For a young student in the process of developing bodily awareness, a hands-on adjustment by a teacher can mean the difference between safe and incorrect alignment. But in many K–12 schools today, a hands-on approach is frowned upon or sometimes even forbidden. With dance being a kinesthetic art, this limitation presents a predicament for K–12 dance teachers. Here, two teachers share their views on whether to use touch in class and, if so, how they go about it.
Is Touch Even Necessary?
At Deland Middle School in Florida, Amber Johnson estimates that 90 percent of her students haven’t had a dance class before they enter her classroom. Her classes are choreography- and technique-based, so helping students feel correct alignment is a priority. “I feel like hands-on corrections are essential,” she says. “A lot of students are very not aware of their bodies.” Many come to her with hunched shoulders, swayed backs or difficulty engaging the correct muscles, so a light touch to the shoulders, back or stomach can go a long way.
Conversely, Valerie Gutwirth, who teaches at several different elementary schools in Berkeley Unified School District, intentionally avoids hands-on corrections. Her students are mostly first- and second-graders, so her classes focus primarily on creative movement, spatial awareness and coordination. “I teach very young children, so my job right now is more about getting them not to touch each other,” she says.
Set the Expectations and Get Permission
Though Gutwirth doesn’t offer physical adjustments in her classes, she will occasionally conduct activities that involve touch, such as the “sculptor-and-clay” exercise, in which students “mold” each other into different shapes. “I’m very mindful of getting their permission and getting a kid [to help demonstrate] who wants to do this. I don’t just pick a kid,” she says. She always asks, “Is it OK if I touch you?” More often than not, students say yes.
Johnson lets students know her approach from day 1: “In my syllabus, I have a clause that says: ‘Parents and students should understand that this is an instructional movement class, and there will be some physical contact in order to facilitate proper alignment and movement. There will also be physical interaction with other students.'” Students then have to take the syllabus home, have a parent sign it and bring it back for a grade.
Johnson lets students know they are free to drop the class if they are not comfortable with physical contact. In her 11 years at Deland, Johnson says she’s had maybe two students transfer out for that reason.
She uses the first few classes to get students comfortable with making physical contact by playing improvisation games. “They’re having fun and not really thinking about the fact that they’re breaking the touch barrier,” she says.
Consider How You Touch
Johnson’s early training included forceful touch and even being poked with a stick by one of her teachers. “I definitely use lighter touch corrections,” she says. For example, she might stand behind a student and gently put her hands on their shoulders to help them roll them down and back. Or as a reminder to engage their abdominal muscles, she might lightly touch their stomach—never poking or pushing.
Johnson suspects that she might use more pressure in her corrections if she were working in an after-school studio, but, she says, “in the public-school setting, you just have to be careful.” Gutwirth agrees: “There’s this climate of fear and covering your back, because everything’s a potential lawsuit.” During her 20 years in Berkeley Unified, she has adjusted her approach to physical contact with students. “The field has evolved, especially as we’ve learned more about children and trauma. If there’s a shift in approach, it’s really about making sure everyone in the room feels safe,” she says.
When she does use touch to demonstrate an activity, Gutwirth is quick, direct and sticks to light touch to the shoulders, back, arms and hands. For something like sculptor-and-clay, she’ll demonstrate on the student first and then let the student demonstrate on her, so the last image the class sees is the kid having power over the adult.
Use Creative Alternatives
For students who shy away from a hands-on correction from her or from physical contact with other students, Johnson incorporates moments where they can give physical feedback to themselves. She’ll direct the entire class to place a hand on their abdominals while standing at the barre, or on their quads in a tendu, and then feel the difference between engaged and relaxed muscles.
Johnson is also a fan of imagery. For example, having students stand in first position, she’ll tell them, “I want you to pretend that you have a raindrop on your shoulder, and it rolls down your arm and off the tip of your finger.”
Read Your Students
Overall, just using common sense and gauging students’ responses to touch will go a long way. “Feel out your crowd. Some students are going to be more OK with it than others,” says Johnson. “Pay attention to how students react when you touch them.”
Gutwirth stresses the importance of always asking permission, both as a teacher and encouraging students to do so among themselves. Not only will it help avoid conflict, but it empowers students to say no when they’re uncomfortable.
Johnson adds that taking the time to build a foundation of trust and open communication can help students become more comfortable with physical contact from a teacher. “I work hard to make sure the students are having fun in an environment that they enjoy. I believe that if a student trusts you as their teacher, they’re going to learn better from you, and there is much less likelihood that there are going to be issues.”