Why Teach Dance in PE?

I had a long conversation with a frustrated father last week. He wants his son to study in the library instead of participating in dance in physical education because the dance unit is a “waste of his son’s time”.

He stated that his son is an “elite athlete, who should be training not dancing, and if he can’t train he should use the time productively in the library”. I explained to the father that dance is an important part of movement development and social development but he was not going to be convinced.

Dance in Physical Education

This conversation left me asking myself, “why teach dance”?  Of course the national and state standards require it, but that’s not enough to persuade over 50% of the physical education teachers I know.  That’s right, half of the teachers I know don’t teach dance! It will come as no surprise to you that those teachers don’t like to dance because they don’t think they are good at it and find it embarrassing.  I’m sure it will also come as no surprise to you that 95% of these teachers are men.  Another supporting fact about these men is that they did not learn to dance in their physical education classes, probably because they were all “elite athletes”.

Dance Could be the Most Important Skill for Students in PE

So, again, the question on my mind is “why teach dance”?  How about this, it could be the most important skill that students will learn in physical education.  Dance is a series of support skills and fitness options that enhance every other activity a person will do.

For example, spatial awareness and movement development are necessary in every sport an “elite athlete” will participate in.  Rhythm and timing are essential in most activities, and cardiorespiratory endurance and flexibility are important for maintaining fitness, improving performance, and injury prevention. 

Students jumping

Beyond the physical advantages, dance in physical education also provides social opportunities for students to work together in a non-competitive co-ed environment.  Finally, we should teach dance because it’s fun and it feels good to move freely, jumping and spinning, leaping and dancing.

I have been teaching dance to 7th and 8th grade students for 15 years. My unit has been praised by students (boys and girls alike) parents, colleagues, and administrators, so I want to share my recipe for success.

What Students Need to Know:

  • Show students that dance is part of their pop culture through Tik Tok and YouTube videos, movies, and TV. Ask students if they know of any good dances to show as well.
  • Tell them why dance is a great skill physically, physiologically, and socially.  Emphasize how it can enhance different aspects of their lives such as athletic performance, personal enjoyment, and social interaction.
  • Find a dance that they can relate to culturally. I am in San Diego so my “square dance” is a Circle Meringue. 
  • Encourage students who have dance skills to perform for the class. Make it “cool”. This may result in anything from break dancing to tap dancing so be prepared.

5 Tips for Teaching Dance in PE:

  1. I teach two days of “partner dancing”. I use a very watered down west coast swing.
  2. Partners are assigned and change every 3-5 minutes and I give everyone a squirt of hand sanitizer.
  3. Before we begin I have a serious talk with the students about behavior including eye rolling and body language.
  4. I also bring in a specialist. In my case this is our Vice Principal who is tall and fit and loves to dance.  He talks with just the boys about why it’s cool to dance and very un-cool to be rude. I talk with the girls about how they have a big responsibility to help the boys enjoy dancing so that they will have someone to dance with at their senior prom in 4 years.
  5. Finally I teach a flash mob dance to the graduating class that they perform on an unspecified day to surprise the younger students and faculty.

I realize that one important reason my dance unit is successful is because I love it so much, and we all teach what we love with more passion than things that we don’t love. But I hope my passion and my commitment to the importance of teaching dance in physical education will influence even the most elite athletes to open their minds and bodies to the opportunities dance can provide.

11 Responses

  1. I loved when you mentioned how you should look for a dance that people can relate to. It is always a good idea to look for a professional to teach you. We want to enroll our girls in tap dancing, so I’m glad I found this.

  2. I wandered in here quite by accident but as this connects to an ongoing discussion between my wife and I I’ll leave a brief comment. Much to my wife’s frustration I’m not a dancer. Being pulled toward a dance floor pleads to a high level of anxiety. I don’t recall ever enjoying a dance event. My first memory of dancing is 6th grade PE after which I wanted nothing to do with dancing.

    I wish you more success than my PE teacher had.

  3. I am the VP of dance for our state organization in Louisiana. I came across your research integrating dance into Physical Education. This is a piece of LAHPERD we are trying to improve. We are currently looking for presenters for our state conference in November 2021. Would you have any recommendations?

  4. As dancing has many benefits to mental and physical health, so it’s great idea to include dance in physical education. Dancing reduces stress, gives more activeness, improves stamina, improves dancing skills, increases cognition function, and more.

  5. I’ve been teaching dance at the elementary level for over 25 years. I started out in an all-girls private school with traditional folk dances but when I moved over to public school I quickly realized that the schottische steps and others just weren’t going to cut it with my boys so with persistence and lots of experimentation, I came up with a dance unit that is well-suited for both girls and boys. Getting male staff on board is a little trickier. I recommend Ben Landers (The PE Specialist), MACMANPE15 for Bob Sinclair’s Rock This Party, Brandon Herwick, and Melanie Levenberg of DANCEPL3Y (“Bounce Generation”) for those looking for some inspiration. Having enthusiasm and making it fun and relevant are key. You don’t have to be a great dancer!
    Check out an article I wrote about this subject: “The Real Dance Revolution: How To Make Dance Fun & Meaningful For All Students” – Strategies July/August 2013.

  6. Someone to mention to dads who scoff at dance education for their ‘elite’ athlete sons – Lynn Swann, NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver, Super Bowl MVP, credits much of his success on the field to his experience with dance – 14 years of jazz, tap, and ballet study. It should take very little shift of focus to see the similarity between practicing a movement sequence for a sport – for example, going to your backhand side for a ground ball, planting, stepping and throwing – and practicing choreographed dance steps. Countless other examples can be offered, and Swann is just one out of a multitude of world-class athletes that also trained in dance. It is all ‘dance’. It just so happens a ball and an opponent are involved in some. I make that connection for my PE students, right after I tell them I, too, studied the same 3 styles of dance Mr. Swann did, and it helped me with the baseball that I’m still playing in my 60s, as well as the hockey, boxing, and many other sports I’ve enjoyed.
    An aside for Suzanne – my daughter, Natasha, is a USD grad – Go Toreros!

  7. I teach line dances all year long. They take hardly any time to learn and serve as a great warm-up. They even go with the seasons such as: The Wobble/Halloween zombie dance, Cupid Shuffle/Valentines, Bunny Hop/Easter, Chicken dance/turkey dance at Thanksgiving. I also use Christy Lane’s Old school slide to evaluate basket ball dribbling skills and give practice some spice!
    Every grade can do it. Next time my students hear these songs at a dance or wedding or sporting event they will jump out of their seats and lead the masses instead of being a wall flower.
    Mr. B in Colorado

  8. Any way to get kids moving on their feet is a must (especially in a digital era). Dance burns calories, strengthens muscles, improves balance, increases flexibility, and gives the heart a good workout. Dance has also been proven to increase cognitive development.

    classes. Dance can contribute to PE by offering a creative form of exercise, helping to improve coordination, rhythm, fitness, and offering a cultural or artistic dimension to physical education.

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