It’s high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you’ll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.
To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school’s latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.
On picking a theme “In order to brainstorm for my themes, I like to take a step away from the dance world. I like to listen to NPR and podcasts to glean inspiration from unexpected places that peak my curiosity. Oftentimes the theme will come from the title of one of the shows, or a quip or catchphrase I hear. I like wordplay, and when I hear it, I ask myself if it’s sustainable. Then, I make a list of possible pieces that could be created from the idea. If I can’t come up with enough possibilities that cover a range of genres, I scratch it and start over until I find the right fit.”
On helping her dancers choreograph their own works “I start by getting them out of their comfort zones. These kids are so saturated with dance that they tend to repeat the same steps they’ve seen before again and again. I sit the kids down and walk through the process of coming up with an idea. This year the theme was elements, like the periodic table. We started talking about salt to get their juices flowing. We explored what it is, what it tastes like, what history has said about it, and then we created mini dances based off of that brainstorming.
“Once they started on their own works for the concert, I encouraged them not to use known or trendy dance steps. I would say, ‘OK, I’ve seen that step before, show me something I haven’t seen before instead.’ I’m always open and available for them to come and talk to me about their ideas. I don’t make them, but my door is open. I work on the most with them on taking their ideas from words to movement. I help them find a simple visual solution to their complex ideas.”
On working within a K–12 costume budget “Budgets are different for every school district. Here, we have a foundation that parents earmark specifically for us. I use this money to buy costumes for our pieces with big numbers because we can reuse them year after year. I like to get them from places like Dancewear Solutions and Discount Dance Supply—they have a teacher’s discount. I will often let students get their own costumes, or bring something from home to wear if the theme of the piece works with it. Teachers can also rent costumes from other schools if they’d like to diversify things while staying within budget.”
On lighting high school shows “I think dancers need to understand lighting. It really makes or breaks their work. They usually think about it last, but in my opinion they should be thinking about it first. I have my dancers write down lighting ideas early on. I ask them if they want something dark or colorful, or harsh or bright. I teach them about what the different lights are, and how they can impact the audience’s perspective on their piece. By the time my dancers are lighting their third piece, they’ve choreographed since high school, I make them set them on their own.”
On school-appropriate music “When the kids audition their pieces, they know they need to check their lyrics first. We can’t play anything that isn’t school-appropriate. If a dancer auditions a piece to a really popular song, especially if they are a first-time choreographer, I will have them explore other song options. I brainstorm a lot of songs that I think work with our theme and have them explore those, or I will have them put the popular song into Spotify and see if they can find something similar to it that might work better.”
On logistics “It’s important to communicate what is going on with your show to everyone in your school. I let the custodians know when we will be in the space. I let administrators know what I will need from them. I make sure I talk to the students about keeping up with their grades. I send notices to the other teachers recommending they not give kids leeway, but to know what they have going on so they aren’t surprised. I communicate the schedule to the students, and let them know what my expectations of them are. I communicate how long I need them (I usually tell them dress rehearsals will go longer than I think they will, so we are prepared for incidentals), and let them know what days everything falls on far in advance. In fact, most of the information is in their disclosures at the beginning of the semester. I communicate what I need help with from the parents, and what they shouldn’t try to help with. It is important to communicate how long you will be there and let parents know what they can help with and what they shouldn’t help with.”