This series is a part of the Creating With Kids Interview Project! I have set out to interview 52 dance teachers working with young children everyday. By doing this project, I have learned that you are all amazing, hard working, creative and inspiring! I hope you enjoy the interviews and can take something special away from each one. A look inside a dance teacher’s class, is a look inside a dance teacher’s heart. -Maria
Introducing Liz Vacco…
Liz is a dance educator living in LA, but taught dance in NYC for 10 years before recently relocating. She teaches dance, yoga, and theatre to children ages 2-12. She travels to several preschools and afterschool programs, as well as runs her own classes at several studios and an American Legion Hall. Liz studied Theater Studies at Yale as an undergrad, while also dancing with and helping run Yaledancers, a student organized group producing original work. There she learned how to teach while assisting others! Currently she is back in school studying the credential program at Cal State LA and pursuing my multiple subject teaching credential.
Maria: Paint us a picture of your typical teaching day?
Liz: Ha, ha! Typical? Each day is different for me – which I think is what keeps my job exciting. Usually in the morning, I visit a preschool to teach dance, yoga or teach choreography for a show for a couple hours. Then I’m lucky enough to run home to grab lunch most days. Then back out to teach 2-3 afterschool or studio classes.
Maria: In a few sentences, describe your teaching philosophy.
Liz: Above all else, I want to make things fun and to promote confidence in my students. I always incorporate age-appropriate terminology and technique, but never insist on it until they are at an age and level where the challenge is healthy and right for their body. As a cross disciplinary artist myself, I like to draw from as many different forms as possible, with an extra emphasis on theater and storytelling in my dance classes and I’m always excited by the opportunity to incorporate general learning skills into an arts enrichment class as well.
Maria: If I came to observe you teach today, what is the first quality I would notice about you as a teacher?
Liz: I have been told by many that I am extremely patient (which is funny because I don’t think this is the first adjectives my peers without kids might use to describe me!) I like to think I also have a lot of energy and present my curriculum in imaginative and creative ways as well.
Maria: What are 2 things you love about teaching, and one thing you don’t like very much at all.
Liz: I always say teaching is an extremely rewarding profession. Even if one’s had a rough day, it’s hard to say it wasn’t worth the struggle. The enthusiasm and excitement that my students bring to every class keep me passionate and enthusiastic about teaching! I also love the moment when a child makes a suggestion or comment that completely takes the class in a totally unanticipated direction. These are the moments that often inspire new lesson plans altogether.
Speaking of lesson plans, while I love having one that I can reference throughout a session, I’m not so fond of the several hours I have to devote to just writing it all down.
Maria: What surprises you the most about teaching dance to young children?
Liz: I think, in general, I’m still surprised by how much young kids can absorb and do – both physically and cognitively. I have a yoga class made up of children who have just turned two. It’s one of my favorite classes currently, because every week I marvel at how much they remember from the week before – not to mention how remarkably cute they are.
Maria: If you were going to speak to a group of aspiring creative dance teachers, what would you tell them?
Liz: Challenge yourself to keep things fresh. Even though repetition is good for the little ones, you need to keep yourself excited too. Sometimes it feels like a chore to generate new material but you’ll be grateful to yourself for doing it in the long run.
Maria: Share with us one teaching moment that you will never forget.
Liz: Apparently I have a very short term memory because I’ve been teaching for going on twelve years and the only thing I can remember is from last week, but I’m pretty sure this has happened several times before as well. I have written some of the songs I use in class – with the help of an awesome musician named Doran Danoff. Last week, I just quickly said the name of the next stretch we were going to do and the entire class (18 kids!) broke out in unison singing it and performing the movements. It justified all those hours I’ve spent in my car trying to piece together rhymes and simple tunes to create more songs for my students. (Luckily I live in LA!)
Maria: Teachers of young children need a pocket full of management techniques and tricks to keep things on track. What is one trick in your pocket that almost never fails?
Liz: I’ll admit I stole this one, but that’s how this whole teaching thing works, right? I love to use sign language – especially the signs for sitting down and standing up for transitions. I call it “ballet magic” or “yoga magic” depending on the class, and it can work like magic and really get all the students re-focused and listening again!
Maria: Since teachers continue to learn too, what is one teaching goal that you are working towards?
Liz: I’m getting interested in teaching/training teachers or teachers-to-be. It seems like another big can of worms – and potentially a lot of work – but I think it might be a rewarding next step.
Maria: Share with us your most favorite creative dance lesson so we can all use it tomorrow. You know, Maria’s Movers style!
Liz: One of my favorite things to do in either a ballet or yoga class is ballet or yoga stations. I think most teachers will agree that stations are great in so many ways, but I really appreciate them as a way to step back and assess how students are learning. For this reason, I usually do them about half way through a session and then maybe again towards the end. Depending upon the size of the class, I set up 3-6 stations with different props, etc. There might be a balancing station with shapes on the floor to indicate where to stand and practice a balance, a leaping station with something fun (a stuffed turtle, for example) over which to leap, a station with stretchy bands to work on stretches and, of course, a free dance station with an exciting prop to hold. Students travel in groups of 2-3 from station to station (rotation time is designated by a pause in the music) taking turns, working together and supporting each other. I love that it is a student-centered activity that works so well because there’s also just the right amount of structure. There is also so much room for variation, in terms of creating new stations and altering them to suit different age groups, that I feel like I could do it even more often than I do while still maintaining the students’ enthusiasm for the activity.
You can connect with Liz on her website. Thank you Liz for being a part of the project! I agree it’s important that we find fresh ideas and generate new material. After all, it’s what creative dance teachers are good at!