How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in the dance studio?


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 dance games in 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. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to include social-emotional learning in my dance classes is through play. With that in mind, I’ve developed three Thanksgiving dance games to help students reflect on and express gratitude through movement. I think these Thanksgiving dance games are perfect for celebrating the season in your classes.


How do dance class games help students learn?


If you follow my blog, you know I love a good seasonal game in my dance classes!  Improvisation, games, and creative exercises all provide fun ways to help students develop greater creativity, self-expression, collaboration skills, and performance quality, while also developing a deeper understanding of their dance technique. Tying these games and activities to the season add a celebratory nature to class, and helps students connect what they are doing in dance with what they are experiencing in their lives outside the studio. These 3 Thanksgiving-themed dance games can be easily adapted for students of all ages, skills levels, and most dance genres, but are designed with dancers ages 7 and up in mind. After all, students of all ages learn through play!. Moreover, play can be a great way to improve students’ social and emotional health, not only in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also in this special season of gratitude and thanksgiving.


A note on play as an educational tool in the dance studio


These Thanksgiving games for dance class are all based in the philosophy that play can be an important educational tool in the dance studio. Research indicates that students of all ages learn through play, and play can help children can develop important social,  cognitive, and emotional skills. Using play as an educational tool can help students gain self-confidence, engage in new experiences, and meet new physical and mental challenges. Incorporating play in the dance studio with students of all ages can have many benefits, from helping students learn new skills and refine their technique to helping them cope with stress and anxiety. Read more about the play in the dance studio in this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Play in the Dance Studio.


My favorite Thanksgiving dance games that encourage gratitude


Blessing Ballet 

Designed with students age 3-10 in mind This is a simple Thanksgiving dance game designed to help your youngest dance students begin to acknowledge what they are grateful for in their own lives, and to create movements inspired by everyday life.

To play:

  • 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.”
    • For older students, invite them to 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. This Thanksgiving dance game helps students look at hardships in a new light as they express complicated emotions through movement.

To play:

  • 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. They recognize the tension in their muscles, the shortness of breath, the hot feeling in their cheeks. 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.

  • Begin this Thanksgiving dance game by asking the students: 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. (Some ideas might include relaxed, calm, tingly, full, grounded, energized, satisfied ….)
  • Direct the students to use these words as the inspiration for improvisation. Have them improvise for several minutes with their descriptive words in mind.
  • 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. Direct them to repeat that movement 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.


More games for dance class

Check out The Holistic Collection of Dance Games for the Fall Season, a ready-to-use collection of 15 educational dance games to keep your students engaged, learning, and having fun all season long! ach game listing includes a description of the primary learning objective, detailed instructions, ideas for adapting the game for multiple uses, Covid-19 considerations, and music recommendations. The activities can be adapted for use with students of all dance genres and skill levels, and are recommended for students age 7 and up.

Plan ahead for future holidays by checking out my other seasonal games for dance class:

For dance games that help your students learn through play all year long, check out the Dance Games Bundle. This bundle includes 75 educational dance games arranged by season – Back to School, Fall, Winter/Holidays, Spring, and Summer – all for under $40!

Stay inspired all year long! Visit my Resources page for tools to support a holistic teaching practices, sign up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.