3 Simple Dance History Lessons for Online Classes

It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around this, but dance programs in many parts of the country are facing the prospect of online or hybrid classes into the fall. Since I’m an optimist by nature, I’ve been trying to view the this messy COVID-19 situation as a way for us as dance teachers to evaluate what we teach – and how we teach it – in order to better reach our students. I truly believe that all of the reflection, revision, soul-searching, and coming-to-Jesus that we’ve been experiencing will help us provide a better dance education for our students both now and in the future. We’ll take the lessons we’ve learned through the trials of online dance classes and apply them to our studio classes, with a new appreciation of the value of the community and connection that dance provides.

But first, we need to get through the next weeks and months.

With several weeks or months of online dance classes now under our belts, some of us might be struggling with  how to keep our students engaged and learning. Many of the teachers I’ve connected with online have been using this as a time to introduce students to aspects of the dance world beyond technique: conditioning, somatic practices, nutrition, improvisation, choreography, and history. I love this idea, as it falls in line with my holistic approach to dance education. I’ve seen many resources online for conditioning, somatics, and improvisation. (I even have my own collection of dance improvisation prompts and activities, which you can check out here!) But I’ve seen less about teaching dance history, especially in studio classes where the focus is usually on technique or creative practices. With that in mind, I want to share three simple dance history lessons that you can use with your dance students online or in-person. These activities allow for embodied, creative learning and keep students moving as they discover more about dance history.

simple dance history lessons

For Ballet: Variation Study

The variation is a staple of classical ballet, and performing one’s first variation is an important milestone for many young dancers. As dance teachers, we often emphasize  the technique and artistry involved in performing a variation, without focusing too much on the choreographic or historical context. The primary objective of this activity is to help students develop a deeper understanding and appreciation the classical ballet variation, through analysis and creative exploration.

  1. Choose one or more classical ballet variations choreographed by Mauris Petipa or Lev Ivanov.  Be sure that you have full video of each variation you choose.
  2. Introduce the students to Petipa’s work and legacy through a short discussion. The Marius Petipa Society is a good resource!
  3. Share video of the variations you have selected. A quick note for online teachers: I would recommend that you send each student the link and ask them to watch it on their own. There are often lag and sound issues when watching a video over a shared screen.
  4. Ask students to analyze the variation as they watch. I recommend The Holistic Guide to Analyzing Dance Performance, a ready-to-use tool that helps dancers view, describe, interpret, and form thoughtful opinions about dance performances. Students should make notes on the movement used; the lines, shapes and quality of the dancing; the choreographic patterns; and the character being portrayed.
  5. Ask the students to share their analysis. Make a list of the elements observed by the dancers that are signature to Petipa’s style. An example would be the repetition of a movement phrase 3 times, followed by a “break” or new phrase.
  6. Direct the students to create their own variation in Petipa’s style, using the elements from your discussion. Provide music, either from an existing variation, another  classical selection, or something more modern.
  7. Have the students watch one another’s variations and discuss how each dancer/choreographer incorporated Petipa’s style.
  8. Document their work via video! If you are meeting over Zoom, you can record the dancers performing side by side in their little Zoom boxes. You could also ask the dancers to video themselves and edit the videos into a montage, in the style of Swans for Relief.

Question for discussion:

  1. Classical ballet often relied on stereotypes or “othering” practices in the portrayal of characters. Did you notice stereotyped characters in the variations you watched? Do you think these kinds of portrayals are problematic in today’s society? Why or why not? How might you “update” the variation so that it does not rely on stereotypes?

For Jazz: Vernacular Study

Jazz dance as we know it today has its origins in African-American vernacular dances of the early 20th century, from the Cakewalk to the Lindy Hop. These were popular dances of the time, performed to popular jazz music in dance halls and ballrooms in cities throughout the country. Other popular dances have been incorporated into jazz dance over time, reflecting the culture in which they are performed. The primary objective of this activity is to teach students about the origins of jazz, and the role of vernacular dance in jazz throughout history. My students LOVE these lessons, and I love expanding their understanding of jazz!

  1. Introduce students to the origins and history of jazz dance through a brief discussion. I highly recommend the book “Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches” if you need to brush up on your jazz dance history!
  2. Teach some authentic jazz dance steps: The Cakewalk, Charleston, Boogie steps, Falling Off the Log, and Apple Jacks are all fun. Check out this videofor demos and historical context!
  3. Show the dancers video of other pop dances that have been incorporated into jazz technique over time – Soul Train provides a great example of this!
  4. Ask students to think of and demonstrate their favorite current dance steps. Be prepared for a LOT of “Flossing” and “Renegading!” Give them an opportunity to teach them to you – this is a great way to help them take ownership of the lesson!
  5. Direct students to create their own dance phrase that includes authentic jazz steps, other vernacular dances, and their favorite current moves.
  6. Have the students watch one another’s dances and point of the various vernacular dance steps they see!
  7. Document their work via video. This outside the box and invite students to make a Tik-Tok or YouTube style recording!

Question for discussion:

  1. How does this kind of movement differ from what you usually learn in jazz class? How does learning about the roots of jazz change the way you think about or define jazz dance?

For Modern: Signature Movement Study

“Modern dance” is sort of a cover-all term for a collection of dance styles developed by choreographers in the early to mid 20th century: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon, Talley Beatty, Lester Horton, Katherine Dunham, and Paul Taylor to name a few. Each of these choreographers had their own movement philosophy, which they used to develop a technique. They would then train their dancers in this technique so that the dancers could perform their choreography. Isadora Duncan, for example, believed that movement originated in the solar plexus, and this became a focal point of her technique. For Martha Graham, the origin was the pelvis, which is visible in her deep contraction and beautiful spirals. Humphrey’s suspension and fall, Limon’s full body swings, Horton’s flat backs and laterals, Dunham’s percussive isolations, Taylor’s scooped arms, Beatty’s self-described mix of “Graham connective steps, Dunham technique, and a little ballet with Louisiana hot sauce on it” … each technique contains the signature movement of the choreographer who developed it. The primary objective of this activity is to introduce students to the signature movements of a number of choreographers, and help them develop their own!

  1. Introduce students to a few of your favorite modern dance choreographers. Show a video of each choreographers’ technique or style, and ask students to identify any recurring movements that might be a part of the choreographers’ signature style. (This is another great time to use The Holistic Guide to Analyzing Dance Performance!)
  2. Discuss how these movements may be derived from the choreographers’ movement philosophy. If possible, share an artist statement, quote, interview, or other source that illustrates something about their philosophy.
  3. Teach students some signature movements from each of the choreographers you chose. These can be incorporated into a warm-up sequence or taught individually.
  4. With the students, develop a short phrase that includes each of these movements.
  5. Ask the students to reflect on their own personal movement philosophy. Why do they dance? What makes dance important to them? What do they like to share with others through movement? How do they use dance to communicate? Direct them to write a sentence or two that outlines their personal movement philosophy.
  6. Direct the students to create their own signature movement, that is based on their personal movement philosophy. They may need some extra coaching on this part!
  7. Two options for sharing:
    1. Direct each student to incorporate their own signature movement into the phrase you created earlier. Ask the students to film themselves individually, then edit the phrases together to show how each dancer chose to fit themselves into the “pantheon” of modern dance greats!
    2. As a class, build a new phrase that includes only the signature movements of the dancers in your class. Divide the dancers into two groups, based on your view in Zoom if working online. All of the dancers on the right side of the screen will perform the original phrase (modern greats), while the others perform the phrase made of their movements. Record this view in Zoom, giving the audience a “side by side” view of the two!

Question for discussion:

  1. What common elements did you notice among all of the choreographers’ individual styles? How do these common elements help us to define modern dance? How are they similar to and different from contemporary dance?

I believe that it is vital to include dance history as part of a holistic dance education. Whether you will be teaching online or in-person in the coming weeks and months, I encourage you to find new ways to bring dance history to life for your students. Please share your ideas in the comments!

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.


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