One of the turning points in my career as a dance teacher was when I learned to embrace play in the dance studio as a teaching method. I was always a serious student, and I fancied myself to be serious teacher, as well. Play felt frivolous, and antithetical to the kind of dance professional that I wanted to be. Like many dance teachers, I threw the occasional dance game into the mix as a reward for good behavior or to calm a rowdy class. But I always treated play in the dance studio as a sort of “extracurricular” thing – not a valuable learning tool in and of itself.

That all started to change around 2011, when I found myself both studying dance teaching methods and pedagogy as part of the MFA Dance program at the University of Maryland, and simultaneously teaching more “recreational” dance classes than I ever had before. As part of my graduate assistantship at the university, I was teaching introductory level dance classes, mostly to students with limited dance experience and who had little ambition to continue dancing beyond my course. At the same time, I was teaching several classes a week at a local studio, mostly filled with students who were giving dance a try but not necessarily interested in pursuing it seriously.

These teaching and learning experiences were revolutionary to me! In my pedagogy classes, I learned so much about child development, and why it is so important to include higher order thinking, 21st century, and social and emotional skills in our dance classes. With my students at both the university and the studio, I put these lessons into practice as I quickly realized that drilling technique alone would not be the best fit for these classes. Instead, I found myself prioritizing individual creativity and personal expression, collaboration and community engagement, emotional well being, and a personal understanding of dance technique. After a lot of trial and error, I discovered that incorporating play into my dance classes was one of the best ways to instill all of those wonderful lessons, in a way that would keep the students comfortable, engaged, and having fun.

What exactly is play in the dance studio?

In The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach, I incorporate play in the dance studio by using teaching methods and activities that encourage creativity, imagination, personal expression, teamwork, and the development of physical, cognitive, and emotional skills in enjoyable and entertaining ways. When dance games and activities are carefully crafted with play in mind, they can help students grow in dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional learning. Play in the dance studio can involve a range of activity and approaches, many of which I look at in depth below.

Why should you incorporate play in the dance studio, with students of all ages? 

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. You should incorporate play into your dance classes because:

  • Play in the dance studio fosters creative skills like open-mindedness, making observations and connections, imagination
  • Play in the dance studio promotes social skills like compromise, conflict resolution, and teamwork
  • Play in the dance studio cultivates cognitive growth and healthy brain development
  • Play in the dance studio offers emotional benefits, such as reducing anxiety and boosting self-esteem
  • Play in the dance studio encourages independence, personal empowerment, and leadership skills
  • Play in the dance studio can be used to help students learn and review dance skills and concepts
  • Play in the dance studio can help students develop their own understanding of dance technique, and embody the skills and concepts they have been taught
  • Play in the dance studio can keep students motivated, engaged, and interested in their dance learning throughout the year, especially during stressful or difficult times
How can you incorporate play in the dance studio? 
  • Use “gamification” to turn dance class exercises into fun-filled play experiences:  Gamification is defined as “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity.” It is likely that you incorporate gamification into your dance classes without even realizing it, through simple  activities meant to encourage a bit of healthy and fun competition among dancers. Gamification is a simple way to break students out of the normal dance routine, without deriving too much from traditional dance exercises and practices.
  • Play educational dance games to teach or reinforce dance technique, artistry, or social-emotional learning: So often, dance games are used solely as a reward for good behavior, or a way to fill time at the end of class. But the reality is that thoughtfully crafted and designed dance games can help dancers learn through play. Educational dance games can be used to help students:
    • Learn new dance skills and concepts,
    • Review material that they have learned throughout the year,
    • Develop their own understanding of dance technique,
    • Use imagination and creativity,
    • Tell a story, convey a mood, or relate a feeling through movement,
    • Express their personal emotions, feelings, or stories,
    • Cooperate and collaborate with others,
    • Develop leadership skills.
  • Use play and educational dance games to help cultivate a strong and supportive dance community in your classes: We have an opportunity, as dance teachers, to help our students make meaningful connections that will support their overall well-being and lead to lifelong friendships in our dance classes. Through play and educational dance games, we can get to know our students better, and build strong, supportive communities in our dance classes, companies, and teams. Connecting with your students through introduction or get-to-know-you dance games helps you teach them more effectively throughout the year. Team-building dance games help students develop collaboration, communication, and creative skills as they work together to meet a shared challenge.
  • Incorporate elements of creative dance into your lesson plan to inspire playfulness and fun while learning: Similar to the idea of gamification above, you can incorporate play into the dance studio using elements of creative dance. We often think of creative dance as the domain of the preschool crowd, but it can have benefits for dancers of all ages and skill levels. In creative dance, students use improvisation and directed movement activities to explore important dance elements like space, time, force, body, movement, and form. Creative dance offers students freedom of choice and personal exploration, contributing to a sense of playfulness and fun that will keep students engaged and learning in new ways.
    • My favorite strategies for using creative dance with students of all ages come from Anne Green Gilbert. Check out her book Creative Dance for All Ages for all the inspiration you’ll need to incorporate play in the dance studio through creative movement. You can support my blog – and indie bookstores nationwide – by purchasing this book through IndieBound or Bookshop.org: Shop your local indie bookstore
  • Use dance games to connect what students are learning in their classes to the world outside the studio: If you follow my blog, you know I love a good seasonal dance activity! When you can connect dance games to the season or upcoming holidays, you add a celebratory nature to class that keeps students engaged in their dance learning. As a bonus, seasonal or holiday-themed dance games help students channel all that extra energy they may be experiencing at exciting times of the year like Halloween and Valentine’s Day! Seasonal dance games help students connect what they are doing in dance with what they are experiencing outside the studio, making dance feel like like a relevant and important part of their lives. Find some of my favorite seasonal dance games in these blog posts:
When using play in the dance studio, it is also important to remember what NOT to do:
  • Use play in the dance studio solely as a reward for good behavior: We’ve all been there, with an unruly class that just won’t respond to any class management techniques besides a good old fashioned bribe. Though there isn’t anything wrong with using play as a reward for good behavior once and a while (especially if it works!), be careful not to fall into the trap of only using play in the dance studio as a reward. Play is powerful at any point in a dance class!
  • Consider play in the dance studio as just as a “time-filler”: Once you recognize and harness the power of play as an educational tool in your dance classes, it is time to make sure others understand it, too! Make the educational benefits of play in the dance studio clear to students and parents. You can use your newsletter, social media accounts, or parent observation classes to explain the objective of different dance games, and what students are learning as they play.
  • Get stuck in a rut when it comes to play in the dance studio: Check out The Dance Games Bundle, with 75 educational and fun dance games for ages 7 and up. With games for team-building, back to school, fall, winter, spring, and summer, this collection will help you incorporate play in the dance studio all year long – without getting bored!
  • Forget your students’ input when play in the dance studio: Let your students take the lead from time to time! Ask them to come up with their own dance games, or allow them to put a competitive and fun twist on their routine class activities.

Incorporating play into the dance studio can have many benefits for your students. Play keeps dance students engaged in their learning, helps them to grow in dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills, creates a strong and supportive dance community in your classes, and fosters a lifelong love of dance for students. There are many unique ways to incorporate play into the dance studio, from informal challenges to formal dance games.

Are you a fan of using play in your dance classes? Why or why not? What are some of the ways that you incorporate play in the dance studio? I’d love to learn from you … share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

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