5 Dance Activities to Support Your Students’ Emotional Health

If you’ve followed my blog or used one if my resources, you know that I believe social-emotional learning should be an important part of any dance curriculum. (Read more on that here.) Now more than ever, with the world in the midst of Covid-19 outbreak and most schools and studios moving to online classes, it is critical that we address our dance students’ emotional health. All students are likely experiencing fear, anxiety, and a major sense of disruption. For seniors, there will also be great disappointment at missing out on proms, graduations, senior concerts, and other milestones. Some students will be facing trauma at home, and will be struggling immensely without the safe zones of school or the studio. Right now, they all need us to provide tools for coping and emotional resiliency, far more than they need technique exercises or choreography drills.

With that in mind, I offer the following activities to support your dancers’ emotional health, both right now in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, or at any time.

SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING THROUGH DANCE

1.) The Check-In Dance: This dance activity helps students identify how they are feeling, how emotions manifest in their bodies and in their movement, and how exercise and creative expression can impact our moods.

  • Before starting class, ask students to think of one word that describes how they are feeling in that moment. Invite them to verbalize the word or write it down.
    • Students may be feeling conflicting emotions, and mature dancers should be encouraged to explore these through combinations of movement with multiple body parts.
  • Next, ask them to consider where that emotion lives in their body; that is, where do they feel it? For example, anxiety might be felt as a tightening in the chest, excitement as butterflies in the stomach, or grief as a heaviness in the shoulders.
  • Once they know where they feel the emotion, they will then identify how it manifests in movements, such as the hands gesturing wildly when excited or fingers clenching when angry.
  • Finally, ask the students to create a dance movement that expresses their emotion based on the answers to those two questions. For example, worry might be shown as a deep, strong contraction in the chest. Worry mixed with excitement could be shown with a flourish of the hands that leads into the contraction. Make sure that they practice their movement a few times so that they can recall it after class.
  • At the end of class, repeat the exercise from the beginning. Ask the dancers to note any changes in their mood after dancing. Have them articulate how they are feeling, where this new emotion lives and how it moves. Direct them the create another short movement based on those answers.
  • Then, ask them to create a short phrase that consists of the pre-class movement, a 4 count transition, and the movement that thy created at the end of class.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • What was it like to feel an emotion inside your body? How can you use this experience to help you become a better performer?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?

2.) The Letting Go Dance: This dance activity validates the wide range of emotions students are feeling, while also helping them release their attachment to those feelings.

  • Individually or as a group, ask the dancers to brainstorm a list of emotions that they have felt since your last meeting. Give them time and encouragement to list positives, negatives, and everything in between. Note if any dancer seems particular distraught or stressed so you can follow up privately.
  • When the list is finished, say the words out loud, slowly, while the dancers sit or lie quietly and notice how their bodies and minds react to each word.
  • When you are finished reading the list, ask the dancers to stand in a neutral position to transition to the next part of the activity.
  • Say the list again, letting the dancers freely improvise as you do. Ask them to return to a neutral position only when you have finished reading the list.
  • Finally, say the words one at a time. For each word, direct the dancers to make and hold a shape that reflects what they felt and how they moved when they heard it. They should hold the shape with intense focus for at least 8 counts.
  • After holding with intensity, invite them to let go of the shape – and the emotion behind it – through movement. Allow them at least 16 counts to move out of the shape in a way that feels good – shaking it off, melting out of it, using their hands to manipulate other body parts, etc.
  • Dancers should return to neutral before you say the next word.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Did any emotions stand out or feel particularly impactful to you? Why?
    • How did it feel to sit and listen to the words? To improvise with them? To hold the shape? Which did yo prefer and why?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?

3.) The Pros and Cons Dance: This dance activity helps students recognize and honor the fact that their emotions can ebb and flow, helping them navigate conflicting experiences with more calm and grace.

  • Ask students to reflect on their week. Options for this include inviting them to writing a journal or sharing as a group if they are comfortable doing so.
  • Students should then be directed to list as many “pros” (or positive experiences) and “con”s (or negative experiences) as they care to share. They should have at least 2 of each. The experiences can be related or unrelated.
  • For each pro or con, students should make a movement or gesture that  reflects how they felt about the experience. (You can use some of the steps in activity 1 or 2 above to help them create the movement or gesture if you’d like.)
  • Direct the students to arrange their movements in an alternate pattern (pro-con-pro-con…). 
  • Have the students create transitions between the movements. The transitions should assist the students in moving naturally and seamlessly between each movement. Help them find the rhythm: pro-flow-con-flow-pro….
  • Invite the students to perform their dance several times in a row, without stopping the flow .
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Were you more comfortable reflecting on the “pros” or the “cons”? Why?
    • Which movement or gesture felt best to create and perform? Why?
    • Could you feel the flow of the movement, carrying you from “pro” to “con,” almost like a wave? What was this experience like?
    • What changed for you after performing this activity?
    • What can you take from this exercise and apply to your life outside the studio?

4.) The Resiliency Dances: In this blog post, I outline 21 different prompts for choreography or improvisation designed with resilience in mind. The focus of these prompts is overcoming challenges, and explorations include physical challenges, emotional check-ins, and dances to foster community even in the face of isolation. You can use these prompts for improvisation exploration during your online class time, or assign them as “homework” to encourage students to create their own choreography throughout the week.

5.) Journaling: I highly recommend that students be encouraged to journal. They are living through history, and recording their experiences can be an important part of their processing and emotional growth. To help facilitate a productive journaling experience, you might like The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Dance Students. This list of 52 writing prompts that help students reflect on their technical and artistic growth and overall well-being is available here.

Do you want even MORE ideas for incorporating improvisation into your dance classes? Check out The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities, with 25 ready-to-use ideas for dance improvisation, from solo explorations and prompts to games and community building activities, designed to help students grow as dancers, artists, and individuals. Each activity listing includes a description of the primary learning objective, instructions, ideas for adapting or changing the exercise, and discussion questions.

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


3 thoughts on “5 Dance Activities to Support Your Students’ Emotional Health

  1. Thank you so much for your blog and your resources. I receive SO many emails but whenever I see one from you I open it right away because I know it will help me become a better dance educator. I am so grateful to you!

    1. Gina, thank you so much for taking the time to leave this nice comment! I will admit I got a little teary as I read it. I am so glad that you find the resources and blog posts helpful. It is truly my mission to help teachers as they work help their students – and knowing that you are doing just that makes me so glad! Thank you for all that you do and for supporting my blog!

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