Developing Leadership through Dance

Just last week I took a couple of my students – 2 year sevens and 1 year eight mentor to see Stage Challenge. (If you don’t know what Stage Challenge is check out their website here – it’s an awesome student-led design, dance and drama performance for teens). Although it was an awesome opportunity to see some fantastic dancing, the bit I loved the most was seeing young people develop their leadership through dance. Those on stage certainly, but also my own students who were watching.

At my school we have students for two years before they head off to college (high school), so our time is pretty limited. As part of our developing performing arts programme we offer Stage Challenge and a Production in alternating years. Last year we did Stage Challenge for the first time (mine, as well as the school’s). This year it’s production’s turn.

We did extremely well in Stage Challenge, especially considering we were competing against colleges and scored high marks in several distinguished categories. Now don’t get me wrong, I love that we did well, but I was much more interested in what the students took away from Stage Challenge than any awards we had won. So what was it the kids took away? Well, the biggest thing I noticed was confidence. Confidence in themselves for the participating students, and confidence in their leadership skills for the student leaders, which is what I want to focus on today. It’s also the very reason I took students to see Stage Challenge this year.

Those of us who have grown up in the traditional model of dance classes outside school hours, working towards and passing exams in a set syllabus, might find the idea of developing leadership through dance a little odd. Many of us have never really had the opportunity or occasion to do so. But I have found that the reality is dance is the perfect place to develop leadership skills, if only we broaden our understanding of what teaching dance is about. Fortunately for me, New Zealand has a fantastic dance curriculum that does just that!

Opportunities for students to develop, share and teach their own choreography enable dance students to take ownership of their dancing. This is so important and moves dance beyond the traditional transmission model of teaching. Creating a dialogue between teacher and students has let me help my dancers develop the confidence in their own ideas. I love it when my students suggest better ways of doing things, easier footwork or more creative choreography. It’s awesome that they feel they can say actually this step doesn’t flow into the next as well as if you put it the other way around or went left instead of right. This dialogue and confidence my students have that their own ideas are both valid and valued is building their leadership skills, not to mention their self-confidence.

Whether they realise it or not, I sure have. I already knew my year 8s were great choreographers and most of them pretty good leaders (I’ve got two stand-outs though who I’ve asked to co-choreograph the production dances with me) since I’ve already taught them for a year and a half. What I didn’t expect was how quickly my year 7s would be ready for a leadership challenge. Having taken the two girls to see Stage Challenge, and discussing with them and their year 8 mentor what worked and was/wasn’t effective in the performances we saw, I could see they were rapidly growing in the capacity and desire to step into those choreographic leadership roles. What I didn’t expect was that they would just totally embody that the following day at rehearsal for production, jumping on every suggestion and building on it from there. And it was contagious, once one started they all got going and half a dance built itself just like that!

These year sevens will go on to be our Stage Challenge choreographers and student leaders next year. This will see them standing alongside year 12 and 13 students at the big competition and I small though they are I know they’ll hold their own. Because being a leader in dance is not about how much dance you know, it’s about how hard you’re willing to work, how creative and critical-thinking you are, how patient you are, being willing to continue learning (all the time!) and most of all how much you believe in yourself.

By valuing my students’ contributions right from the get-go, I can see their peers start to follow my lead and value them too, and I know that this helps students see that their own ideas have value, in turn building confidence.