Archive for the ‘choreography’ Tag

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.

Dancing the Alphabet

I’ve been doing a lot of alphabet dancing lately, using a project model I first developed in 2001. The project revival has been instigated by a video project to film and record resource material for teachers and students to create their own Alphabet Dances. Then again, good projects never really get tired!

The Alphabet Dance is definitely one of my most enduring and popular projects. I first created an Alphabet Dance in 2001 as part of the Lingua Franca project at Western English Language School. I was inspired by the Leigh Warren Dancers (professional contemporary dance company from South Australia) and their show Quick Brown Fox, which was derived from an ‘alphabet’ of dance moves and sequences.  In my Alphabet Dance project, participants create 26 short dance moves (from any style of dance they like), one for each letter of the English alphabet, then use that alphabet of moves to spell words, sentences and phrases, and create dance sequences.

I wrote a detailed teaching resource on the Alphabet Dance for the Song Room in 2009, and ran a training session for artists at that time; and my blog posts (here is one) on the topic in 2007 were the recipients of my first-ever pingbacks!

This term, in order to have some children’s creations included in the video, I asked the Upper Primary students at CELS to create their own alphabet of moves. They did their film shoot at school yesterday morning. Here is my own quick grab of their work.

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.

Collaboration – dance and music

A couple of weekends ago I was up in Sydney working with the Australian Chamber Orchestra [ACO] and Western Sydney Dance, and the Parramatta Youth Strings, and composer Matthew Hindson. A lot of collaborators, all contributing to a fabulous performance project developed by the ACO.

The idea was to create a new dance work, using music composed especially for it. But this was not to be a typical composer commission – Vicki, Education Manager at the ACO and the brains behind the project, wanted the players in the Parramatta Youth Strings (who would perform the work for the dancers alongside members of the ACO) to compose the music themselves.

There is huge value in young players composing the music that they will perform. If you use creative process that utilises improvisation as a way of developing ideas, they will invent things that are within their capacity to play. They will also have a strong sense of ownership of the music, and connection to the work, that will provide an additional incentive to realising it to the best of their abilities.

To see the descriptions of how we got ideas rolling, developed musical material, and structured the ideas into a graphic score… read on. Continue reading

Teaching the Alphabet Dance

Today I spent the morning with a team of teaching artists for The Song Room. The Song Room will soon be publishing the resource I wrote for them last year on my Alphabet Dance project idea (which I also described in detail on this blog here, here and here, if you want to check it out) and today’s workshop was to introduce the project to the Teaching Artists, who work in schools across Victoria. The idea is that they will introduce it to the teachers in their schools, and we hope that its broad appeal will mean we start to see little waves of alphabet dances fanning out across the state.

You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of workshop participants! This group took the idea of the Alphabet Dance and made it their own. Basically, the idea is to assign a movement to each letter of the alphabet, then use these to spell words and create dances. I had  a feeling the Teaching Artists would come up with something truly original, and they didn’t disappoint.

They chose to create dances on a theme of Astronomy. We developed a chorus:

The stars [clap] and planets [clap]

Yeah, they’re really cool [clap]!

All claps on off-beats. We naturally fell into a side-step move while doing this, and a lot of vocal additions and embellishments (Ah yeah!… That’s right!… ah-huh, ah-huh…. Because the-… etc).

Then they created dances using the alphabet on the words Flash Gordon, Ziggy Stardust, and Battleship FTL-Drive. Huge commitment to every gesture. A drummer accompanying us, giving it even more momentum. It definitely showed the potential of the project idea. Thanks all, that was a great high-energy workshop!

The Alphabet Dance gets kids spelling out loud, and offers new motivations for thinking about how different words are spelt. I have found that children who are struggling with literacy get a lot of confidence and enjoyment with the Alphabet Dance – they are highly motivated to learn the different moves, and the order of the letters. There are lots of follow-on activities you can do once you have built an alphabet of moves – consider putting together flicker books that spell out words using photos of the different dance moves, for example. Of creating large-scale wall friezes of all of the ‘letters’, drawn or photographed, or sketched as stick figures (for those like me who are challenged in the visual art department).

Members of the Song Room (schools participating, or previously participating in Song Room programs who have signed up for membership) will be able to download the resource from The Song Room website when it is launched later this month.

Halfway through the term

I realised today that there are only four more weeks left of this first term. That means that in three weeks time we will have our end-of-term concert, as I am away in the last week of term, so we can’t have it then. Fortunately the three composition projects are taking shape, with some adjustments to my original plans. Here’s the rundown:

Lower Primary

What a gorgeous class this is! So little, and so bright. The teacher and I have been working closely to develop our unit of work, focused around the theme of The Beach. We’ve brainstormed words in music class based on worksheets she has done with the students, so they have lots of vocabulary to contribute, and she is following up any songwriting we do in class too. All of which means we have loads of cool material, that the students feel familiar with.

We’ve got a happy, chirpy chorus that states

We go, we go, we go, we go, we go to the beach

We then have a jaunty verse, describing the things they bring with them to the beach

I’ve got my bucket, I’ve got my spade.

I’ve got my sunhat, I’ve got my sunscreen.

The last line is quite hard for them to say.

Today we added a cautionary middle 8:

Swim between the flags

Swim with the big people

Look out for the board riders

And if you need help, shout

“HELP, help, help. HELP, help, help!”

Which leads back into the chorus. They’ll accompany themselves on the big bass xylophone, and really, we are all having a ball with this song.

Middle Primary

MP have focused most of their work on developing an alphabet dance – a sequence of moves that has a specific movement or gesture for each letter of the alphabet. Today we completed the remaining letters of the alphabet and started to spell out words that they know (which are mostly different types of fruit. Fruit is a big vocab focus this term, it seems).

In addition to the dance, we are doing instrument work. They would probably mutinee if we didn’t – they do love the instruments above all other things we do in music. Every 2 minutes, someone will thrust a hand in the air, wave it at me frantically, saying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” regardless of what I am saying to the class or in the middle of doing. When I ask them what they want to say, they point to one of the drums (it’s always a drum) and say, sweetly, “Can I play that?” It’s amusing, but definitely annoying after a while.

So… we are making Name Rhythms, where we string four names from the class together and play the rhythm of the syllables on instruments. This composing technique works very well, although it can be a bit limiting in a class with lots of Chinese and African children as they invariably have names of 2 syllables only.  Fortunately this term we have a Thai girl (4 syllables), the class teacher (4 syllables), an Iranian boy (3 syllables) and a Burmese boy (1 syllable) to spice things up.

Upper Primary

There are a lot of new students in UP this term, and most have very little English to work with. My original idea was to bounce off their Food and Cooking theme and do some composing around recipes, but I have decided to shelve that idea, as they simply don’t have the language yet, and the majority wouldn’t understand.

Instead, we will work on some foundations of ensemble music (playing in time, keeping tempo, listening to multiple contrasting lines, starting points for inventing rhythms and melodies) via a fantastic song called Brixton Market.

I taught them this song in the first lesson of the day, and had it in my head for the rest of the day. I bet they did too – it is very catchy. (I just googled the singer and the song and came up with nothing – if anyone reading can provide a link to more info about this excellent song for children, please post it in the comments section). It mentions lots of different foods for sale in the market, so we will probably write a new verse (for one of the Melbourne markets – Preston or Victoria probably, as these are the ones near where the students live).

Melbourne Festival – reviews (3)

This was probably an ambitious thread to start. From now on my comments on the shows I’ve seen will be brief.

Daniel Kitson – C90

This was a show I liked a lot. Kitson is an engaging performer, weaving stories and characters and setting the scene with skill in this one-man show about a man’s last day working in an archive of compilation tapes. The set was gorgeous – a tall set of shelves piled high with tapes, and a ladder on railings that could slide along the width of the shelving – which Kitson did with much grace.

It was a heart-warming story too. At the close of the show Kitson reappeared to invite us to come to the stage in order to inspect the set more closely. The labels on all the tapes were intriguing and beguiling – suggesting love lost, hopes for rekindling, requests for forgiveness, tributes and revenge. Apparently the show tours no more after this Melbourne season, and the set will stay here.

Jerome Bel – The Show Must Go On

My favourite show in the Festival so far! The whole night had a touch of surreality about it, and this framed the show perfectly. The audience and their reactions to this piece (which starts with a darkened stage and a guy sitting at a sound desk down the front playing individual tracks from CDs, one after the other, with gaps in between while he took out one CD and put in the next) were part of the show. Very John Cage in that respect.

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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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