Why play is important – even in ballet


If you follow my blog, you know that I am a huge advocate for play in the dance studio. Play often gets a bad rap in the dance world, as it is seem as a distraction from the “important” work involved in dance learning: technique, conditioning, choreography, drills, and the like. But in reality, play is learning – and when it is done right in the dance studio, it can be even more effective than traditional dance teaching method. Research indicates that students learn through play. Play is an integral part of how dance students (of all ages) learn how to express themselves, relate to one another, and make sense of the world around them. Play is also an important way that we can support the mental health of our dance students, who are facing enormous stress and anxiety due to the Covid-19 pandemic, school testing and other academic pressure, social media, and a host of other concerns.


How can you incorporate play into your ballet classes?

There are many ways that you can incorporate play in the dance studio. One way to integrate play into your dance classes is to use educational dance games. Dance games are not a “break” from the learning – even if it feels that way to the students. When introduced properly, dance games can build upon what students are already learning and help introduce new concepts in a fun way. Dance games are a great way to review skills and concepts, encourage student creativity, and foster teamwork and cooperation in class. My Dance Games Bundle includes 75 ready-to-use dance games that you can easily incorporate into your dance classes throughout the year. Check it out here! In this blog post, I’m taking a look at how play can be implemented into the ballet class, by taking a playful approach to the entire class.


How I came to embrace play in ballet class


The activities described here were developed with a group of my students in 2012, and I’ve used them in many of my classes since that time. That first class included students age 6-10, who took a single one-hour ballet class weekly and had no professional dance ambitions at the time. At first, I took a traditional approach to the class, but soon realized that the traditional ballet syllabus was not working for this group: it was too slow and repetitive, too gendered and Eurocentric, and did not help students understand and access the basic underlying movement principles that would help them in variety of dance and other movement forms in addition to ballet. (Many of the students had indicated that they wanted to try jazz or tap the following term.)

So, I searched for new ways to engage the dancers. I first turned to my old friend play, in the form of dance games and creative exercises as a reward at the end of class.. This worked well to get students interested in class, but did not fully engage their minds and bodies, and their technique suffered  – the emphasis on fun began to distract us at times from our class goals. I started to reconsider what I wanted the students to gain from their dance experience. They needed good technique, yes, but there had to be something more. I decided that the our class goals should be revised to include twenty-first century skills like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking through the use of Higher Order Thinking (analysis, evaluation, synthesis).

Once I had these new class goals in mind, I developed a new syllabus and lesson plans that use playful methods of engage students’ higher order thinking to help them learn about ballet technique. Instead of using stand-alone dance games in class, I took a play-based approach to the entire class. I revised my traditional ballet combinations and exercises  using creative thinking, friendly competition, personal expression, and gamification.


Dance games for ballet class


Here are some sample exercises I used in one class unit, which focused on sautes, temps leves, and jetes:


D.S.I.: Dance Step Investigation

The primary objective of this activity is to discover how our body moves, focusing on the movement of the joints, To begin, arrange the dancers in pairs or small groups. Be sure that the students consent to being touched by other dancers, and that you provide clear guidelines around boundaries and appropriate physical touch.

In this activity, students will “investigate” their partner, as if they were a detective at a crime scene. Direct the dancers to locate a specific joint on their partner: “Can you find the ankle joint?” After the dancer locates the joint, ask them to figure out how that particular joint moves by mobilizing the joint for their partner. For example, the ankle joint points (plantarflexion) and flexes (dorsiflexion), it also allows for a degree of pronation and supination. The dancer can discover this by moving their partner’s ankle in various ways, and noting which ways it will and will not move, They can write their “findings” in a notebook and compare with. their classmates, Repeat this process for other joints throughout the body.

Finally, introduce a dance movement, such as plié. Ask one dancer to perform a lie while the other observes. The observing dancer will note what joints need to move, which should not move, and how they move in order to successfully plié.


Ballet Tic Tac Toe

The primary objective of this activity is to understand the parallels between pedestrian and ballet movement. To prepare, you will need a set of index cards and a marker. Use the cards to make one set of 9 cards for each student or team, with one of the following words written in each card: jump, hop, leap, saute, temps levé, jeté, 2 feet, 1 foot, 1 foot to the other.

To begin, Introduce the students to the pedestrian actions of jumping (taking off and landing on 2 feet), hoping (taking off and landing on 1 foot), and leaping (taking off on one foot and landing on the other). Have the students practice jumping, hopping, and leaping by playing a movement game like Freeze Dance or Follow the Leader with these actions.

Next, introduce the ballet steps saute, temps levé, and jeté – a stylized jump, hop, and leap, respectively. You can begun with traditional ballet drills, and then use a movement game like Freeze Dance or Follow the Leader to reinforce students; understanding of these actions.

Finally, students are ready for the game – a great way to review what was learned! Place the 9 index cards in a pile on the floor, face down. The winner will be the first student or team to organize their set cards, with jump, saute, and 2 feet in one row, hop, temps levé, and 1 foot in the next, and leap, jeté, and one foot to the other in the third.


Jumping Beans

The primary objective of this activity is to apply lessons about anatomy to specific dance movements. To begin, divide the class into two teams. Each team will practice jumping, hopping, and leaping in a pedestrian manner. Team one must try to do the movements with straight legs. Team two will be allowed to bend their knees. Have each group watch the other, then discuss the results: “Which group goes higher, and why? If we want to jump, hop, or leap higher what joints need to move, and how?” Students should reply that they need to bend at their knees and ankles Repeat the exercise with saute, temps levé, and jeté, and talking about the importance of a proper plié at the beginning and ending of each step.


Jumping Machines

The primary objective of this activity is to analyze the components of a movement, so that you can perform it successfully. To begin, explain to the students that they are going to be “Jumping Machines” in this dance game. As Jumping Machines, their job is to jump as high as they can with pointed feet, land softly, and keep their posture upright. Ask the students: “What do the machines need to do to successfully complete this job?” Some things they could respond with include: plié as preparation, plié when landing, push with feet in preparation, stretch ankles in the air, arch feet in the air, maintain alignment, hold arms, and more.

Direct the “Jumping Machines” to perform several proper ballet sautes, as if they were a well-oiled machine. Then, announce that something has “broken” on their machine. For example, their feet are broken, so that they will not push with feet. Ask the dancers to observe one another: “Does the Jumping Machine still work with one part of the machine broken?” Then, discuss what they can take away from this exercise and apply to their dancing?


Playful Feedback

The primary objective of this activity is to help students engage in self-evaluation and peer feedback on their performance. There are two ways to use this activity in ballet class:

1.) To help students engage in self-evaluation, interview each students about their performance of a dance step or combination as an athlete might be before a big game: “You have the opportunity to perform the best saute of your life today, Dancer! What will you do to make it happen?” Listen to the dancer’s response and ask then further questions as needed. After they’ve performed their sautes, continue the interview: “Dancer, you just did some amazing sautes! What made them so successful? What will you do next time to make them even better?”

2.) To help students give each other peer feedback, break the students into pairs or small groups. The dancers will watch their partner or group mate perform a step or combination. The observing dancers can take on the role of a “critic” by giving the other dancers a thumbs up or thumbs down, and telling them why they earned that “rating,” as well as what they can do to make it better next time. Another option would be for them to be a “coach,” who tells the observing student what they did well and what they could the student do to improve their performance next time.



The primary objective of this activity is to help students synthesize their class experiences and create something new based on what they have learned. This is a fun way to help students review what they learned, to help you assess their learning, and to challenge their creativity – all while having fun. In this ballet dance game, students will create a brand new ballet step using what they’ve learned about the proper mechanics of a jumping step. They can decide if their step will be a jumping, hopping, or leaping action, as well as the position of their body at take off, in the air, and when landing. You can provide additional structure and guidelines for the finished product.


More resources for play in ballet


It’s my hope that the activities in this blog post might inspire you to take a playful approach to ballet (or any dance genre!) in your own classes! Whether you choose to include dance games (like those in the Dance Games Bundle) alongside more traditional dance exercise, or revise your entire curriculum and lesson plans using creative thinking, personal expression, friendly competition, and gamification, your students are sure to benefit! The group described above thrived with this playful approach to ballet. They developed confidence and self-awareness, rocked their first recital dance, and most signed up again for the class the following season!

Check out more about my philosophy toward play in the dance studio in this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Play in the Dance Studio. You can read more about how I am trying to empower ballet students through untraditional approaches to ballet class in this blog series: Empowering Our Ballet Students, Part 1Part 2 Part 3.

If you are ready to start planning your own play-based ballet lessons, check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning. This is a digital tool that helps you to plan a year’s worth of lessons for any age group, level, or dance style, with a focus on holistic student growth in dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills.  I would love to hear from other dance educators about your own approaches, feedback, and ideas – drop yours in the comments!

Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching and creative practice, including journaling guides, class observation worksheets, and studio management tools. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.