Acknowledging the Person Before the Dancer

A group of 12 'gym class' participants create an architectural-looking pose for the camera in this vintage black and white photograph.

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

As a K-12 dance specialist, I am required to keep my teaching certificate up to date.

This is done by taking college graduate level courses or other appropriate classes. This semester I am taking two: a literacy course focusing on strategies for differentiated reading and a dance pedagogy course emphasizing dance education as an agency for social change. Although seemingly very different topics, these two classes have shared several elements. Here are a couple of the most influential aspects currently shaping my teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Knowing and Celebrating the Students Before You

Sometimes as educators we get caught up in the act of teaching and forget the people we are mentoring. Class combinations, technical concepts, and history lessons are important but unless the children you have in your studio have a reason to connect to your material, the extent of your reach will be limited and your influence fleeting.

Consider things like this:

  • What makes this student unique? Life experiences, dance experiences, ethnicity, gender, age, family background, community involvement, academic strengths and challenges, languages spoken (and as a dancer, I include movement fluency, too).  How do these attributes color how your student will engage with your lesson’s content and style of delivery?
  • What does the class community have to gain from this student? How might we learn from each other?
  • How might each student’s viewpoint contribute to our group experience? How can we value similarities as well as differences among individuals?
  • How might the validation of their experiences and sharing of their perspective encourage students to do more and achieve more?
  • Will understanding these aspects to the children in my class shape how I introduce movement ideas, class readings and/or writings, place dance in social and historical perspectives, and challenge their understanding of bodies and movement? If so, how and to what extent?

This can also be referred to as a Constructivist Classroom, where the class community constructs or builds the learning experience.

In this type of environment, the group tends to value:

  • All participants contributing to the process and product
  • Including and developing each student’s point of view
  • Class activities that challenge students’ suppositions about dance, learning, and roles within various environments
  • Teachers planning lessons about big concepts that transcend beyond single subject areas
  • Responsibility shared by teacher and students in leading learning experiences
  • Learning processes that reflect active research and lead to conclusions rather than answers
  • The flexibility of lesson plans that can change based on the ongoing work rather than preparing for the test
  • The progression of lesson plans that reflect the concrete learning and not strictly the pre-established course goals
  • The teacher being viewed as a guide and not necessarily an all-knowing authority
  • Teachers posing problems to be solved or investigated rather than delivering information in a more traditional way of delivering information and expecting students to retain it

Viewing dance through a variety of lenses benefits any dance educator but so does viewing students in this way.

The arts are important for the element of humanity that they can bring to the living experience.

This can and should be emphasized in arts education, where our classes are not subject to standardized tests and we have greater flexibility in how we present our discipline. Innately, dance offers students opportunities to express and discipline themselves. Yet examining how we present dance puts us the driving seat for determining the future of our field.

How will you deepen your class experience this week?

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard


  1. I particularly enjoyed the article on Culturally Responsive Teaching: Knowing and Celebrating the Students Before You. As a teacher myself it is imperative that all students are taken into consideration and that ones teaching method in class doesnt fall into a rut. I also believe that you can bring out the true essence, creativity, inspiration and personality of each individual through the concept of music connection. Getting bogged down with choreo, steps, history and technique its easy to forget why we dance in the first place and how to instill such meanings in growing students.

    • Thanks, Michael. Yes! Sometimes I think the value of music gets lost in the battle of “importance” between the disciplines. While I try to instill the notion that dance does not need to depend on music, I also try to express the value of the collaborative relationship. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great points! I believe every student has his/her own talent to bring to dance. Recognizing them and encouraging them is not only beneficial to that student but to the rest of the class as well.

  3. Rachel Avery says:

    I would like to ask for some suggestions to target boys and motivate them mote to participate in creative movement classes. Usually the boys are just as engaged but on rare occassions I have one or two students that may just observe instead of participating. We discuss sterotypes in a sensitive way and I am careful to incorporate music and movement activities across cultures. Any other suggestions?

    • Heather Vaughan-Southard says:

      Hi Rachel,
      You bring up some great questions and I have spent the day pondering them. First, I wondered how old the boys are and what type of movement experiences you offer in your creative movement class. But regardless of these things, here are some of my thoughts:
      1. I think it is okay to observe.
      I realize that participation is not only expected, it is desired, on behalf of the instructor as well as the parents paying for the class- but in terms of learning, sometimes it is okay to watch. Some students are visual learners are need to take information in without physically engaging at first. Now, if the students are not participating and are not actively observing, but instead shutting down or are simply disinterested, then this needs to be carefully addressed and it can be tricky.
      2. Sometimes we assume boys stop dancing, or don’t start, because of the typical stereotypes of men in dance. But I find that sometimes the kids are just uncomfortable and it isn’t about stereotype, it is about asking one’s body to do things that are outside of “normal” movement and in a public way. It is about worrying about the teacher expecting to do the movement as easily as they demonstrate it and about fear of not doing it “right”. It is about a lot of information being given in several different ways and it is hard to “go in the flow”, even if their parents are telling you they never stop moving, never stop dancing around the house, and do all of the classwork at home but none of it in your class.
      Without knowing anything about your classes, it is difficult to give detailed advice so please bear with me if you are already doing all of this, but…..what if……
      1. you pose problems and scenarios that allow the students to “think” in less dancerly ways while still accomplishing all of the same things.
      For example, instead of learning about “steps” the kids learn about pathways across the floor and they just so happen to explore it in this up and down way (set in a triplet).
      2. use imagery to describe the movement that relates to the interests of boys, too such as darting through space like superheroes, falling to the floor like bad guys (inspired by my own 5 year old boy), through plies that travel like snow plows, and etc. The more you know about these things (like the differences between Superman, Spiderman, Hawk Man, Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, and etc.), the more you can get them to edit and detail their movement accordingly.
      3. Have a chat. Or invite the student to draw or write about the class work, the images or shapes you are using, and use it as a way to get to know them more personally which then encourages them to care more and hopefully participate.
      4. Post pictures in your studio of men dancing and teaching, and in all different types of disciplines. Talk about what you are teaching, specifically, may improve their other physical experiences such as athletics, karate, and so on. Give them ammunition to use if anyone does question their interest in dance.
      5. Ask them what their favorite parts of class are and make sure you include them. Refrain from describing it as a request by a particular student or else all of them will be making requests/demands, but let the students know “we have to more exercises before we get to your favorite part….” so they know what is coming. If they know what to expect, but also feel challenged, they will be more apt to stay tuned.
      What do you think?

      • Rachel Avery says:

        Thank-you so much for your ideas. The students I teach are from preschool to grade 1 ( 3 to 7 yrs). I travel from school to school within the Edmonton Catholic School district and I may only teach the students and teachers once or twice throughout the school year. A large number of the students are from families new to our country and therefore cultural differences as well as languages are a barrier. I work as part of a multi disciplinary team of the Early Learning Services at Edmonton Catholic. The preschool program known as 100 Voices targets children in high needs areas. I provide dance, creative movement experiences, for teachers and students in the classroom as well as professional development for all educators. I have a tendancy to “stay away” from scary dance vocabulary and the word “dance” in general and refer to our activities as games, movement breaks, exercise or just “play”. I use a variety of different genres of music and story telling to encompass our multicultural environments. I love to use superheros, monsters, dinosaurs, sports to guide the student through the different elements of dance. My best example is my own 9 year old son who hip hops even though he has Cerebral Palsey. I also find it helpful to give boys lots of space for them to use quick, large movements related to their viewpoints or points of interest. Percussion, ethnic drumming music, is a great motivator too. Sometimes I will break status quo and spilt the classes into boys and girls just because boys do need more space and they do move differently. However, this is not acceptable to all educators or policy. I need some more proof or a study that it is beneficial for the boys just to dance as boys. In the studio world, boy classes are offered, but it is more difficult to adapt this to the “real school” world. I obeserve differences as boys love to whip around dance ribbons and girls are happy to let theirs flutter or circle around. Personally, I believe the child must make his/her choices to create the movements that correspond to their own expression. I always recap with students at the end of each session. I find the fast moving activities with props are generally the boys’ favorites.

        I am also trying to come up with boys to physically contact each other in a safe manner. I do resistance training with wooden doweling poles or garden sticks. I would like to try the elements of “Contact” such as hand or shoulder contact and executing a move.

        I guess I am looking for feedback on the teaching practices that I use as well as any new ideas you may have to offer. I want to meet the needs of the 21st century learner and bring the joy of dance to all.

        • Hello again, Rachel.
          Boy, it sounds like you are offering great movement experiences to those kids! Boys classes are nice to have, yet are difficult to arrange in public systems. I , too, only see classes as a whole and not divided by gender. And while I am sensitive to boys having experiences that speak to their interests and physical responses, I also like embracing those qualities for the girls to benefit from. I think of the men that I have known taking pointe classes and the women, including myself, dancing the male variations or tempos in class because it offers a different perspective and a different physical experience. Perhaps thinking about the balance of what traditionally is considered as gendered dance or dynamics will help expand horizons and teach about culture in a way that supports the students new to the country.
          Contact for boys of that age group is also powerful learning where so much of their movement revolves around play fighting and competition. I tend to use weight-share and counter-balance exercises and talk about support rather than competition.
          We also look at pictures of people dancing, in many styles and relationships, to challenge their ideas about what is acceptable or not. I find so few have seen dance that watching dance and viewing pictures goes a long way in inspiring them to try new things.
          Also, you may check out Maria Hanley Blakemore’s writings on the Dance Advantage site as well as her blog, Maria’s Movers. She is a creative movement specialist.
          If you want to talk over some specific ideas, let me know!


  4. Another approach to engaging children in dance is suggested by the work of José Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan musician-economist-educator who founded the pioneering El Sistema program for underprivileged youth, now being adopted in many countries including the U.S. When asked why El Sistema trained children to play classical music and to perform in symphony orchestras, rather than engaging them in contemporary music which is part of their everyday life and culture, Abreu was adamant that he wanted to take these children out of their everyday environment (which for many of them was oppressive and limiting) and create a new world for them via an unfamiliar art form, set new ideals for them to aspire to, show them what they can achieve with discipline and commitment. In dance terms, the equivalent might be to introduce young American students to classical ballet or Graham technique or classical Indian dance, for example, and rather than just teaching the movement, instill the etiquette that goes along with it and a sense of the history and tradition behind them (who invented these steps; who got to perform them; was there a ritual behind them; what costumes did they wear; and so on.) So rather than introduce movement that is familiar in some way, or that evokes a popular superhero or makes a contemporary reference, a teacher might do the opposite with the intention of firing young imaginations to step completely outside the world that they know and are comfortable with.