For years, I have asked my Beginning Dance students to use various devices (repetition, changing the order of steps, adding embellishments with arms, etc.) to expand on our class jazz phrase for their first choreography project. I always did it this way to make it easier for students who had never danced before and who may not feel confident about creating their own movements. I also liked to get across the concept that a dance can be created out of just a few steps, repeated and rearranged in different ways, to get away from the tendency of beginning choreographers to just keep making up more and more steps with no sense of unity — my first assignment sheet always said "the purpose of this assignment is to discover how much dance material you can make from only a few steps: building a dance out of a few movements, repeated in different ways, allows the end to relate back to the beginning, and helps the dance make sense as a whole."
But this year, starting the year in a new school, I decided to start with basic dance elements instead and see how it goes (definitely saving that part about discovering how much dance you can make from a few steps for a later project, because it is very important). We focused on locomotor and axial movements, using various facings and traveling directions — beginning with a few days of exploration and improvisation, of course! The first day we worked on locomotor versus axial movement: creep around the room... melt and rise in place... melt and rise while traveling… do a turn that travels… a turn in place… find another turn in place… Then adding sequences (glide backwards, twist in place, hop sideways...) and a very short solo composition, shown to one partner. The next day we worked on traveling directions, starting with the "walk in straight lines" exploration from Blom & Chaplin's Moment of Movement ("walk simply in straight lines… vary the speed…"), adding backwards, sideways, and diagonal directions as well as various actions and variations. The third day we explored facings of the room with partners and ended with a short pair composition before breaking into groups to begin their choreography project.
The project was pretty simple: create a short dance that uses locomotor movement in at least three directions and that uses movement in at least four facings. They worked on it for about a week and a half — ordinarily, I try to get projects done in about a week, but since they were consistently working hard on their compositions and felt they needed more time to perfect them, I let them have it (it would have been different if they had been wasting time, but almost all groups had started working right away and kept on planning and practicing through all the time I gave them.
In the end, I was very pleased with the variety of their work... Even though most of my students are beginners, especially with composition, many groups were spontaneously using variations in level and tempo and lots of interesting pattern changes… And because of the facings requirement, many groups began their dances facing upstage, which is a somewhat unusual choice for beginning choreographers. I will be interested to see how their work progresses!