Teaching Kids to Dance: Hop Skip Jump Clap!

St.Patrick’s Day beckons and with the last two years of disappointments and disruptions, the need to feel hopeful is persistent and growing. And for humans, what stronger symbol of hope are our children?

So, you’ve decided this is the year you’d like to do some dancing with the kids to celebrate- your kids or your students- but you’re not quite sure what to do or how to go about it. (You might also want to look at some tips for dancing during a pandemic)

I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of opportunities to teach children to dance and made plenty of mistakes.  What I learned though is that you don’t have to be perfect; in fact, it’s far better if you approach it as an experience and a journey of joy, much the way a child would do when learning something interesting, engaging and fun!

TIPS FOR TEACHING

Start slow and simple– Start with something you are certain every single dancer will be able to do, and preferably something that is fun and enjoyable This ensures that dancers will gain confidence and that they feel they are part of the group, not the odd one out unable to dance.

Start with each individual dancing on their own in a large group, then gradually introduce the idea of dancing with a partner. I did this by teaching a simple, 3-4 part warm-up dance with plenty of repetition. The steps learned in warm-up could then progress to be used as a base for a brush/broom dance, allowing each child to focus on their brush and their dancing, not on each other. Then move on to a group circle dance where each child is paired with another (Rattlin’ Bog see below).

Boys germs – Be aware that some children will be alive to the “yuck” factor – that hand-holding and touching each other will be abhorrent to some children, depending on their age and experience.  So, don’t force anything. All activities and dance moves should be optional and you may need to find creative solutions to elements of dance that children are finding difficult or not responding to. Keep in mind the need for a Plan B.

Introducing dance movements – Work from what people find easiest to do and then work towards the more complex things. Build the movements and steps, bit by bit.Start with a walk – walking is very close to an advance step for sets. A retiring step for sets is just like walking backwards – a little more tricky.
Most people can STAMP one foot while standing on the other- makes a great sound and is simple. CLAPS are also pretty simple and KICKS as finishing moves.
Little SKIPS, HOPS & JUMPS  are also easy for kids – they look and sound great when controlled and in unison. Got the idea?

For set or céilí dancing, focus on the figures first, then the dance steps. Teach the figure or the pattern of the dance first, without too much focus on what is happening with the feet- it will come. Learning dance steps, and especially battering steps, can be difficult and generally takes a lot of practice. For set dancing, I find reel steps tends to take longer to learn than jig or polka steps. That should not be a deterrent to trying to teach dance steps but be realistic about your expectations as a teacher, particularly if you have limited time.

Don’t talk too much – show them what to do, walk through it once, then dance it with some repetition, maybe 3-4 times. Get people moving as soon as possible after the class starts.

Keep the teaching sessions short- 30-40 minutes at a time is plenty of time for teaching and learning. Take note when children are becoming bored or distracted- either move into a different dance, take a break or end the class.

Music is most important – needs to be toe-tapping and inspiring enough to be still interested after listening 100 times! Even better for children if it has a catchy song that can be included in the dance. Spend time seeking out the right music and make deliberate choices.

Suggest you start with music that is slower, and increase the tempo as the learning progresses.You can slow a tune down so that the music is the same and as dancers get the hang of the movement, you can increase the pace, or not, depending on how well they are going and enjoying it.

I also have S-T-R-E-T-C-H music – tunes that have been stretched (by a sound engineer) so the music is slow at the start and gradually, imperceptibly speeds up to normal speed at the end.

Build confidence– plan your class to suit the abilities of the dancers (not your needs) and give them lots of encouragement.  Focus on what they are doing right, and not what they are doing wrong. Lots of praise works.

TIPS FOR PERFORMANCE

Less is more – Recommend that your dance performance is not too long. Each part of the performance should be about 3-4 minutes maximum, and probably not more than 5 parts. 10-15 minutes of performance is plenty. Anything that makes it more achievable and fun for the dancers, and engaging for the audience without being boring is good.

Music for performance- try to find some music that changes tempo, speed and instrumentation to give it punctuation that lends itself to a performance and helps build to a finale.

Enjoyable for the audience as much as it is for the performers. Create opportunities to join in – even if it is just clapping, stamping or singing along with the performance.

Dressing up can be fun but spare a thought for the parents who may be pushed for time and funds. Keep the requirements simple and achievable without too much fuss.

SUGGESTIONS for DANCES

My suggestions for getting started are to start with something very simple and easy, and progress to the more complex and difficult stuff. You can read more about all 6 different Irish dance styles here.

1. SIMPLE BRUSH/BROOM dance – this gives each child a focus that “belongs” to them, and also distracts them from initially feeling self-conscious. It looks great, it’s fun to do and there are many simple moves that can be done by most mobile people!

Suggest some fun music to do this to would be Tell Me Ma by Sham Rock
You can watch lots of different broom dances here

2. RATTLIN’ BOG song and simple group dance. My kids never got tired of doing this dance in class, and it is also a great opportunity to get the watching crowd involved because it is very simple and a lot of fun.

If you would like a more detailed outline of these dances 1 & 2, DOWNLOAD PDF document.

3. CÉILÍ DANCES
Progessive céilí dances such as the Siege of Ennis, the Walls of Limerick and the Waves of Tory* work well with lots and lots of people, and could be very good with
a large number of children, as long as they are kept simple.  They are often also in open positions (not pairs facing each other) and this might suit children better. This could also be good for including a large crowd in an audience.

*A very useful resource for teaching these three dances to children- Twinkl and it’s Australian! A free account is needed to download materials- type the dance name into the search bar.

4. SETS – There are plenty of very simple, enjoyable sets to learn.  In addition, you could try:

  • Kilfenora Plain Set Figure 1 reels as a half set. Go through each part twice. Replace swing with an arm hook.
  • Corofin Plain Set Figures 1 & 2 reels as a half set in two lines. Replace the final house with an advance & retire and a big kick to finish.
  • Cashel Set Fig 6 – polkas short lead around figure. You can replace the swing with a right arm hook. This can be done with a large group of pairs, and can be done as long as the music lasts. It’s fast and people love it.

Be aware that swinging, dancing at home and housing can be challenging for new dancers. Add to that the issue some kids have about hand-holding and touching, I suggest you proceed carefully with these moves, and always with a back-up plan.

Set dancing is such fun to do but be aware that it’s not perhaps the first choice for an audience watching! One or two figures in a performance line-up is probably plenty for an audience, even if the children have learned the full set.

For performance, I suggest doing half sets with two lines so the audience can see what’s going on (not with backs to the audience). This also means everyone is moving at the same time, with no-one waiting with plenty of action.

So, wherever you are in the world, have a great lot of fun with your kids and enjoy it while it lasts. Let’s face it – we’re all kids at heart.

Let me know how you get on – I always love to hear from you.
Happy dancing

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

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