These signs hang above the door in my studio as a reminder to stay flexible and always be ready to improvise when the situation calls for it. I find that this is especially important when I am teaching. Tuning into what the children need and will respond to at any given moment during the class makes for a much more productive and satisfying learning experience, not just for the students, but for me as well. Here is a piece that I wrote about such an experience when I was teaching dance at a school in Manhattan.
Snow. Glistening like glitter in the sunshine and mirrored in the sparkle of the children's eyes.
We were looking out the windows of the dance studio at the play space two stories below. It was covered with a thin blanket of untouched snow. I could feel the energy vibrating in the room – they needed to make their mark on that perfect blank white canvas. I can't remember what curriculum I had planned for the day's dance class, but it no longer mattered.
I asked my students to take a good long look at the scene below, and then close their eyes and see the same image in their mind. They had already taken off their shoes in preparation for dance but suddenly I asked them to put them back on. “Why?” “What are we doing?” “Are we really going OUTSIDE?”
I directed them to make a single line behind me and led them down the stairs and opened the door to the play space. Even though it had snowed it was not too cold and I knew they would be fine without their coats for a few minutes. I started to walk slowly, asked them to follow me and step right into each other's footprints. We began to draw a design in space with our feet. It curved and crossed itself, meandering here and there, making zig-zags and spirals. We smiled and giggled, giddy with the excitement of such a spontaneous moment. Then we climbed back up the stairs with flushed cheeks and cold toes.
We looked out the windows again. The view revealed a map, a flight pattern, an abstract painting, an ancient symbolic language, a plan, directions for making a dance. We remembered what it had looked like just a few minutes before and marveled at the transformation. I divided the children into groups and they worked on collaborative choreography. “What patterns do you see in the snow?” “What kind of movement do those patterns look like?” “What kind of a dance journey can you take yourselves on?” “What kinds of places can you visit?” I chose some music with a lively rhythm to help carry them along. The little dances that they made were amazing - full of skipping and sliding and tip-toeing, bodies morphing themselves into different moving shapes, arms akimbo, legs stretching and kicking. The smell of art was in the air.
Too soon it was time to go. They were off to another world, a different classroom, another subject to grapple with. Down the hallway I heard one of them say, “That was the best class I ever had.” It was only 9:15 in the morning but it had already been a good teaching day. Later, when I looked out the window again , the snow had melted, the design was gone, and the moment had passed.