Language is a tricky thing, more so when teaching cultural African dance styles. Everyone responds differently to a different use of language during dance class. As a teacher you are prone to consistently using certain phrases or words over and over again, and this is normal in everyday speech too. Nonetheless, it is important to note the impact of language when teaching both children as well as adults. In the time that I have been teaching, I have seen that some words have lost meaning to my students because I overuse them e.g. ‘that was great’ and ‘are you good?’ I have had to consciously instruct my brain to use different words in order to put my points across.
When teaching children African dance techniques in our AfroFeet classes, language is very important. And not only verbally, but my body language too, as well as other non-verbal communication cues. During the first two weeks of teaching at the French School of Harare, I did not know how to deal with troublesome kids. I had so many requests to visit the bathroom, to sit because of a toothache, and very quickly I realised that the moment you allowed one to sit, the entire class was following suit and using words to communicate was ineffective on its own. I had to employ varying motions throughout the duration of the class and my body language spoke volumes of how much I was not tolerating the mischief. Over the course of the weeks, I realised that I had to vary the motions and use of language so that they would not get used to them, and they lose meaning and they stop respecting the symbolism in the motions.
Whether working alone or with a teaching assistant, the words like ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ are banned from the teaching vocabulary. I would encourage dance-teaching practitioners to also do away with such negative terms for the simple reason that negativity is naturally not well received in any setting, not with children and certainly not with adults. What I find useful in my classes is carefully choosing my diction to convert anything negative into a positive for example, instead of saying, ‘Do not scrunch you shoulders.’ I encourage them to keep their arms flowing whilst dancing – extending the motion up through their shoulders. Coupled with such encouragement, should be specific imagery whenever you give praise. Even the most troublesome and naughty children have responded very well to this technique.
Often, as teachers we make our teaching lives very difficult by using vague terms such as ‘jump higher’, which are very difficult to comprehend and measure. Descriptive terms are much better especially working with the age ranges that we handle (3-7 years and 8-12 years), but this remains true even in our adult African dance classes. You will be surprised how much adults are innately children and the same techniques we developed for children work for them just as well. A good example is when I call out, ‘Imagine you have let you balloon go and you leap to grab the string’. Both adults and children really use their imagination to jump high up to grab the imaginary balloon – what everybody wants is to complete an action with a goal attached. I have found that it is much more easier for me to teach and be more effective for the students to grasp instructions when actions are described, instead of yelling what they are doing wrong or what I do not want them to do.
Learning these seemingly simple communication skills has made me a much better African dance teacher. My students have thus, left every class with a deeper appreciation of cultural African dance (and I know I will bump into a few of my adult clients at the pub jumping for that imaginary balloon). AfroFeet curriculum for children prides itself for complementing the school curriculum as the motions and positive language used in class transcends the dance studio into the classrooms as well as into the home.
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