Bringing Native American Dance into the Classroom for Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, there is no better time to bring cultural dance into the classroom or Native American culture into the studio!

Photo of the Thanksgiving Day Parade TurkeyIt is important that children understand that Native American people are not characters in a Thanksgiving story, but a people with a rich and deep culture. And one way to explore a culture is through its art.

Through the web and YouTube, it is now easier then ever to obtain information and watch traditional Native American dance.  The following is a great jumping off place. (I know it was for me!)


Native American Hoop Dance:

The hoop dance is consistently the most requested dance throughout the United States. The hoops symbolize a sacred part of the Native American life. It represents the circle of life with no beginning and no ending. Watch as the dancer begins with on hoop and keeps adding and weaving the hoops into formations that represent our journey through life. Each added hoop represents another thread in the web of life.”

Nakotah LaRance – 6 time World Champion Hoop Dancer
Nakotah LaRance – 6 time World Champion Hoop Dancer

Watch this video on YouTube.
The hoop dance can also represent the beauty of the world and nature.  Some symbols that are depicted in the hoops are the butterfly, eagle, flower, and mother earth or world.

National Powwow 2007 - Hoop Dance


I watched the hoop dances with my daughter and she screamed out the different animals she saw in the hoop shapes.  She also hopped in a circle and kept the rhythm in her feet as we watched. She was fascinated by the dance and asked me to play it many times.  Then she wanted me to stop watching the dancer and start watching her do the dance.

You don’t have to know specific cultural dances to explore themes, stories and images.  What is important is to bring to your class an authentic understanding of the concepts while letting go of any stereotypes or cliches.

If you have a TV or computer accessible in your studio or classroom, show your students some Native American dances.


  1. What  do you see?  Talk about the symbolizes and the meaning behind the dance.
  2. What are some similarities and differences in the Native American dance and another type of dance you are familiar with? (like ballet, jazz, tap,etc.)
  3. What movements do you remember from the video?  How can you represent an eagle, a butterfly or a flower in movement?
  4. What are the instruments you hear in the music?
Don’t try to copy the dances but explore the elements of the dance.

Take some hula hoops (or any type of hoop you have – the smaller the better) and see if the children can bring the hoop over their heads and bring them back down.  Now try it while hopping or walking in place.  Can you turn with your hoop?  Can you hold the hoop perpendicular to the floor and jump through it?  Can the class make some shapes with the hoops like an eagle’s wings or flower?


Share a Native American legend or story with the class.

An example of an activity you can do with your class is read your students The Girl Who Loved Horses by Paul Goble.  It is a retelling of a Native American legend about a girl who becomes a horse.  The book’s illustrations are stunning and captures the horses movements beautifully.

After reading the story, ask the children if they would ever wish to become an animal and why.  Explore the gallop of a horse and movements that are inspired by the animals the children would like to become.

But when the hunters next saw the wild horses there galloped beside the mighty stallion a beautiful mare with a mane and tail floating like wispy clouds about her.  They said the girl had surely become one of the wild horses at last.” Paul Goble

It does not matter if you bring a painting in for the children to see, a song to listen to, a book to read or a dance to view. The important thing is to incorporate other cultures into your teaching. Broaden the children’s minds, knowledge and experiences. Use other cultures to influence your art and expand your teaching tools as well. It will be well worth the effort.

I would love to hear your thoughts about bringing various cultural experiences into your classroom and studio!
Stacey Pepper Schwartz
Stacey Pepper Schwartz is the Founder and Director of Leaping Legs Creative Movement Programs. The focus of Leaping Legs is to help people regardless of age, experience or ability, become educated about their movement potential, develop kinesthetic awareness, and become more physically fit and healthy together as a family, and community. Leaping Legs promotes its goal through its original Up Down & All Around DVD, teacher training, and school and community workshops. The Up Down & All Around DVD received Dr. Toy’s 100 Best Children’s Products 2009 Award and 10 Best Active Products 2009 Award. The DVD has also been featured in many magazines including Dance Teacher and Dance Retailer News. In its August 2009 issue, Dance Teacher called the DVD “an essential tool for teaching the fundamentals of movement with daily adult-child interactions.” Come visit to learn more about Stacey and her programs.


  1. Diana Nicastro says:

    These are great Nichelle – thanks for sharing.

    This year I decided to do a lesson about “Giving Thanks”. I’m going to ask my students what they are thankful and grateful for….and ways that they show Thanks to others….and then we’ll go from there and see how we can incorporate these into a Thankful Dance.

    Any suggestions from fellow teachers?????

    • This is a great idea Diana! As Stacey says in her above post, “Don’t try to copy the dances but explore the elements of the dance.” I think the same goes for displaying emotions or ideas. To help the kids avoid being too literal with their gestures and get at the root of movement, it helps to focus on the elements of dance behind the movement.

      Make a list of things they are thankful for, and a separate list of ways they show thanks. Then, in your own mind or with them, think of which categories of the space/time/energy elements these might fall under. For instance, I am thankful for the support of my family and that my basic needs are so easily met or convenient.

      Support might be explored with partnering/contact improvisation, or experimenting with relationship: near/far/toward/away. Convenience or fulfillment of need might be explored with space: wide, full movements; or time: try the same gesture/phrase at two very different speeds (I go to the fridge to get a glass of water; others walk miles).

      Jobs are always easier when they are broken into tasks – same goes for improvisation and choreography, especially for beginners.

    • thankful for the stars that light our path without burning us,and a body, though training as older dancer, can move and learn and give my feelings a new way of expression. thankful i was allowed that childhood n life- better late, than never. thankful that those folks exist, who share their knowledge with young and old and wish for truth n their teachings, and the hoopdancer and nuycracker series on DA. i have been helped so uch, i think my resolution ay be to take extra class to learn ballet more to complient egyptian/middle east cabaret/gypsy dance i now take, love and a thankful for those who provide this coputer site,gypsy.merry christmas/happy new year

  2. I loved watching the hoop dancer!!
    Thanks for the ideas!

  3. oh see yo, being noe half native to north america,i am glad the beauty of the intricate costuming/harmony/rhytmns are being recognized to enrich the art of dance. my first memories od the need for dance were when my chickaswaw scottish father danced with me as amall child and ny cherokee grandmother, we had ties to music engrained fom scottish/indian.roots, i have found it sad that so few of all human beings do not grasp the healing/healthy dance. it is truly great for stress,as well, thank u 4 your open minded literature and time to research for all,gypsy

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your memories of dance – I believe dance and all art can bring us together and help us share the riches of our life experiences!