Pas de Deux: Creating a Parent-Toddler Dance Program
By Heidi Anne Porter
Issue 123, March/April 2004
I looked around the circle of squirming little bodies and expectant adults. They were seated on the floor, waiting patiently for me to quiet the butterflies in my stomach and start the class. My two year old leaned against me and whispered, “Let’s dance, Mommy.” I gulped, smiled bravely, and turned on the music. It was the first day of my very own dance program. After months of looking for a studio, creating activities, selecting music, practicing with my son and his friends, passing out flyers, and talking to strangers, it was time to begin.
I grew up in a dancing family—my mother gave my two sisters and me our first ballet lessons on the patio. As children, we choreographed full-length shows for neighborhood kids. We studied ballet seriously for years, and one sister became a professional ballerina. I became a special-education teacher and discovered that dancing was one of my greatest teaching tools. I used dancing to teach everything from spelling to literature to language.
I danced for joy when I found out I was pregnant, exuberantly leaping and twirling around the house as I cradled my womb. As the months passed, the spins and jumps gave way to slower, more solemn waltzes.
When I brought my son home, we resumed our pas de deux, first with him cradled in my arms, then later side by side, as he began to walk. Music on the radio would inspire one of us, and then the other would take up the invitation. Sometimes I liked just watching him dance, his face and body expressing the mood of the music.
I longed for a dance class for us to enjoy together. I found music, tumbling, gymnastics, yoga, French, and nature classes for toddlers, but no dance classes. How can that be, I thought, when dancing is such a natural form of expression? Who hasn’t been delighted to see a young one respond unselfconsciously to music?
After listening to other parents wish for the same thing, I decided to create a dance class for toddlers and their parents, one specifically designed for children aged 18 months to three years. Knowing there would be a wide difference in ability at these ages, I would keep the activities open-ended. I wanted the class to be interactive and fun, providing parents and children with a special way to play and exercise together. Not only would this encourage parents to take ideas home, extending the dancing outside the studio, but it would provide a way for me to keep my son with me while I worked.
The first class was scary, noisy, and wonderful. It felt like opening night again as I led my new students through the activities I’d spent months planning. When my son realized that the day’s class was over, his eyes filled with tears. I reassured him that we would dance with our new friends many more times, then twirled him around the empty studio, my heart leaping with joy and relief.
Teaching the class was a constant learning experience for me as I discovered what worked. Each group of parents and children taught me something new. I tried to follow a basic structure with the class, so that the children would learn the sequence of activities and know what to expect. The structure also helped me keep track of time and know when I’d need to add or drop an activity.
I designed the class to introduce basic dance concepts in a way that would promote body awareness. We warmed up, facing each other in a circle and wiggling, twisting, bending, and stretching different parts of the body. I used nursery rhymes and easy songs to help the children remember the movements.
During this part of the class, each child sat on a mat. The mats defined the space of the studio for our warmup exercises, and provided an individual place for each little body. The mats were also useful for teaching jumps. We jumped with feet touching or with feet apart, bridging the mat. In another exercise, listening to musical cues, we would jump four times, then count out four beats of music to rest. Jumping on and off the mat, moving from side to side, hopping from foot to foot—all helped develop the children’s spatial awareness. Playground balls added to the fun as we bounced and rolled on them and chased them across the floor.
The best part of the class was the centre. Through a combination of imagination, costuming, and props, I taught the children very simple dance steps. We began by facing the mirror and imitating animal movements—complete with animal noises, of course. One Halloween I was inspired to make 20 different animal tails that the children could slip around their waists. They seemed to add an element of magic to our menagerie, and the tails remained a part of every class.
The music I chose led us into different movements. Sometimes we danced basic steps that acted out a story: a butterfly among the flowers, a squirrel searching for nuts, a tree in the wind. Sometimes we marched, spun, or slid across the floor. I introduced basic ballet steps with little stories or imaginative twists. To practice that magnificent flying leap that is a grand jeté, we pretended to jump over mud puddles. For chassées, we pretended to slide on the ice. To practice our jumps, we became kernels of popcorn in a hot skillet.
I created what I called Rainbow Sticks by attaching long ribbons to wooden dowels. Wiggling the wooden part would cause the ribbon to flutter, spin, or float lazily in different patterns. I used these to encourage the students to use big arm movements. The sticks became flags when we marched, or lightning flashes, or rainbows over our heads. Sometimes they became fishing poles or even kites.
Next, I usually brought out the Bag of Magic Veils. This was a bag filled with dozens of long pieces of brightly colored tulle. We draped the veils over us, swished them on the ground, swirled them in the air, and rolled in piles of them. Someone came up with a new idea for them in every class. A bunch of veils tucked into a waistband became a peacock tail. Twitching a blue veil on the floor created a rushing river. Veils clutched over the shoulders became royal robes. Sometimes it was so hard to put them away that they were incorporated into the rest of the class. They were wonderful instant costumes.
I ended each class the way dance classes always end: with a bow and applause. I followed up this formal goodbye with a stamp or sticker to make the ritual more toddler-friendly.
Any activity for toddlers has a certain amount of chaos built right in. The age of the children, the number of participants—even the time of year—could change the temperament of the class. As the teacher, I learned how to be the calm, centering force amid all the exuberance.
A new student often spent a couple of classes just watching and clinging. A few weeks later, that same child might be participating in every activity. Sometimes I’d get a child who was interested only in running around the studio. Although I didn’t expect every child to do every activity, I soon discovered that nonstructured running contributed to total chaos for everyone, and that I had to redirect that behavior immediately. Another child might have trouble with the transitions between activities. Even my own son’s moods could affect the class. Some days he was the perfect assistant and dance partner, passing out props or demonstrating a new step. Other days he refused to share “his” costumes or Rainbow Sticks. I had to do some creative on-the-spot parenting before a very captive audience.
The parenting styles and personalities of the adults—mothers, fathers, grandmas, and babysitters have enrolled with their children—also influenced the feel of the class. When the adults were involved and having fun, the children were more confident. If the parents stayed “on task,” the children were more likely to try the activity. I expected the parents to redirect their child’s behavior when necessary, but I also reassured them that the children were at different developmental stages and that their participation might vary from class to class. I soon realized that I couldn’t bring mothers of toddlers together for an activity and expect them to not talk. As long as I could still give instructions without shouting, I didn’t mind the chatter. I learned to control the tone of the class by following exuberant activity with something lyrical and centering.
I don’t know if any of my little students will ever dance professionally, or even take another dance class. But based on the laughter, the joyous movements, and the shy thank-yous I received each week, I know that they enjoyed this one. They pretended a lot, they wore costumes, they made new friends, they got to know their bodies a little bit better, and they all went home for a good nap.
For more information about dance, see the following articles past issues of Mothering: "The Power of Expecting the Best," no. 61 and "Dance: Stepping into the Schools," no. 75.
Heidi Anne Porter is a former special-education teacher who is currently staying at home to raise her son (4). Ballet was her first love, but she also enjoys flamenco, jazz, and ballroom. Some of her dance “studios” have been classrooms, living rooms, and open fields throughout the country.