A new perspective on dance lesson planning

Recently I was listening to an interview with Jane Horwood, occupational therapist, and author of Sensory Circuits, about assisting children with sensory processing in early stages of learning through physical activities.  She observed that teachers are great at picking up issues in the classroom and collaborating with experts in various fields.

As dance teachers, we collaborate with other teachers of the arts, artists, and generalist teachers to build dance lessons that support learning not just about dance but other areas of the curriculum.  Often, we depend on our tacit knowledge learned through years of being both a student in the dance classroom and through observation as reflexive and responsive dance teachers.

Dance Lesson PlansWe support our practice with learning more about the art of teaching through interacting with current research and dialogue with mentors and other dance teachers.

This raises the question of how we plan our lessons for dance in Primary education.  Are we repeating the same formula each year or experimenting with new ways to shape and build learning in, through, and about dance?

By investigating new views of dance lesson planning, we can add richness and depth to our teaching strategies.  This in turn refreshes how we present new learning to students in the classroom.

Sometimes these perspectives involve a slight shift in viewpoint rather than trying to embrace a massive, earth shattering change in lesson design.

 In dance we know that simple changes can monumentally change a movement and so too can how we choose to view lesson planning.

Dance lesson planning for change

Jane Horwood stresses the importance of building activities that set children up for success.  It’s no use giving children a task they can fail at and then repeating it over and over again.  You need to find ways for them to be successful.

This raises the importance of doing activities in the classroom in the right order.  Without unfolding the knowledge and skills necessary to complete a dance task, children miss the deep learning that is inherent in choreographing, performing, and responding dance activities.  They need to be both mentally and physically prepared to respond to the understandings you are asking them to engage with.

What seems simple to you, after a lifetime of dance and arts practice, may not be comprehensible to your students. A child with little or no connection to dance and movement in their lived experience may have difficulty comprehending what you are asking them to achieve and why it should be important.

Often rationales for dance and connections to a child’s lived world are overlooked in the haste of getting things done.  Without this connect the child can miss the intrinsic value of the dance task.

Creating Simple Dance Activities

By trying to break down dance learning to its beginning foundations children have opportunities to recognize what they already know, how to use the knowledge and discover how to apply it in new ways.

Dance Lesson PlanFor example, when introducing lessons about timing in dance, the understanding of music and how rhythms emerge are fundamental to a more complex understanding of time is used as an element of dance.

By beginning with clapping rhythms and moving different parts of the body in time with the music, then progressing to walking, running, and skipping to music, students can become familiar with listening for tempo, regular and irregular rhythm.  Expand this concept by holding the movement for a number of beats.

This then leads to talking about phrasing with sets of 4, 8, 16 counts and observing the length of the verse and the chorus of a piece of music…what might this mean for the movement. It is then a logical task to advance to time signatures and how they impact emphasis and contrast in movements.

An alternate tool for dance lesson planning

The following ideas for dance lesson planning have been inspired by the work in Sensory Integration of Jane Horwood, Phoebe Caldwell and Jean Aires.  They are ideas that may provide a different thought process for planning Primary dance lessons or provide additional rationales for what you do in your classroom already.

Sensory integration is obviously not the only thing you need to keep in mind when preparing a dance lesson but are worth keeping in mind as a useful tool for planning.

Originally designed for children sensory integration difficulties that can result in physical, emotional, social, and curricular challenges, the principles behind these ideas are applicable in most Primary classrooms.  Many of these activities we already do but it is about ordering them purposefully with a response in mind.  Ensuring that the order of activities is inclusive for all children and applicable to a range of abilities.

Horwood talks about structuring classes using three phases that she calls altering, organising, and calming.  Looking at these concepts there is a clear correlation between the Warmup, Exploration and Cool down/Reflection phases that are common to most dance lessons.  She also stresses the importance to doing these activities in order.

Altering is about energising students, providing vestibular stimulation, and preparing the brain for learning and the demands of the school environment and involves vestibular activities that should include the head going in different directions.  This can be as simple as going backwards and forwards and side to side.

The vestibular system in the inner ear is important in sensory terms as it wakes us up and gets us alert to receive information into the sensory system.  This can be any movement that is similar to running on the spot, small jumps, skipping, star jumps or rolling on the floor.  Just as in any warmup these movements should start relatively slowly and get faster until you are puffing, and the heart is pumping faster.

Horwood stresses the importance of using expressive language in this phase. Not only does this engage children but it wakes up their brains as they process a wider vocabulary.

In a dance lesson, Altering will look very much like your normal dance warmup but should also involve the simplest of tasks that are about knowing how to use your body in a dance context.

This could be about using changing floor patterns through the space, various rhythmic changes, or using a wide range of body parts to do the movement.  Something simple like moving your star jumps in a range of directions (forwards, backwards, sideways) or to face different walls (front, side, back, side) begins to wake up students minds to the possibilities of movement.

The Wake Up Wake Up dance is a good one to start on if your having trouble finding something that’s fun for the children and uses these movements.

Including a spinning or turning activity in this Alert phase is also useful to prepare the students’ central nervous system for learning.

Organising are activities that require multi-sensory processing and balance.  Using the body to do more then one thing at a time in a set sequence or organising motor planning. This could be simultaneous movement tasks that ask the brain to two things that are contrasting, together.

This multisensory processing allows us to take in many bits of information at the same time, even overloading the sensory system, and still be able to deal with it.  The kinds of activities test coordination and balance.

In a dance lesson, this could be working with a partner to explore under, over, around and through as they create their own ‘body’ obstacle course.  They need to solve the problems of how they are going to complete the task as well as how it may look visually.

Dance Lesson PlansTry creating an obstacle course with pieces of equipment that require them to balance or throw and catch.  Then remove the equipment and have them turn the movements into an ‘Obstacle Dance’ that uses the same movement skills but is performed to music and has aesthetic elements.

You can achieve this by giving them a painting as an additional stimulus, where each part of the painting represents a particular obstacle and needs to be represented in the dance.  The work of Australian indigenous artist Gloria Petyarre, Thorny Devil Lizard, with its energising swirls of colour that curve across the canvas, would be a fantastic stimulus for this dance activity.

Calming is most important as it ensures that the students leave the space calm and centred, grounded, and ready to engage in further learning activities.  These are not just stretching and yoga style activities although it may include these types of movements.  It should include muscle work such as planking, push pull activities or wall push ups.

It may include pressure on isolated parts of the body (deep tissue pressure), sustained movement or mindfulness. It gives children an awareness of ‘the body’ and assist them with self-regulation.

In a dance class, this could be series of stretches, some breath exercises or using some resistance bands to explore push and pull movements. Placing their two hands on the top of their head and gently exerting equal pressure down can be highly calming.

A period of mindfulness is also effective, where the children are focusing on how their body feels, what they can hear when their eyes are closed or how they are feeling emotionally (thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs horizontal).

Giving them something short to read and discuss with the class that links to the lesson also takes the heart rate down and adjusts the focus. Just make sure its something that they are going to be interested and engaged in.

This is also a great opportunity for statements of gratitude or thanks, where, in a circle, each student creates a shape that makes them feel empowered and then makes a statement to the class about what they are thankful for in that moment.

Activity is your friend… children are small brains developing and they are programmed to DO. Therefore, find activities that are physical and get them out of breath… Jane Horwood


The idea of any sensory activities and particularly when carried out in this order, is to put the child in the optimum state to learn.  It encourages neither under nor over stimulation.

By challenging our perspectives of what we focus on when we design dance lesson, we can start the year looking through fresh eyes.  It enables us as teachers to explore how we view our students and their progress through the year and illuminates a new rationale for why dance is an essential component of Primary education.

This focus on Sensory Integration in dance lesson planning can improve attention, concentration, fine and gross motor skills, confidence and social skills.  The learning experience that follows your dance class will benefit so much that the teacher may ask you to have the students every morning to start the day!