Typhani Harris | May 2014

Creating Smart Dancers. Six pirouettès may be impressive, but what else do they know?

Dance is visual and visceral.  Dance is expressive, emotional, and technical.  As dance educators, education should be at the forefront.  Beyond the height of leaps, the torque of turns, and the perfection of pointe, smart dancers must be adept at their craft.  As dance educators it is our job to not only cultivate proper technique, but to promote astute smart dancers.

I remember taking a class from Mandy Moore at the Edge PAC in Los Angeles, and during her choreography she was requesting that we slide into a lunge like position through a tendu.  She wasn’t getting the movement quality she was wanting from one student so she said, “it is coming from a tendu, what does tendu mean”…the students hesitated and then said, “um to pointe?”  “No! To stretch…so stretch” she exclaimed!

Movement Vocabulary is important, but it is just as important to know the Vocabulary of Movement.  We need to be teaching the theory behind the art!  Even beyond vocabulary students need to be familiar with kinesiology, anatomy,  history, and advocacy, in order to become astute artists.

Here are some ideas for infusing theory into the studio in order to create smart dancers!


Not only is it important to know what each movement is called, it is vital to know what it means.  Ballet originated in France where King Louis XIV created the Paris Opera Ballet, and as a result dance terminology is French.  Since the terminology is a foreign language, it is imperative that students are not only able to identify the words and match the words to movement, but also understand what the word means in English.  Utilize the terminology during class and create a word wall.  Each time you present a new term put it on the wall, discuss the definition, have students write it in their dance notebook.  Assess students on the vocabulary throughout the course.  Use both written and visual exams, for example perform a pliè and have the students write what it is as well as what it means, assessing not only if they can recognize and identify the movement, but also that they know the translation and definition.


Since the body is our instrument, it is important that students know the mechanics of the body.  Understanding the bones and muscles will assist students in understanding how and why we perform skills in certain ways.  For example, a battement àla seconde cannot be performed directly side, our bones are in the way.  Understanding that they need to reduce the space between the greater trochanter and the ishium in order to elevate the leg to full potential will give students a visual as to why the battement to the side must actually be performed slightly in front of the body.  Hang a poster of the bones, muscles, and planes of the body.  Each time you introduce a new skill, discuss the anatomy behind it.  You can also infuse anatomy within composition.  Have students move across the floor by leading with different anatomical parts of the body.  Put smart dancers in groups of two and have one say a bone or muscle and have the other initiate movement from that origin.


History is so important!  We can’t know where we are going until we know where we have been.  True dance history can be, and in collegiate arenas is, devoted to a full class.  Unfortunately, we don’t have that option in high school, but we can infuse it.  Choose one day a week to be devoted to the history of dance.  Discuss both cultural world dance and codified western dance.  If you don’t have that much time, you can flip your classroom and have students view historical dance at home, and then discuss it in class.  Create discussion boards and have students learn history outside of the class time.  Assign a history project where students research the history of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, tap or cultural and world dance then have them present to the class.


By far the most valuable asset of smart dancers is their ability to appreciate and advocate for the arts.  It is no secret that most of our dance students will not become professional smart dancers, however we can instill in them appreciation and life-long advocacy for dance and the arts.  Have students reflect on the life skills they have learned through dance.  Create projects where they defend dance in schools, or propose new programs.  Something as simple as creating a 30 second elevator speech that supports dance education can help make them smart dancers!

Dance is more than perfect turns or grand leaps, dance is art, dance is experience, dance is life!  Create smart dancers by infusing theory and advocacy into your studios!

Next Week: Common Core

Common Core Curriculum…an oxymoron

As we enter the Common Core paradigm I have heard many teachers requesting a lesson sample or a curriculum map, but the thing is…Common Core is neither.  Common Core is a philosophy of great teaching.  Any curriculum or lesson can be Common Core; it’s all in the delivery!

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.