I got behind on my writing as I spent a good chunk of last weekend and quite a few evenings ensconsed with my video camera and choreography rubrics, grading the tempo variations projects... But after viewing twenty-one projects (many times each), I think I can at least say I am encouraged with the results of some adjustments in the way I've been teaching it over the years.
When I first started assigning this project, way back in my student-teaching days, it was very cut-and-dried: create a 16-count movement phrase and perform the same phrase in three tempos: medium, half-time, and double-time. From this, I think students learned what half-time and double-time were — but not really very much about varying tempo for choreographic effect. In the intervening years, I had tried broadening the project by simply requiring three distinct tempos, but students often wound up with movements only marginally slower or faster (sometimes they would even ask if they could mix three songs, in slightly different tempos, so that they could stay "on the beat"). This time I did allow them to use three tempos any way they liked, but stressed very strongly how extremely different they should be ("think s-u-p-e-r slow-mo"... "think hyperspeed!").
I also expanded just a bit on the lead-up creative work this year — for many years in the past, I would give one creative-work lesson on tempo/speed, then follow up the next day by trying already-learned dance phrases in double-time and half-time; but this time I used two days for creative work on speed. And, of course, the third major change was restricting them to instrumental music.
It's hard to say which of these adjustments made the difference (probably a combination of all three), but this was the first time that I saw almost all groups using tempo variations, clearly and purposefully, the way they should be used: to make choreography more interesting and engaging. Nearly all groups clearly showed three very distinct tempos, and nearly all mixed them in some unique ways. Even groups who haven't yet gained the skill or confidence for full-out, polished performances created some lovely little studies... One group juxtaposed a slow body roll with a fast, accented arm movement in a repeated pattern; another repeated their opening movements at the end of their dance in slow-motion, creating unity and variety long before I taught the concepts; still another began their dance with slow, curling hand movements, reflected those movements with undulating torsos, then kept repeating hand and torso movements in increasingly fast tempos until they ended with fast shoulder isolations.
So... while it would be tempting to think that I simply taught the project so well this year that my students really got it for the first time, my suspicion is that what actually made the most difference was the instrumental music. I'm remembering back to when we first did the ancestors project at EOSA, and how being required to work in a new style jolted those dancers out of their hip-hop-and-Cumbia comfort zones and into an entirely new level of choreography — and I think perhaps in much the same way, having that crutch of their favorite songs taken away gave these students the freedom to think about their movement in a new way. In that case, I may have just found a good progression of projects to start my Beginning Dance classes: starting off with directions and facings, an easily accessible project danced to their requested songs, letting them begin the year in their comfort zone so as not to scare them off; then the Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Shapes project, danced to amorphous music to break them out of their comfort zones; then the tempos project, requiring instrumentals to help them continue growing and risking new ideas... We'll see how it goes from here!