Class Planning


get up

Please dance to plan your class. Your body is the means and the medium of transmission. I feel really strongly that you owe it to your students to have the material deeply in your body when you enter the classroom. I am 100% sure that once you are in the studio, you'll begin improvising but please arrive with a plan that was created with your dancing body. 

Think about it this way. Imagine you are a fly on the wall. Or maybe a fly in an air vent between two dance studios. As you peek from air register to air register you see two scenes. Two teachers blank out on their lesson plans.

In the first studio a teacher goes over to her notes, and spends 3 minutes leaning over her notebook, reading them. The students watch her for a moment then start talking amongst themselves.

In the next studio another teacher has forgotten his combination. He says to the class "hang on a second, I need to put the music on and figure this out." It takes him 5 minutes to remember the steps--first he marks them, then he restarts the music and dances the section, then while dancing, he shouts out, "oh, BACK around!" 

During all this, what are the students doing?

Okay, yes--a few have gone over to their dance bags to check their phones. Stupid, addictive phones. 

But wait, the rest of the students are watching him, sensing his weight, trying to learn along with him, marking, or closely observing. 

I'm not saying you shouldn't take notes or sketch your class but when you blank out on something while teaching, I want you to show the students that the base of your knowledge is in your body. You figure it out through movement and that teaches the students that they, too, can figure out dancing through the movement. 

class structures

There are many ways to plan a class, let's take a look at four. 

  1. Sectional

  2. Conceptual

  3. Reverse Engineered

  4. Compositional

sectional classes

A sectional approach follows a repeating sequence. In each class, the students do each section though the movement content might vary. The teacher might loosely carry a theme through all the exercises, but the order and focus of each section remains consistent.  This consistency acts as a scaffolding for students. They know what to expect and come to know the names and emphases of the sections.


  • Warm-up

  • Isolations

  • Traveling

  • Phrase

Curriculum specific:

  • Loosen-Up

  • Focus & Balance

  • Articulations

  • Traveling

  • Phrasework


  • Circle time

  • Free dancing

  • Group formation

  • Line dance


  • Plies,

  • Tendus from 1st,

  • Tendu from 5th

  • Degage

  • Etc.

Using a sectional format can mean using a format that you have learned--for instance ballet or the Moving Mentoring structure, or you may design your own. To make your own sectional class, think about what your group will always need. For instance, if you are working with Senior Citizens with balance issues, perhaps you always start seated in chairs, then you stand behind the chairs using them on occasion, then you move in a circle around the chairs, then you work in partners to end.  Or if you are working with rambunctious preschoolers, maybe you start standing on landing dots, then have wild time, then have a  focused skill, then a seated circle. 

I recommend that you name your sections. It will help you and your students remember the order of the class and the point of the sections. 

conceptual classes

In a conceptual class, you create the whole class out of an idea. These classes can either follow a sectional pattern or are often done artfully through longer improvisation structures.  To work this way, pick a movement principle and build the class around that concept. Each exercise can address the principle in a different way, incorporating exploration and skill building and arriving at a movement phrase that explore many different facets of the skill. For instance, let's say you are working with a group of teenagers and one class you want to explore movement pathways and the next class you want them to understand how to drop their Weight. 


  • Jog through room shouting out levels of complication to get the students tired and shifting weight.

  • A partner exercise with tossing, swinging, arms

  • A traveling exercise with jogging, under-curves, tossing arms, and directional changes.

  • A small jump with changing time, chugs, syncopations, and accents.

Movement Pathways

  • Introducing Door plane, Wheel plane, Table Plane with a simple learned movement pattern that moves in each.

  • An individual improvisation spoking, arcing, and carving

  • Have students create walking pathways that repeat with a change through the space

  • Partner students and have them do arm or leg pathways that involve avoiding or obstructing one another.


I just made those up, but the point is that the sequence might not be predictable. It might build as a nice, long improvisation. The partnering exercise might happen at a different time. The warm up one day might be set, the next day it might be improvised. But the whole class will make sense to the students because you will introduce the theme from the start. 

backfill/reverse engineer

A similar effect happens with classes built conceptually when you reverse engineer.  Here, however, you take a specific physical skill or set of skills you want to teach. Say, the ball change. Or a slice of repertory. You then break down the final phrase and skill in so many different ways and make those into different warm up exercise. 

  1. Create your final phrase.

  2. Ask yourself what will be hard for your students. List 3-4 skills.

  3. Ask yourself what is most important to you. List 1-2 qualities.

  4. Take those identified skills and qualities and weave them into your warm-up exercises.

This is how I was first trained to teach. It’s a really beautiful and effective practice. However, it’s really time-consuming and it works best when you are in a situation where you’ll teach a similar arc over the years. So if you’ll be teaching Modern 2 for several years, with a new group of students each year, you can create some reverse-engineered classes and teach them year after year. It's also a great way to structure a master class that you might teach in 8 different contexts over a year. With a well crafted reverse engineered class, by the phrase you can say "There's nothing in this long phrase that you haven't done before." And that gives students a great confidence boost. 

While great, if you are teaching in a community setting and your gigs and communities are constantly changing, this might be more prep time than you have available. And, for students it can be less predictable. If your students are less comfortable with dance, they will likely love a class where they know what's coming next. 

compositional classes

Lastly, we have dance classes where the aim is a collaborative composition. Here, you need to warm the students up, keep them moving, and use exercises that prompt them to collaboratively choreograph. With each exercise, create something that can be, with a few tweaks, put into a dance piece. 

I love teaching this way. It's fun. Students feel like they have made something. I get some creative process time. All good. It can be used over a period of classes, like a 6-week session, or all in one class. 

When creating this way, I like to think of the parts of a dance as building blocks. Is it the same as my creative process with professional dancers: Nope. It's more formulaic; I keep stuff even if I don't love it; and I repeat things dance to dance. But the point isn't my creative genius. (Plus, luckily for all, I know I'm not a creative genius). 

So, I have a working list of things that work with different age groups. For instance, here are some of my building blocks for a 4th & 5th grade after-school dance:

  • Pass across the room high space, medium space, low space

  • Circle phrases

  • Duets with positive and negative space

  • Movement phrase all can do in unison

  • Movement phrases A and B that can be done simulataneously

  • Mirroring

  • Weight Sharing

  • Action Verb series

  • Interview stories

Students can generate these and I can mix and re-mix these 

which one?

You'll likely find that you like one of these planning mechanisms, but that over time you find certain methods effective in certain situations. AND you'll start smashing them together creating your own planning style. Try them out. With your body. Because you are a dancer. 

And wait, are you wondering why this post has a grocery bag as an illustration? Because planning class is like feeding your family. You'll get great ingredients. Try things. Make something new. Discover something that pleases everyone. And then go back to the store because your family still wants more meals! It never ends. Make class planning fun. And send me your easy dinner ideas. 


  1. Discuss some effective teachers you have had. How do their class structures connect to the four methods listed?

  2. What other ways are there to plan a class?

ashley thorndikeComment