Proceedings of the Known World Dance Symposium 2007

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How to Teach Dance (or anything else!)

Janelle Durham
(Mistress Janelyn of Fenmere)

Developing a class: Asking the Right Questions

Many dance instructors ask themselves only one question when preparing to teach. They ask “What will I teach?” They think about what dances they know, and what they have music for, and then they make an attempt at teaching.

If they know the dances, do a reasonably competent job of teaching them, and have an engaging personality, then the evening is likely to be a success, and the students will leave feeling reasonably satisfied and somewhat enlightened about dance.

However, dance instruction can be taken to a much higher level than that if the instructor learns more about the process of teaching, and asks themselves some more fundamental questions than just ‘what will I teach.’ Consider these questions:

·    Why do I teach dance? What is my philosophy? What motivates me, personally?

·    Who are my students? When preparing a class, always keep your audience in mind. Are they likely to be skilled dancers, with years of training in multiple genres? Or computer geeks who haven’t done much with their bodies since elementary school? What learning styles are they most likely to possess? Why are they here? Given how many options we all have for how to spend our time, what is it that led them to commit some precious hours to dance? And what do we need to give them so they feel fulfilled by the experience, and will choose to come back?

·    Why am I teaching this particular class? What is my purpose at this specific time?

·    What do I hope to accomplish with this particular class? What are my objectives?

·    Now you can begin to ask yourself: What will I teach? And once you begin to plan the content, that question should be immediately followed by:

·    How will I teach it? We will review some teaching theories and techniques that will help your students learn more effectively, and retain the information better.

·    How will I know that I have taught effectively? The final step, evaluation, is left out by many instructors. You’ll notice this over time, as you’ll see some instructors who never change their mode of teaching over many years of teaching. Others, who are continuously thinking critically, and evaluating themselves, will continue to change and improve their teaching, becoming better over the years.

The rest of this handout will walk you through these questions, as you explore your teaching in more depth.


This process begins with self-discovery—understanding what your personal motivation is for teaching dance.  The philosophy statement is a statement of beliefs about dance, the purpose of dance education, the role of the dance instructor, the role of class members.  I have listed a wide variety of ‘beliefs’ about dance, some of which will resonate with you, and others which will not. Read the statements below, and use them as a guide in writing your personal philosophy.

Possible statements of beliefs: Why do I want to teach?

·         I like dancing, and want to dance. So, I need to make sure that other people learn how to dance, so I’m not out on the floor alone.

·         Dancing is good exercise. Gets me up off my butt once a week.

·         I got tired of watching other people teach badly. I finally decided that if I wanted to see it done right, I’d have to do it myself.

·         Dance was a vital part of Renaissance culture, and thus it is essential for SCA participants to have a knowledge of dance. My role is to spread this gospel.

·         Dance is participatory, and gets people involved. It’s especially great for getting newcomers involved, and helping them realize the SCA is about participation, not about being members of an audience.

·         Opportunities for flirting: Arbeau says I can “touch and savor” the babes. Ebreo says I’ll be “able to arrive stealthily at the satisfaction of [my] desires.”

·         It’s a way to fit in, and a way to contribute. I feel awkward in social occasions sometimes, and it’s easier if I have something to do…

·         My role is to encourage period authenticity: To teach only period dance, and discourage the teaching and performance of non-period dances.

·         I like to teach. I’m happy to teach anything (dance or otherwise), because for me the joy is in the challenge of how to effectively communicate to others.

·         Researching and teaching renaissance dance is a nice break from my day job. It lets me use my brain in a different way.

·         I’d studied modern dance for years, and it’s fun to play with a new genre.

It is useful to take time to write down your philosophy.  It is important to revisit this statement of beliefs periodically-- it will evolve as your interests evolve.

Write your “philosophy of dance” here. Why do you teach dance?








We’ll look at 3 aspects of understanding our audience: characteristics of adult learners, learning styles, and ways to assess student’s abilities and interests. If we keep these characteristics in mind, our teaching will be more effective.

Adult learners

·         Are motivated and ready to learn - they sought out the class.

·         May be impatient to get info or gain skills they desire.  Don’t waste their time!

·         Like to enjoy themselves. Humor and opportunities to share socially along with a relaxed atmosphere increase their enjoyment of class.

·         Learn best when they are active participants, involved in setting the goals and direction for the class; and when they are given specific learning activities.

·         Learn best in a non-threatening atmosphere, where they are free to ask any question and in which they are likely to succeed at a task.

Reflect on the people who typically dance when you teach: Why did they seek out this class? Are they just here to socialize? Do they want to learn dance for a specific reason? List some possible goals of your students here:




Learning Styles

We all have different ways of hearing, processing, and retaining information. Most of us have learned to adapt over the years, and can learn in many different “languages”, but it is easiest for learners if the teacher can use a variety of teaching techniques, or ‘broadcast on several channels’ at once, so everyone in the room is following at least a portion of what the teacher is trying to convey.

There are many theories about learning styles. I will note a couple categories below, and include some thoughts on what elements are essential in dance classes for each.

·          Visual – Auditory – Kinesthetic.

o    Visual Learners need to see information to retain it: demonstrate steps, draw diagrams of figures on a white board, show hand holds, give them handouts with written information and diagrams and period illustrations. Avoid: distracting clutter in the room and distracting mannerisms like fidgeting with your handouts or wandering about.

o    Auditory Learners learn by listening: hum the music as you teach, describe a step as you perform it, use sing-songy chants when teaching to help them to learn the rhythms of the dance. Avoid: distracting noises, saying Ummm; use sarcasm cautiously, as auditory learners absorb words, and don’t remember they were said sarcastically

o    Kinesthetic Learners need to move: When you demo a dance, give the visual learners ‘permission’ to just stand and watch; but give the kinesthetic learners permission to do the steps in place as they watch. Let them do things over and over till they have it down. Avoid: having them stand still for long periods as you explain/demo something.

·          Global vs. Analytic:

o    Global learners learn best when shown the big picture. Begin by demoing the dance start to finish. They learn well if you just stand in front of the room, and says “do what I do.”  If you have students who have taken ballet/modern classes in the past, or done lots of sports, they may be very comfortable with this style. They enjoy a class with a smooth flow of information, and stories, and interaction, and are happy to just absorb whatever information comes at them.

o    Analytics want all the little details and want them all broken out into a logical sequence of steps. They love it if you write an outline on the board of what dances you expect to cover. They like it when you start by explaining the structure of the dance to them: “There will be three verses, each followed by the same chorus.” Then, as you go through the dance, you verbally review that. “That’s the end of the second verse, so let’s go to the chorus again.” Written handouts with a clear structure help these students to learn the dances well.

Use this space to reflect on what you’re doing well in regards to different learning styles, and what you might do to enhance your teaching:







Ways to Assess Students’ Abilities and Interests

One of the most valuable things you can do in a class is to spend the first few minutes of a class learning about your students so you can adapt your teaching to best meet their needs and goals.


For any given dance practice, dance class, or dance session at an event, it is helpful to think about what your purpose is. The purpose helps to identify which information needs to be included in the class and which does not.  Notice how the following purpose statements will affect what will be taught and how.

·         The purpose of this rehearsal is to prepare students for an upcoming performance.

·         The purpose of this practice is to introduce newcomers to a wide range of dances.

·         The purpose of this class is to help students develop a deeper knowledge of the basse dance genre, and understand the structure of mesures.

·         The purpose of pickup dancing is to have fun doing our favorite dances.

·         The purpose of dance at this event is to fill time/entertain while we wait for court

Learner Objectives

While the purpose describes in broad terms what a teacher intends to do, the learner objectives will describe specific things the learner will be able to do at the end of the class.  Well thought out and designed objectives define the content of the class.  They serve as a sort of screen, helping the educator to decide which content must be included and which can be left out.

They should be as specific as possible, measurable, and achievable for your audience within the time available to you. Saying “Students will understand late Italian dance” is not measurable, nor probably achievable in two hours. Saying “students will be able to demonstrate continenze, riprese, and seguiti ordinarii” is measurable. Saying “students will be able to describe the pattern for Ballo del Fiore” is probably achievable. If you’re working with newcomers, you might say “students will be able to perform pive” and your criteria for evaluating success might be: they were reasonably on tempo and didn’t run into anyone else. If you’re working with advanced students preparing for a performance, you might say “students will be able to perform a doppio with mayniera shading that compliments partner’s movement.”

Think about an upcoming dance class or practice you plan to teach, and write a statement of purpose, followed by 3 – 5 objectives for the class.









What dances will you actually teach, and in what order? 


Keeping in mind your philosophy, and your students’ general goals, plus your specific purpose and objectives for this class, list what you plan to teach. (Or, if it’s an informal dance practice, have a list of what all options you have available)

Always be flexible in your planning, as it can be hard to predict whether you will make it through five dances or ten dances in the time you have available to you (with time and experience, you will be able to predict this better.)

Will you teach several dances from one genre? Or teach a sampler pack of dances? Spend two hours perfecting one dance, or have fun ‘playing’ with ten dances?

Also, have plans that can be flexible based on the number of dancers there. If you planned a whole evening of four couple dances, and you only have 6 dancers there, it just won’t work! Again, it may help to have notes about what all your options are for each possible number of dancers.


One theory you may want to employ in your planning is sequencing of learning: moving from simple to complex.  When you start simple, it allows students to gain basic vocabulary at the same time as they gain confidence in their abilities, and then you can build on that throughout the class.

This idea is not new, and has been known to dance masters for centuries. If you look at the Old Measures from Elizabethan England, you will note something significant about them. They are always listed in the same order in all the sources, and this order goes from the simplest dance, to the most complex, adding new concepts with each dance, to build a skill repertoire in the student.

Quadran Pavan uses only sideways singles, and doubles forward and back. Turkelone and Earl of Essex use the same steps, but in a longer pattern. Tinternell and Old Alman add in circling with your partner, rather than just moving forward and back. Queens Alman adds the turn single in place. Madam Sosilia is much more complex than the other dances, adding in reverence and embrace. Black Alman is another stride in complexity, and adds slides to the repertoire.

If you’re teaching dance at a demo for the public, using a sequence of branles can be very effective. First introduce the basic double branle. Then when they’ve all easily mastered that, you can say: “well, it’s easy, but a little dull. What did they do to spice it up a little?” Then start adding complexity from there. Single branle with kicks. Then a mixed branle like Charlotte. Then a mimed branle, like Pease.

If you’re teaching a more advanced crowd, and your final goal is to teach a complex dance from a complex repertoire, you may find it easiest to start with an easy dance to introduce the step vocabulary, and build their confidence, and then move on. (e.g. Villanella first, and when they’ve mastered that, then Leggiadra.)

Think of a set of dances you could teach, in sequence, to allow for this growth in mastery:








For spiraling, we start where a student is, add new skills, then circle back to review where we started to help them remember that before we move forward to add new skills. This reinforces confidence, and enhances retention.

Each week at dance practice, begin by going back and reviewing a dance from last week before teaching a new one. Or, as you teach, ask them to verbally review concepts they have learned: “OK, the last verse started with siding. How will this one start?” When teaching a complicated dance, you may teach section one and then practice it to music, then teach section two, then practice one and two to music, etc.


An experienced instructor may work off of a brief outline, or a vague list of dances.

But for a new instructor, scripting is a useful tool for preparing for a class.

For each dance you will teach, you can create a word-for-word script of everything you intend to say while teaching it. This allows you to think through what steps to teach in what order, when to stop talking and let them practice, how to explain the floor pattern or a figure, and so on.

Then you practice that script, at the same pacing you would use in a class, and time yourself. You may discover that your planned content takes far more time than you have, or you may find you need to add significant content to fill the time.

Then you revise the script, and practice it again, until it’s flowing just right.

Scripting does take time. Lots of time! But, the benefits are tremendous in terms of increased confidence, better teaching, and a more organized class that “flows” well. And once you’ve learned your script, all you have to do is press the “play button” in your mind, and it flows out magically and effortlessly.

Also, it helps you to make sure that you really know all the dances you’re preparing to teach!!! Hint: If you’re not sure of the exact pattern, gather a small selection of stuffed animals, game tokens, or the like, and “practice” the dance with them, so you’re sure who trades with whom, and where they end up at the end of each figure.

Preparing for class

Take time outside of dance class to prepare your music. There’s nothing more frustrating to dancers than learning a dance and then standing around waiting for the dancemaster to find the right CD, and set up the music, and figure out how the stereo works, etc. Sometimes by the time you’ve gotten your act together, they’ve already forgotten the dance!

Teaching Techniques

When teaching a physical skill, it is not sufficient to just tell learners what to do. Learning is enhanced when the teaching process involves a brief description of the desired skill and its use, demonstration of the skill, noting the steps involved in successful performance of the skill, practice -- first of each of the constituent steps of the dance and then of the complete dance, and frequent feedback from the instructor to reinforce what you are doing well, and to correct problems before they become ingrained habits.


Provide verbal guidance about what skill you are teaching, and why the skill is important. For the global learners in the room, it may sometimes make sense to demo the dance in full before beginning to teach, but be certain to reassure the analytic learners that they aren’t expected to remember it yet, and that you will be going through it step by step in a moment.


Clearly illustrate one skill at a time, and have them practice before moving on. Remember, as you demonstrate it, use words to describe what your body is doing, or draw figures on the board, or compare it to some other physical skill they have learned in the past (“it’s just simple walking steps, in rhythm to music.”)

Give them only the basic information they need to succeed in doing the skill. Too much detail at this point is stressful. (Save nitty gritty details for feedback time)


More short sessions produce better learning than fewer longer sessions. 

Repetition helps to reinforce learning, so it is better to have several short sessions, each of which reviews information already covered, then adds new information. When teaching a long, complex dance, you may find that it works best to teach the first section, then practice it. Then teach the second section, and practice first and second together. Then the third section, and so on.


After observing them practicing the skill, now you can give them more of the details and help them finesse their performance of the dance.

If it is clear they have not understood the demonstration, then find another way to show them, but point out that you are doing so. “Ok, let’s try doing this a little differently to see if that will work better for you.” Don’t criticize or blame them. Always find something to praise, and then mold that into success.

Also, on a regular basis, ask if they have any questions. They will better integrate information they hear in response to questions than they will information that just gets handed to them in lecture form. The more specific your request for questions, the more likely you are to get them. (If you ask “do you have any questions about anything we’ve learned tonight”, they’ll look blankly at you. If you say “Is everyone feeling confident about the doppio? Any questions about it?” you’ll get questions!)

It is great if you can do the dance once through to slower music, calling the whole time. Then have a question and answer / feedback time. Then do the dance again to faster music, fading out the calling by the end.

More teaching techniques / steps to enhance learning


When possible, give students handouts that they can use to guide themselves during class, and to review information later.


 If you are preparing a performance, it’s very helpful to make extra recordings of the music, and encourage students to practice at home frequently.


If you ever want to be certain that students really understood the information, then have them teach it!


There are some lovely videos of period dance available, with fully costumed dancers performing the dances. These can sometimes serve to inspire students to refine their dancing, and think about the subtle details of posture and expression.

Help students feel like they belong

Learn their names, welcome them when they arrive, and introduce them around. Encourage students to trade partners to get to know a variety of people. Encourage interaction at the break.

Help them feel comfortable

Define the "norms" for the group, like when class begins and ends, where members will sit or stand, how to find a partner, etc. The more specific you are, the less they have to worry and wonder about whether they’re behaving OK, and whether what they’re doing is appropriate.


Master teachers learn that evaluation is a crucial part of the education process.  It helps to gauge the usefulness of the teaching and the extent of the participant’s achievement of the goals.

During a class:

·    Observe your students. Do they seem to be mastering the skills?

·    Ask them questions, and listen to their responses to evaluate understanding.

·    Listen to their questions: see if they’re just working out details (which is fine) or if they are just way off base in their understanding of something (if they’re clueless, it’s because you didn’t do a good job of teaching them!)

·    Fade your instruction: the first time through a dance, call every step. The next time through, call out hints for every figure. Next, just remind them which section of the dance they’re at (chorus, hey, or half-moon figure). The final time through, try doing no calling at all… see if they can handle it without your help.

After the class, take time to reflect on your class, thinking through what went well, and where you would like to improve. Make those changes in the future.

Another great learning opportunity for you is to observe other instructors, and learn from watching them and their students. Anything that worked well for them, you can adopt. Anything that didn’t work well for them helps caution you about what not to try!