Ah, the dance! Whether you love it or loathe it, your feelings about getting on a dance floor likely derive from past experiences.
Were you forced to take ballet lessons? Did you always get stuck partnering your least favorite aunts at weddings? Would you rather have a root canal than perform in a modern dance tableau in the school gym? The screenwriting exercises in this month’s issue all revolve around dancing and how dancers and dance themes can be used to generate ideas for movies, documentaries and TV shows. For younger students who haven’t yet mastered the basics of script structure, these lesson ideas lend themselves to extemporaneous storytelling and role-playing skits. Older students are encouraged to draft scenes into correctly formatted screenplays as well as film them for peer review.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. Do you like to dance? Why or why not?
2. Do you think that you’re a good dancer?
3. What dances do you most like to perform?
4. What dances do you most like to watch?
5. What is your favorite movie that has a lot of dancing in it?
6. What is your favorite musical that has a lot of dancing in it?
7. On televised competitions such as Dancing With The Stars, do you think the judging should be entirely left to the professionals and eliminate the viewer votes? Why or why not?
8. What three celebrities would you most like to see perform in a dance competition?
BIBBIDI BOBBIDI BORING
We’ve all heard the saying that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. That was certainly the case with Prince Charming. After only one waltz with a beautiful and mysterious newcomer named Cinderella, he was so besotted that he subsequently turned his entire kingdom upside down trying to find her. Would his zeal have been as intense, however, if she didn’t have a midnight curfew and a curbside carriage about to revert to a pumpkin?
Your assignment: The royal orchestra has taken a break and the prince and his new dance partner have found a quiet spot to talk. Starved for companionship and a good listener, however, Cindy goes into turbo-mode on the chatter. Write a two page scene in which the prince attempts to interject a word edgewise and/or extricate himself from her nonstop kvetching about her home life.
SIDESTEPPING THE TRUTH
Then I was a junior in high school, a classmate and I conspired to set each other up with dates for the Senior Prom. His task was to talk his older brother, Charlie, into asking me; mine was to persuade one of my girlfriends to go with David. A week before the prom, all of our conspiring finally paid off and I was looking forward to a great night at the local country club where the dance was being held. The dessert plates were no sooner cleared from our table that evening when Charlie announced he was ready to leave. I pointed out that the dancing hadn’t even started yet. Charlie laughed and remarked, “Oh, didn’t David tell you? I hate dancing and there’s no way you’re going to get me out on that floor.” I’m not sure whether I was angrier with Charlie for not dancing or with his smug brother for knowing it all along but I counted it as one of the worst nights of my life.
Your assignment: Write a one-page film synopsis in which all four players in this double-dating dance dilemma have secrets that will be revealed before the prom is over.
DANCE TIL YOU DROP
During the 1920’s, dance marathons began as a way to not only test the endurance of participating couples but also award cash prizes and a spin in the spotlight. Can you imagine dancing for 22 weeks and 3-1/2 days with only short rest periods? In 1969, a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? starring Jane Fonda and Michael Serrazin captured the desperation of Depression-era dancers trying to stay on their feet long enough to outlast the competition.
Your assignment: The heroine of your story decides to enter a modern-day dance marathon. Her dilemma is that she has to choose between two partners. One of them is the guy she is crazy about. He’s a bit flakey but she’s certain that the more hours she spends in his arms on the dance floor, the greater likelihood he’ll decide to commit to a permanent relationship. Choice #2 is a guy she doesn’t like but who has just as much determination to win that grand prize as she does. Write two separate one-page scenes in which she tells each lad that she does or doesn’t want him for her partner.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GREATNESS
Murray Teichman wasn’t a household name on New York’s lower East Side in the early 1900’s. Indeed, if he hadn’t discovered that being a dance instructor for $3 a night paid more than his day-job and began teaching strangers the Turkey Trot, Kangaroo Dip, and Tango via diagrams of left and right footprints, he might well have faded into obscurity. The combination of his mentorship by ballroom darlings Irene and Vernon Castle, the nation’s growing affection for snappy dance music, and the recommendation of a visiting baroness to change his name to something less German sparked a unique career that went from a modest mail-order business to the largest chain of instructional dance studios in the world. And just in case you thought that Dancing With The Stars was a 21st century invention, Arthur Murray was already showcasing celebrities in popular televised contests as early as 1957.
Your assignment: Draft a two-page outline for a documentary feature on the life and times of Mr. Teichman. Identify elements such as music, photos, letters, voiceover narration, interviews and reenactments to tell his story.
FANCY FACULTY FOOTWORK
Unless you actually see them outside the classroom, cafeteria, library or gym, it’s sometimes hard to fathom that teachers actually have lives like everyone else. Some of them, as this next assignment will demonstrate, even have astonishing talents that we never knew about.
Your assignment: The students in your film idea have decided to do their own campus version of So You Think You Can Dance and invite any interested participants to sign up. It’s a pretty large school and so when “Nick and Nora” sign up to do the tango, the judges assume they’re just a pair of kids who forgot to put down their last names. Write a three-page scene that transpires on the night of the competition. The judges announce Nick and Nora and are shocked to discover that it’s Nick Fillipelli, the offbeat art teacher, and Nora Mertons, the prim school librarian, who step onto the dance floor in authentic costumes. Let your dialogue reflect that as much as they want to find a reason to disqualify them, the judges are nonetheless curious as to how this oddball pair is going to perform. Wrap up the scene with a tango to beat all tangos.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 134 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.