Archive for the ‘Dance’ Category

Dance me to the end of term

Dancing Waka Waka (Gillian Howell)

Term 4 2012 finished with flash mobs and slick moves at two of my schools last December. Searching for some straightforward choreography to teach some year 1 & 2 students I came across this dance video, uploaded as a tutorial for a flash mob in Milan in 2010. It was perfect – a song the students would already know and like (‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira), lots of repetition, simple steps, and a few more challenging moves that would keep them on their toes (excuse the pun) and give them goals to last across the 10-week term.

For weeks before the end of term, you would hear strange chants and incantations echoing down the corridor from the music room:

“Up, up, helicopter! Down, down washing machine!”

“Clap, clap shimmy back”

I didn’t start with the intention of giving each of the dance moves a label. It was a spontaneous addition one week at the Language School to help the children differentiate between two different moves, but the labels proved so effective I soon included them in the lessons with the grade 1&2s at Pelican Primary School. I’d call the labels out in turn if we were running through the whole dance, or we would work on specific dance moves one at a time, identifying them by the given label. Check out “pick the fruit” at 0’31”,   “up, up helicopter, down, down washing machine” at 01’15”, “clap clap shimmy back” at 1’07’’ in the video above!

For these 6-8 year olds learning a choreographed routine for the first time, there were  many reasons why labelling the dance moves was such an effective strategy:

  • They contained visual information (eg. the word ‘helicopter’ indicated two arms overhead making circles) which helped the students recollect the move)
  • The labels were quite silly and light-hearted, which made the students and the teachers laugh and not take it all too seriously – and this kept them motivated if they were finding the dance steps challenging
  • The labels also gave some of the more hip-swivelling moves an innocence and childishness. Thus, a twisting turn straight out of belly-dancing became more focused in the overhead arm movement, and was given the visual label of “lasso the cow!”, introduced via a description of cowboys catching cows by lassoing their horns,  (see the move at 02’31’’).

We worked a lot with the video tutorial. English language learners (especially some of those from refugee backgrounds) can spend so much of their time being only in the present moment, responding to the most immediate stimuli (or responding to the present while holding anxious thoughts about what might happen in the unpredictable future, or the past), and sometimes they struggle to retain sequences of information in their memories alone. Any kind of visual reinforcement is beneficial, and in the past I’ve used diagrams, stick figure pictures, grid scores and charts to map out how the individual components of a project that they have developed will fit together. Having a video is another way of doing this.

While having students glued to video materials might not at first seem like the most appropriate way to engage them in a dance project (“shouldn’t we be getting them away from video?”), there were a number of reasons why I think this was a big part of the project’s success:

  • It allowed the students to see the whole dance in its entirety. Right from Day One, they could see what they were aiming for.
  • The video included both men and women – demonstrating that this was an activity for both genders (important when many of the students come from backgrounds where men’s and women’s activities are more delineated) and giving so everyone in the class a role model to choose and copy.
  • It reduced self-consciousness and the potential for criticism of each other. They were so busy watching the screen and keeping up with the moves they didn’t have time to think about (a) what they looked like or (b) what anyone else looked like.
  • It also gave the children a visual representation of how to stand slightly apart from each other in rows, or neat formation. Lots of children in Language School find the many variations of standing in lines (e.g. sometimes behind each other, sometimes beside each other, sometimes squashed close together, sometimes spaced apart, etc) quite confusing.

Here is a back-of-heads view of the children at the Language School (all the primary school children) dancing to Waka Waka with me on my last day at the school for the year.

If you’d like the full list of labels I used for this dance leave me a comment below and I’ll send it to you.

Best purchase of the year

These are my new favourite things:

They are polyspot markers – about 10cm in diameter, and they have been my most useful tool in these last few weeks of getting groups of children ready for performances.

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher working with children who grits teeth and steels themself whenever they have to organise a group into rows or some other kind of formation. The children I teach have a very poor sense of themselves in a space, in relation to others. They don’t process directional instructions terribly well (as in, “stand here/move slightly left/etc”) mainly because they don’t listen when people are talking, and because the excitement and buzzy energy in the room distracts them from remembering to listen to what they are asked to do.

The markers have saved my sanity! Now I just set them out on the floor before the class enters the room or performance space, then say to individuals:

“Go and stand on a white spot.”

“Go and stand on a red spot.”

Several years ago, I began observing the importance of floor markings and other visual cues for ESL children. The children relax and tune in far more quickly when they are able to follow a very clear unambiguous instruction.

My only complaint about the polyspot markers I have is that they are smaller than I’d like – I want something about the size of a dinner plate. Also, they are not quite robust enough, given the way children love to pick things up and twist them, pull them and generally test them, if they have the opportunity. One has already ripped. I got these from the Music In Motion online store; I’m on the look-out for a bigger set. A friend has a set of spots that she says is a portable Twister game! Now that sounds like the sort of thing I’m after!

End-of-year at Pelican Primary School

My final two performances for the year were with the children from Pelican Primary School. First, the choir performed at Federation Square, which was a wonderful chance for them to put their work in context with other primary school choirs from around Melbourne (I think they felt they fared pretty well in the comparison!). Then we held the end-of-year concert, in which every class performed.

I’ve really enjoyed my year at Pelican. I feel, after two years working there, I’ve now found an approach with these children that works well. Inspired by my reading of Lucy Green’s research, and the Musical Futures ideas that I learned about in the April workshop, I’ve been using a lot of popular music as the vehicles for developing musical understanding among the students. It’s resulted in huge student engagement, a real love for music classes and participation, and lots of creative ideas, being generated by the students themselves.

Some highlights:

Parents Rock! Band

This year I put together a small band of parents to accompany all the concert items. I had a guitarist, a violinist/pianist and a percussionist. I roped in Tony to play bass guitar. We got together a week before the concert to rehearse each of the songs. The Parents Rock! Band (as I called them) was a hit. I want this idea to grow. Hopefully we can draw more parents into it, particularly from the African communities that are so strong in our community.

Grade 2 pianist

Year 2/3 performed a version of K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag. One of the students learns piano and I’d given him a simple chart with the melody and harmonic accompaniment for the 2 sections of the song. This little boy is normally very quiet and reluctant to participate in his class’ music lessons (I suspect it all gets too noisy for him). I’ve never seen him smile so broadly, and look as proud as he did in the whole-school dress rehearsal the day of the concert, when he performed with his class and with the Parents Rock! Band.

Singing their hearts out again

The year 4/5, who earlier had had a hit with their rendition of California Dreamin’, sang Rolling in the Deep. Again, we sang in two parts, and had a number of soloists. In the staff room on the day of the concert, teachers raved about the different solo singers, expressing their delight in hearing how good the voices were – qualities they often hadn’t realised were there.

Taking ownership

The grade 5/6 students developed a dance routine for Party Rock Anthem. This was the concert finale. I found some choreography on Youtube, and we worked with that for 4 weeks, watching the video in class on the interactive whiteboard.

Lots of them watched it outside of school hours too. It became a real project – something that was challenging to learn but possible. “This is not just about learning to dance,” I told them. “It’s a chance to learn how you learn, how you can teach yourself new things by working on them consistently.” They were hugely motivated – the most motivated I’ve seen them all year – and took tremendous ownership of their concert item. They requested an edited version of the song (some of the sections needed to be doubled in length to fit their choreography), listened carefully when I explained the song’s structure, and developed a some good ensemble choreography.

Equally significant was the difference in their interpersonal relationships. This is a class that is often hard on each other – they are quick to laugh and jeer when one of the group makes a mistake in class – it’s quite alarming to witness sometimes. This meanness started to lessen during the dance project. When individuals moved into the centre of the space to perform short solos, the rest of the group whooped, cheered and clapped, supporting them on. We told them to do this initially, but again, they took it on and made it their own. There was so much pride and confidence spilling out of that class by the night of the concert – they were so excited to performed their dance!

The building of esteem in the school choir

The choir gave their best performance of the year at the end-of-year concert. We sang three songs – Vuma vuma ( a 2-part Zulu song that I learned from one of my students at NMIT), which we sang with dance actions; La Isla Bonita, taking our 2-part harmonies directly from the Madonna recording; and Firework, taking inspiration from the version performed by PS22 Chorus.

This has been such a successful year for the choir. I’ve had 34 consistent members throughout the year – that’s nearly 3 times the usual number. I’ve had equal numbers of boys and girls, and strong participation from students in older classes. I started the year by finding them tangible examples (‘models’) for them to look to in developing their voices and building ambition about what they could achieve in the choir. I developed a more formal structure for rehearsals to which they responded particularly well. With all of these initiatives, I wanted to help them put their work in context – to see their work as being authentic, with real-world value. The choice of popular songs helps with this, but we also sang several more traditional or varied songs, such as Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, one of our main concert songs this year. Choir now has cachet in the school, I think.

Creative inspiration

All this performance work adds an additional element to the children’s imaginative lives. Children approach me in the yard to share the latest song they’ve just written, such as this little gem:

There’s a boy and girl, they really like each other

They’re holding hands, oh yeah

They really love each other, oh yeah

And now, they’re gonna get ma-a-a-a-arried

Or the latest dance routine they’ve made up. The lunchtime immediately after the younger years saw the year 5/6 shuffle dance, there were huddles of prep, grade 1 & 2 shufflers scattered all across the playground.

The students teach their siblings the songs they are learning in class. Something I loved about the whole-school dress rehearsal on the day of the concert was the way the children sang along with each others’ songs.


At St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill, the grade 3/4s and I created a number of short pieces about the human body. In addition to a poppy little song and a hocket of “bodily function noises” (imagine, if you will), we created a body percussion dance routine and decided to perform it as a Flashmob at lunchtime on my last day.

The plan was: I would wander out into the playground about ten minutes before the bell rang. They would all be looking out for me. I’d raise my arm to wave to them (as you do), but really I’d be doing a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown with my fingers. This would be the cue for us to start our dance, a formation magically emerging from the hordes of playing children. The music teacher was on yard duty so would join in the performance with us.

Unfortunately, I can’t share the video of the event with you – it was too tricky to film it without showing any children’s faces (and we don’t have permission to publish such materials). But they loved it, loved the idea of making a flashmob, loved breaking into dance in the middle of the playground at lunchtime, wanted to do it many times over. A few others tried to join in too (an indicator of a good flashmob, we decided).

Thanks to all the teachers at St John’s Primary Clifton Hill for making me so welcome during my residency. Thanks to all the gorgeous children, and thanks especially to Mary-Anne who invited me to work with her students over these last three weeks.

Boys and dancing

Last week at the Language School, one of the girls in Upper Primary was adamant that what our class composition really needed was dancing. She was enthusiastic, a couple of her girlfriends were enthusiastic, but others in the class were just as adamant in their refusal.

However, we needed to work in the room all together, and I knew that if I set the three girls dancing at one end of the room, and the rest of the class working with instruments or singing at the other end, it would be too distracting and no-one would get any work completed. “Let’s divide into two groups and we’ll all work on the dance together,” I suggested. There were four phrases of lyrics that the dance would accompany. Each group would devise moves for two of the lines, then we would combine.

What I discovered in this process was that, despite the initial reluctance that most of the boys had shown, several of them (two of the newest boys – from Iraq and Sudan, and two of the Chinese boys) were in fact very happy to be dancing. We devised a heel-thumping, air-punching, hand-clapping accompaniment and they were completely committed to each and every move.

That early lack of enthusiasm was perhaps about keeping with the peer group – especially for the newest boys. They may not have understood my initial question about whether they’d like to  dance or not – maybe they knew it was about dancing, but thought I might be asking them to dance a solo, or something – but they would definitely have picked up on the way the majority Chinese boys in the class were laughing and pushing each other and hiding behind each other by way of demonstrating their reluctance.

Now that we have a dance in the middle of an instrumental piece and song, we have the challenge ahead of us of working out how on earth to stage it, so that they don’t all start falling over their instruments when the get up to dance. That is next week’s challenge!

Back to school

The teaching year has started in earnest. I missed my second week of term due to illness, but last week made a good start and with the teachers, have chosen some fun themes to work on for compositions this term.

(Check out The Language School tab at the top of the page to know more about the school I work in each week as Teaching Artist).

There are three classes, and lots of new students this term. Lots of new students means the median level of English language understanding in each class is drastically reduced. However, the good news is that a couple of the truly disruptive elements from Lower Primary last year have moved on to other schools, and early indicators are that we have three very happy, peaceful, functional classes this term.

Here’s what I plan to work on:

Lower Primary

The theme this term is on the beach and water safety. Fun! I do like creating music projects around rules and words of warning for this age group. A couple of years ago the theme was Germs (trying to increase their awareness of Personal Hygeine), and we had a lot of fun in Lower Primary writing a song with a forthright, sing-your-heart-out chorus that described how

Germs live… on your hands

Germs live… in your bottom

Germs live… in your ears

Germs live… up your nose

They loved it. We all loved it. But I digress.

Water Safety. The Beach. The class teacher I am working with is just fantastic, she has lots of ideas and keen to reinforce anything we do in music in her other lessons with LP during the week. I knew they had been looking at some picture books that showed the different things you might do at the beach, so we started with a brainstorm on What things do you bring to the beach? and What things do you do at the beach? We listed various useful nouns (bucket, spade, towel, sunscreen etc) and verbs (jumping waves, building sandcastles, digging holes).

We will use these words in a chant and a song, I think.

I also invented a very simple song that I hope we will use as a warm-up game. It involves turn-taking, and accumulating voices. It’s very simple, but sounds good.

Middle Primary

With MP I am going to work on alphabets. This is a project I’ve done before actually – the alphabet dance and using the letters on the tuned percussion instruments to spell then play words. I am planning on writing a book later this year so intend to fine-tune some projects that will feature in that.

The Alphabet Dance is inspired by a fabulous dance performance I saw about 8 years ago, performed by the Leigh Warren Dancers, Quick Brown Fox. I always say you can get your ideas for music projects from anywhere, and this performance was rich fodder indeed.

The idea for the Alphabet Dance is simple – create an alphabet of 26 discrete movements, one for each letter of the alphabet. Then choose words or names to spell.

The hard part is memorising all the moves. Last week we got as far as letter ‘L’ which seemed an excellent start. Past experience tells me that it gets much harder from here on in.

Rather than post information about how the dance is progressing each week, I think I’ll post some ideas about helping groups memorise things like dance steps or musical phrases. I think that finding different ways to repeat things, so that they start to go into the memory but the students don’t get bored with the repetition, is key.

Upper Primary

At recess the class teacher and I talked ideas. Sathy told me that the theme for the term is food, and Taste of Australia. The students will learn to cook some different recipes and be talking about different cultural foods and recipes in class.

‘Food’ is another rich topic. Sathy and I came up with lots of possible things to focus on:

  • foods form different countries (my colleague Sheldon King wrote one of my favourite songs ever with some students at this school – “I come from China…. I eat a lot of dumplings….” It had a reggae feel and was very cool…)
  • building chants or songs from the text of recipes (a bit like the way Spicks and Specks contestants have to sing familiar tunes to words from completely unrelated tomes – such as customer charters or car manuals)
  • Measurement – using all the different kinds of measurements (cup, teaspoon, ounces, grams) that you find in recipes
  • Actions into dance moves – using all the verbs you find in recipes (chop, knead, mix, stir) and performing them as dance-like gestures.

Lots of possibilities. I am most taken with the idea of the different measurements and creating a recipe from that. Maybe we won’t make ‘food’ our overall focus, perhaps we will jsut draw inspiration from the format of recipes and create a musical piece on a different theme, using those formats.

Warming up the groups

I haven’t invented any new warm-up games in a while. But my tactic is still to create a warm-up routine for each group and repeat this at the start of the class for at least 4 weeks. This is to give all the students, including the newest ones who have the least English, the chance to feel familiar and confident with each of the games, and so get the most benefit and learning from it. I think it takes at least 4 weeks for a whole group to reach this point.


Each class learns at least one new song with me each term. We tend to sing these near the start of the lesson, as a unified ensemble way to finish the warm-up section before moving on to the composing component.

Sometimes I teach the same song to every class, which means the teachers can then use it as a shared song in the weekly primary school assemblies. This term I am teaching everyone As I walk this country by Australian singer-songwriter Kavisha Mazzella. It’s a very moving, peaceful song, and they sing it with a lot of sincerity and expression. We often sing it at the end of term when we are saying good-bye to students who are moving on to mainstream school.

Otherwise, songs I am planning to teach this term include:

Little Sandy Girl ( a game-song from the Carribbean. I sang it to my nephew last week – changed the words to be Little Sandy Boy as we were coming home from the beach and he loved it).

If I had a hammer (60s protest song. It’s always a winner. I wish I played guitar a bit better as it really benefits from a bouncy, rhythmic accompaniment, and my strums are a bit on the wet, church-y side of things. Well, that’s where I learned to play guitar!)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Negro spiritual. I really love this song. I have a nice 2-part arrangement for it that I’ll use).

“Gur-Lump” Went The Little Green Frog One Day (a song I learned from one of my nephew’s Playschool CDs. It’s a Lower Primary song and such a winner. They love the drama of it, and the La-di-da-di-da chorus, and it teaches them excellent ensemble skills for pauses and tempo changes).

Brixton Market (a colleague Duncan found this one and taught it to me. I haven’t used it before so looking forward to teaching it).

Linstead Market (another Carribbean song. They are so catchy and joyous).

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more later.

End of Term 3

Today my two primary classes at Language School had their final music lessons for the term, and presented their compositions to students, teachers and parents at the End-Of-Term Assembly.

We started off the day reasonably well, doing a run-through of the song I have taught all of the primary students in their weekly assembly (Inanay – by the gorgeous group Tiddas – on the Sing About Life album). We sing it in two parts, which they are managing really well now. It is not an easy harmony for this age group.

Then Lower Primary practised their question-and-answer music Can I have some more please? No, you can’t! They have riffs that they play on glockenspiel that follow the rhythm of the words.

They were so unfocused! We have had a few tricky lessons these last few weeks – their regular teacher hasn’t been with them all the time, some of the students who speak and understand quite a lot of English have been absent from school (thus depriving the newer students of peer models), and these two key factors have meant that the structure of the piece doesn’t really seem to have sunk in. At least, that’s how it seemed at this morning’s rehearsal. I felt a bit frustrated by the end. Was this project too difficult for them? Mel (Melbourne Uni work experience girl who is shadowing me on this project) agreed with me that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, when we consider what they achieved last term.

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“You dance good, miss”

Friday afternoon lessons with the secondary students can sometimes feel a bit uphill. It is the end of the week – they are tired, I am tired, and even though they are a wonderfully good-natured and cooperative class, sometimes we are just not at our best on a Friday afternoon.

Not so last Friday. We have spent the last few weeks building up a piece for performance that uses material developed through a few different tasks – energetic, syncopated rhythms made from students’ names; improvised riffs on the pentatonic scale; and drum ‘alphabet’ rhythms – as section content for a piece that I really like. It is a bit West African in feel, and we have developed words that we sing in unison with the main xylophone riff.

Last week we agreed that this piece could do with either a rap, or a dance section. On Friday we created the dance. A number of the students are enthusiastic dancers, so we started by sharing ideas for moves.

I should add here, I LOVE dancing. It is years since I took any classes (which I do periodically, for fun), and I have certainly never studied it seriously. But when I develop dance content with my students I always join in, and I always hope they will teach me some new moves.

Once we had a bank of possible moves built up I performed them one by one for the students and they voted ‘yes- keep it’ or ‘no – lose it’. Then we looked at all the moves that had got a ‘yes’ vote and decided together which order they should go in in the dance, and the number of repetitions each should have.

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Musical Alphabets – latest developments

We had an excellent day of music lessons on Friday. The Musical Alphabets project is coming to fruition, and the performance piece is looking and sounding very strong indeed.

Here is how we are working with it:

We have a Chorus, which is first chanted, then ‘spelt’ using the dance moves (BANANAS! BANANAS! I LIKE BANANAS!) and we have four groups, each with a different fruit (chosen by the students) to spell. (PEAR, ORANGE, APPLES, WATERMELON). We practised the Chorus all together, and arranged ourselves into rows. They then worked in the small groups to practise spelling their fruit word while the three adults (class teacher, Melanie the Melbourne Uni intern, and me) moved from group to group, offering encouragement and assistance, and keeping them focused on the task.

We experimented with a couple of structural ideas. I liked the idea of layering the different fruit words together, so that two might be performed at the same time. However, the students found this confusing; they felt much less confident about performing their own word if others were performing a different word at the same time, in the next row.

So we tried a different arrangement, where each word was spelt four times in a row, one by one. While the groups waited their turn they remained in formation and waited in ‘T’ position (crouching down on the ground, in our alphabet).

The final structure is in ternary form:

A: CHORUS (chanted 2x, then danced)

B: SMALL GROUPS (one by one, pre-planned order)

A: CHORUS (chanted 2x, then danced)

In an earlier post I was questioning how much of this task the students understood.

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Language school compositions: progress report

I had a fun day at the Language School today. We are seven weeks into Term 3 (so three weeks from the end of term) and by this time we are in the rehearsal stage for this term’s compositions.

Middle Primary students have created two group pieces. The first – “Winter” – was started when we were in the grip of a really cold series of winter days. We explored the sensation of ‘cold’ first physically (pressing our hands and cheeks against cold surfaces outside, opening the windows and feeling the cold wind enter the room and touch us) and then aurally, going through all the percussion instruments in the room and ranking them in order of the ‘coldest’ sounds, and techniques for producing cold, rather than warm sounds.

This exploration has resulted in a 3-sectioned piece, involving a big ‘shiver’ of cold sounds added progressively, a multi-layered melodic piece utilising ‘cold’ sounds played in rhythmic and melodic ostinati, and a version of Largo from Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with the solo performed by Melanie, our wonderful violinist and intern from the Melbourne Conservatorium).

Of course the weather is much warmer now, with recent temperatures reaching 25 degrees (bit alarming for August – it is still supposed to be winter!); we will need to imagine ourselves back into those cold days for the performance.

Middle Primary’s second composition is drawn from their work with the Alphabet Dance, in which they created a dance movement or gesture for each letter of the alphabet. We have now started to choose words to spell out, and to arrange these into a dance piece.

Our theme for the words is Fruit, and today we invented a chorus that pays homage to the mighty banana:


(Try to imagine the funky syncopated rhythm we use for this).

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