Monday, September 30, 2013

4th Lesson - Ballet Bones

This weeks theme was all about bones. As dancers, bones give us a visual to proper placement and alignment. I carry this skeleton picture along with others in my binder as a teaching tool. When I'm teaching an exercise that uses a description of where the bone should be placed I have them point out what and where that bone is on the skeleton before pointing it out on their own bodies. 

Before their lesson I gave them a little art project. Stringing pony beads onto a pipe cleaner. Their teachers used this project while learning about the vertebrae. The spine is the pipe cleaner and the pony beads are the vertebrae protecting the spine. When I saw their project I knew I had to steal this idea because of the perfect visual it would give during our floor exercises.

For the first 10 minutes of lesson we began with floor time were we warm up and work on exercises that teach how to use and identify the muscles as well as teach correct placement in the back and torso.  The way in which a dancer holds her back is of great importance in ballet because it gives the stability needed in order to fully use the torso. It's where artistic expression flows.

I want to make clear that these exercises are only repeated 4-6x and held for a maximum of 4 slow counts. The exercises are designed to give a child an understanding of the correct placement through games and imagery. The holding of these positions won't be required of them until the age when their bodies are mature enough to deal with the stress.

When sitting tall like a dancer our vertebrae should be stacked in a straight line. We have been working on this exercise for awhile, so I let the girls try fixing each other. Then I would step in to finish the correcting and let the child who had been fixing see up close what I did and the difference those corrections made. They did pretty good helping each other (they always move faster then my ability to get to the camera).

Here is were I used the pipe cleaner strung with pony beads to illustrate the next step in this exercise. I slowly bent the pipe cleaner one pony bead at a time to the floor, because this is also how we slowly lower our backs onto the floor. Our feet stay together and our heels stay anchored to floor this allows us to work those muscles that are so important for our aplomb.

Once we have reached the floor, we should feel every vertebrae on the floor. In order to achieve this we also need to tilt our pelvis slightly up and hold in our abdominal muscles. I always describe this as making your belly button touch your spine.  

This placement of the spine and pelvis is the correct way in which we must hold it while standing up.  This position gives us the stability and balance we will need in order to use correct turn-out later on.

On the flip side 

We did another exercise I call the mouse trap. This exercises takes the placement described in the first exercise and rotates it onto our front. Anchoring our pelvic bone to the floor tilts the pelvis to its correct place. From here, once again, we touch our belly button to our spine. This movement gives us a little window between the floor and the tummy, enough for a little mouse to run through. We hold this placement for 4 counts and then relax, dropping the belly and trapping the mouse.

Turtle shell is an exercises that teaches how and where to place our shoulders.

hands should be on baton
We hold our baton behind our back near the base of our shoulder blades. This causes our shoulders to hunch forward and up, making us look like a scared turtle in his shell. Tense or raised shoulders will prevent holding our back in the correct way.

We then press the baton down to the floor, pushing our necks tall out of our shell. This pulls our shoulders back (out of the hunch) and down where they should remain. Once we reach this position we say "TURTLE".  

 A defining element of a dancer is their turn-out.  

Turn-out is the rotation of the leg that comes from the hip. The joint that makes this possible is made up of both the femur and hip bone. The neck of the femur fits like a ball into the socket of the hip bone allowing the mobility for rotation. In classical ballet our balance and movement flows from our center. The position of a 180 degree turn-out forces us to find that.


Turn-out must be taught correctly and when we are developmentally ready.  

This is one reason why I won't let my children study dance with an outside instructor unless they have had training in teaching method.

The hip joint is the largest joint in the body. It is responsible for holding a large amount of our weight and allows for a wide range of motion. Many injuries can occur throughout our body because of the lack of strength and stability within this joint, as well as the muscles and ligaments that support it.  Teaching turn-out too young and incorrectly causes stress and strain upon this area which can lead to devastating long term effects.  

Sadly, many teachers and studios either don't have this knowledge or choose to ignore it.    

At this age all instruction is taught in a parallel position. As both a dance teacher and mother the safety of my little girls and all other students is a top priority! The race and competition of pushing children to have an advantage at such a young age, whether it be dance or another form of athletics, is very heart wrenching. By neglecting to consider developmental consequences we are really damaging their true potential.   

"It is insufficient instruction that produces injuries.” -Vera Kostrovitskaya

Here is a look at our human body project this week as we added the bones. A giant rain and lightning storm prevented us from making it to the craft store so we had to be resourceful. We dug through the craft boxes looking for something that might work. This is a reason I never throw craft supplies away.

We ended up finding a bag full of clothes pins, popsicle sticks and wooden shapes. I even let them use hot glue for the very first time.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

3rd Lesson - Dance and the Brain

Their pretty new dance class attire showed up this week!  They were both very excited I let them pick out the style and color for their uniforms.  My real motive was to get them to work together and find something they both could agree on which is not usually an easy task.  In this case, two great minds think alike. They even found a matching dress for Mommy in black.

 Continuing with the human body theme, this week their school focused on the brain. That is where I placed the focus when planning this lesson.

The brain is so fascinating. It is the control center to our body.  During this week at their school the girls learned about the 4 lobes of their brain and how the brain controls emotions, senses and holds memories.  I wanted the girls to see images from an MRI scan how our brains respond as different areas light up.   

I found a NOVA short on youtube as it goes inside Oliver Sack's brain while he listens to two composers, Beethoven and Bach.  Before showing the girls the film I let them listen to both composers and give me their opinion.  Estee preferred Bach because he was easier to dance too and Coppelia informed me that she liked them both but thought Beethoven was cooler because he was also deaf.  The girls watched the video and were fascinated by the images of the brains reactions, but even more fascinating to them was the part when Mr. Sack's was confused and couldn't differentiate the two composers, but yet through the scans we could see that his brain still preferred Bach.

During our lesson we talked about what the brain was doing and how it was responding.  We looked in the mirror. I waved my hand I asked them to do the same.  I then explained how they were able to do this.  Our movement starts in the motor cortex. I then touched their heads, giving them an idea as to where this area was inside their heads (in the back of the frontal lobe).  The motor cortex calls on all the parts of the brain to get more information and then sends that information down our spine (drawing my finger down their spine) to our bones and muscles as they move and wave.  When we are dancing, our brains are going crazy with information and all that information is being sent all over our bodies.

At the barre we discussed muscle memory.  

What is muscle memory?
I gave an example of learning to ride a bike.  I learned to ride a bike when I was a little girl. When I was young, we had a house fire and I lost my bike and didn't ride one for a very long time. The girls got me one for Mother's day 20 years later and I was easily able to start riding without having to learn again because that information was stored in my muscle memory.

 There are 2 parts to muscle memory and we are in stage 1.  During this stage the brain is active in the motor cortex (located in the frontal lobe) and somatosensory, or sensory cortex, (located in the parietal lobe).  These are the area's that are processing the information and waiting for correction.  We do our plié's and relevé's very slowly because Mommy is on the floor giving important correction that their brain is processing.  It is much easier to learn the correct way from the beginning rather then reteach later as we try and break bad habits.  Once we have learned our plié's and relevé's, the activity in our motor and sensory cortices (all the parts that light up in the scan) shrink and all that information gets stored. Scientist don't know where that is yet.  

picture from last week

Did you know that inside our brain we have an internal clock or metronome?  This clock is what sets our pace throughout the day and things like lack of sleep can slow this clock down, and with it our ability to process information. Scientists call this temporal processing.  In fact researchers have discovered that many language and learning disabilities may be due to a split-second delay in the brain's ability to process.  This processing time can be exercised and sharpened with movement and music activities. Or for higher intensity, a professional program like interactive metronome therapy.  This is not just a program for kids. It has also been used with professional athletes wanting to improve their game.  

There is a connection that is made with the brain when we hit the beat. I feel it is very important when working with young students to choose music with a strong, slow beat that gives them the opportunity to make this connection.  I sometimes choose to go without music for certain activities and only use the  metronome so we can focus on the beat alone or add education elements to go along with the steady beat such as counting, reciting the ABC's and simple songs or poems.

I explained to the girls that temporal processing happens in the temporal lobe near the ear.  Sound, or the beat on the metronome that we use in lessons, hits our ear and then our brain has to process that information. Then we respond to the information with our movement, such as a tap or a clap.  It's really like the fastest race our body does daily. Just like a professional runner in the olympics, we have to exercise this ability so that we can get faster and faster.  

In order to further illustrate my point we created the neuron races!

With our belly on the scooter boards, we became the neurons.  When we were given the sound or beat at the ear (point #1 - image of ear) the girls put the ball between their knees and raced to the Motor cortex (point #2 - image of brain).  There we gathered information by using our hands to sweep scarfs into a pile.  Then with the ball still between our knees we raced down the spine to the finishing point.

Wow, those neurons move super fast!  But with practice we can shave a few milliseconds from our processing time.

As you can see we added brains to our human body. With a lesson like this we were easily able to come up with 3 interesting facts.

~ On a side note~

I found a great new site that had almost everything on our dance attire wish list, including these wear moi dresses.  The girls were super excited that the dress also came in my size and now we officially have our first Mommy/Daughter matching dresses.  One of the girls is more particular about her feet and how things feel. Can't say that I blame her. I remember hating tights and still having to put them on everyday.  I seem to have finally found the winner for her picky feet. Sansha canvas slippers and ballet socks.  Ballet socks are impossible to find here in the states. I actually had to order from the UK (everything is better there) but as a mother and teacher I far prefer them to tights especially on those 100 degree days!  My new challenge has become getting her out of them since she seems to think they are so comfortable.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

2nd lesson - Integrating their school time with Mama's performing art school.

Waiting at the door for their lesson to begin.

One of the many great things about the girls new school and schedule is that it gives me the opportunity to build memories with them in the studio. It also lets me be an active part of their education.  I am sure it comes as no surprise that I am a huge supporter of arts integrated learning and enjoy the task of taking any given topic and teaching it with artistic approach.  When I learned that the girls would be studying the human body as one of their themes I instantly let my brain start working up all the wonderful possibilities of how their school and mama school lessons could be intertwined. This weeks assignment was to trace your child's body on a large piece of paper.  I couldn't ask my girls to just lay on the paper so I could trace them. I wanted them to really think about the human form and how different emotions and training can change our body, aesthetic and stance first.   This made for a great people watching experiment and dramatic exercise.  When given an emotion, such as happy or sad, they were easily able to move in such a manor. But then we switched it up a bit and began to look at a persons training and how that can change the way a person moves.

I lined up video's on youtube to give them a few clear examples on how differently we can move.  We looked at the ballerina. They stand or walk with their legs and feet turned out, holding their body tall, and they seem to glide gracefully from one point to another.  We looked at a body builder who is more heavy on their feet and their muscles make them hold themselves wider.  We also looked at NBA and WNBA players who seem to be able to shift from heavy to light on their feet and who lean and hunch over to protect their ball.   The training in which these people take on daily through the years becomes part of their natural movement outside the studio, gym or court.  

As we ran our errands through the week we would watch people and I would ask them questions like, "Do you think that person dances or body builds?"  They began to see the difference in a person's walk and how training can be part of that. They also noticed how everyones walk and stance is different. Each person so "artistically" unique.

I asked them to remember our day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and all the many statues.  Who were those people? What did they do? What was the thought process behind the pose?  During the creative movement portion of our lesson we played museum.  I laid out 6 hula hoops on the ground and in each one laid a different prop.  They were to pose using their prop while I, the museum curator, walked around inspecting my statues making sure they did not move.  After each inspection, I would turn off the music, cover my eyes and let them take on a new statue.

When they laid down to create their body for their homework assignment they put more thought into the uniqueness it could be, and just like the statues at the museum, this project could be a masterpiece.

The girls are beginning to catch on to their exercises.  Since we only have our lessons on Friday, I don't want to overwhelm them with too many exercises in one location. I spend about 10 minutes on the floor, 10 minutes at the barre, 15 minutes center and cross floor then the remainder of time spent with tap exercises. The tap routine they build upon each week.  Because these exercises are new to them, as well as me being very hands on and wanting them to learn it the right way, we end up doing about 2 exercises in each section.

During barre we began using the metronome as a place to incorporate our music lessons as well as build our musicality.  Although we understand many notes, symbols and their values, for now we are just using a 4/4 time signature with whole and quarter notes.  With each plié they get a whole note (4 beats) and a whole note to straighten the legs.  The point is to fill the whole note with their movement. This will later translate into their feeling the music as movement flows through them.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

First Day In Studio!

Here we are, and can I just say how great this feels!  It's like walking into your childhood home. It may not be the studio, theaters or classrooms I grew up in, but it has an open space, with dance floors, mirrors and barres.  The role of dancer and teacher is just so much a part of me.  With years of training, teaching and choreographing and then my 6 year break (with some exceptions), I have read, searched, planned, become a pedagogical student and let a whirlwind of ideas run wild through my mind and on paper.  This feels like home!

I'm very excited about the year ahead of us. The girls are starting kindergarten. It is a huge weight off my chest that we have found a school that both values the importance of family time and provides a schedule that gives children the freedom to pursue their own interests.  With this schedule and beautiful studio space, we are building upon their curriculum as we learn the art of dance and all that it encompasses.

As I have mentioned before, I plan on teaching my children the method of classical ballet as founded by Vaganova.  The beauty behind this method is that when she was creating it she worked with scientists and kinesiologists. She analyzed each element and broke it down piece by piece and then build it up.  The method is scientifically sound and so beautifully and methodically planed out.

So, with the method of classical ballet that is so methodically planned out but doesn't begin until the age of 10, what can I teach my children right now?

With my love and years of experience in teaching movement to young children I knew the most important thing I could do for a child was to develop their love for dance.  As I became a pedagogical student I was able to see the bigger picture in much greater detail and was able to look at my movement classes and lesson plans with a more critical eye.  I wanted my lessons to flow as a natural progression into classical training by breaking it down even further as my students discovered and strengthened the muscles that would eventually give them aplomb.  Further more, using a child's natural love and curiosities, I wanted to explore dance in all its elements.

As a dancer you are also an actor, musician and artist.  Dance is science and math that can be applied and comprehended. It has a long rich history that has shaped cultures. Beyond the art and education, it teaches discipline and poise.  Dance is not just tutu's and pointe shoes. It is an avenue that can open our hearts and minds to the world around us.  What better way is there than being able to teach a child through the arts? A place they are naturally drawn to.

I have planned my lessons with a look into the great artists of the past and a culture that valued this art in its most purist form.  A time when children auditioned for the honor and prestige of becoming a student at a renowned school, like the Bolshoi or Paris Opera, and their training and education was designed with the purpose of developing artistic perfection.  Students of the past and present not only studied ballet but they studied music and learned to play an instrument. They studied french, acting, math, history and geography.  Each subject can be broken down and simplified, and through dance can be approached in a manner that captures a child's intrigue.

As for our first day we covered quite a bit!  They learned how to correctly enter a dance studio, the rules that we must follow and discussed what a huge privilege it was to be there.  I gave them a brief history of King Louie the fourteenth (because what little girl isn't fascinated by royalty?)

Louie the fourteenth began dancing as a boy and worked hard at it every day. He turned ballet into a form of dance that showed people his power and influence.  There were hundreds of rules and thousands of details in dance, and if you could dance, it showed the world that you had power and importance too.  The king made sure that ballet became a requirement for the people in his court.

We touched into some science of the human body, discovering our spine, vertebrae
and core muscles.  With some movement activities that I have choreographed into our lesson plan they have begun to discover the correct placement of the spine and how to hold in their abdominal muscles.

We spent some time at the barre learning how to hold onto it correctly and going over a few exercises. The exercises are designed to teach them about their feet, how to move through them and how our weight shifts as we flex or rise to relevé.

During center and cross floor I gave them exercises that coordinated with artistic expression and free movement. As we moved into our tap portion they used both math and musicality, finding and counting the steps and rhythm.

I would consider today a success.  Although we only made it through a small portion of the lesson I had planned, the girls responded with excitement and determination.  They even requested a few of our exercises be repeated before bed time.  They also made two very exciting discovers during play time that let me know they were paying attention.

The first was while swimming in the pool with Barbie.

Coppelia told me that Barbie had horrible posture and she didn't hold her back straight.  This ended up becoming an examination of all their dolls to see if any of them had it correct.

I think "Loving Family" wins.

Estee made a discovery while singing along to "Phantom of the Opera" (her current favorite)

"The tummy muscles that get sore when singing are the same ones I have to hold in during ballet."
She was correct. These muscles help us support breath control and are used for vocal projection.

I love my girls and feel so blessed I get to be a part of their education and training.  I hope they continue to connect ideas and make discoveries. It makes the adventure of exploring all the more exciting and the time I spend on lesson plans completely worth it!