Engaging boys with and through dance

Written by: HTU | Published:

Dance can be a powerful medium to engage pupils, especially boys. Experienced dance teacher Louise Wilkie explains why and offers some practical advice and ideas

We can talk about engaging boys with dance (meaning the encouragement and facilitation of boys training for, and pursuing dance as, their chosen career). We can also discuss engaging boys through dance (meaning the capacity of dance as a means of reaching out to, engaging and educating boys). I will focus mainly on the latter here. This is because dance has the power to grab the attention of boys and keep them focused, where classroom activities sometimes fail.

At professional level, dance has seen the role of male dancers change drastically. Nowadays, expectations and capabilities of male dancers push the capacity of the physical form almost beyond belief.

Contemporary dance choreography is exceptionally physically and intellectually demanding. For up-to-date examples, see video clips A to C (see further information), which all make excellent starting points for discussion or as an introduction to lessons.

Despite this, the idea of boys dancing still seems to provoke mixed reactions. There are many factors which contribute to this, including social attitudes, quality and type of dance available, and access. However, the benefits of participating in dance class are extensive – physical fitness and control, as a means of expression and communication, dance encourages team-work and self-reflection, not to mention self-discipline, self-confidence, and pursuit of excellence.

As someone who teaches dance at primary level in South Yorkshire, I am continuously working with children, including boys, who struggle to focus in classes, but who can engage through dance. Many times I have been approached by the teacher at the end of a session, telling me how surprised they are that a particular boy was captivated during the class.

As an educational tool, dance has so much scope and can be an excellent medium through which to teach. In addition to the physical aspect, themes, topics, stories, concepts and history can all be explored through dance. Furthermore, while the imagination is captured, classroom learning is reinforced and further learning motivated.

Engaging boys

In general, themes that I have found work well to engage boys include the following: sport or mime-fighting, coal-mining, space, mythical creatures, tudors, the Fire of London, Oliver Twist, and The Gruffalo.

But more important than the theme is the type of provision. It needs to be high-quality, challenging and physically demanding. To begin, a dance class should involve a rigorous warm-up. The class should also include jumps, turns, leaps and stretches alongside the freedom to be creative.

Provision should be energetic and dynamic, with the aim to have a performance included. Connections to out-of-school dance classes, clubs or organisations can also support you in delivering this high-quality provision.

Teachers can use many forms of visual stimulus, alongside video clips of dance, to inspire boys to move and create dance. Choosing music which is varied and interesting will also improve engagement.

Headteachers may also decide to involve specialist and qualified dance artists and teachers in order to deliver dance for their school. The Council for Dance Education and Training (CDET) is a good source of information.

Real-life situations

Remember that boys enjoy dance if they can relate it to either a real-life situation or event. For example, in a key stage 1 Olympics/sport dance workshop last year, I showed the children images of various sports from which to choose.

In one task, I asked them to run one by one from the corner to the centre of the room and “create a freeze-frame shape” of their chosen sport. This can be repeated with varied pattern and alternative shapes.

I also introduced leaping as if over hurdles, jumping as if doing the long jump, high jump or shooting the ball in to the basketball net. These movements can be chained together to make a dynamic sequence of energetic yet highly focused movements.Additionally, patterns to be found in a football match (straight lines, zig zags, curves, diagonals and so on) can also be used as a stimulus for a lesson on travelling sequences. You can ask the children to roll, turn, dive, lunge, run and kick in a particular pattern that you draw on the floor (or whiteboard).

Using environments

Showing boys dance featuring male dancers with interesting themes can help to get started. Check out the way the dancer in video clip D uses his environment to create his movement. He is quite brilliant, captivating and inspiring. I find boys especially enjoy having the power to make an original contribution.

Say something like: “You are going to create three movements based on things you see in the park.” Give them some time to work this out, one movement at a time. Then help them to sequence the movements together by linking one movement after the other.

You can show them some examples of movement using a video clip, but be willing to have a go yourself. Remember that most children will create movement easily, the direction they need is in chaining together to choreograph a section or piece. Keep things positive and praise their ideas. Encourage them to practise the movements to make their sequence clean and polished.

Recently, I asked children in a space dance workshop to find as many ways to represent a rocket launch (in dance movement) as possible. I also asked them to work in pairs. I chose one pair to demonstrate their duet rocket launch. I kept the rest of the class engaged as an active audience by asking them to decide on one excellent feature of the movement and one way in which the movement can be improved upon.

This motivates engagement and ensures that time spent “watching” is well used. The boys came up with some very interesting ways to “launch”. Among them they demonstrated supported jumps, lateral “push-offs” on the floor, and pull and slide movements travelling across the room.

Case study: positive reinforcement

I taught a six-week lunch-time dance club at a school recently and saw an amazing transformation in the behaviour, engagement and participation of one six-year-old boy (let’s call him Josh).

I choreographed a simple dance consisting of knee bends, heel togethers, side and forward steps, jumps, claps and bold mime actions. I used Consider Yourself from the musical Oliver and the emphasis was on character acting and performance. During the first session, Josh ran around disruptively. During the second session I managed to get him to stay in one place, but still he refused to dance.

At the beginning of the third week, he showed me the dance we were working on at the start of the lesson. He had clearly practised and remembered. At the end of the sixth week he performed in front of the whole school alongside his peers.

I engaged Josh using positive reinforcement. I ignored the running and when he stopped and stayed in his place, I praised him for joining us. I explained that I was pleased he had decided to use his brilliant energy for dancing. During the second week, I told him how pleased I was that he was listening to what I had to say. I could feel that I was pulling him in, and once he started to join in rehearsals with the others I was able to use constructive praise to help him to improve his steps. I think that once he realised that it was more fun to be dancing than misbehaving, he didn’t look back.

The roller-coaster

Philip Hill at Jump Start Move – an organisation which uses dance in its work with vulnerable young adults – was a dancer in Matthew Bourne’s company Adventures in Motion Pictures during the time when a number of seminal works were created, including a version of Swan Lake that saw the traditional female swan roles danced by the men.

Asked what he feels is important when teaching dance to boys, Phil explained: “The first thing I do is launch into the space and don’t stop that energy. My analogy is that boys will go on a roller-coaster and if they like it they’ll just keep going again and again.”

I too find that boys enjoy the physicality of dance and it also allows them an alternative means of expression and communication. In my experience, dance is not only a way to explore concepts and themes in a dynamic and energetic way, but to simultaneously secure longer-term engagement.

Once intrigued, the hope is that boys will be motivated to go “back to the desk” in order to listen, write, speak, read and learn. For me, the roller-coaster starts with movement and creativity through dance, and continues long after the dance class ends.

• Louise Wilkie has more than 20 years’ experience teaching and choreographing for children. She freelances in the Yorkshire area and is director of Think Create Move. Visit www.thinkcreatemove.co.uk.

Further information
Video clip A: www.new-adventures.net/productions/swan_lake.
Video clip B: www.youtube.com/user/phoenixdancetheatre.
Video clip C: www.youtube.com/watch?v=sG6WhcVd2MM.
Video clip D: www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmGmeDw7Gmk.
The CDET: www.cdet.org.uk.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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