Preparing 3 to 5-year-olds to perform on a huge stage, under hot lights, in front of hundreds of people is an ART. Some of us have been successfully (and at times not-so-successfully) doing just that for many years.
I personally have been teaching this age-group for a decade, and I have gathered an arsenal of tips and tricks along the way. Are they 100% fail-proof? Nope. Not one bit. Preschoolers can be unpredictable and as their instructors, our number one job-requirement should be flexibility. I have discovered several do’s and don’ts that are the backbone of my initial approach to fostering stage-readiness in children though. Let’s review!
#1 Do: Build in extra time for transitions.
I’m always shocked at teachers who created formation transitions to quick music with only one 8-count allotted. GUYS, give them longer than you think they will need.
If the dancers get to their spots quickly, great! Have them perform pliés to the beat until we get to the next bit of choreo. Have them go through a port-de-bra with their arms until it’s time to move on.
Some children need an extra second or so to hear your request, process it, execute it, and then get back on track to tackle the next step. Help them do this well by not rushing them. Keep in mind, kids this age can be 2-3 seconds behind you throughout the whole piece!
#2 Do: Simulate an audience.
If you need to bring a whole bag of stuffed animals into class to be your “audience,” do it! Remind them over and over that lots of faces we do not know will be in the auditorium and they are excited to see us dance, twirl and glide across the stage! They are not there to make fun of us or judge us. They are there to ENJOY us. Prepare them for giggles and laughter. This is a good thing! It means they like our dance!
Sometimes bringing in actual people into the dance room helps. This is wise whether you invite folks sitting in the lobby to come in at the end of class, or whether you invite other classes that are happening simultaneously to “share” dances. Having actual breathing, smiling, staring, giggling, and clapping people in the room helps a ton.
#3 Do: Prepare them for the day.
The more you can do to explain the flow of show weekend, the better. Cover as much as you can from having to leave mommy for a bit, to wearing an itchy (but gorgeous) costume, to going to the potty before we put our costumes on, to not eating in our fancy outfits, to what we do if we forget our dance, to what we do if our shoe falls off on-stage, to how we wait to talk to mommy until after the show, to staying quiet in the wings, to how dark it gets in blackouts, to how hot the stage can feel, to how loud the sound system can be.
It is our job to make sure they are mentally and emotionally prepared for what the day will feel like so that it is not a shock to their system. Too many instructors only focus on the physical aspect of performing and forget to cover the rest!
#4 Do: Write a song.
This sounds insane. I’m aware. Each of my dances (for little ones) has a corresponding song that I’ve created along the way. I sing the steps to my kids during class and for some reason it sparks a different area of the brain that helps a lot of children remember their steps.
Pro tip! Create a voice-memo on your phone, of you singing choreography over the music in a quiet space with no background noise. This will help you save your voice during that last crazy month of recital-prep. Just play your recording and the kids will hear you singing over the loud speaker! Now, you’re free to correct behavior and technique around the room while the recorded version of you is keeping the dance going.
#4 Do: Encourage and comfort the heck out of your students. 😉
Let them know that it is perfectly ok to be nervous about performing. I have always said through my own performances that nerves show passion. Embrace it as part of the experience! However, we do need to provide comfort and cheerleading to those little ones who teeter on the line between nerves and fear. Let them know repeatedly that they are important and enough no matter what they do on-stage!
# 1 Do Not: Create complex choreography that doesn’t have consistent patterns.
Kids this age thrive off of repetition. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times. When a chorus repeats itself 3 times in a little one’s song, I’ll do the same phrase each time. Use your verses, intro, instrumental breaks and/or endings to sprinkle in some “spice.”
On that note, do not expect a three-year-old to dance for 3 straight minutes on-stage. Find what time-limits work best for your studio, director and kids. Then stick to it. For me, a 3-year-old dance will be anywhere from 1:45-2:15 if I can help it. Depending on the structure of your recital, it may vary. However, even if your kids do more of a demonstration type of recital (where they’re on-stage for 20 minutes or so), still keep the individual pieces short to give their brain and body a break between activities.
#2 Do Not: Space your students too closely.
This topic can quickly merge into an optimal class-size conversation, and that is not where I’m trying to go. Each studio has various approaches to class sizes, based on insurance requirements, preferred teacher to student ratios, studio availability, faculty availability, studio sizes, etc. Therefore, I am not going to discuss exact numbers. What I will do is advise all my dance education buddies out there to spread.these.itty-bitty.kids.out.
If a child is dancing too close to their friend, multiple issues can arise that all boil down to the basic laws of traffic. Give them their own space and it will not only help them focus better on the activity at hand, but your formations will look better overall as well.
I’m not saying to have four 3-year-olds dancing six spaces away from each other because that could lead to them feeling isolated and scared. Simply explore your options in creating enough personal space for each child!
While we are talking about staging, it is also important to tell them about the location. Talk about: lights above us, curtains to the sides and behind us, any stage decor or props that will be out there with us (no touching!), the fact that the mirror will disappear, and how we do not walk to the edge of the stage where it drops. These are all part of the scene for us as professionals now, but think about a Kindergartner’s perspective who does not have these visual cues already stored in his/her head. It is a lot to take in! Keep your numbers or “spots” on the floor consistent at the stage as well. Take a picture of your studio so that you can re-create the pattern at the theater!
#3 Do Not: Dance in front of your children and shout at the top of your lungs until show weekend.
In my opinion, we should begin the choreographic process “smack-dab” in front of our students, shouting as loudly as we want at the beginning. Then, we should slowly decrease our presence in the dance. You may find your own flow that works well, but this is mine.
About a month before the performance, I move physically to the side. After-all, I’m not going to dance in front of them on the actual stage. At about the two-week mark, I stop shouting quite as loudly as before. The audience does not need to hear us screaming in the actual performance. I have seen directors give the strangest look to a teacher who is shouting until she’s blue in the face during a recital. What are you doin,’ boo?!
You may have a group of tiny dancers that need your whole “choreography song” to be sung at the recital, and that’s totally fine! On the other hand, you may have more advanced kids who only need snippets of your song to remember transitions and tough parts.
Either way, begin lowering your voice during classes because I assure you, the monitors at the theatre are probably going to drown you out anyway. The dancers need to be able to “fly solo!”
#4 Do Not: Wait until dress rehearsal (or the show) to have them bow.
Many studios have individualized bow procedures, so determine early on in the semester just what that is for your facility. Expose your kids to this process from the start so that they don’t have the glazed “deer-in-the-headlights” look on their faces during the finale.
Many final bows involved a ton of dancers and this can be surprising to a little one. Explain what it will look like, go through how to hold hands, how to move in a line connected together, how to bow, and what to do next. Trust me, you will be glad you went over the specifics before the big day when you are frazzled and tired!