Why is play an important educational tool in the dance studio?


I’ll start off this post by saying that I am a huge fan of using play as an educational tool in the dance studio. I believe that play is learning – and when it is done right in the dance studio, it has the potential to be even more effective than traditional dance teaching methods alone. Research indicates that students learn through play. Play is an integral part of how dance students (of all ages) learn how to express themselves, relate to one another, and make sense of the world around them. Play is also an important way that we can support the mental and emotional health of our dance students. You can learn more about my approach to play in the dance studio in this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Play in the Dance Studio.

There are a number of ways that you can incorporate play into your dance classes. Educational dance games are a personal favorite of mine, and you can find some great ones by searching “dance games” on my blog or by checking out the The Holistic Dance Teacher Dance Games Bundle. As much as I love formal dance games, however, I’ve also found gamification a great way to easily bring some playful fun to dance classes.


What is gamification?


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.” Gamification is often used as marketing tool – think about the McDonald’s Monopoly contest, or programs like MyStarbucksRewards that encourage you to win points redeemable for discounts or prizes by participating in online games or challenges. Gamification is also employed in K-12 education, as classroom teachers apply game design elements in the classroom to make learning more engaging. Some examples include adapting traditional board games for educational purposes, using online games like Kahoot or Quizlet, or turning learning experiences into quests, challenges, battles, or competitions.


Can you use gamification in dance education?


Gamification can also be used in the dance studio, to help students learn and improve their skills through play. In fact, it is likely that you have incorporated gamification into your dance classes without even realizing it! Many dance teachers gamify their classes by using simple activities meant to encourage a bit of healthy and fun competition among dancers. These activities can help motivate students and encourage students to do their best, without overt or unnecessary pressure. They can help keep students learning and engaged in their dance training by making routine dance activities more fun. Gamification is a quick and easy way to make dance learning fun when students seem bored or disinterested. It is a great way to break out of your normal routine and encourage students to think and move in new ways!


How to use gamification in your dance classes


  • Add a challenge element to dance exercises. For example, see who can hold a balance the longest at the end of a barre exercise, land most softly during petite allegro, suspend the end of a turn, or jump the highest in a leaping combination.
  • Turn progressions across the floor into a race. The winner is the person who gets across fastest – without sacrificing proper dance technique. Employ observing students to act as judges, encouraging them to articulate what elements of proper dance technique were utilized.
  • Create a memory challenge to help students pick up choreography quickly. Use flashcards with dance steps written on them to quickly build a dance combination. Each time you choose a flashcard to add a new step, have the students repeat the combination from the top with the new step added. After you’ve built the entire combination, ask students to perform it from memory without any extra practice. Whoever remembers the combination most closely will be the winner.
  • Play quiz games to help students learn and memorize dance vocabulary. Help your students learn proper dance vocabulary and terminology by playing quiz games. You can create your own dance vocabulary games using index cards or quizzes, or employ online quiz platforms like JeopardyLabs.
  • Challenge your students to be silly. One of my favorite “games” to play with my students is, “Do this step in the worse possible way you can imagine.” The students always eat up the chance to brainstorm all the “wrong” ways to do a step, and we laugh a LOT as we watch all the variations they come up with. But don’t dismiss this activity as pure silliness! It can be a real learning tool. As you are watching, ask the dancers to identify all of the “incorrect” things about each dancers’ performance of the step. As they are listing things like sickled feet, bent knees, hunched shoulders, and more, you can facilitate amazing conversations about aesthetics, individualism, abilism, different body types, and movement efficiency. Some questions to ask are:
    • Why does this look bad to you?
    • Who decides what looks “good” or “bad” in dance?
    • Would doing the movement this way lead to injury? Why or why not?
    • Is it efficient to do the moment in this way? Why or why not?
    • What if your body can’t do this movement in the “right” way?
    • How can you adapt the way you do this movement in a way that works best for your body?
  • Break out the obstacle course. This is a widely-used strategy in preschool-aged dance classes, but is also highly effective when used with older students! Some ideas include performing complex traveling steps on a low balance beam, completing a turning sequence around a line of cones, or doing jumping steps over a large object like a folded mat.
  • Use a point system to promote good technique and even better habits. Choose a particular element of dance technique, artistry, or social-emotional learning and award a point to each student every time they demonstrate that element during class.
    • For example, if your lesson plan focuses on lengthening through the back of the knee, you can award a point every time a student demonstrates a long, straight leg in a grand battement, leap, or other appropriate step. The student with the most points wins a simple prize, such as getting to choose the music for warm-up in the next class.
    • You can also use a class-wide point challenge to reinforce expected behavior or class etiquette. For example, every time a student uses respectful language to their peers, the whole class gets a point. If a student uses disrespectful language, then a point gets taken away. Determine a set number of points for the class to earn. If they collectively reach that goal, the class earns a reward like extra improvisation time or a dress down day.
  • Create a mission for your dancers to complete. Investigative dance games like D.S.I: Dance Step Investigator or Jumping Machines (both found in this blog post) put students in charge of their learning as they figure out the mechanics of good dance technique. Even older students can benefit from re-discovering the basics of technique through these kinds of challenges!
  • Gamify your rehearsals, too! Use challenges to help students learn and clean choreography for performances and competitions. You can find gamification and other playful ideas ideas to use in your rehearsals in this blog post.


More resources for using play in dance classes

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. Read more at this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Play in the Dance Studio

Check out my 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!


How do you gamify your dance classes to improve student engagement and learning? I’d love to learn from you! Please share your ideas in the comments. 

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