Choreography for our youngest students can sometimes feel like the hardest choreography we do! The skills of moving in time to music, and of being able to remember the order of steps in a dance develop gradually in young children. Are you expecting too much of your students where it comes to remembering the steps? Too little? What about the skill of moving to time in music? Let’s examine the developmental differences and psychomotor abilities between the pre-ballet age groups so that you can walk into your classroom equipped with the knowledge of what to expect from your students.
Know and Share the Basics
Rhythm. Meter. Pitch.
Do you have a solid grasp on these concepts? If not, you may need to brush up on music basics. Instrumental or vocal lessons are the best way to gain proficiency. Whether you’re a musical aficionado or not, using a metronome or metronome app from time to time may help young children become aware of tempo and steady rhythm.
What to Expect at Age Three
Children age three and four can hear the phrases (sentences) in music, and learn to change exercises or steps on the musical phrases. Threes can identify fast and slow music, and can learn to start and stop with the music. However, they cannot yet stay on musical beats, because they lack the fine muscle and balance control that this requires. This is to be expected at this level of coordination; teachers should not try to force it to happen.
They can remember a series of two items, or two dance sequences, but not more, unless there is a story line to help. If the dance has a simple story line, the memory is much improved for all ages. Use of pantomime and facial expressions can also help with these young ones. Feeling their way through the dance can help them to piece the sections together.
Keep the steps or sections of the dance very simple, something that can be “danced through the music”. Use the class exercises whenever possible. Familiar movements are more easily remembered.
Four Year Old Children
Age four can sometimes match the rhythm of the melody, and can remember slightly longer sequences than age threes. Most fours can remember up to three items in a series. They will be able to discern higher and lower tones, and reproduce simple rhythms by clapping. At four, they can also learn to identify the introductions in music.
Fours are still not fully able to follow musical beats very well, but can sometimes march, clap, or gallop in time to the music for short sequences. It is surprising to many adults to learn that walking is one of the hardest movements to match to musical beats. The musical tempo needs to be the natural walking speed of the child if you want them to be on the music. As they are developing this skill, give them lots of opportunities to match their movements with the music. For example, offer lots of marches, gallops, trots, skips and ballet runs in their class so that they can become comfortable in this skill.
At Age Five
Children age five are ready to match musical beats on most movements when the tempo is comfortable for their physical development. You will see that the majority of your five year-olds have mastered the basic skills (marching, walking, running, skipping) and have moved on to matching the finer movements with music.
Fives will also have an increased memory for dances: three or four items in a sequence; longer for story dances. Take this opportunity to tell longer stories with your in-class dances and/or recital pieces. Just as the growing five-year old can remember and even recite longer stories in everyday life, so you will see her remember longer sequences in the dance classroom. Work with nature in this area and provide longer, more expressive, more detailed story line choreography to your five year olds.
Helping Them to Remember
This is something I struggled with in the past, but have been continuing to work on with my young students. How can we possibly expect them to remember their recital piece without help? Depending on where you teach, the policy may be that you will not be permitted to assist from the wings, onstage, or at the front of audience. When it comes down to it, helping them to remember is a huge part of recital preparation, and can sometimes be very tricky.
That being said, take to heart that if the recital dances are in line with the memory, musical, and physical abilities of the children, prompting from the wings or from the front row will not be needed. Threes and fours may still need the moral support and reassurance of being able to see their teacher as they dance, but they will be able to perform their dance unassisted!
If they struggle, perhaps the steps are too difficult for them, or perhaps they are arranged in such a way that doesn’t follow any logical pattern in their minds. Remember the developmental stage they are currently in, and check to be sure you are not pushing them too far. Make necessary adjustments ahead of time to the choreography you’re expecting them to learn and provide the best chance for success on stage!
- Preparing for Recital
- Choreographic Advice for Teachers
- No-Stress Performance Prep
- Six Choreographic Guidelines for Threes