Tap Dance Your Way Through ACUE: Connecting With Students in Nontraditional Classes

By Julie L. Pentz

Julie PentzI teach dance for a living. I am a university professor, and I am a tap dancer who speaks through the sounds I make with my feet. I am an ACUE Fellow and now an ACUE Facilitator, guiding a new cohort of my university peers though ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices. Most importantly, I use my ACUE training on a daily basis, and it continues to enhance the experience that my students have in the classroom. Here, I offer practical advice, encouragement, and strategies to adapt ACUE’s principles to any course, regardless of the discipline that is being taught.

Building Community in the Classroom

Name Tents 

In my courses, we don’t have desks, or tables, or chairs. With that challenge, I adapted the concept of using name tents to get to know students’ names to note cards. Through this exercise, I’m connecting with my students and building community in the classroom.

On the first day of class, I recommend giving your students note cards and asking them to respond to these questions:

• What is your name (or preferred nickname)?

• Where are you from?

• What is your major (and minor or certificate, if applicable)?

• What do you like to do for fun?

• What’s a fun fact about you?

Next, have your students share this information in class. It’s an immediate way to learn about your students while connecting them to each other. I then collect these note cards for a goal-setting activity later in the semester.

10-Minute Meetings

In the first 2 to 3 weeks of class, I require 10-minute meetings for all students and attach points to this assignment. It communicates to students that I want to get to know them. You may think that time is short and an activity like this will eliminate hours from your academic life, especially at the start of a semester, but this exercise allows you to learn more about your students and spend less time, in the next few weeks, getting to know them and building community.

When I meet with my students, I set a timer for 10 minutes and allow them to talk about any topic that interests them. Many times, students will ask follow-up questions about the course. Often, I’ve found myself listening to wedding plans and stories of running 5Ks to marathons, and from time to time I even get to talk about my favorite topic, RHINOS!

I will acknowledge that I do not teach large classes of 100, 200, or 300 students. With larger class sizes, 10-minute meetings may be tough. But I’d encourage you to find ways to adapt this idea to fit your classroom setting. If you have teaching assistants, students can be broken into smaller groups and have 10-minute meetings with the TAs.

Using DAPPS for Goal Setting

I would suggest offering the DAPPS goal-setting exercise by week 4. The DAPPS formula notes that, to be most effective, goals should be dated, achievable, personal, positive, and specific. To begin, I pass out the note cards students made on the first day of class at random and have students find the person each card belongs to, in order to ensure they know one another’s names and can continue to build community. Once they have met this challenge, we begin the DAPPS goal-setting activity. I ask students to share a few goals that meet the DAPPs requirements on their note cards. I ask for three goals: one must be attainable within the next 3 or 4 weeks of the semester, the second is a semester goal, and the third is a life goal. As dancers, my students must understand that they will always continue learning and growing in their dance technique. Throughout the remainder of the semester, I randomly redistribute the goal cards and allow the students to check in on goals with each other. I find that peer-to-peer interaction with goals is effective and allows students to continue to build a strong community.

Flowcharts, For Dancers 

ACUE’s module on “Using Concept Maps and Other Visualization Tools” challenged me. I remember asking myself, how on earth can I adapt and implement this idea of visual tools into a dance technique class? After I had earned my ACUE credential and began a new semester, it came to me: a dance technique flowchart. I asked the dancers to create flowcharts of their dance training, beginning with when they were young. The results were diverse, informative, and creative. But what surprised me most was that this exercise continued to build community in the classroom. Hard copies of the flowcharts were provided for the dancers. The students sat in a circle and were given one minute to review each flowchart and provide one positive comment about it. My objective was to help students discover deeper value in their dance training paths and recognize that all of our paths are different and valuable. It was remarkable to watch the students make connections with one another as they learned more about their peers who were dancing beside them. My students suggested that I repeat this exercise in future classes, but at the end of week 2, which is much earlier than when I assigned it.

Professional Development 

The definition of professional development, as stated by The Glossary of Education Reform, is “a wide variety of specialized training, formal education, or advanced professional learning intended to help administrators, teachers, and other educators improve their professional knowledge, competence, skill, and effectiveness.” Professional development for my students includes the following: career fair, résumé workshop, reading a book in the field in which they are studying, auditions, and master classes.

My students submit three professional development assignments during the semester, each having points associated with it. Based on the professional development activity, students may be asked to write a paper or a short statement that describes the activity. Students often surprise me with their activities. I had a theater student who decided to read Steve Jobs’ biography and make connections between Steve Jobs, jazz dancer Bob Fosse, and his own life path, with his ambitions to make it to the Broadway stage.

End Strong to Begin Strong the Next Time

“Dear future student” is a technique I started using at the end of the semester. I simply asked my students to write “Dear Future Tap Dance Student” on a note card and continue the letter, offering advice to ensure a successful semester for future students. I have noticed that my tap dancers don’t seem to be as surprised by the amount of balance work used in our classes and that the jazz dancers expect the amount of core work that is in all of their classes. This task is not only valuable for future students, but it allows me to understand my current students’ perceptions, including what they found to be most important, so I can make any changes, as necessary, for the next semester.


Anyone can apply ACUE’s recommended techniques and principles to their courses, regardless of the discipline or classroom structure. As an ACUE Facilitator, I now find myself telling my cohort of colleagues, “If I can do it, you can do it!”


Julie L. Pentz is an associate professor of dance and associate director of the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance at Kansas State University. She has taught and performed internationally at the Theatro Libero in Rome, Italy, Taiwan, Chinese Cultural University, National Taiwan University, Tsoying Performing Arts, Koahsiung Performing Arts, Banyoles-Girona, Spain, Ghana Africa, and Kuwait. She has performed with The National Tap Ensemble and worked with Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

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