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Tips for Teaching Dance Online

I have been a dance education specialist for close to thirty years. I’ve spent countless hours honing my skills in a variety of educational settings from daycares, preschools, and elementary schools, to teacher education programs in two top tier Canadian universities. At this stage in my career, I consider myself an expert in my field. While I continue to learn and grow as an educator, I can confidently say I know my craft inside and out. 

Yet, in the summer of 2020, when I found out I had to instruct dance education online for the first time that fall to two-hundred Teacher Candidates in the Teacher Education Program at Western University, I felt like a newby. I had a million questions and few answers. Plus, there was no one to guide me, as my colleagues and I were all in the same boat. It was truly a sink or swim moment. I had to figure it out, and do so fast! 

What was in the forefront of my mind was how I would engage forty students at a time (out of the two hundred) when we could only see each other through small squares on our computer screens. Would the joy and fun of dance translate as it did in person? I wondered how my students would manage moving in their own home environments. Would they have enough room? Would they be physically safe? Would they feel vulnerable dancing on their own without their peers in close proximity to connect with, or would they feel more comfortable dancing alone? Would they even dance at all? 

Although I spent a lot of time researching and considering all of the ways I could transfer the in-class dance experience to the online space, it was only through the process of doing it that I truly learned of the limitations, challenges, and opportunities of teaching in this manner. It became clear from the beginning what worked, what needed to be adjusted, and what could not be done virtually. Through the process of teaching online week after week, I found myself fascinated by the process and grateful for the learning. It was the first time in years I was stretched well beyond my comfort zone and pushed to critically assess my dance pedagogy. The results of this experience have been personally gratifying. 

While the majority of my experience this school year has involved teaching adults who are on track to becoming elementary school teachers, I also had the pleasure of facilitating a virtual workshop for a Grade 4 group of students who are enrolled in the Elementary Virtual School with the Toronto District School Board. It was very helpful to see that what I was teaching my adult students worked perfectly with the age group of students they would one day be teaching. After all, everything I teach is geared towards children and youth from ages three to fourteen. In other words, Teacher Candidates need to be in the role of the elementary student to understand what dance looks like, feels like, and sounds like in order to teach it effectively. 

I will now highlight a few key things I believe are essential for running a successful online dance education class based on my recent experience. It is my intention to write a longer article once this school year is over to document my overall learning. There is a very good chance that virtual classes will continue for some time into the future of which my observations and reflections may be of use to educators. I also see this an opportunity to take some of what I’ve accomplished online and bring it into the classroom. 

Emotional Well-Being and Community Building 

It is critically important (regardless of the classroom space being in person or online) to build an inclusive, welcoming, and safe community for students to ease into the dance experience. Students can feel vulnerable moving their bodies, especially in front of their peers (even in those little squares). Therefore, starting with very low risk activities to create comfort and establish fun is the basis for beginning a dance experience online. 

  • Consider starting with a simple breathing or mindfulness activity that students can do while sitting in front of their computers. It helps them to connect to their bodies without actually getting up and moving through space. 
  • Have students do simple stretches to warm up the body. You may wish to incorporate yoga poses or other types of stretching routines into your practice. 
  • Invite students to get up out of their seats and move in their work space. They can march on the spot or go for a walk in their home depending on the environment. Consider playing one-minute of music while students go for a walk and have them return to their computers when the music stops. You can repeat this a few times by asking them to change their locomotor movement to a jump, gallop or skip.
  • Have students explore their personal space in front of their computer. Can they reach up high, swing their arms from side to side, and reach down low to feel the full expanse of their personal space? Can they explore their personal space with other body parts such as their head, elbow, knee, or feet? 
  • Introduce a prop such as scarves. Students can use a tea towel or even a pillowcase if they don’t have a scarf at home. When students focus on making the scarves dance, they feel less intimidated moving their bodies. You can ask them how the scarf can swoop, float, twirl, or shake. You can then ask them how they might dance their scarf up high, down low, or around their body. As they get more comfortable the students will soon be dancing with their scarves. Music that the students know and love makes this activity engaging and a lot fun.
  • Incorporating movement moments or “brain breaks” at various parts of the school day can also help students to become more comfortable dancing online. This may include movement games such as “Simon says,” “Dance Freeze,” or “Charades.”   
  • Integrating movement into other curricular subjects to learn concepts kinaesthetically will also help students become more comfortable moving their bodies online while having fun learning!  
  • Make your dance lessons culturally relevant to your students. Include cultural dance that students are excited to learn or that they already know (there are a number of videos online that the whole class can follow along to). Plus, choose music that students will want to get up and dance to! 

Physical Safety and Spatial Considerations 

As teachers, we must always adhere to safety protocols when asking our students to move their bodies. This includes making sure that students are in an environment that is conducive to movement or in which an activity can be modified to suit the environment. We must also reinforce body autonomy. Students know their bodies best, what makes them feel comfortable, and what they are capable of doing. Offering choice for how students participate in an activity is very important especially in an online format. 

  • It is always important to be mindful of the space where your students are learning. They may be studying in a room with other siblings who are in virtual school and with parents who are working from home. Therefore, they may be very limited with how much they can move as to not disturb the others in their household. Furthermore, they may feel shy to dance in front of their family even if they are not shy to dance with their peers. 
  • Assuming students are able and willing to move freely, make sure they put aside obstacles in their space that might create a hazard to their physical safety. 
  • Remind students to be mindful of their bodies and to only perform movements that feel good (they should not feel pain).  
  • Give them the choice to participate fully, with movement modifications (standing or sitting), or by actively observing. Actively observing means they are involved by watching others dance and can talk about what they see and feel (as if they were doing the movements as well). 
  • Respect that some families are not comfortable keeping their cameras on for privacy reasons. You have to trust that those students are participating in some way. 
  • Putting students into breakout rooms for dance activities is possible (if your school board allows it). However, guidelines and expectations must be co-created and reviewed in advance of any breakout room activity. As teachers can only visit one breakout room at a time, it is important to make sure students are on task and respectful of one another when they are unsupervised. 

Individual Versus Group Dancing 

There is only so much that students can do in groups online. Pairs or small groups tend to require that students work in breakout rooms. If students dance in pairs or small groups in front of the whole class, they must feel very comfortable doing so, which requires a great deal of community building. For the most part, students will spend the majority of their time dancing with the whole class at once. The following are a few movement ideas with groupings in mind.  

  • The class can dance all at the same time based on the instructions of a lesson. 
  • Students can take turns being the leader and having the entire class follow their movements. This is a whole class mirroring activity. 
  • Students can pass a movement from one to another with the teacher calling out individual names in order of their turn. 
  • Students can be paired up in breakout rooms to mirror each other’s movements. 
  • Small groups of students can be asked to dance while the rest of the class observes. 

Final Thoughts 

Teaching dance online requires that teachers take a risk in trying something new if they are not familiar with integrating movement into their daily schedule. Students who move more and sit less will be more engaged throughout the day, which will enhance their ability to learn. Teaching dance online goes well beyond the dance curriculum. It also supports a growth mindset, promotes mental health and wellness, develops physical literacy, builds community, offers students an alternative way to be self-expressive, and invites students to develop their creativity and imagination, to name just a few benefits. Dance is joyful. Dance is about celebration. Since the beginning of time dance has been a part of human existence. Why not teach dance online? Your students will have nothing to lose and so much to gain.

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