Expressive skills in dance…how do we teach them?

Learning about expressive skills in dance is a part of most school dance curriculums around the world. Many teachers associate facial expression with performance quality. But this is only half the story.

expressive skills in dance

The expressive skills used by the dancer is part of the language of dance. It is a way of communicating with the audience.

Expressive skills may include facial expression but also encompasses projection, focus, spatial awareness, musicality, sensitivity to other dancers, and general communication of ideas.

Harry Broudy saw performance quality as “skills of ‘impression’ as well as expression”.     (Brandt, 1988)

Why do children need to learn about expressive skills in dance?

Developing expressive skills in young dancers assists them to grow performatively and linguistically. By feeling empowered to express their feelings, they gain confidence to speak clearly and expressively about their ideas.

In addition, as they explore their kinesthetic ideas, they learn about organizing for effective communication. They expand their kinesthetic and their linguistic vocabulary simultaneously.

Learning expressive skills in dance is about developing our visual sensitivity. It forms an important role in aesthetic and kinaesthetic learning through the whole body, encouraging multi-modal ways of making meaning.

To watch us dance is to hear out hearts speak.                          Hopi Indian saying.

Ways to support the aesthetic use of expressive skills

These are some ideas for building activities that grow performance confidence, curiosity about communicating with an audience, and natural expressivity in young children. It is by no means a definitive list.

Explore, improvise, and compose. Children making their own dances give them the chance to share ideas, emotions and stories. This results in greater confidence in making their ‘voices’ heard.

Provide a range of performance opportunities for different audiences. Start in the classroom so they can receive feedback in a supported atmosphere. Try to include reflective activities after each performance.

Design dances for the children that go beyond front facing, unison movement. This encourages children to explore options other than facial expressions as part of their ‘performance tool kit’.

Deepen knowledge about the Elements of Dance. Time, Space and Dynamics are connected to expressive skills. Understanding how they can be used to communicate feelings and ideas is important to supporting performance quality. For example, timing and rhythm are crucial in the musicality of the movements that impact expression. The use of breath as a way of influencing flow can change the audiences understanding of the movement. Or how the internal or external gaze can change the focus, which inturn can change how the movements are interpreted.

View dances of others with an analytical eye. Encouraging children to compare their dance work to other dancers, both professional and amateur, provides ideas about how we can communicate through performance.

Be clear about the review criteria using the language of performance. Use universal and specific dance vocabulary to support feedback and to discuss expressive skills. By creating a dance vocabulary as a part of activities, you provide clarity and impartiality in your feedback about children’s performance skills.

Be clear about the meaning of the dances you are teaching. The students need to know what they are saying when they communicate through the expressive body.

Celebrate refining and reworking performance skills that go beyond getting the ‘steps right’. Be specific about which aspects of their performance were successful and how that impacted you as an audience member (not just as a teacher/critic).

expressive skills in dance

Developing expressive performances in children

Creating expressivity in young dancers requires many experimental and improvised activities. They need opportunities to reflect on their own work, receive feedback from peers and teachers, as well as audience feedback from more structured performances.

For each age group this can look quite different. It is essential to provide performance activities and opportunities that are appropriate for their age.

An interpretive dancer is one dedicated to the belief that behind each physical gesture is an emotional or spiritual innovation.                          Ruth St Denis (1939)

Expressive skills in younger dancers

In the early years, encourage children to communicate their ideas through their own improvised movement. This will often happen quite naturally in the process of expressive telling of dance stories or expressing emotions.

expressive skills in dance
The role of the teacher is crucial in supporting confident, free flowing expression through the body. Young children look to adults for an example of what is ‘ok’. They imitate their teachers as they demonstrate using facial expressions to enhance communication.

This often begins with the teacher using expressive reading, storytelling, movement stories, or puppetry. Children learn to take creative risks as they perform their own movements.

In Year 1 & 2 children start to develop an awareness of how they can connect with the audience. Basic skills like making eye contact with the audience are important at this level.


Expressive skills Year 3 & 4

Children in this age group are beginning to be more discerning about how they appear to an audience. Many students will be self-conscious about performance and may experience anxiety in performance situations.

Overcoming these tendencies to be uncomfortable in performance can be helped by creating activities that focus on the meaning making of the performance. Rather than looking at the ‘beauty’ or ‘correctness’ of the movements, the activities emphasis the movement being understood in context of the dance.

Focus, the distance and intensity of the dancer’s attention, is central to learning about how we direct the energy in the performance space. It is not only where the gaze is focused, but the distance of it, the intensity of it and the consistency of it.

Improvising around ideas using focus are interesting explorations and lend themselves to pair activities. These interpretation and performance skill-directed dance activities also underpin the development of dance analytical skills.

expressive skills in dance
Expressive skills Year 5 & 6

As the students explore more nuanced facial expressions, they become more confident in taking risks in performance. Facial expression goes beyond showing simple emotions and may include the use of neutral expression to enhance the drama of the dance.

The use of facial expression to develop characters that are believable and authentic form the basis of dance activities that will support their written skills. They are encouraged to move past the stereotypical portrayal of characters and emotions.

They learn about clarity of movement and the importance of a sense of focus and confidence within the performance. Their musicality and sensitivity to other dancers plays a role in the expressive performance of movement.

Final thoughts…

For all these components to be engaged, the children need to be confident with the choreography. This emphasises the importance of an adequate rehearsal period as a part of the performance.

If you are assessing for expressive quality in performance, always ensure that the students have an opportunity to show their best work. This means allowing them time to rehearse and a chance to perform without distractions.

It may mean that they show their work in front of audiences they are comfortable with until they find more confidence in performance. They need to find how to ‘be in the moment’ as they dance, and this takes experience, encouragement, and practice.

For dance activities that develop and enhance expressive skills in performance become a Premium member of DTI. There are ready-to-use dance activities for every Primary/ Elementary age group.



Brandt, R. (1988). On Discipline-Based Art Education: A Conversation with Elliott Eisner. Educational Leadership 45(4): 6-22.

Mc Cutchen, B (2006). Teaching Dance as Art in Education. Human Kinetics.

Roth, D, Baker, W, & Hamilton, A. (2012). Teaching the Arts. Early childhood and Primary education. Cambridge University Press.

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