by Janet Neidhardt
Building a sense of community is one of the first things I do when I get a new class at the beginning of the school year. Throughout my time teaching dance I have discovered that my students feel they can be themselves most freely in class when they have trust in their peers to be accepting of them. I am constantly pushing my students to take risks in class, fall down or be goofy with movement, but they are hesitant when they feel insecure about what others will think of them.
For some students answering a question with the wrong answer is such a paralyzing thought they will never raise their hand. I constantly talk about taking chances and that it’s great when someone is wrong because they learn the right answer, and when they fall down they might better find their balance. To help them get over this insecurity I make a point to do many activities to increase a strong sense of security within the classroom.
To build trust and community in the classroom, I have students discuss something fun or interesting they did over the weekend. When they start to see their peers a people with lives outside of the classroom it helps them to feel more connected to one another.
Another activity is to have them write descriptive words about themselves, make a movement phrase based on those words, then teach the movement phrase to another student and share the information. I always pick the groups for small group work and make sure that each student has at least one person in the group who they have not worked with yet. After learning a movement phrase in class, I put students in partners and have them watch each other perform. The students then take a moment to give each other feedback, one aspect of their dancing that is strong and something they can work on. This helps students with giving and receiving constructive criticism.
Allowing students to bring in their own music to use in class is another way to help them feel ownership over the class and what they are doing. Small group choreography projects double as team building exercises. While students are learning about choreography tools they are also learning to work as a group to create a successful piece.
When teaching students about improvisation, I stress that there is no “wrong” answer or movement but there are purposeful choices. Simply knowing that they can’t get it wrong helps take the pressure off of them while moving. Improvisation is one of the hardest things for my students to learn and embrace because they have to really put themselves out there and go for it. With a lot of positive feedback and creating an environment of playful exploration, my students slowly let their guards down and start to take chances. We do a lot of watching each other improvise and then discussing what we saw, so students can hear the positive feedback from their peers. As students become more comfortable they take more risks with their own artistry.
Since I teach in a high school setting, there are times when serious social topics come up and I take the time out from dancing to discuss social issues when appropriate. I try to teach the whole student by acknowledging that my students are not just dancers, they are people dealing with many interests and issues on a daily basis. Allowing students’ voices to be heard and self expression to be validated helps them to become more secure. It is important for me to have patience with my classes and to allow them to grow as the students themselves grow.
There are many ways to build a sense of community in the dance studio and as an educator I am constantly trying out new ideas. Developing my students into confident, authentic, self-expressing artists is my goal each and every day, and I know that it starts in a loving community.
Janet Neidhardt has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.
Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.
When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.