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Dance Books for the Little Ones

by Bonnie Rosenstock
May 12, 2010
There is no dearth of dance-related books for the youngest movers, toddlers to six (that being the assignment), that it's a daunting proposition to list recommendations. So I sought help at my local public library's children's section, Scholastic Bookstore at 555 Broadway and Prince Street (where two six-year-old girls showed me their favorites), had a phone conversation with an experienced elementary school dance teacher, and did Google/Amazon, where books are categorized by age and rated with stars for whatever that may be worth.

Developmentally, infants might do more chewing on the plastic board covers than chewing over the concepts, so these picture books have very few words, which are a repeated sentence, rhyme or phrase per page for the parent to recite, and the illustrations are vivid and eye-catching. By the time the toddler reaches three, there is panoply of noteworthy dance books with surprisingly similar themes: the child or animal is dance-obsessed, and their parents or peers (and that goes for rabbits and frogs also) disapprove. But it always works out in the end, just like in real life.

Sandi Stratton-Gonzalez, who teaches creative dance, pre-K to 5th grade at P.S. 372 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has used many books over her long career. Most are "read alouds," although the kids love handling the books, she said. Below, some of her recommendations for ages 3 to 6, although some are appropriate for slightly older kids.

All are picture books, except "Pilobolus the Human Alphabet," by Pilobolus and John Kane (ages 3+), and "Dance! with Bill T. Jones," by Susan Kuklin, which are shape books with photographs. The Pilobolus book has dance company members making twisty letter shapes. For example "U" for umbrella, they make the "U" shape and make an umbrella out of people. "Dance!" is basic concepts of dance through poetic text and photographs of noted dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones exploring shapes the body can make. "I show them the photos after they have explored on their own. It helps them visualize more complex ways to do it," Stratton-Gonzalez said.

"Hop Jump" by Ellen Stoll Walsh, a collage book about a little girl frog who wants to do more than hopping and jumping; she wants to leap, turn and twist. There are very few words on a page and it's a quick read. Her four-year-olds love it.

"Boy Can he Dance!" by Eileen Spinelli (ages 4 to 8), about a boy who wants to dance, but his father wants him to become a chef. Stratton-Gonzalez says, "It's a sweet book" and reinforces that boys can dance, "a good read aloud."

"My Momma Had a Dancing Heart" by Libba Moore Gray, watercolor washes and colored pencils on watercolor paper by Raul Colon (ages 4 to 8). A series of short poems through the seasons, a girl who grows up to be a ballet dancer, reminiscing. The unstated implication is that momma has died. "The little ones don't get it, but the 2nd and 3rd graders say it's sad. It's written in the past tense," said Stratton-Gonzalez.

"Dance Away" by George Shannon (ages 3 to 5). One of the rabbits is always dancing and the other rabbits are annoyed with it. But dancing saves the day from the big bad fox.

"Jacques' Jungle Ballet" by Karen Lavut (ages 4 to 7), about an elephant who wants to be a ballet dancer.

"Animal Action ABC" by Karen Pandell, Art Wolfe and Nancy Sheehan, a rhyming poetry book (ages 4 to 8). Pictures of children and animals doing an action, which are natural components of dance, like leap, stretch and unfold. They look at the picture for the action word, and they do it on their own.

From other sources:
"Got to Dance" by Hiroe Nakata (infants to pre-school), a young city girl spends the day with her grandfather and dances away the summertime blues.

"Baby Dance" by Ann Taylor, pictures by Marjorie van Heerden (a board book for infants to pre-school). While his wife naps, an African-American father takes his baby for a spin through the air and in all directions.

"Dance with Me" by Charles R. Smith Jr. and illustrated in watercolor, pencil, charcoal and digital pictures by Noah Z. Jones, 2008. (Simple rhyming text for toddlers.) Two African-American kids and their dog readying for a birthday celebration, with the refrain "shake it, move it, dance it."

"Gymboree Dance Play" by Jane B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens (ages 3 to 7), activities to put your child in motion.

"Ballet Bunnies" by Joan Elizabeth Goodman, 2008 (pre-school to grade 1). The author wrote this book after observing her daughter's ballet class at Peridance Center before their move to 126 East 13th Street. Some of the teachers in the PeriChild Program helped her with the terminology. Basic ballet techniques and proper wear are presented to young dancers as a group of bunnies prepare for their class.

Early reading chapter books include the highly-rated three-book Nina series by Jane O'Connor, with watercolor drawings by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (ages 4 to 8): "Nina, Nina, Star Ballerina," "Nina, Nina Ballerina" and "Nina, Nina and the Copycat Ballerina."

"Becoming a Ballerina" (ages 4 to 8) by Nancy Ellison and Susan Jaffe, former prima ballerina at American Dance Theatre from 1980 to 2002. All the frou-frou that goes with the territory.

"Rap a Tap Tap, Here's Bojangles" by Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon, the Blue Sky Press, 2002 (ages 4 to 8). It evokes the spirit of the great tap dancer in toe-tapping verse and glorious gouache – an alternative to ballet as the only dance form.

Are baseball and ballet incompatible? That's what "Baseball Ballerina" by Kathryn Cristaldi, answers. A Step-Into-Reading book for ages 4 to 8.

An early start on "Nutcracker" ballet mania begins for 4-to-8-year-olds with "Story of Nutcracker Ballet" by Diane Goode. Other goodies for this age group include "Nutcracker Stickers" by Sheilah Beckett; "Nutcracker Sticker Paper Doll" by Marty Noble; and "Nutcracker Activity Book" by Victoria Fremont and Cathy Beylon, filled with puzzles, games, mazes and hidden pictures.

When those little tootsies want to rest, Scholastic Bookstore sells a charming 20" x 27" 36-piece giant floor puzzle of posing ballet dancers on a stage along a winding staircase, for ages 3+ by Crocodile Creek, $14.95.

And, of course, the ever-popular "Angelina Ballerina" modern classic series by Katharine Holabird, illustrations by Helen Craig (ages 3 and up), originally published in 1983 and still going strong. There are dozens of books in the series, all about the adventures of a dance-obsessed young mouse. Could a children's musical be far behind?

The answer is: "Angelina Ballerina, The Musical," October 2010 at Vital Theatre Company's, McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway between 76th and 77th Streets, 4th floor. Telephone: 212-579-0528. www.vitaltheatre.org. Tickets now on sale. More information later.
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