Dance in Primary school encourages flexibility in thinking, creativity, and perseverance. These are all necessary for building skills for mathematics.
There is a history of Mathematics and Arts as far back as the ancient Greeks. Along with the Egyptians, they used the Golden ratio to build many of their monuments. Leonardo da Vinci incorporated mathematics as an important part of his art works.
How do dancers use Maths?
Different dance styles use Maths in different ways. For example, Latin dancers express rhythm as fractions when they talk about whole, half and quarter beats. Ballet dancers observe the angle of the body, legs, and arms in positions such as holding a leg in the air at a 90 degree angle.
In dance we talk about our feet being in parallel and moving on diagonals. We phrase our music in counts of 8, 16 or 32.
Traditionally in ballet the stage is divided into quarters and eighth to position the dancers correctly for unison and for the stage lighting plan. The dance work themselves are even in two halves or three thirds.
More impressively, the dancer calculates distance between other dancers and objects throughout their performances. They even adjust these distances in response to the different size or shape of the space they perform in.
Having a heightened state of spatial awareness, ability to manipulation of space and time and proprioceptive self-imaging is a part of learning the craft of dance.
Dancers are skilled at looking for patterns in choreography and use these patterns to remember movement.
Creating a Maths and Dance lesson
Educationalists like Dewey, Montessori and Whitehead have identified movement as an effective way to promote learning (Evangelopoulou, 2014). Thurston (1994) believed that people were able to think on a larger scale when using spatial imagery and this was later supported by the work of Watson (2005) who investigated the ‘use of kinaesthetic experiences associated with dance in teaching to promote engagement and learning in spatial, rhythmic, structural and symbolic aspects of mathematics’(Evangelopoulou, 2014).
The research of the late Professor Tom Cooper (Queensland University of Technology) and Dr Christopher Mathews (Griffith University) highlights that Maths and Dance is a way of bringing together the abstract and the tangible within a framework of children’s lived experiences. YuMi Deadly Maths is based on their findings and shows how the theory of bringing these two ways of learning together can work in the Primary classroom.
Before designing your Dance and Maths activity it is important to watch this video to understand the phases that the lesson needs to cover to be most effective.
Erik Stern and Karl Schaffer, authors of Math Dance and founders of Dr Schaffer and Mr Stern Dance Ensemble, believe “choreographic and mathematic thinking are composed of similar building blocks”.
They involve similar processes like noting changes, remembering sequences, asking if things are bigger or smaller, checking your work to see if its consistent and much more (Stern & Scaffer, 2019 TED Talk).
How can we learn about Maths in a Primary dance class?
There are some obvious processes that lend themselves for using Maths in your dance class.
Look for a pattern.
Have children identify patterns that may occur in a piece of choreography. This may be something they have learned themselves or it could be a professional piece of choreography they observe.
The pattern could be in the floor pattern (where the dancers move in the space) or in the dynamics (how the dancers move in the space) of the dance work.
Have them identify the pattern and represent each section with a different symbol. This teaches them about choreographic forms (eg. binary, ternary form) and about taking an abstract symbol to represent a concrete idea.
Guess and Check
The children approximate how far each movement travels across the floor and then draw a model of their dance including the actual measurements of each movement.
Reduce the size of the space and repeat the process.
They then create a table that answers the following questions. What is the difference between the movements in the first model and the movements in the second? What changes did you have to make to the movements to adapt it to the second version?
Ensure that a part of the table allows them to show their working.
These movement activities require advanced thinking skills in both mathematics and dance.
Try to use Polya’s Problem Solving Model when doing these kinds of activities by dividing the lesson into Think, Plan, Do and Lookback activities. It fits nicely with a creative Arts approach and encourages children to see further synergies in the processes used for problem solving in Dance and Mathematics.
Themes and ideas for teaching Maths Dance
The obvious themes that link Mathematics to Dance are about shapes, patterns, angles, symmetry, geometry, multiplication, subtraction, division, and addition. However, by looking at the dancers’ bodies in relation to one another and the space in which the dancer moves we can design activities that require more complex consideration.
Patterns of beats and rhythmic changes in the music or the way the body moves and responds to the music can also be a starting point for ideas.
Shape transformation that investigates reflection, rotation and translation are also great for dance activities.
Look at the statistical properties of a piece of dance. How many jumping movements were there versus balancing ones? Sharp versus sustained? Suspended versus falling?
Social dances are wonderful ways to investigate maths as they are about symmetry, changing patterns and are easy for children to illustrate from an overhead view. The Maypole dance offers many challenges for the Maths students as you can look at the size of the pole, the angle of the ribbons (, the distance between the dancers and the maypole and the percentage that it diminishes through the course of the dance.
For an older age group, you could design an activity where they predict how many geometric patterns using 6 people with different coloured ribbon combinations are created. But perhaps we are now looking at proofs!
You can see how exciting Maths and Dance can be.
Using dance to teach about mathematics and mathematics to enhance learning about dance can result in positive learning experiences for Primary students.
Using dance in your Maths classroom can lead to a better understanding of mathematical concepts, increase motivation, and encouraged creativity and critical thinking. It acts to acknowledge the part number and logic plays in the art of Dance in a professional environment and makes students see the real-world applications of Maths learning in a creative context.
Evangelopoulou, Polyxeni (2014). The impact of integrating dance and movement in maths teaching and learning in preschool and primary school settings. Masters research (International and Comparative Education). Stockholm University.
Thurston, W. P. (1994). On proof and progress in mathematics. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 30 (2), 161-177.
Watson, A. (2005). Dance and Mathematics: Engaging Senses in Learning. Australian Senior Mathematics Journal, 19 (1), 16-23.