December 16th, 2001
Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance
Procedures for Teachers

Activity One
(One class period.)

1. Introduce the lesson

This lesson will allow students to create and experiment with modern
dance by writing a "movement journal", and using this journal
to develop a "movement vocabulary" – creating the basic
building blocks of a dance piece.

It would be very helpful to provide a frame of reference for the
students. You could do this in a variety of ways; some suggestions
are below.

  • Make this part of a larger unit on types of dance, so students
    understand the development of different styles of dance, some formal
    and structured and some less so.
  • Have students watch the American Masters show on Merce Cunningham,
    or if time is tight, just some of the modern dance clips in the
    show. Note the role of music (very loosely connected to the dance,
    in some cases, but creating a strong mood.) Have students pay special
    attention to Merce’s methods for creating new dances, especially
    the fact that he starts with observing a movement, rather than with
    an idea, thought or story.
  • Have students do a research paper on modern dance in the 20th
    century, exploring its development and the work of some of its major
    choreographers and dancers.
  • Attend a modern dance performance as a field trip.
  • Have a local modern dance choreographer visit the class, demonstrate
    some work, and perhaps talk about the choreography process.

2. Homework: Movement Journal

The assignment is this: observe people or animals moving for at least
one hour. Keep a journal of the movements they make. The movements
don’t have to be major gestures; they can be subtle things, and if
it’s a person, the person doesn’t necessarily need to be aware of
the motion. Write at least 5 movements you observe. Look for details.
Some examples:

  • You might watch a cat. Note how it blinks, does different stretches,
    washes its paws and ears, etc.
  • You might watch a parent or other family member. (It’s a good
    idea to get permission to do this!) You might note how someone pushes
    their glasses up on their nose while reading, or how someone takes
    a deep breath to sigh, or how someone leans their head to one side
    while thinking.)
  • Sit at a cafe or restaurant and watch people. Note how people
    all drink from a coffee cup in a similar way.
  • Observe (from a safe place) people crossing a street at a street
    corner. Notice different things going on; how people wait for the
    light to change, how they step up on the curb, etc. What do people
    do differently and what do most people do in the same way?

Activity Two
(One class period.)

1. Movement Experiments

In this part, students will choose one movement from their movement
journal to experiment with. Make sure students wear comfortable clothes
and have room to move.

First, have students choose one movement from the journal and practice
imitating that movement. (For instance, a cat washing its paws or
a person shuffling their feet while waiting for the light to change.)
When they are ready, have each person show their movement to the class.
They can also say what movement they are imitating. (They don’t need
to make an exact rendition of the movement; the point is for them
to really try to articulate the movement and enjoy experimenting with
it.) Encourage them to ham it up and exaggerate the movement.

2. Movement Vocabulary

Now students will use their movement from the movement
journal to create a "word" in a "movement vocabulary"
– a basic building block that can be used to create a dance. This
involves changing and stylizing the movement.

As they do this, there are two points to reiterate.
First, modern dance doesn’t necessarily tell a story in the narrative
sense. It may be more like a poem, painting an emotional state, or
it may simply explore movement for its own sake. Second, this type
of expression through dance is not necessarily about dancing to music
or doing movements on a beat. Again, watching the American Masters
documentary will help students understand these ideas.

Students will now experiment with some basic properties
of dance to change the movement and develop it into one or several
"words" in a dance vocabulary.

Do the movement repetitively. Speed up and do the movement faster
and faster for 30 seconds. Then start slowing down and doing the
movement slower and slower for 30 seconds. Notice the difference
between the slowest and fastest way of doing it. Reinforce by practicing
the fastest and slowest versions.

Dance can use all the performance space, not only side-to-side but
also up and down. Experiment with that movement using different
levels – near the floor (sitting or crouching or lying on the floor);
up high (jumping, stretching); and in the middle.

Expand the movement to move in a path around the room. Go in circles,
in a line or square, in a figure 8, or in an irregular path, whatever
best expresses the movement. The goal is not necessarily to travel
around while doing the movement but to really express the movement
while traveling. (For instance, if the movement is a gesture by
a person who is bored while waiting for the light to change, then
the student might try to express boredom by traveling in circles
and doing a very slow version of their movement.)

Change the quality of the movement – make it more flowing, then
more percussive; more hesitant, then more confident; more jagged,
then more smooth. You can suggest other qualities or emotions to
explore through the movement.

3. Putting it all together

Now that students have a movement vocabulary, work with
them to put it together into a sequence. If you have more time, you
could actually choreograph a dance with the class using their movements
(you might call the piece "One Hour Observation" to reflect
the fact that that’s how the piece was created.) You can add music
and incorporate everyone’s movements plus repetitions and variations
of the movements.

If less time is available, you might break students
into groups of three, and have them make a short (3 minute) dance
using their movements. Encourage them all to do all three movements,
not just their own. Move from group to group and help them develop
a beginning, middle, and end to the piece. (They might do this by
exploring a theme, like "boredom" or "hurrying",
or they might simply start slow, go faster and faster, and end slow

Finally, if you would like to wrap up quickly, you can
just choose have each student demonstrate their movement and have
the other students do that movement and their own variations of it.
This can be a lot of fun and you can end the class on a high note.
(If you are especially short of time, just pick 3-5 of the movements
that students have developed, rather than going through the whole


Students will be assessed on the quality of their participation
and willingness to experiment and work with the movements. The movement
journal can be assessed, especially focusing on how much care was
taken in observation, and how much detail was recorded.

Extension Activities

  1. Connect this lesson plan to other American Masters lessons to
    develop the theme of "what makes an American Master."

  2. For younger students, you can skip the movement journal and instead
    provide them with movements you demonstrate.

  3. For older students, you can include a research paper or presentation
    on modern dance and choreography.

  4. For older students in a dance class, you can use this as a preliminary
    exercise, and then have them choreograph performance pieces individually
    or in small groups. Invite parents and the community to the performance.


Inside This Lesson


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