Dance Theatre of Harlem: Return

I’m still feeling energized and thankful for a stunning production by Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Auditorium Theatre last weekend.

It’s the time of year for valuing the people in our lives. I’ve been having a relaxing time with family away from the city for Thanksgiving, but part of my heart is still at the Dance Theatre of Harlem student matinee with my students.

The student matinee featured three pieces; Brahms Variations, System, and Return. The program proved to be a great sampler platter of the company’s stylistic breadth.

I auddeveloped a residency plan to go with this performance to relate organizing creative works to organizing forms of writing.

Throughout 5 hour-long classes, 4th grade students learned about creating art, writing, and community. Activities and lessons from this residency could be used in a variety of classroom or group settings.

How do composers/choreographers structure their pieces in ways that organize thoughts similarly to forms of writing?

-Students will be able to identify structures in music and dance (IL Arts Standards: DA:Cr2.1, DA:Re7.1)

-Students will be able to identify and express moods of a piece of art (IL Arts Standards: DA:Cr3.1a, DA:Cr4.1, MU:Re7.1)

-Students will be able to write with clarity and organizational structure (Common Core Writing Standards 1a-d, 2a, c, e, 3e, 4)

-Students will be able to use nuanced, descriptive language (Common Core Writing Standards 2d and 6)

-Students will be able to identify key traits that represent themselves as individuals in a community (IL Arts Standards: MU:Cr3.1, MU:Pr4.1, SEL 1B and 2b)

There are two forms in which we centered our discussion; ABA form and Theme and Variation. These forms resemble Story form and the Argumentative Essay form. I echoed the importance of these forms with three different types of exercises; warm-up games, art making, and journals.

Warm-Up Games

I repeated a couple of fun warm-up game that got students interacting with rhythms and patterns.

Museum Guard: One person volunteers to be the museum guard and then goes away from the group covering their eyes. Someone else is selected to be the leader. The leader is responsible for doing a movement with sound (such as snapping or clapping) that can be easily repeated by the group. The leader must change the movement and have everyone follow along all while keeping the leader’s identity secret to the museum guard.

I integrated the day’s concepts in this game. We started by focusing on ABA form, the leader would do one movement, transition to another, and return to the first movement. We also added different emotions and tempos to our movement. The A section might be upbeat and energetic then transition to a slower, sad movement in the B section.

Circle Rotation: The other warm-up activity I did had students show different musical patterns while clapping and moving around in a circle. First we learned about ABA form with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as an example. We sang the A section and rotated around the circle and then sang the B section rotating the opposite way and then back the other way for the A section again. This engaged students to be active listeners (so they didn’t get run into while the circle changed rotation direction). After we did this successfully with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, we repeated it with Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Toy Soldiers” in ABA form.

Then we used this activity again for learning about music in the show. I played John Adams’ Nixon in China, “News has a kind of mystery” as composed the music for System, but I thought a piece of his with words would be more accessible. “News” has great dynamic contrast, so when the music got louder we made our movements bigger and when it got quieter, we got small with our bodies and movements all while rotating the circle.

Art Making

For art making, I anchored our exploration in songwriting and creating choreography. Thematically, we focused on community and individual expression.

“I don’t want the ballet dancers in this company to close themselves away from the time they live in merely to conform to an antique ideal. At Dance Theatre of Harlem my goal is to create a space where dancers think, use dance to express and define themselves and where uniqueness is celebrated.” –Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director

-Groups chose different emotions and created a dance to represent them.

-Groups wrote songs on aspects of their community. We put them altogether with an introduction and conclusion we wrote as a whole class.

-Lastly, we created a theme and variation dance to represent our community. We started and closed with a phrase that represented the traits we thought about the classroom community and in the middle each student came to the center to do a dance move that represented themself which was then repeated by the group.


We used consistent journals and reflections to think about our writing and our interactions with art.

Writing activities were important to unite the arts learning and the ELA learning. We wrote short stories that started and ended in the same conditions with an exciting middle to show the connection between Story form and ABA form.

We also wrote Argumentative Essays on why our communities are important to us and on why we would recommend the performance to others.

images-1Reflection Topics

  • What is a song that has influenced you?
  • What is a topic you are interested in learning more about or are passionate about talking about?
  • Write more about the story you pictured when hearing the music.
  • What inspired you from the work we did today?

Journals give students an opportunity to reflect during their busy day of learning.

I think noticing organizational patterns is one of the most influential ways to understand performing arts and to be a concise writer.

I was inspired by Dance Theatre of Harlem to create a visual art piece with an ABA pattern. I used shapes of the dancers and transitioned the colors, genders, and high/low levels to show contrast.


These activities can work with different performances and in different settings. I wanted to share some inspiration especially because when I looked for resources on forms of music that would be accessible to new listeners, I didn’t really find much.


Download the full residency outline here!


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