Music & Dance

De la musique avant toute chose,…
De la musique, encore et toujours!
Verlaine, “L’Art poétique” (1874)

More than 100 years later, Verlaine’s words still ring true, because every French teacher has in his or her repertoire songs to reinforce grammar, to enhance cultural and thematic units, to improve proficiency, and to create that special ambiance in the classroom at the beginning or the end of instruction. All French teachers sing! And all French students know that when recordings come out, learning is going to take on a whole new dimension. Dance, however, is another story. We are not known for parading around in tutus, kicking up our heels for the “Can Can,” or squatting and flapping our arms for “La Danse des canards,” yet our students love to dance, many take private lessons, and all will willingly follow our lead. Ceci dit, we hope that you will celebrate National French Week, and, in particular, Music and Dance day with more fanfare than usual and, if possible, move outside your classroom and involve the whole school population, parents, and your community.

The two keywords here are VISIBILITY and FUN!

The easiest and most enjoyable way to celebrate this day is to put on a Music and Dance Revue in the evening. Call it whatever you like, Festival Francophone, Variétés à Go Go, Les Folies Bizarres, and enlist the help of the Performing Arts Department. Aside from lending you sound equipment, they will be flattered that you asked them to participate, and you will also be promoting their programs. Chorus members who take French will be happy to teach some traditional folk songs to the group, and the band or orchestra can easily learn “La Marseillaise.” Invite the world, serve French pastries and café at intermission, and include the following categories:

Lip Sync/Karioke (solo or groups)

  • Use well-known French or Francophone songs;
  • Use current rap songs;
  • Organize a slam poetry contest;

Dances (groups)

  • “Can-Can” (to music from Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach); rent the film with Shirley Maclaine
  • “La Danse des canards” (M. McArthur);
  • square dancing routine to “La Taren-elle” (Yves Duteuil);
  • line dancing routine to “Aux Champs-Elysées” (Joe Dassin);
  • Cajun line dancing or two-step to anything by Beausoleil; steps can be learned from watching YouTube.

Traditional Folk Songs (solo or groups)

  • Initiate an audience sing-along: “Alouette,” “Frère Jacques,” “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” “Chevaliers de la table ronde,” “Savez-vous planter les choux?” with appropriate gestures and movements

Instrumental Performances

  • Any piece of music written by a Francophone composer or on a Francophone place or person.

Bonjour à Broadway (groups or solo)

  • Plan a bilingual introduction with songs sung, or lip sync in English or French to music from:
  • Phantom of the Opera;
  • Les Misérables;
  • Miss Saïgon;
  • Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris;
  • South Pacific (“Dites-moi”);
  • Can-Can;
  • Irma la Douce;
  • Pippin;
  • Scarlet Pimpernel;
  • Gigi;
  • La Belle et la Bête.

Original Dance (groups or solo)

  • Dances can be ballet or folk.

Poetry to Music (solo)

  • A poem, read or memorized, with a musical rendition or background; examples Prévert’s “Feuilles mortes” or “Barbara.”

Oldies but Goodies: Multimedia Mélange (solo)
Have students choose a song (maximum 2 min. per song), play a recording of it while showing images or video clips of the singer.

Students who do not want to participate on stage can be involved in designing the program, props, scenery, lighting, and sound systems. Others can be part of the advertising committee. If students are to receive a grade, create your own rubric with specific areas such as preparation, originality, and performance. If no grades are involved, the audience can vote for their favorite performance in each category, and prizes can be awarded to the winners. Emcees should introduce the various acts both in French and English. Involve people from outside the school such as parents, teachers form other districts, university colleagues or former students. Invite the local press and cable television to cover the evening.

For teachers who are less ambitious, teaching in a small French department without colleagues to help, take some of the categories and use them in each class to put on the same type of variety show but on a smaller scale that you can take to local elementary schools. Here are some additional suggestions for activities to celebrate Music and Dance that can be done:

Internet Scavenger Hunt
Find famous musicians, composers, dancers who are buried in Père Lachaise or Montparnasse Cemeteries (Édith Piaf, Yves Montand, Frédéric Chopin, Georges Bizet, François Poulenc, Jim Morrison, Isadora Duncan, Giaocchino Rossini, Jacques Offenbach, Hector Berlioz, Carole Fredericks, Can-Can dancers Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert) using Web sites for Père Lachaise or Montparnasse. Use this site to search others by name or by location. Ask specifics about each person’s grave such as what is Édith Piaf’s real name? Where is Chopin’s heart buried? Who is next to Yves Montand? Or have students in one class make up questions for another. Have students use this information to create posters celebrating the French music and dance heritage.

Design a Songbook for Traditional Folk Songs
Practice songs in class. During National French Week, visit the elementary schools with your classes (or vice versa). Hand out songbooks and have students lead a sing-along. Bring bonbons and croissants. After school or in the evening, visit local nursing homes and repeat the sing-along. Ask to be put on the agenda of that week’s School Committee or School Board meeting. Bring the mayor’s and/or governor’s proclamation for National French Week with you. Explain what you have done, and give a 5-min. performance. Ask local cable TV to cover it.

Phantom of the Opera
Research Phantom of the Opera. Read excerpts from Gaston Leroux’s book. Trace the history of the opera from Louis XIV and the Royal Academy of Music. Listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sound track. You can do a similar project with Les Misérables, and now is the time to organize a field trip to see them should they be playing locally. Invite parents and school administrators or board members as well.

Research famous composers such as Maurice Ravel using traditional materials or on the Web. Each student can report on one composer with a biographical sketch and musical excerpts.

Compile a list of ballet terms. Research famous ballet masters from George Ballanchine to Maurice Béjart and dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fontaine. You can expand this topic to include basic vocabulary such as loge, matinée, encore.

Change the Lyrics Contest
Take well-known melodies such as “Au clair de la lune” or “Auprès de ma blonde” and have students write new lyrics and perform their version for an audience. This contest can be expanded to include a “write your own song, comptine, or poem to music” contest.

Note: Special thanks for Vincent Morrisette and his équipe Dr. William Leith, Anne Jensen, Lorraine D’Ambruoso, Hélène Chan, and Richard Haynie and Charlene Murphy of Chicopee, MA for their invaluable contributions to this article as well as to my French 4 Honors class who willingly served as guinea pigs and loved the diversion the week after exams.

Joyce Beckwith (MA)

Reprinted and adapted from the AATF National Bulletin, Special Issue, Vol. 24 No. 5 (May 1999)