A reader who is newer to teaching asked me the following question this past week: “I want to excite new students about this dance, but I feel like I’m boring them. In a beginner class where I’m just teaching the basics, how do I make fundamentals fun?”
This is not an uncommon question for new teachers, and for more experienced teachers it’s an ongoing one. Good teachers at every level care about doing justice to the beauty of dance in their classes and bringing new people into the dance community. They want to teach students the fundamentals of the dance that will give them a taste of what the dance is and set them up for success should they decide to continue.
Here is my advice for doing just that:
1. Don’t obsess about the “F” word.
People often talk about the need to make the fundamentals “fun,” but I believe this word is misleading and misguided. Why? Because the word “fun” is a little too frivolous and simplistic. It doesn’t do justice to the holistic enjoyment that we find in dance. It also doesn’t consider the complex of emotions that your students will both bring to class and encounter in your class. Of course, fun is part of the equation. But instead of aiming for your students to just have fun, aim for your students to be engaged, to be deeply interested. This will open your eyes to the wide (and complex!) world that actually exists in your class.
2. Be yourself.
When new teachers think about making the fundamentals fun, they often believe they have to entertain their students. But you don’t have to be a comedian or a clown to make your class enjoyable. There are many different teaching personalities, and they can all be successful. Whether you are playful or reflective, experimental or focused, your teaching can reflect who you are and engage your students if you work at it. Share what you value and find interesting, use your own sense of humor, and develop your own approach. Then listen, adjust, and – above all – never stop learning.
3. Make sure you’re fascinated before worrying about whether your students are.
Basics are fascinating, and so is teaching them. But if you’re not fascinated, your students won’t be either. If you’ve lost your excitement about the basics or never had it in the first place, your first priority is to find it. Either return to the fundamentals in your own dance practice or explore new teaching methods that will make the basics come alive for you. Once you have this, your attitude, attention, posture, tone of voice, and all of your words and actions will communicate interest and enthusiasm to your students.
4. Make sure your teaching fundamentals are solid.
In teaching as in dancing, basics matter. The fundamentals of the dance can’t shine through if your teaching isn’t solid. Obviously it’s important to make sure your descriptions are clear and your progressions are logical. But anything from overcorrection and trick questions to confusing partner rotations and bad music choices can distract students from engaging with you and your teaching. Do a full inventory of your teaching and get outside feedback to see where you can improve and create a better experience for your students.
5. Invest time in developing engaging exercises.
Engaging experiences will hook students on the dance and its fundamentals far more than words. Design exercises that are simple, clear, interesting, and offer both challenge and success. Then, keep students moving and avoid the urge to talk too much. See it as your role to set up an environment where students can have interesting experiences that will engage them and make them curious for more. This will make what you do have to say far more interesting and relatable for your students.
6. Think of the whole experience.
Different aspects of the dance/class – movement, music, partner connection, improvisation, community, culture, meeting new people, or just having a good time with the person they came to class with – will appeal to different students. Many will be intrigued by the way the dance brings together all of these different aspects. Integrate the primary elements of the dance into your class, even in the simplest of ways, and you will maximize the number of students who will be attracted to the dance through your teaching.
7. Show more than tell (and make sure your fundamentals are worth showing).
For years, I underestimated the value of good demonstrations. I used demos as I was introducing, explaining, and giving feedback on a movement or concept. But I rarely used them without talking, rarely used them with music, and rarely showed more than what I was teaching at that moment. Don’t underestimate the inspiration and information students receive when they see how beautiful simple fundamentals can be and where they can lead once mastered. And don’t underestimate the importance of making sure your fundamentals will inspire and inform.