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.

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. 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. The 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. 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
  • Goal: Discover/Remember how our body moves
  • Have students “investigate” their partner – where are their joints, and how do they move?
  • Introduce plié – what joints need to move in what ways to successfully plié?
Ballet Tic Tac Toe
  • Goal: Understand the parallels between pedestrian and ballet movement
  • Make one set of 9 cards for each student or team: jump, hop, leap, saute, temps levé , jeté , 2 feet, 1 foot, 1 foot to the other
  • Have students practice jumping, hopping, and leaping – Freeze Dance and Follow the Leader work well
  • Introduce saute, temps levé , jeté
  • Place cards in a pile on the floor, face down. The first student or team to organize the cards (jump, saute,  and 2 feet in one row, for example) wins!
Jumping Beans
  • Goal: Apply lessons about anatomy to movement
  • Have students divide into two teams. One team jumps, hops, and leaps with straight legs, the other is allowed to bend their knees.
  • Discussion: Which group goes higher, and why? If we want to jump, hop, or leap higher what joints need to move, and how?
Jumping Machines
  • Goal: Analyze  the components of a movement in order to perform it successfully
  • Explain to students that as Jumping Machines, their job is to jump high with pointed feet, land softly, and keep their posture upright. What do they need to do to successfully complete this job?
  • Have each student “break” one part of their machine (Ex: don’t push with feet). Does it still work?

Playful Peer Feedback

  • Goal: Have students engage in self-evaluation or peer feedback by
  • Self-evaluation: Students are interviewed about their performance of a dance step or combination as an athlete might be before a big game
  • Peer feedback: Students observe one another perform a step or combination and take on the role of a critic (giving the other dancers a thumbs up or thumbs down, and why) or a coach (what should the student do to improve your performance)

Create-Your-Own-Ballet and Create-Your-Own-Step

  • Goal: Synthesize class experiences and create something new based on them.
  • Students create either a brand new ballet step using what they’ve learned about the proper mechanics of a jump, or their own short ballet that includes the steps that have been learned. The teacher should provide a structure and guidelines for the finished product. For example, their ballet must be based on a story with a beginning, middle, end, or their step must incorporate proper preparation and finishing)

It’s my hope that these activities 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!

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.