What do you do when your students want to do cartwheels?
What do you do when they suggest changes to choreography that has been born out of prayer and Holy Spirit inspiration?
How do you respond when you suspect your students are more interested in performing a stunt than delivering a message through movement?
Recently during modern dance class with a group of middle school girls, I faced a situation that raised all these questions. If I’m honest, it raised my hackles, too. In this post, I’m going to share how I responded, what the outcome was for this particular situation, and what I learned. I hope it will help when you face similar situations to respond with the grace and discernment of the Spirit.
Here is what the story: I was teaching new choreography to a dance my class has been preparing to minister. My students saw an opportunity to insert cartwheels and all at once began begging and lobbying to include them.
I have to admit, I felt annoyed and a little defensive. I love this dance. It’s like my signature group dance. I received the choreography from the Lord almost effortlessly a few years ago. It has, perhaps, been the most impactful of the dances I’ve choreographed. Each time a group dances to it, both the dancers and those watching are touched by the beauty of the dance and the work of the Spirit.
And, truth be told, I was already a little defensive before this. These young ladies had already challenged me earlier in the day. The boldest among them had approached me before class and said, “_____, ______, and I have been talking, and we think the warm up and technique part of class is going too long and that we should shorten it so we have more time to work on our dance.”
I listened, reminded her that in order to dance with skill (and avoid injury), we need to adequately warm up and invest in technique, but that we could hold off on free dancing until the end, to make sure we had adequate time for the dance. I tell you this that to acknowledge that I walked into class already feeling a tension between hearing and honoring the input of my students and carrying the authority I’ve been given to lead.
I also want to acknowledge that I’m not crazy about cartwheels in worship dance. I have the same bias against the splits. I’m sure many would disagree with good reason. But in my mind, they are stunt-like, and and they don’t strike me as particularly emotive/communicative. So, when kids suggest cartwheels or splits, I inwardly roll my eyes, suspecting they are thinking more about showing what they are capable of than communicating a thought.
So, what did I do? First, I followed a series of personal commandments/instructions I’m working to implement in my own life, especially in times of stress or decision. Pause. Reflect. Consider the options.
I listened to the girls. They overflowed with enthusiasm for their idea. So, I said, “Why don’t you show me the cartwheels? We’ll insert them here with the music. I’ll watch for how the cartwheels fit with the words of the song, the timing of the music, and your spacing. Then I’ll pray about it and decide later. No guarantees. And I would like you to ask yourself why you want to do the cartwheels. Is it to show what you can do? Or do you see it enhancing the message?”
I stepped back and watched. I had them do it again, and again as I listened to the Spirit. And you know what? It was beautiful. It did fit. It fit better than the movements I had chosen, communicating the message of the song and moving the girls into a new formation.
So, cartwheels it was. I didn’t need to go home to think about it. But I did ask them to think about the “Why?” as homework. They came back the next week with truly thoughtful responses to my question.
From this, I realized that I can and need to loosen up with this group. They love to create. I can make space for that. I’ve been making more space for their input the last few weeks, stepping back and watching them and listening to them. It doesn’t mean they run the class, but it means I can hold it a bit more loosely and we all experience more joy.
The story would not be complete without me sharing a huge gift the Lord gave me last week in class. The girls grumbled when it was time to switch from across the floor movements to practicing the dance. (Ouch! It felt like criticism.) Before class ended, I split the class into two groups, one to present the dance while the other watched, and then they would switch off.
After the second group presented, my strongest leader (the one who had challenged me before), sat on the floor, motionless and watery-eyed. After a moment she said,”You guys! That was so beautiful. Oh my gosh! That made me teary!” You could tell she was surprised by how deeply the dance moved her.
It was precious to me, not because she loved the dance, but because the Spirit touched her. She was present to the Spirit and she experienced what He does though dance. Praise be to God.
Before I close, I want to share the answers I received from other dance leaders when I shared the questions from the beginning of this post on Facebook. Their answers were full of wisdom from the Spirit.
Here they are:
“What does the cartwheel mean? When I was doing choreography I specifically wanted a cartwheel in the dance so a young lady did it and landed in full split because it was a big finish for a dance about Joy. So it’s fine if the move expresses a thought, vs. doing a move because you can….
(If the suggestion does not communicate the thought, I may say) ‘This is the language we are using to express the message we are giving to people, so we will keep it as is for now but please save your suggestions and we might use them for another dance. We do moves that communicate the message, not just do what we like to do, there are many ways to create a dance but this is what we are doing right now. And we have to respect the choreography that’s given.'” – Wynn H.
“I love it when my students make suggestions about the choreography. I try very hard to incorporate their ideas. Because 1. it shows that they have taking ownership of the creative process. I want to encourage and support that. 2. Collaborations in the choreographic process like any artists creation is priceless.” – Jocelyn R.
“Sometimes if you build in occasional “creative or improv” classes, this will allow an outlet for your students. When they have this outlet, this could decrease the “interruptions” or “interjections” while teaching.
I even do this with my other classes. If every 5th class was an improv or creative collaborative class, you can accommodate their creativity and use this to focus them by saying, “Great idea. Let’s save that for our Creative Collaborative class at the end of the month.” – Maria D.
“I let them do it because it gives them a sense of leadership, ownership, and importance. We try to incorporate that move in their choreography” – Carrie W.
And finally, I’d love to hear from you.
What do you do when your students make suggestions that don’t immediately strike you as fitting?
How do you respond?
What have you learned from similar situations?