Dance Education

Posted by Betsy Loikow, Mar 15, 2010 14 comments

I was recently listening to a segment on the Diane Rehm show on NPR about First Lady Michelle Obama’s new initiative to combat childhood obesity, “Let’s Move,” (to hear the segment: Growing up in dance, I maintained a high level of physical activity as a child and, while the health benefits were never my motivation for dancing, they were a welcome benefit. Listening to the current debate on childhood obesity and the strategies of “Let’s Move,” I am struck by two things.

  1. Why does the focus on physical fitness and health so often focus solely on sports and leave out dance?
  2. How, as proponents of an education in dance in the ARTS can we tap into the concern over fitness and health without falling back into our traditional and stifling place as dance in P.E. programs?

 In the green paper on dance education I am here representing, the National Dance Education Organization makes a clear point on the difference between dance education in the arts and dance education in P.E. I will not include the whole section here due to its length, but I urge you to reference the full green paper for a complete understanding.

“If the goal of the program is to teach the artistic processes (creating, performing and responding) and the outcome for students is to have them create, perform and critically analyze work of self or others, then dance is taught as an art form in education…

If the goal of the program is to promote physical activity (directed towards health, social and recreational aspects of education), then the dance component is taught under physical education…”

This should be no means infer that dance arts education does not provide health and fitness benefits, but merely that doing so is not the primary mission or focus of dance arts education. Moreover, we in the dance arts education field believe that dance arts education taught by qualified teachers has numerous health benefits for both the mind and the body. Importantly for children, dance arts education imparts knowledge of and respect for one’s own body that is so often missing today and is so essential for children as their bodies grow and mature in the overly body-image conscious environment in which we live. Furthermore, dance arts education helps children develop other skills such as creativity, composition and analytical thinking not found in dance taught through P.E. Ironically, while the arts are listed as a core academic subject under No Child Left Behind (2002) and physical education is not, many more schools have physical education programs than arts programs including dance.

So my question is: how do we in the dance arts community walk the fine line between promoting dance education based in the arts that will indeed meet the fitness and health concerns raised by such as Michelle Obama without falling back into dance in P.E. devoid of the necessary artistic component?


14 responses for Dance Education


April 07, 2010 at 5:59 pm

One of the organizations I am the program assistant for, Shands Arts in Medicine, coordinates a Parkinson's Dance Group - Dance for Life - as a weekly workshop for those with Parkinson's and their family members. This program is hosted in 12-week sessions throughout the year (spring, summer, and fall) to promote a healthy quality of life for those with PD and their caregivers. This health quality of life includes mind (creativity and remembering each of the steps), body (coordination and development of the muscles - especially important for folks with PD), and spirit (diving into the creative process and using the movement for self-expression).

I wanted to thank Joe for mentioning this in the discussion, but also explain that what our group does - different from the Mark Morrison's Dance group - is simply facilitate and promote the creative process USING DANCE EDUCATION. What we do is not Dance Therapy. Although, Medical Dance/Movement Therapy is used with multiple movement disorders, including parkinson's, to promote a more healthy quality of life and physically improve their well-being.

Anyway, I also want to simply reiterate the important point that each of us has already mentioned that dance education should not be split between the two categories of Dance Education for creativity and self-expression vs. Dance Education for physical education purposes. No offense to my middle school P.E. teachers, but as a dancer growing up (approximately 9 years), the dance education part of my P.E. class was my least favorite - there was no interest from the instructor to teach dance, no passion behind wanting to make a positive impact on our lives using dance, and really, no decent knowledge on how to teach dance.

It's a scary thought that someone is recruited to teach about something they have had no true education on themselves....

Thanks, Betsy, for leading this great discussion!

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Ms. Betsy Loikow says
March 18, 2010 at 12:58 pm


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Ms. Betsy Loikow says
March 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Jeanne you bring up a very important point regarding the parity of dance in education - both of the arts within the core curriculum and of dance within the arts. Coming into education "through the back door" in a way under Physical Education, as opposed to on its own (as did music and visual arts) has made the climb to parity with other subjects that much more difficult for dance. As dance education advocates we then have to juggle the cause of advocating for arts education as a whole (something we fully support), while also insisting to state and federal education bodies that providing education in music and visual arts while leaving out dance and other art disciplines does not fulfill an education in the arts. I strongly support partnering with other arts education stakeholders to advocate for arts education (especially given the richness of multidisciplinary arts experiences and integrated arts education). I do think, however, we must remember that dance has a different history in American education than music or visual arts and different obstacles facing it.

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Ms. Betsy Loikow says
March 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Alex - I am referring to all of the above: dance in the private sector (private dance studios, etc)and in schools (both public and private). The "Let's Move" initiative is targeted at K-12 children.

As for promoting, you raise an important distinction, and again I think we must be doing both. We need to advocate at the state and federal level to have dance education included in required curriculum and also need to raise the level of awareness of dance in the general population. I think the Let's Move campaign is trying for a similar double-headed approach - both in influencing education policy and offerings and in PR (i.e. White social event like the Easter Egg Roll filled with physical activity - jump roping, yoga, soccer, etc).

From what I've read on the Let's Move campaign it seems based around (1) healthy eating and (2) physical activity. I think we would agree that this is a simplistic view of what makes for a healthy child (or person). Mental/emotional/etc health and proper physical and mental development all go hand-in-hand. As Joe and Ann commented above, dance (and the arts) can provide some of those missing components in healthy childhood development. Obviously, healthy eating and physical fitness are great necessities to a healthy dancer as well. I like Alex's idea of not replacing the physical fitness/sports component of Let's Move, but augmenting it with dance and that arts - especially for kids not interested in sports, like I was.

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Joseph Futral says
March 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm

"how do we in the dance arts community walk the fine line between promoting dance education based in the arts that will indeed meet the fitness and health concerns raised by such as Michelle Obama without falling back into dance in P.E. devoid of the necessary artistic component?"

Show people a Pilobolus dancer. Then ask the dancer "What do you do to work out?" And they will answer (as they always do at post-show Q&A's) "Dance. What you see on stage is what we do to work out."


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Ms. Betsy Loikow says
March 18, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Joe - Piloblus is a great example of a dance company that is working to make dance more accessible to a larger audience. I know they have faced criticism for some of their work (performing at the Academy Awards and the like), but in order to continue to widen the field of dance education advocates we need to constantly appeal to new audiences (especially new generations) and have dance that is relevant to them.

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Ms. Betsy Loikow says
March 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Ann and Joe - I think you both make excellent point on why dance education provides a greater comprehensive value to students than physical education. Now all we need is to gain Michelle Obama (and others') ear!

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Ann Loikow says
March 16, 2010 at 12:39 am

I need to correct a typo: "ration" in the phrase "kinesthetic, ration, musical" should be "rational".

I should also add that the creative aspects of dance add a whole other dimension to a person's mental, intellectual and spiritual development. Besides being a physical activity, dance is a form of communication between a dancer and his or her audience or with his or her partner or fellow dancers, depending upon the type of dance and its context. Dance can express our deepest emotions and highest aspirations and in some cases be a meditation and perform religious functions. This is a quality far beyond dance as merely physical education.

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March 16, 2010 at 10:49 pm

When you refer to 'dance education' do you mean in school classrooms or as extra curricular activities? And when you refer to 'promoting' do you mean in advertisement of the activity of dancing or in giving actual suggestions on how to integrate dance into education? For example, one could suggest that dance be offered as an art class within high schools which also fulfills a physical education requirement, if they enforce such things. I remember in middle school we took music, art, and physical education on a rotating basis, maybe dance could be added as another option which would be a great way to incorporate all three of those at once.

As for promoting in advertising I don't think it would be too hard to include clips of dances or interviews with artists along with the 'Let's Move' slogan. Maybe having some artistic mystique behind the physical activity, it might actually inspire kids to get involved in dance when they feel like they just aren't interested in athletics. What about a 'it's more than moving' message.

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Ann Loikow says
March 16, 2010 at 12:29 am

Dance is important for the cognitive and physical development and maintenance of brain and physical health of adults as well as children. Studies have documented that frequent dancing uniquely protects against dementia because it integrates several brain functions at once, increasing brain connectivity since it simultaneously involves kinesthetic, ration, musical and emotional processes. See "Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter" by Richard Powers at

Exposing children to dance at a young age unleashes their natural interest in movement and music and introduces them to a skill and an activity -- with both mental and physical attributes -- that they can continue throughout their lives, to the benefit of both their mental an physical well-being. We would be doing a disservice to our children if we leave dance out of their education.

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Joseph Futral says
March 16, 2010 at 10:48 am

"maintenance of brain and physical health of adults as well as children."

Isn't that the basis for Mark Morris's Parkinson's Disease program? Physical therapy alone is not enough, it is the artistic and creative process of dance as an _art_, how it uses the brain, not just movement, that reconnects the brain and the muscles... or something like that. I am sure someone out there knows more precisely the description.


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March 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I think that the idea of 'dance parity' may have some traction. We could ask that dance become present in schools to the same extent that music and art and p.e. are present. All of the money that the First Lady is putting into publicity for her program could easily be spent on starting a dance program in every school in the country. Start with K and add a grade every year. Provide money to help start programs for any school willing to continue them. Provide money for space conversion, creating jobs.

Why dance? All physical activities consist of movements and there is inestimable value for children in controlling their movement to be focused, creative, and purposeful. This takes practice. The art form of controlled movement is dance. Creating your own movement and dancing gives students the opportunity to practice ‘cognition’ (thinking) in a way that is unique because it is so globally encompassing. The brain must make a large number of decisions for varying body action after taking in a variety of information. Dance is not just hand/eye coordination; it is eye/ear/all body parts/abstract reasoning coordination! Dance also fosters a strong sense of group awareness and teaches children to work in a cooperative and sharing environment, and to respect and be aware of the work of each individual in the group. You can have dance that is movement based, step oriented or culturally connected. Dance is a unique form of learning.

And it is that unique-ness that makes it so valuable for youngsters. When you learn something with your whole self, your brain and your body, with each totally involved, that experience changes and deepens you in a way that few other experiences do. And when you mix that with fun (who says all experiences must be serious to be meaningful?) we send children a powerful message indeed.

While there are many wonderful gym teachers who teach good dance units, that cannot compare to the arts education that someone gets from a professional teacher of dance. The health benefits are a given and the art making skill can be applied to academic subjects. I.e, a dance 'book report' (read a book, create movement that you 'get' from the material, present to peers, write about your process.) Then you have reading and writing skills and healthy activity together. You cannot do this with basketball.

I also think we need a champion, someone who can say how dance has helped them achieve in other areas. Like the First Lady or someone famous and important? Certainly there is research we should quote, and anecdotes we could collect. Could we not approach every school board with info and some tools to start to sew the seeds of getting 'dance parity'?

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Melissa M. says
November 17, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I think dance will retain its position in the arts sector of core curriculum, if only because of the creativity, composition, analytical thinking and performance factors.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the statement, "dance arts education imparts knowledge of and respect for one’s own body that is so often missing today and is so essential for children as their bodies grow and mature in the overly body-image conscious environment in which we live." I do, however, think we need to walk a fine line and make sure to teach the healthy side of dancing, not the calorie counting obsessive compulsiveness that can occur in some professional realms.

Districts must also realize that while dance can be done in a cost effective manner, there are many performance components that cannot be left out, such as proper costumes, shoes, sound and lighting. These items can become quite the expense depending on the size and scope of the program.

Great post! Sorry for responding so late. I wish I found it sooner.

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Wilma says
September 12, 2011 at 10:38 am

Dance is a total development of the human being through human body.
Dance Education in school, should be adressed and a movement expression where through the motoric skills, creative, cognitive, social-emotional and even appreciative goals are developped. When Dance and the Arts are in the curriculum, the reflective goal added has valuable importance for a total general development of the person.
The essence of the arts is creativity and human beings create!
Having Dance Education in the curriculum, makes a base for innovative minds and happy people! Greetings, Wilma

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