Ellen Robbins’ modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.
If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you’re all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins’ unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!
1. Let dancers make choices. “We might do triplets across the floor,” she says, “and there’d be two measures in which they could do whatever they want: stand still; funny movement; something beautiful; they could turn. Then they have to catch the train, so to speak—after the two measures they made up, they have to get back into mine.”
Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute
2. Speak in a language they understand. For Robbins, that’s metaphors. “The first composition that they make, at 5 years old, is to Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” she says. “It has an AABA form. I prepare them for that by teaching them dancing sandwiches. I put down tape to mark off thirds of the room, and they go across the floor doing anything—could be skipping, could be triplets. In the first third, they’ll do one movement. Then, they’ll get to the center third of the room and do a different movement.” For the last third, they repeat their first movement. “It’s bread, peanut butter, bread,” she explains. “When I take the tape away, they understand that’s a sandwich. Mozart had two pieces of bread [AA], and then the peanut butter [B] and then bread again [A].”
3. Keep them honest. Robbins will ask her dancers to stand still and close their eyes—which inevitably leads to swaying. She has them exaggerate the sway and fall out of it, two steps away. “Dancing is a ride,” she says. “I want them to feel the trajectory of their ride.” The next step is falling, connecting the fall to another movement, taking it to somewhere else in the room and then bringing it to a close. “We watch each other,” says Robbins. “I ask, ‘Who’s really telling the truth? Is your spine really involved, or are you just dancing with your feet?'”
4. Build slowly. “When my students are little, the pieces they create are very short—half a minute,” she says. “Then I use suites of music that are a minute and a half. When they’re 8, they choose their own music that’s three minutes long. It goes very slowly, step by step, little by little, until when they’re older—then they’re pretty independent.”