Getting to Know You


Today we’ll talk about getting to know students from a movement perspective and a systems perspective.  Our image this week is a maze, for getting to know a community involves making your best choice and sometimes redirecting and trying another path. This is also the only illustration that required two lines to make. Fitting, because getting to know a student always involves two.

Learning about students happens in two overlapping phases:

1) Planning and expectations

2) Experience and re-learning

One key phrase in community work is:

Nothing about us, without us.

We’ve seen that phrase come up in the profile of Artistic Ensemble. You’ll read it again and again. What this means is that community members have a say in the planning and implementation of programs. 

To embody this, you recognize the knowledge inherent to the community. You may know a few things about dance but you aren't the expert. 

Planning and expectations

For teachers, rather than starting by speaking for a community, start by listening to a community. That said, you also have the responsibility to learn what you can before you join or visit a community. It’s not their responsibility to educate you on the basics. Before you start working with a group, create a preview portfolio for yourself. Your research might include blog posts, videos, books, journal articles, personal essays, economic analyses, any resource you can think of will help you get started.  The process is similar to preparing for a job interview: you learn everything you can in advance, so that when the interviewer asks "Do you have any questions for us" you are prepared with a thoughtful, incisive inquiry showing that you've done your homework and have thought about the company. 

Below are some questions to ask yourself in your research process and as you get to work in a community:

Systems questions:

  • Who are these folks? How do they identify themselves?

  • What competencies to they bring into the room?

  • What might make them comfortable?

  • What might be scary/inappropriate?

  • Time sensitivity, e.g. what are they doing before and after your class? 

  • Are the students there by choice? 

  • Are they wary? 

  • What are they wearing? Jeans and sneakers? Leotards and tights? Dresses and clogs?

  • Who are you in relation to them? 

  • Have they had a lot of teachers coming and going?

  • Are you a part of the community or a visitor? 

Movement questions:

  • Do they hold specialized dance knowledge that differs from yours?

  • Are they used to moving, dancing, exercising?

  • Can they get on and off the floor or chairs?

  • What will their energy levels be?

  • Will this class be less athletic than they are used to?

  • How much do they move in their daily lives?

  • Are there movements that a contra-indicated?

  • Do they need a doctors clearance before coming to class?

  • Will they use any assistance--cane? aide? wheelchair? dog?

Once you know all this, you also know nothing. The real knowledge comes from meeting the students.

When you first meet any group of students you have two responsibilities:

  1. to hold the space of the teacher

  2. to respect the community. 

holding the space of the teacher

This means taking on the responsibility for the room. You'll start and end class. You'll keep the class on task. You'll intervene if there is an issue. You'll take the complaints when they arise. It doesn't mean that you'll control every moment, but instead that you will set the tone for the class. You are a safety valve for the group. Students won't feel comfortable if you give up this responsibility. Sometimes I see new teachers give up too much leadership and ask the students too many questions: Do you want to begin? Should we warm-up? Do you want to do it again? How are your legs feeling?  Some questions are great, but students also want to see that you have planned class and that you are watching them. 

respecting the community

Think of yourself as an invited guest. You are present, with your ideas and knowledge. Even if a group of students have come to you--approach the class as if you are a guest in someone's home. There is so much to learn from students, about their lives, their movement qualities, and their stories. This learning emerges over time. 


Going forward we'll look at specific exercises and skills to add to your teaching repertoire. 

Getting-to-know-you toolkit:

  • Learning Names  

  • Low-Stakes Example: The Name Game

  • Bird-by-bird philosophy


Using names is an important way to build connection and community. You don’t have to learn them immediately  if learning names isn’t your strong suit, but you should use them.  Have students wear name-tags for a few classes or always. If you have a different group each time, invest in some sticky name tags and sharpies and just make it normal that students arrive, stick on their name-tag and get to class. If students struggle with writing, maybe you pre-print these or you write them as another learning tool. If you really struggle with a few names in the class, at the end of the first day, ask each student to say his or her name and favorite food/color/place in the word/etc into your phone mic and record them to listen back. Another sneaky skill is do to name based exercises throughout the class. In addition to the name game you can have students do exercises where they tell a story or say their name while dancing, they can write their names in space, they can introduce each other or call out the names of others to pass on an improvisation. Knowing and saying someone’s name is a way of saying “I see you and you matter.” Think of it this way, which sounds better: “Nice work Veronika.” Or “Hey you, good job.” Or, the worst, [Shoot, I can’t remember his name so I won’t say anything]


Everyone has something to share. As you get to know students, think of low-stakes opportunities for them to share their light and, as Brene Brown says, “step into the rink.” By low-stakes, I mean brief, low-risk, fleeting opportunities to share.  One great example that most community dance educators use is the Name Game. Like the Values Sort we did last week, the Name Game always works and never gets old. 

I generally teach it in a circle, here's an excerpt from the Moving Mentoring curriculum I wrote:

Ask the dancers to form a circle with Dance Mentors mixed in with Young Dancers. Introduce the idea that any movement, done with intent, can be a dance movement. Demonstrate a shrug, or a hand smacking your forehead, or one step in space, or standing still and smiling.


“Lets start by going around the circle. We will each say our name

and do a short action or gesture movement that goes with our name. Remember, I just showed you that any movement can be a dance move, so just do whatever comes to your body."


Show a few examples by saying your name and doing a range of funny and accessible movements while saying your name loudly and clearly. Try and avoid sexy poses as you demonstrate, as we'll be working to get the girls to move away from a singular definition of body presentation, but at the same time, don't correct them if that's what comes up. They'll start with what they know.


"We will learn each person’s name and action together. We’ll use Echo, in that each person will say and do their name and action, then the group will Echo back. We’ll also do an Accumulation which means that we’ll go back to the beginning each time, and add on the next person’s dancing name as we go around the circle.”


Do a few dancers at a time and every few dancers go back to the beginning and do the whole sequence. Once you have done the whole group, try a variation:

-mix up the group to a new order and go around the circle again

-divide into groups of 4-6 and have the dancers make a sequence using their name movements

-have 2 dancers at a time enter the circle, say hello, and each say their names with their movements

-add a second sharing and movement, favorite food, hometown, etc. 

There are many examples of the name game and many variations. Play with what works for you. 

bird by bird

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life. The title comes from her story of procrastinating on a school project about birds then getting totally overwhelmed at the last minute and her father telling her to take it “bird by bird.”  Step by step. Inch by inch. And little by little you’re there (yes, I have little kids).  

I love watching new teachers teach and so much of what they do I can relate to, because I remember having so very much to say and share and just wanting to dump it on students all at once. The history of dance, the importance of dance, how our culture devalues movement, how anything can be dance, and on and on.

But you are telling does not equal them knowing. The knowledge in dance comes from the dancing. And you learn from students by watching them. So get to know them with short exercises, where they get to try things out, and you closely watch to learn what seems to make sense for their bodies. Trust the processes of the dance studio: Warm-up. Try new things. Put things together.  


  1. What exercises do you see repeated by many teachers--and what do you think makes those exercises work so well?

  2. Discuss the difference between a class with a lot of low-stakes challenges, a class with a few high-stakes challenges, and an easy class? 


  1.  Using the bird-by-bird idea, identify a dance principle or lineage you are passionate about in dance and break it down into five parts. Think about a specific population.  Diagram these into a five class sequence and outline how you'd build all five elements into a cohesive piece by the last class. You don't have to create the exercises. Instead, make a general outline.  Here's an example to show you how short each week can be:

    1. Dance Lineage: African Aesthetic in Contemporary Dance for middle schoolers

      1. Elements: 

        1. History & Poly-rhythm: Show map of African Diaspora and Slave Trade, Have all students write 3 things they know about dance and music during slavery and 3 things they know about Black dance traditions (collect those). Teach a class they are used to, but incorporate complex and polyrhythms in each exercise. 

        2. Cultural  & Ephebism: Teach the concept of youthfulness & vitality through fast fun movement sequences, use circles for most of the class.

        3. Aesthetic of the Cool & musical examples: Play a selection of jazz music during class. In center combination, discuss the Aesthetic of the Cool and have the students perform the combination serious and straight and then again with a cool body attitude. 

        4. Poly-centrism, Katherine Dunham: Show a short video of Katherine Dunham. Discuss her role as an artist scholar. Incorporate previous classes, using circle structures, encouraging a cool attitude, and pull in both poly-rhythm and poly-centrism. 

        5.  High-affect juxtaposition: Put all the previous weeks together into a long-phrase with all the elements from weeks past. Introduce high-affect juxtaposition and have students insert contrast moments into their dance. 

ashley thorndikeComment