Observing dance: reflecting in Primary education

Observation of dance needs to be carefully planned to have the best learning outcomes for children. Taking a few simple steps to structure a dance observation activity, can support the development of many important reflective skills.

Having a list of things for children to ‘keep an eye out for’ could include attributes of the performance and other elements of interest.  A list of questions or discussion topics that the students receive prior to the performance and a pre-observation discussion identifies the main focus for reflection.

dance appreciationWhen first learning to observe dance, it is a good idea to have children work in pairs and answer questions together after the performance.  This also encourages reflection about the consistency of the observation.

One child may have a completely different interpretation from their fellow students.  In these situations, the students need to be aware that they must have recorded data to back up their opinions.

This information may come from them using their senses to support their descriptions and interpretations of the dance they have seen.  Hearing the music or sound effects can have a different response in each child.

A well-structured dance observation activity can broaden students’ attention span and increase their innate interest in the performance.

Why is it important to be able to observe?

Science skills

Unlike experimenting in science where you participate, observing requires you to watch something without disturbing or influencing it.  This requires you to have patience and to be able to learn from what you see.

Communication skills 

responding to live dance performanceWatching, listening and experiencing something without saying anything, is an important skill for communication.  Being able to ‘read’ the body as you observe how a dancer moves, can assist children in interpreting nonverbal communication. They learn how to be a good audience.

Evaluation skills

Listening and watching are ways of children gathering data to use to evaluate their own work.  These skills are then built on over time to use when reflecting on and critically analysing others work.

Reading response strategies

By expressing their ideas about how they interpret dance, children gain confidence in how they communicate new ideas.  This is important for writing about their own ideas and opinions.

Setting up a dance observation activity

Step 1 Decide on the focus for the dance observation

By keeping the boundaries of the observation quite narrow, it helps to focus the attention of the class. They could be asked to look at the dynamics of the performance and how they influence the meaning of the dance.

Are the dancers using a lot of energy or are they controlled and bound in their movements? 

What does this indicate in this dance work?

What do you think the dancers are thinking in this piece?

Make clear the role of the observer.  Do the children need to take notes or are they watching and recalling the information?

If the performance is not live, the teacher may decide to stop the performance at several intervals to let the students write down impressions or to discuss ideas with their partners.

If the observation is structured, they may need a list of questions that are to be answered throughout the performance.

An unstructured observation may suit the kind of investigation you are planning.  This could include the children watching to get an overall impression of the dance work to decide if they liked it or not.  They could then watch again, to gather clearer evidence of why they liked some parts and not others.

Step 2 Prepare the tools you will be using

This may include recording tools like questionnaires and discussion starters.  It could be prepared by the teacher, however by collaborating with your students, you start the engagement in the performance.

When the students are deciding on the questions they are going to ask themselves, they become investigators.  Not just passive watchers.

dance appreciation for Primary schoolCreating a checklist together can be a way of prompting recall for when discussing the dance.  It enables them to record, but not draw their attention away from, the performance.

Whatever tool you choose to use, it is a good idea to use it on more than one piece of performance.  You and your students can gauge the success of the evaluation.  The children also get better at using the method of observation and more proficient at recording.

Always prepare your students at this stage for how they are expected to behave during the performance.  A reminder about audience etiquette and when the discussion and reflection will take place helps the quality of the observation.

Step 3 Doing the dance observation

Students will develop three distinct skills during this part of the process.  Firstly, they will learn to look for elements in the dance that confirm their thoughts.  They also begin to identify the specific places in the dance where they can find what they are looking for to answer their inquiries.  And lastly, they form an overall impression of the work based on the evidence they have found.

Leave time at the conclusion of the observation for adequate note taking, reflection, discussion, and debate. The students will have better recall and be able to have a higher quality response directly after the performance.

The students will know that you value their opinion and ideas if you collect their notes and answers at the conclusion of the observation activity.  It is a good way of gathering evidence of progress and understanding.

Step 4 Using the data they have gathered

To support the importance of gathering information by observing, the children need to find ways to use what they have recorded and discussed.

There are many ways to use this material, but some interesting activities can include,

writing program notes for the performance (this could just be a paragraph)

writing an article for the school newspaper

preparing a persuasive talk about why they think the choreographer made certain choices in the dance work

drawing a picture of how the dance made them feel

using the movement ideas to create their own movement work.

Children should be encouraged to use metaphors and analogy to interpret the ideas seen in dances…and discuss intelligently the cultural and contextual differences seen in a variety of dances.     Deirdre Russell-Bowie

The enjoyment of watching dance, comes from understanding and interpreting what you are seeing.  By creating dance observation activities in your classroom, you can support children having a deeper understanding of the dance works they experience.

Observing dance encourages children to think about how they create their own work.  They evaluate movement content, qualities and the mood created by the dancers.  Whether abstract or narrative observing dance performances enrich children’s reflective learning capabilities.