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make your day dance

Lesson plan: Let’s do an improvisation!

January 2nd, 2010 · 1 Comment · Tags: ·····

Context: In my years of teaching classroom teachers how to use movement in the classroom, I’ve always cautioned, “Never put on music & just tell the kids to dance!”  That would be wild-party-time not dance education, and the resulting chaos would likely discourage anyone from inviting dance into the classroom.

This year, however, I’ve been putting on music & just telling the kids to dance.  Well, not exactly.  But I’ve been teaching my 1st & 2nd graders how to improvise without much structure, and we all seem to be loving it.

Why my change of heart?  Several reasons —

  • …in order to get them to listen to classical music.  There’s a wonderful woman who visits monthly as a volunteer, in order to introduce all 350 of our kids (class by class) to composers of classical music — Bach… Beethoven… Tchaikovsky & The Nutcracker for Christmas… and she’s provided sets of classical music CDs for the classroom teachers.  But with all the academic demands on teacher-time, there’s not a lot of follow-up, developing relationships between the kids and their newly-found composer friends.  So this year, I decided to help them make a connection. Of course, with its dynamic changes, classical music is so good at inviting movement!  In order for students to actually listen to the music, though, listening & responding have to be the focus.
  • …in order to set the kids free as dancers.  I keep the instructions minimal (safety first!) & we reflect without judgment.
  • …in order to firmly establish the connection between dance & playfulness.
  • …in order to prepare them for really understanding how to improvise their way through a performance mishap — and life!

I was also prodded into these adventures with improvisation by attending a workshop given by the late Becky Ellis at the National Dance Education Organization conference in New York City last June.  As a dance educator for many years in Utah, Becky Ellis loved teaching the boys dance classes at Brigham Young University & recently had traveled to several conferences in order to share her work. She was a convincing advocate for using improvisation to encourage children’s — and especially boys’ — natural creativity, rhythm, and impulses for movement.  I’m grateful that I was able to see her group & hear about her methods before she passed away in late summer.

So, inspired by Becky Ellis, I spent some time at the beginning of the year concentrating on improvisation. Having established the format, I use it at least once a week, adding improvisational strategies as we go.

Grades: 1st-2nd grade, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be adjusted for any age. [Each lesson below is 30 minutes; if you’re lucky enough to have more time in each session, adjust & count your blessings!]

Teaching points: Dancers think about what their body is doing. Dancers use improvisation to practice & improve.  Dancers reflect (think back) on their dancing. [Timing for this lesson: just after the basics for dance classes are established.]


  • Improvise in response to music
  • Improvise with other people
  • Learn & use strategies for improvisation: paying attention, playing with other dancers, becoming conscious of your movements
  • Reflect on the improvisation

Lesson 1Dancers think about what their body is doing.

  • Talk about how every art form has its tools, and the body is a dancer’s tool. Introduce the body parts, by naming, isolating & moving eyes, fingers, toes, knees, shoulders…
  • Pause Dance with Body Parts… introduce dancing & freezing on cues from the music (music=dance; silence=freeze), emphasizing & thinking about isolated parts for each segment of music.
  • Model mirroring while “thinking” out loud. Work with a student as a partner & talk out loud about your decisions… “let’s see, I’ve been moving my arms, so now I’ll move my feet for awhile.  Whoops! I moved too fast & he couldn’t stay with me, I better slow down a little.  Oh, that’s an interesting shape he’s making — I wouldn’t have guessed it would look like that from the way it feels…”
  • Student partners mirror each other silently in self space, noticing their thoughts. After a turn leading, ask the leader to tell his/her partner what s/he was thinking about.

Lesson 2: Dancers use improvisation to practice & improve.

  • Warm up with mirroring, either with teacher as leader, or in duets.
  • Introduce “improvisation”  — improvising is making up a dance as you go along, without planning it beforehand. Talk about how dancers improvise in order to play with movement, to get ideas, to improve their dancing.
  • Set up a few basic rules for improvisation: start with a shape at the beginning of the dance, change moves as the music changes, always look for empty space & don’t touch anyone else, make a shape & hold it when the music ends.
  • Let’s do an improvisation! Choose music with some dynamic changes, classical or a movie soundtrack. Start the music when they’re in a still shape, let them continue as long as it’s productive (30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on the group), fade the music & encourage them to find their final shape.
  • Reflection — “Make a circle with room for everyone by the time I count from 5 to 1.”  [This may take a few tries at first — if they’re jostling to be next to you or a friend, redo it, reminding them that we’re an ensemble (a group working toward a single purpose), and our purpose is to make a circle, not sit next to a particular person.  Sometimes we have to redo it 4 or 5 times at first.]  Then reflect aloud about what you saw, usually without names: “I noticed one dancer who seemed to be thinking about how his arms were moving when the music started … I saw another dancer who was going really slowly when the music got quiet…” Ask a few dancers to share what they saw, without names [“What kinds of moves did you see? Do you remember how the music changed?  What happened then?”]
  • If there’s time, do a more structured improvisation, such as a Body Part Statue/Sculptor:  Some students are statues, some are sculptors.  A sculptor moves one body part on a statue & then copies the statue.  The sculptor then stays as the frozen statue, while the student who had been frozen becomes a sculptor and travels around looking for a statue to change.  [Anne Green Gilbert’s books, Creative Dance for All Ages & Brain-Compatible Dance Education, are chock-a-block with improvisational structures. If you don’t have them, get them.]
  • Reflection: Have them tell their partner how they decided which body part to move on their partner, whether they moved different parts on different partners, and/or how it feels to “make it up as you go along.”

Lesson 3: Dancers reflect (think back) on their dancing.

  • Introduce body shapes — round, twisted, straight, angular. Try them out by naming & making them.  Then generate a short list of what kinds of things are round, twisted, straight & angular, writing them on the board.
  • Let’s do an improvisation! again with the same simple structure (starting shape, moving into empty space without touching, changing moves with the music, ending in a shape), but ask them this time to think about what shapes they’re seeing & making.
  • 5 counts to a circle & reflect… Talk about how dancers not only think about their bodies while they dancing & improvising, they also reflect or think back on their dancing afterward in order to improve.  Again, I model by making a few comments & then turn it over: What kinds of shapes did you see & make?  How could we make better shapes?
  • Let’s do another improvisation, and see if it will be even better!
  • Another circle reflection… was it better? how? why not?
  • If there’s time, do a more structured improvisation, in which statues make fabulous shapes & travelers copy the shapes. At the end, ask them to show a shape they remember seeing & copying, and have the class describe the shape.


By now, “Let’s do an improvisation!” is established as a way of responding to music with movement, with a circle reflection following the improvisation.

It’s an activity that can be added to any class, encouraging them to add whatever new dance element we’ve been working on to their consciousness as they improvise.  Working on levels, I asked them to think about changing levels and/or being on a different level from other people. They’ve added stillness & slow motion as a variation. Sometimes we choose a theme, such as spiders, or toys in a toy shop, or I show them a piece of visual art to generate a main idea. One particularly good improvisation was generated by a painting of an underwater scene, using the elements of size/range (think big sea creatures, small sea creatures), speed & relationship (traveling in schools or darting in & around each other). They’ve also learned some improvisational strategies — for example, if they don’t know quite what to do, they can copy someone else [without bothering them!] — or do the opposite from someone.

Sometimes I use the phrase at the beginning to warm up, sometimes as a last creative activity, but the response to “let’s do an improvisation” is always positive.

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