Monday, September 17, 2012

Petite Feet: An Interview and DVD Giveaway!


Choreographer, performer, and dance educator Liz Vacco guest posted a few months ago about how she uses the picture book Silly Sally in her children's dance classes. Perhaps it's because of her strong background in theater, but Liz is no stranger to using storytelling in dance! Liz has even created a children's story of her own -- The Story of the Dancing Dolls -- and incorporated it into a new DVD called Petite Feet to teach the fundamentals of ballet to children. 

Well, Liz is back with us today to answer a few questions I had about using storytelling in dance -- both through picture books and through the Petite Feet DVD. Liz is also generously giving away a copy of the DVD to one lucky reader who comments on this post. Read to the end of the interview to find out the details!

Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Liz! For a little bit of background, how long have you been teaching dance for children? And how did you get started?

I’ve been teaching dance to children regularly for 11 years. I spent my first year after college in New York City waiting tables while pursuing my acting and dancing career. The restaurant where I worked was downtown and was affected by 9/11. After some time off while the restaurant was being rebuilt, I realized that I did not want to go back to waiting tables. I had reassessed my values and knew I wanted to share with children the very things that I love -- dance and theater.

How long have you been incorporating different types of stories into your classes?

From the beginning, I believe. Because of my training as an actor as well as a dancer, I have always been drawn to the expressive aspects of dance -- be that expressing a feeling or an entire narrative. I quickly saw that my young students were equally excited when the emphasis of class was on expression and storytelling. 

As we know, children make no secret about what their favorite things and activities are (and their least favorite, too), so I knew pretty quickly that I needed to include a story in class every week. Throughout a class, we still stretch and learn vocabulary and age-appropriate technique, but the students always know they will be rewarded with a story at the end.

What are the benefits of using picture books in your classes? 

Sometimes, as a teacher, it’s a lot to have a new story in your head every week. I’ve memorized a bunch of stories, and I’ve created a handful as well, but every so often it’s nice to have the words right there in front of me. I think having illustrations to reference makes it fun for the children as well. The process of taking in an image and then transferring it into their bodies is an important exercise and a first step toward becoming creators of art. It’s what I continue to do to this day when I create original work based on texts with my multimedia performance company Immediate Medium.

Any challenges to using picture books?

The biggest challenge is often just a question of coordination -- dancing while holding the book and not losing my place, and also maybe holding one of my little dancer’s hands at the same time!

Are you drawn to any picture books in particular? If so, what makes them special to you?  

I love to use From Head to Toe by Eric Carle at the beginning of the semester, especially with my littlest students. After years of teaching, sometimes I take for granted the fact that this could be a student’s very first experience in a movement class, or any class for that matter. From Head to Toe lets us take it slow and step by step, exploring each body part and its movement possibilities. By the end, we get up on our feet and really move through space, which is always a great finale. The always vibrant Eric Carle illustrations and animal imagery really help engage the children as well.

You mentioned that From Head to Toe is a great book for your littlest students. Do you think some picture books are better suited for your older students?

I teach children from 18 months to 12 years old. I think picture books are most effective with my students ages 2-5 years. Within that range, there are definitely certain books that are more appropriate for 2-year-olds than for 5-year-olds and vice versa. 

I love using From Head to Toe, We're Going on a Bear Huntand Mouse Paint for 2- and 3-year-olds. Silly Sally, which requires dancing backwards, and It Looked Like Spilt Milk are great for 4- and 5-year-olds. For dancers 6 and up, I tend to focus more on stories from the classical ballet canon (when it’s a ballet class, of course). Occasionally I show the students a photo from a ballet or an illustration inspired by the ballet before we choose roles and dance the story in a more drawn-out fashion.

Thanks for answering so many questions about picture books! To change the subject a little, how did you come up with the idea for the Petite Feet DVD?

I think after the tenth or so parent came up to me and said “You should really make a video of your ballet class,” I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. Parents also often told me that when they videotaped open classes or recitals, their children would watch them over and over again at home. 

I wanted Petite Feet to be more interactive than just a still camera capturing a dance class or performance. I wanted it to include all the elements of one of my classes, and especially the story, but I wanted it to feel like the kids at home were as much a part of the class as the kids in the DVD. Making the DVD was a great opportunity for me to invent a new dance story as well -- and now I use The Story of the Dancing Dolls in my classes regularly.

How do you recommend the DVD be used? And by whom?

I think the DVD is great as an introduction to dance for brand new dancers, and it also can be a supplement for children who are already enrolled in dance classes. A lot of parents of my current students tell me that when they have to miss a class, they make up for it by using the DVD at home. 

I have also received feedback and occasionally photos from many families around the world who’ve purchased the DVD, and there are some stories that really warm my heart. One family in Japan lost their home in the tsunami but stayed to help rebuild. When they couldn’t find a class in the small town where they currently live, they bought the DVD and sent me such a grateful email. So I recommend that the DVD be used by anyone who feels inspired -- and the more the merrier, for sure!

Wow. That is a really incredible story, Liz. Thanks for much for sharing it. And thanks, also, for giving our readers a chance to win their very own copy of the DVD. 

If you'd like to enter the giveaway, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling us what role storytelling plays in your life or the lives of your children or students. The giveaway will close on Sunday, September 30, 2012, when we'll randomly pick a winner. Good luck!


  1. Great interview! Liz is one of the best teachers I know! This video is so creative and awesome!

  2. I love incorporating storytelling & great kids picture books in my work as a Speech-Language Pathologist & in my OMazing Kids Yoga classes at the JD McCarty Center. One of our other SLP's leads an adapted dance group for our patients so I would love to share this DVD with her. Thanks for offering the great giveaway :)

  3. We use storytelling to encourage our kids to think creatively. We do a "back-and-forth" story which is an opportunity for each family member to continue the made up story on various paths. It's great for bonding with the kids but even more fun when you hear where their minds wander. By sharing in this activity, the kids feel like valuable contributors to the process.

  4. Thanks, all, for entering the giveaway. And the winner, as chosen by, is...Iran Naqvi! Iran, Liz will be sending you the video in the mail soon. Hope that you enjoy it!


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