Children love to move and dance. The love of dance does not depend on capability or even mobility. There is a style or form of dance to fit every body. The first hint of a child’s interest in and connection with movement can be seen before a child walks. The urge to move in relationship to sound is natural for young children. When these movements are performed with artistic intent, for purposes of communication, or are organized into a structure, they become dance.
People dance for joy, they dance in sorrow. They dance in prayer, for courtship, or in friendship at social gatherings. Learning “steps” is only a small part of the dance experience. In dance, the body becomes an instrument for creative expression.
Engaging Children in Dance
There are many opportunities to introduce young children to the art of dance and movement.
- Encourage your child to be aware of his or her motor experiences. Ask questions such as: How many different ways can you move your head (arms, legs, shoulders, hips, etc)? How many ways can you balance yourself besides standing?” Questions like these will help your child become aware of his or her body and its relationship to other people and the environment.
- Provide a place and time for your child to explore movement. Do this together. Make up stories by acting them out with body movement. Move with different types of imagined walks (downhill, in thick mud, on hot coals) or pretend to use roller skates, ice skates, a skate board, a bicycle, or a horse.
- Practice movement as it relates to music or rhythm: clapping, marching, rocking, or hopping to music or a rhythmic beat. Move rhythmically holding your child or holding hands for an enjoyable experience together.
- Experiment with basic movements, such as walking, running, jumping, and skipping. By varying the size, tempo, level, and direction of these basics, you teach how to sequence and pattern movements into dances.
- Create a movement “box” containing objects that inspire movement possibilities. For instance: elastics that the child can stretch and move by holding the ends; scarves for swinging and floating; crepe paper streamers for swirling; balls for bouncing and rolling; bells on a wrist or ankle band for rhythms.
- Take your children to see all styles and forms of dance. Young children are often entranced by dance performances. Be aware, however, that very young children have short attention spans and will lose focus if sitting too far away. Remember, too, to pick a performance that is appropriate for the age and interest of your child.
- Read children’s books that introduce dance in meaningful contexts. For example, Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt tells the story of the young ballerina who posed for Degas as he sculpted.
Educational Programs in Dance
There are many styles and types of dance classes. No matter what the style, it is important that children have a stirring experience. Classes should explore individual abilities through learning experiences. The aspects of dance that are explored in a well-rounded class for children include:
- The elements of dance movement. Dance, like physics, involves the motion and energy of bodies in time and space. Bodies move in rhythms and through space in a variety of directions. They make shapes and designs. Children learn to use these elements of dance with intent and purposeful communication.
- Learning about the body, anatomy, and alignment. The body is the instrument of dance and must be kept in tune. Knowing how the body is organized and aligned is important so that the body can move healthfully and efficiently.
- Creative movement. Much can be learned through a process of creative problem solving in movement. In this approach, children use the higher-level thought processes of analysis, synthesis, comparison, and evaluation. Children learn to make aesthetic movement choices and to choreograph dances with form, structure, and meaning.
- Dance technique. Physical exercises are essential in dance. Each dance style has its unique techniques and skills. Acquiring a high level of dance technique can take many years, depending on the dance form. Care must be taken that it is taught in a graduated sequence that is age- and ability-appropriate.
Dance class for the young child should focus on creativity, problem solving, and movement possibilities. Children will discover a personal preference for movement patterns and styles as well as an appreciation for their personal space.
Educator and teacher organizations increasingly recognize creative movement as integral to children’s development, and there are a number of exemplary dance education programs in elementary schools. Parents and teachers should evaluate dance programs to be assured that they address children’s physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development, and that they are age-appropriate, artistic programs. The following information will help you review the dance instruction in your local school, private studio, or other setting.
Learn About a Program and its Instructors Before Enrolling Your Child
Ask the following questions about teachers and classes before enrolling your child:
- Can I observe the first class?
- Is the school/studio giving the young children’s classes to the inexperienced teachers, or do they understand the expertise and knowledge necessary for teaching young children well? Is the teacher trained and qualified?
- Does the teacher seem aware of the physical, emotional, and social developmental needs of the students? Are each student’s abilities and goals being supported?
- Does the teacher seem enthusiastic about the class? Is the class imaginative and varied in its approach to the material?
- Does the teacher have a good understanding of human anatomy and proper alignment and use of the body? Does the teacher effectively communicate his or her knowledge?
- Are the students grouped according to age, ability, and social development? Are class size and duration appropriate for the age group?
- Does the class provide satisfaction and enjoyment? Does the teacher give time for movement exploration? Is required attire appropriate and comfortable?
Visit Facilities as Part of Your Evaluation of Programs
A good studio environment for classes offers the following:
- Space that is clean, ventilated, well-lit, and free of obstructions.
- A floor that is resilient and well maintained. A suspended wood floor is best to avoid physical stress, but certain treatments over cement and tile can accommodate dance that does not include a great deal of landing from jumps. Floor space should be adequate for the class size and the age of the participants (ideally, 100 square feet per student).
- Adequate space for changing clothes.
- Access to drinking water and restrooms.
Formal instruction in specific dance forms is rarely appropriate before age seven or eight. Pointe work (ballet dance on “toe”) should not begin before there is well-developed body coordination, adequate strength, proper skeletal alignment, and working body placement. Special attention must be given to the development of the feet, legs, and back. Few children should start pointe work before age 12, following a year-long preparation-forpointe class.
The Following Class Size and Duration are Suggested
The Benefits of Dance
Dance increases flexibility, improves circulation, tones the body, and develops muscles. It also improves body alignment, balance, and coordination.
Through dance, children learn spatial concepts, sequencing, patterning, and an awareness of their own body.
Dance is expressive and helps children explore their feelings. Greater physical ability builds self-confidence.
Dance is a communal experience and engenders sensitivity, understanding, appreciation, and consideration for others.
Dance fosters an interest in other cultures. Studying dance forms that originate in other worlds, students gain historical understanding of other peoples.
Dance awakens a sense of beauty, lending new meaning to movement and form.
Books That Encourage Dance
Sleepytime Rhyme, by Remy Charlip (ages 2-4)
The Adventures of Klig and Gop, by Ann Hutchinson Guest (ages 5-8)
(Series of 8 books teaching Dance Motif Writing)
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (ages 3-7)
Books That Teach Children About Dance or the Body
Let’s Dance by George Ancona (ages 2-8)
dance! By Elisha Cooper (ages 4-10)
A Moving Experience by Teresa Benzwie (ages 2-12)
Sing, Dance and Sign by Gaia (ages 4-8)
The Primary Movers Move Russia by Primary Movers (ages 5-adult)
Dance for our Children by University of Calgary (ages 5-adult)
Contrast and Continuum: Music for Creative Dance by Eric Chappelle, 4 Volumes (ages 2-10)
Primary Movers by Primary Movers (ages 3-8)
National Dance Association (NDA) (included on American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Web site)
The goal of the National Dance Association is to promote quality dance programs in the areas of health, physical education, and recreation by increasing knowledge, improving skills, and encouraging sound professional practices in dance education.
National Dance Education Organization (NDEO)
The National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) advances dance education centered in the arts. NDEO is dedicated to promoting standards of excellence in dance education through the development of quality education in the art of dance through professional development, service, and leadership.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.