Thanksgiving is, hands down, my favorite holiday. Yummy food, time with family, no pressure to find the perfect costume or gift … what’s not to love? But Thanksgiving has never been an easy holiday for me to celebrate in the dance classes I teach. Wedged between the Halloween madness and Christmas craze, there isn’t a lot of time to devote to Thanksgiving activities in dance class. It can be difficult to acknowledge the history of the holiday without resorting to stereotypes or relying on oversimplifications of a very complex time in history. And there isn’t a lot of music for the season, to boot.
However, the essence of the holiday – thankfulness and all that goes with it – feels more important than ever right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to cultivate social-emotional learning in my dance classes, and helping students develop an awareness of and humble appreciation for what they have is an important component of that learning in my view.
With that in mind, I’ve developed three Thanksgiving dance activities to help students reflect on and express gratitude through movement. I think these Thanksgiving dance activities are perfect for celebrating the season in your classes. They can be adapted for students of all ages, skill levels, and dance styles:
- Blessing Ballet – designed with students age 3-10 in mind – This is a simple exercise designed to help your youngest dance students begin to acknowledge what they are grateful for in their own lives.
- Provide a piece of paper and crayons, and ask the dancers to draw a picture of something they are thankful for. Use these drawings as inspiration for movement in one of the following ways:
- For younger students, post the pictures in the front of the room, in an order of your choosing. Come up with a movement that represents each picture, inviting the students to help as they are able. Younger students, for example, could represent a picture of a mom or dad by the action of rocking a baby. Play some nice fall-inspired music, and perform the movements in sequence as your “blessing ballet.”
- Older students can make up up their own movement that represents what they have drawn. They can then teach the other students their movement, and the class can perform each movement in sequence to music of your choosing. Depending on their age and maturity, students can explore a number of different avenues to create their movement:
- a literal representation of the picture or an action associated with it,
- a movement that uses the shapes and lines of the figure in the picture,
- a personal interpretation of what the drawing represents to them; for example, an interpretive movement that represents their relationship with their own mom rather than the idea of “mom” generally.
- Shifting Perspectives – designed with middle or high school students in mind – Sometimes, things that we initially experience as hardships end up being some of our biggest blessings. When we help students recognize this, we can help them develop resiliency and overcome challenges.
- Ask the students to think about a time when they experienced something that lead them to feel disappointment, frustration, heartbreak, or sadness. Have the students write a few sentences describing the experience and how it made them feel.
- Direct the students to make a shape that is based on either the experience itself or the way it made them feel. Invite them to share the shape with the group and talk about the inspiration for it if they are comfortable doing so.
- Ask the students follow up questions to help them reflect further. They should write a few bullet points in response to each questions:
- Did you learn a lesson from this experience? If so, what was the lesson?
- Did you make a new friend or find a new support network as a result of the experience?
- Did you learn something about yourself from the experience, such as finding a trait or skill that you didn’t realize you had before?
- Have you been able to help someone else who is experiencing something similar?
- Have you found yourself in a similar situation again? If so, have you been able to handle it in a new or different way?
- Direct the students to make a shape based on the answer to one of those questions. Invite them to share the shape with the group and talk about the inspiration for it if they are comfortable doing so.
- Guide the students in the process of developing an 8-16 count transitional phrase that starts in the first shape and ends in the second. The phrase should reflect the process of learning, growing, or changing that happened as a result of the negative experience and how they reacted to it. Invite them to share the phrase with the group and talk about the process of creating it if they are comfortable doing so.
- The Gratitude Movement – designed with high school students in mind – Many students are aware of how their bodies feel when experiencing negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, or sadness. Taking some time to help students recognize the feeling of gratitude and related emotions can be an important tool in helping them overcome negativity and engage with more positive attitudes and feelings.
- With that in mind, this activity begins with a question: How does gratitude feel in your body? That is, how do you feel when you are filled with appreciation for something, and how does this affect the way that you move?
- Ask the students to brainstorm a list of descriptive words in answer to the question.
- Direct the students to use these words as the inspiration for improvisation.
- After some time for personal exploration through improv, ask the students to recall one moment from their improvisation that stood out to them or felt really good and repeat it several times.
- Students can use this moment as the starting point for a piece of solo choreography, or they can collaborate with one another to create duets or group choreography based on them.