Keep them on their toes

Keep them on their toes

Integrating dance training into school theatre


Actors from Troupe 6547 of Lincoln (Neb.) Southwest H.S. perform ballet-inspired choreography for their main stage production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the 2015 International Thespian Festival. Photo by R. Bruhn.


YOU'VE FOUND the perfect show for your fall musical: Pride and Prejudice. Students love the show, there are great roles for the actresses in your program, and there are cross-curriculum opportunities with the school’s English department — you can already picture the preshow English teas that the Theatre Parents Club will organize. Wonderful! But wait. The show features Georgian-era dances, and lots of them. How can you get contemporary teenagers to learn historical dance steps and incorporate these into the storytelling — especially if your only dance experience was that tap-jazz-ballet class you took when you were 9 years old?

Dance and movement are an integral part of student training in any 21st-century high school theatre program. Musical theatre actors may need to learn the cotillion or the quadrille for a Jane Austen adaptation one season, then switch to Latin steps for Evita the next. Yet it’s not necessary to master every dance discipline. What’s important is to help your students feel comfortable about exploring a wide range of movement and to believe that they can succeed. Here are some approaches that have worked for me and other teachers throughout the country.

Develop an after-school or summer program

One way to cross-train theatre students in dance is to develop extracurricular programming. Lisa Morrow from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Ill., runs the after-school musical theatre program Bravo. During the school year, Bravo offers semester-long after-school dance classes in hip-hop, tap, and jazz.

In addition, Bravo offers a summer camp of two programs tailored to student age and experience: the Bravo Performing Arts Academy and Junior Bravo Academy. All campers are enrolled in a dance class, and the style they learn depends on the show performed that summer. The Lion King Jr. prompted lessons in African dance. Cinderella Jr. brought ballet and ballroom. Learning in the context of a show helps students develop skills and confidence.

While developing classes or camps requires considerable investment and planning, one easy and effective idea any director can employ is a Super Saturday event for students. Identify kids with dance training and have them create a dance combination in a specific style. You could try a Fosse combination to music from Chicago, a Latin combination to music from On Your Feet!, or maybe a 1950s partner dance from All Shook Up. Choose three to five different styles

The idea is to get your students moving. Pair those who can dance with those who’ve had less experience or training. You can add other elements, such as video clips of the dance styles taught. Jump in and learn the steps alongside your students, even (especially) if you have limited dance training yourself. The goal is to bring your students together and boost their confidence about themselves and their ability to move.


Students from Clark Montessori H.S. in Cincinnati, Ohio, rock a standard kickline in their 2019 JumpStart Theatre production of Annie Jr. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Partner with local resources

If your school lacks the resources to launch a dance camp, there are other ways to bring more dance training into your theatre classroom and rehearsals. For example, if there is a university theatre or dance department in your area, see whether they have an outreach performance group. Near me, the Northern Kentucky University Department of Theatre and Dance has three touring troupes (musical theatre, dance, improv) available to visit area schools and present material or lead sessions.

The NKU Dance Tour Troupe, led by faculty member Stephanie Brumer, travels to Cincinnati-area schools, presenting dance workshops in musical theatre, lyrical, and hip-hop styles. For some schools, the troupe will lead a weeklong residence with high school students.

Most communities have dance schools, ballroom dance instructors, and dance companies. Contact these organizations about whether they have instructors available to come to your school for workshops with your students. You’ll be surprised how accessible and affordable these schools and instructors can be. The NKU Dance Tour Troupe does school visits at no charge.

Add movement to your curriculum

Adding a musical theatre unit to your beginning or intermediate acting class is a great way to begin to expose your students to dance and movement. This could take the form of a dance appreciation lesson, where students view the work of musical theatre choreographers from Agnes de Mille to Christopher Gattelli and discuss how each artist’s style changes the storytelling.

If you have a trained student in your class (or perhaps a guest instructor available), you can teach your students a series of simple steps or combinations, then ask them what kind of arm movement, dynamic, or distinctive stylization they could use to make that pattern look like a specific choreographer’s style.

Diana Rogers, who recently retired as theatre director of River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Fla., developed a creative method to get her acting and musical theatre students involved in dancing: the 30-Minute Musical Project. She divided her Advanced Placement theatre class into teams, with at least one student who had dance training on each team. The teams then chose a favorite musical. Using the skills they had learned in class, each team had three weeks of class time to put together a presentation of 30 minutes from their chosen musical, including four to five choreographed songs with some dialogue transition.


Students from Roberts Paideia Academy in Cincinnati spruce up their moves with ribbons and scarves for their 2019 JumpStart Theatre performance of Aladdin Jr. Photo by Susan Doremus.

This was a practical way for the students to understand the integration of movement, music, and dialogue in musical theatre. A bonus to a project like this is that not only are the students introduced to a wide variety of musicals, but the teacher is as well. “After doing a cutting, there were many times when the school presented the entire musical the following school year,” Rogers said.

If a 30-minute theatre project sounds daunting, even a 10-minute musical excerpt can be useful. Instruct your students to add movement to the pieces they chose to help tell the story.

Break it down and make it fun

One of the most important things to remember is to make sure that your students are not overwhelmed by the idea of dance. Students come to you with a wide range of skill levels and interests in dance. They see videos on social media of exceptional dancers and often think, “I could never do that.” You want them to feel comfortable. One exercise I have used successfully is 5 Steps in 5 Minutes.

I tell the students that I will teach them five dance steps in five minutes, and they will be able to put together a number using only those five steps. For example, when I was directing Singin’ in the Rain, I chose five 1920s-style steps: basic Charleston, Charleston knees, pushes (a step-ball-change with arms pushing right and left), crazy leg kicks (a kick to the side with arms pushing diagonally over the head), and partner jumps side to side.

I set a timer and taught the steps in five minutes as promised. Then we did all the steps in a pattern using the song “Fit as a Fiddle.” Then I divided the students into small groups, giving each the task of putting the steps together in any order they wanted. Again, I gave them a five-minute time limit. Each group then presented their choreography to the larger group.

This is a fun activity. The students learn the dances, all of which can be achieved by any level of dancer. I love seeing what the groups come up with when they create their own choreography. But more important, this exercise helps to build an ensemble and allow students to solve problems and to create something of their own.


Students from Troupe 4982 at Bradford H.S. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, perform their 2017 ITF main stage production of West Side Story, a show known for vibrant choreography fusing ballet and Latin dance techniques with more pedestrian movement. Photo by John Nollendorfs.

You can do this with any dance style. For example, jazz square, Charleston, grapevine, three-step turn, pivot turn. Or five Latin steps in five minutes. Or five 1960s dances in five minutes. Whatever you go with, pick up-tempo, fun music in the style you are teaching. And keep track of the clock. (Set the timer on your phone.) As an added challenge, you can have the students change formations throughout the pattern. As the kids get the activity, they become less and less intimidated and their confidence builds.

Help guide the serious student

It’s one thing to find creative ways to introduce dance and movement to students who want to participate in musical theatre, but another when you have a student who decides that musical theatre is what they want to pursue. This student might be an upperclassman who has never formally studied dance. How can you, as theatre director, guide this student on the path to success in college auditions?

Tracey Bonner, B.F.A. coordinator and assistant professor of dance at Northern Kentucky University, offers some suggestions. “While the foundation of all dance is based in ballet and ballet terminology, this can be an overwhelming place to begin,” she said. “A high school student of 16 might actually be at the skillset of an 8-year-old dancer, and most high school students don’t want to study in that atmosphere, for various reasons. Finding a studio where there are other students at similar levels with similar goals is of high importance.”

Bonner suggests checking the studios in your area where other high school students are studying. For the musical theatre student, you want instructors who are specific and detailed with their corrections. Remind your student, though, that there is no quick fix to becoming a dancer. It requires ongoing dedication. Still, they can absolutely be successful in auditions even if they just started dance training.

Bonner adds, “Rhythm is a very important tool. Being able to create syncopation and even rhythms within the body can be a telltale sign for a collegiate program that might be looking more for potential than perfection. Being able to exert confidence, even when it is difficult, and working within the proper spatial relationship are also important.”

There are many options for building dance skills in musical theatre students, but remember that the goal is to let your students succeed in being important parts of any production, regardless of their dance background. Everyone starts somewhere. School musical choreography is about creating achievable goals and helping the students believe in themselves.

Read more Teaching Theatre.