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January 10, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 14

Dance Makes Learning Memorable

There are a handful of necessary elements that encompass the teaching and learning of modern dance: space, time, energy, direction, focus, pathway, and balance (Gilbert, 1992). Each one has the potential to afford students avenues for exploration and self-expression; all seven together yield infinite creative possibilities. Dance can also ease tension and stress, and it gives students who cannot convey learning with traditional pen and paper the tools to communicate their thoughts in new ways (Robinson and Aronica, 2018).
Despite these benefits, when it comes time to attempt a lesson that incorporates a form of creative expression, the subjects of history, science, mathematics, and English rarely link with the visual arts and theatre.
Years of experience drawn from the all-girls school environment in which we both teach, have shown us that creating high-impact educative practices should involve dance. The arts (and dance in particular) play large roles in the curriculum.One of us (Laurel) teaches dance, the other (Ralph) history, religion, and Latin. Together, we have seen dance promote engagement, understanding, student agency, and deep learning in the classroom and solidify students' knowledge for years to come.
At our school, we seek to stretch students' bodies as well as their minds through deliberate content integration in the dance studios. In 6th and 7th grades, the integration is mandatory for 45 minutes once a week; as students get older, they can participate in dance as an elective up to four times a week and can choose to portray academic content through original pieces they perform throughout the year. At all levels, we supplement this work with after-school extracurriculars, including dance ensembles and an in-house modern dance company for high schoolers called Terpsichord.
Because of the nature of their classes, our middle school students have heavier course content integration with dance and see the balance as a natural part of learning. It is only when they move to the upper grades and take five or more distinct courses that they recall the curricular crossover between English, history, and dance with fondness and affection.
We have found that yielding creative control to students and giving them ownership of the final product allows them to create the meaningful and relevant experiences they treasure and—more important for content acquisition—remember.

Variations on a Theme

As our students progress through middle school, teachers expose them to a variety of means of expression. Lessons in American history on reading and interpreting political cartoons lend themselves easily to art projects. But what about communicating nonverbally? Instead of pen and paper (or tablet and stylus, as the case may be), dance allows students to manipulate their space to tell their stories and visualize their learning.
Whether the subject matter is the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Era, the politics of the Age of Jackson, or the inner workings of atoms, students work on dance pieces that use movement to convey learning. They are often given limited direction for a project: Create a shape that explains a concept from class, build a dance study out of that shape to explain it, and perform the piece within the time allotted. How they achieve the end result is up to them.
Dance instructors make a conscious effort to bring in materials from other courses and coordinate with classroom teachers to keep movement relevant to academics. For example, the two of us worked together to design an exercise for a Latin III class and help students learn the rudiments of Latin meter through movement.
Once in the dance studio, our instructors guide each girl as an artist and help her add depth to her creation. They frequently dance without musical accompaniment to focus on the concept rather than matching the rhythm. We have found that repeated exposure to this exercise develops a nuanced eye for detail. Students ask key questions of their peers: In which direction is the girl facing and why? What choices has she made about where to place herself on the stage? How is she using the space?
Because all members of the class make these decisions for themselves, they recognize their peers' deliberate choices. Students perform for other members of their class using minimal costumes and props and review a variety of classroom topics from other classes by guessing which ones informed the dances.

Creative Experiences Cement Long-Lasting Memories

Dance also makes curriculum memorable. For several years, our 6th grade English classes have read Karen Hesse's 1992 novel Letters from Rifka. The novel, which follows a Jewish family's emigration from Russia in 1919, provides a springboard for discovery and discussion, raising many issues about migration, religion, and identity. Because Rifka's long-ago story does not always speak to the Twitter and Snapchat generation, we deploy a host of arts integration activities to promote engagement with the text and its characters.
First, the students learn about sentence structure, formatting, and prose composition and use computer science skills to make postcards from the text's locales. Then, they explore the emotions of the characters and convey them through the seven elements of modern dance. Through this work, they come to understand the universality of emotive experience as well as the concept that sadness or joy can look different depending on the person. The explanations of the thinking behind their choices, their collaborative rehearsals, and their eventual performance all heighten their experience of the text.
The older students who watch the annual 6th grade Rifka dances from the audience recall when they read the book, faced the challenge of performing their creation, and overcame their fears. Through curricular layering and arts integration, Letters from Rifka becomes more than just a book for English; it becomes an experience bound to a host of memories.

Arts Integration Supports Curricula

Art and dance teachers are often the ones in school who reach out for ways in which they can support other dimensions of the curricula. Integration ought not be a one-way street; dance cannot just happen in the studio with dance instructors. Rather, teachers must be willing to prioritize some class time to bring the dance instructor in or relocate to the studio. Our school's active practice of integration, developed and curated over years, is certainly an output of this approach. However, we cannot ignore the success of teachers in other disciplines who utilize kinesthetic learning techniques to achieve success with students, particularly at-risk learners.
Integrating dance requires a lot of yielding—yielding class time to try out something new and different, yielding control to another instructor, and yielding content coverage for skill-building. This approach can be an adjustment. However, dance opens a portal to modes of expression not covered in a normal class. As our students prepare for a world where papers continue to be offset by TED Talks, podcasts, and other forms of technology, why not give them another addition to their arsenal of communicative skills?

Gilbert, A.G. (1992). Creative dance for all ages: A conceptual approach. Reston, VA: National Dance Association.

Robinson, S.K. and Aronica, L. (2018). Why dance is just as important as math in school. Ideas.ted.com [website]. Retrieved from: https://ideas.ted.com/why-dance-is-just-as-important-as-math-in-school/

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