This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Control for Dance eBook by Donna Krasnow & Mary Virginia Wilmerding.
Dance training can be more effective when teachers and dancers understand the landmarks in various stages of motor development and the age limits to multiple sensory inputs. Many phases in this process exist, but this section focuses on two distinct time lines, the early childhood years and the adolescent years.
Childhood and Prepuberty
Dance classes can begin for children as young as 3 or 4 years old. Typical children in this age range are already walking, running, and jumping competently. From age 3 to 7 jumping continues to improve, so it is an excellent time to explore this skill. One of the more engaging ways to work on jumping skills is through jumping over objects, both real and imaginary. Muscle force is the main rate limiter in jumping, so be aware of the potential to overtax the legs in these games and exercises.
Galloping also emerges at a fairly young age (between 2 and 3 years old). The main difference between galloping and the previously mentioned skills, such as walking and running, is that galloping is asymmetrical. Further, most children gallop with the dominant leg in front considerably sooner than with the nondominant leg. This preference suggests that the youngest students should be allowed to select the leading leg and not be pressured to perform the task on both sides. By age 4, children can be asked to gallop on either side.
Hopping should not be introduced until children are fairly comfortable galloping. Hopping does not emerge until 3-1/2 years of age, and it continues improving past age 5. Like galloping, it is asymmetrical, and children use the dominant leg initially. Because this skill requires more strength and balance in one leg, these aspects should be considered carefully in designing class material for children. An additional factor is the underuse of arms in the early stages of hopping. Asking children to fully engage their arms during this phase only overwhelms them.
Skipping appears sometime between 4 and 7 years old, and only about half of all 5 year olds can skip. Recall that less than 20% of 4-year-olds can skip. Regardless of the amount of instruction and practice that they are given, 4-year-old children will not accomplish skipping. Forcing this skill in this age group merely serves to discourage the children. Once again, the favoring of the dominant leg appears; children often step - hop on the dominant leg and take a running step on the nondominant leg. Children need to practice the leg action in skipping until they are comfortable with the skill before they are asked to integrate oppositional arms.
In each of these asymmetrical locomotor steps, consider allowing young children to select their preferential leg; do not impose a structure of performing on both sides. Note that children use the en bloc strategy for the neck and trunk until about age 7, so to expect movement of the head in opposing directions to the torso is unrealistic in the early years of dance class.
Much of the research highlighted in this chapter emphasized the late development of the ability to manage multisensory (visual, vestibular, and somatosensory) input. It is imperative that younger children be given movement of sufficient simplicity that the various modalities are not in conflict. For example, if giving material that involves moving through the space, it is best to have them keep the head vertical on the spine. This suggestion also supports the heavy reliance on visual information in young children.
Finally, girls develop more quickly than boys in a number of cognitive and motor skills. It may be wise to give boys different variations of class material that is appropriate for their stage of development. This differentiation needs to be handled sensitively so that young boys do not feel self-conscious. In addition, boys are often stronger than girls of the same age, so they can be encouraged to jump, skip, and hop higher and further than the girls as a way to compensate for poorer coordination. This strategy is a way of supporting boys in class and encouraging their confidence.
Chapter 3 described some of the potential benefits of using improvisation in dance classes. Improvisation is commonly found in classes for children ages 3 to 7, often called creative movement classes. However, by age 8 or 9, children regularly move into more highly structured technical classes. While the importance for children to begin gaining technical skills is acknowledged, the value of continued improvisational movement should be recognized. Aside from the creative expression it affords children, its use in motor skill development is apparent from all of the information provided in this chapter. From unexpected challenges to balance to disrupting habitual movement patterns, improvisation can serve as a remarkable tool in dance training.
Because of the changes resulting from growth spurts in this age group (as explained earlier in the chapter), adolescent dancers need special consideration. Teachers can modify class material either for the entire group or for specific dancers going through a growth spurt. It is also a good idea to place limits on work such as jumping, pointe work on one leg, stressful partnering work, and movements that stress the knees, including grand pliés and floor work. Teachers can emphasize work that develops core support, alignment, kinesthetic awareness, and artistry. Balancing work can focus on proprioception, such as simple balances with eyes closed rather than difficult positions and turns. Growth spurt periods can also be good times to introduce supplementary conditioning and expand continued improvisational work into composition and choreography. This age group should avoid excessive flexibility exercises, because muscles have limited strength especially during growth spurts, and the tendon attachments are weaker at this age. Encourage adolescents to make informed and responsible choices about how they will modify class. Remain aware that students will go through regression phases, and help them understand that this is temporary. Skills will return, but the dancers should not stress and strain the body to achieve what cannot occur during these transitions.
Aside from acknowledging the growth spurts, adolescence can be an ideal time to begin challenges to multisensory input. Now is the time to add complexity that challenges the three mechanisms for balance. You can give traveling material with the head and torso away from the upright alignment, even with the body turning. As vestibular and visual systems are disrupted, proprioception is further challenged. Both improvisation and closed-eye balances work to heighten proprioception and to prepare dancers for work onstage when lighting diminishes visual acuity.