching artists, I was furloughed from my job as a dance instructor during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fresh out of my undergraduate BFA program, I felt like I was finally gaining a bit of momentum and knowledge as a teacher. That feeling of progress went away in a flash. When it was time for me to return to my job - this time teaching simultaneously online and in-person, in a mask, with social distancing and reduced class sizes - I felt completely unsure of how to even approach teaching a dance class, especially my creative movement / pre-ballet classes. I felt like I could no longer rely on physical contact, props, and other tactile teaching strategies in these classes, so I decided to change my pedagogy.
At the time, I was just starting to gain knowledge of and interest in ideas of progressive pedagogy, inclusive teaching, and the concept of the hidden curriculum: through which educators teach messages of gender, class, race, identity, etc. implicitly (and sometimes accidentally) within their pedagogy. I did not know much, as I had not yet begun my graduate school study, but when I looked over at my now unusable baby dolls that I would have my students to “rock to sleep” each class (an exercise that I learned from some of my own teachers / mentors), I felt like it was an easy choice to remove such a gendered practice. I began to consider how I could keep the elements of “the baby dance” that I liked, such as moving to a waltz, transferring weight from one leg to the other, utilizing levels, and performing consistent choreography that students could gain confidence in through practice. I ended up choreographing what I call “The Love Dance,” which removed the practice of rocking a baby to sleep, but kept the important dance elements from the original choreography.
In “The Love Dance,” each person in the classroom (including teachers and teacher assistants) would be asked to name someone or something that they loved very much that they would like to dance for in class that day. We would then all perform the choreography to “spread our love” to those we discussed. Given that all of my students who would perform this exercise were younger than 7 years old, I figured they would mostly mention a parent or sibling, and that this dance would be a very small element of our weekly class. I was absolutely wrong with this assumption.
Each week, my young students would discuss different people, animals, and groups to dance for. Coming back from the pandemic lockdown, I was struck by the amount of students who would want to dance for sick, dying, or recently passed relatives. It quickly became clear that this moment in class was an impactful moment for us all - a time to discuss our worries and pain. Instead of trying to move past the discomfort of such discussions, the entire class would get quiet and listen with empathy. We discussed how we can still love beings even after they have left us, and that leaning into love can help us when we are hurting. I told stories of how I have used dance to help me through pain when I am sad. These talks would last as long as they needed to that day, and would often end in a COVID-safe “air hug,” before completing the choreography. After our little dance was done, the students were always ready to move on to the rest of our class. The resilience, and love of movement, was ever present in the room.
I still use “The Love Dance” in my young children’s dance classes, and I have additionally implemented it into some of my outreach classes (though I am wary of introducing such discussions on especially vulnerable populations without extensive trauma-informed training). My students’ choices have changed over the months and years, with an increasing amount of students choosing silly things such as their favorite food (with an accompanying giggle), or lovingly picking a classmate to give a shoutout to. However, there are still moments when a student mentions a grandparent, sibling, or someone else they love with a sense of worry or pain. As a class, we are always ready to be there for that dancer when they are feeling this way. I have been especially struck by the students who give a hug or words of encouragement before I can even say a word. They know how to be there for one another.
Like any exercise in a creative dance class, some days it resonates with all students, and other days it simply does not. Kids will certainly lose focus and miss what their classmates are talking about, or “go rogue” on the choreography. However, from my perspective, the power of this little dance is undeniable. I chuckle to myself every time I reflect on a class where “The Love Dance” opened up a deep and meaningful discussion. This exercise, which was made only out of the need to remove props from my class and the desire to reconsider my own hidden curriculum of gender in my classroom, has become one of my favorite things I have ever created. It started me on my journey of working to implement progressive and inclusive pedagogy into the ballet educational space. It has inspired me to keep an open mind and continuously question why I do what I do in the classroom, instead of simply following what others did before me. If myself and a bunch of young children can spread more love into the world through dance, I think I am on the right track.
My 4 year old self showing us all some love.