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make your day dance

Choreographers can be inspired by poetry!

January 19th, 2012 · 6 Comments · Tags: ····

Here’s a lesson I’ve used with 5th graders over the years. Often I integrate this lesson with other lessons on Martin Luke King Jr. and Alvin Ailey, since they were contemporaries — all alive & working toward change during the civil rights movement.*  I’m posting this lesson just now in response to a Read & Romp Roundup at Kerry Aradhya’s Picture Books & Pirouettes blog. No one would classify Langston Hughes’ poem as children’s literature, but 5th graders are still children, and the poem is a great window into the world for them.

The lesson is based on “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me–
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

A word-driven improvisational warm-up

This is an improvisational structure I learned from Thom Cobb during an NDEO National Conference session (was it in Providence, Rhode Island?) – Thank you, Tom! It’s served my students & myself very well over the years!
Teach a sequence of words for students to respond to in succession, discussing elements of movement to focus each response. For example:
“Space” – students make a shape using full extension in whatever direction they choose
“Time” – students either run in place or move in sloooooooow motion
“Energy” – students either punch or float in self space
“4 shapes” – students make shapes from high to low with 4 percussive drum beats
“Balloons” – students rise from low to high with delicate, floating energy
“Locomotor high & low” – students travel in general space for 8 counts
“Forest picture snap” – students take any frozen shape that would be part of a forest scene (rock, bush, tree, animal, whatever!)
“Wind” – only the boys swirl, twist, & turn through general space while girls hold their shape
“Lightning” – only the girls move sharply, with angular shapes & electric moves among the frozen shapes of the boys
“Mud” – everyone moves with slow, strong, smooth moves as if stuck in the mud
“Popcorn” – everyone explodes once
“Sneak back home” – everyone moves back to their starting place with quick sneaky focus
“Melting ice cream” – slowly sinking downward
“Exclamation point!” – explode into a frozen ending shape
Use whatever words evoke the qualities of movement you want…

Examining the first stanza of “Dance Variations” by Langston Hughes for words that suggest movement:
1. Read the poem
2. Check for unfamiliar vocabulary & clarify new vocabulary with synonyms
3. Highlight words that suggest movement
4. Students explore various ways to express the words, individually, on cue
5. Choose a favorite three words or phrases & create a phrase (as a whole class or individually, or not at all, depending on the time)

Skill Development
Teach a phrase of choreography built on 3 words or images from the second stanza, modeling with an explanation of how the movements were chosen to express the words. Create a sequence appropriate for your students; how specific you are on details of the choreography will depend on your students.
For example,
Model of a choreography sequence from “Dream Variations”
Music: “Spring Rain” by Michael Powers ~30 seconds
Quick day” – “For quick day, I use focuses with sharp & sustained energy to express the way African Americans were watchful & careful during the day.”
8 counts: sharp focus 1, focus 2, hold 3, sharp focus 4, slowly scan for danger 5, 6, 7, 8
8 counts: repeat
Rest” – “To show resting, I take 8 counts to change from a fearful outward focus to a more relaxed shape with an inward focus.”
8 counts: turn with a slow focus & arm gesture
8 counts: rest head on arms to one side
Night coming tenderly” – “For night coming tenderly, I trace an arc over my head with my arm, thinking about how the sky looks at sunset, and then I sink gently to the floor.”
8 counts: arc with arm over the head for sunset
8 counts: sink gently to the floor
Practice & repeat to cement the sequence of the phrase, with smooth transitions. Rehearse with the words as cues, or not.

Now it’s their turn… with a partner, students choose 3 words, images, or phrases from the first stanza, create a movement phrase to express each image or phrase, and practice their phrase. If you have time, they can add the choreographed phrase you taught them as an ending to their own.

Have students watch each other’s choreography. Several pairs can perform at once; if they add the learned choreography, each pair will do that second, and it will probably be performed in a kind of canon, with each pair doing the same final moves at different times.
Ask the audience to watch for & identify words or phrases they see from the poem.
Or else have the dancers identify one of their images & explain how they chose to express it with movement (either verbally or in writing).

*Langston Hughes 1902-1967     Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929-1968     Alvin Ailey 1931-1989

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Maria Hanley

    I love this! great way to incorporate words with movements! Keep up the great work! P.s. Thom Cobb is the best! He was my professor in college! :)

  • megrm

    Thanks, Maria! And thanks so much for the catch on Thom’s name — if I’m going to credit someone for their wonderful ideas, I’d sure rather credit them correctly! I enjoy your blog!

  • Diana

    This is an awesome lesson! Thanks so much for sharing it – I can’t wait to use it!

  • megrm

    I hope it works for you. It’s been an interesting lesson — it requires kids to think pretty seriously, although they often also get caught up in in the words “whirl” & “dance.” Be ready to adjust for timing — as laid out, it’s a long lesson!

  • Eric VanRaepenbusch

    I would have liked to have seen this lesson in action. Watching children think and interpret when they challenged can be entertaining. Good luck with your dance students.

  • Grier Cooper

    Great ideas for sharing dance and poetry with kids! Thanks so much for sharing.