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  • Learn For Yourself in Dance
    By Roberta Altman

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Extensions for Grades: 6-8

    Learning Background
    Elementary and Middle School students are learning many new basic elements in academic subjects such as: sequences and formulas in Math; patterns and cycles in Science; vocabulary and grammar in Language Arts; and personal and cultural histories in Social Studies. Did you know that these elements of learning are also the building blocks of dance? Give your students an opportunity to experience these essential elements in a creative way through the art of Dance. It is uniquely through the arts that students can integrate and express what they know and learn.

    As they go through their school years, Elementary and Middle School students become more engaged in learning about how the world and people around them work. In the PBS programs on "Who's Dancin' Now" and "Free to Dance", students see what dancers do, think, and feel. They can begin to see what it takes to be a dancer, make dances, and move to music. In the following lessons, students will learn some of the basic things a dancer and a choreographer need to know and do. Then, they can try it out for themselves. Lessons include: 1) how to conduct exercises dancers use to prepare themselves; 2) how to make a dance; and 3) creating a poster session to share information on dancers and dancing. Extension activities for Middle School students include: suggestions for research projects on dancers and their work.


    Students will:
    • Learn how dancers prepare their bodies for dance class or performance with warm-up and stretching exercises.
    • Explore and discover how to use different parts of the body and create shapes for dance.
    • Invent movements and create shapes in time to music or sound while learning to build a dance.
    • Learn about the dancers lives and how they think about making dances.

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    Estimated Time

    Teachers can select which aspects of the lessons best suit the class and age group of their students. Warm-up and stretches, exploring shapes, and designing a dance will require 3 to 5 sessions of about 30 minutes each. The extension activity on researching the lives of dancers and their dances will require time for reading and presenting information (6-8 hours).

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    Necessary Materials

    • Books, posters, or photos of dancers in action. Recommendation: Dance by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklian. Hyperion Books for Children, New York. 1998.
    • Tape/CD player and selection of music of varying tempos and moods.

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    Space Requirements

    Lessons are adaptable for a variety of spaces, including: the classroom with furniture moved back, gym, cafeteria, or auditorium. Whatever space you use, be sure to clearly designate the area allowed for use in the lesson to your students before you begin.

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    Teaching Procedure

    Activity I: Begin Like a Dancer: Warm-Ups and Stretches

    1. Begin a discussion about what dancers need to know and do by asking if any students know how a dancer gets ready to do their work. All dancers must carefully warm-up their muscles with exercise and stretching before they begin class or a performance. This builds strength, skill, and prevents injury. If you have the book, Dance, by Bill T. Jones, share the pages where he tells about and shows how he warms-up and stretches.

    2. Next, tell students they will work in their 'personal space' with enough room between students to stretch arms to the side without touching the next one. Students will learn 4 kinds of exercises:

      • Isolations: an exercise to see how parts of the body move differently when you try out the same motion on each part like: Making Circles. Tell students they will make circles to the count of 8 with one body part at a time to warm-up. Put on the music and start with: hand circles, ankle circles (one at a time), large arm circles to the back and front, circles with the head, slowly, shoulder circles forwards and backwards, move the torso in a circular motion: front, side, back, and side.

      • Aerobics: exercises to build strength and endurance for the heart and lungs. Jumps: one jump in each direction, to the front, back, right side, then, left side. Repeat this set 8 times. Slides: 3 slides in each direction like the jump set. Repeat 8 times.

      • Stretches: exercises for flexibility. In a standing position, students should: lower the head slowly, roll down each part of the back as hands reach to the floor. Head and arms should be hanging down. Some students may be able to touch the floor but if not, just tell students to stop when they've gone as far as they can without forcing. Then, have students slowly roll back up to the standing position with the head coming up last.

      • Breathing: dancers must know how to use breathing to help them keep dancing. Learn how to control and use breathing for strength and relaxation by: closing your eyes, sitting up straight and breathing in through the nose and blowing air slowly out the mouth is a small stream. Repeat 4 times.

      You may use one or all four of these exercises to help students get mind and body ready for the dance-making lesson.
    Activity II: Exploring and Using Shapes to Make a Dance

    Dancers use parts of their bodies to make lines, curves, twisted, or angular shapes. Making and using shapes in combinations is what makes dance interesting. Lead students in a shape making class:
    • Standing in their 'personal space' ask students to make lines with their arms by stretching them straight and high overhead. Then, lift each leg straight to the side in a line.

    • Have students curve their arms around and curve their backs over at a medium level.

    • Let students make a shape with arms and legs twisted while sitting or lying on the floor.

    • Make sure students remember their shapes for lines on a high level, curves at a medium level, and twists at a low level.

    • Put all the shapes together by holding each shape for 8 counts before changing to the next one. Put on the music: have everyone start in the high position and start counting.

    • Ask some students to share their 'shape dance'.

    In Bill T. Jones' book, Dance, there are many beautiful photos and examples of this shape exploration and dance in action. You can show these and have students try them out.

    Extend the Dance: Add some actions to the shapes, make the shapes move. For instance, take the curved, medium level shape, ask students to hold that shape while turning in circles. Follow the chart for more ideas.

    Lines High Sharp Jumping 8 counts
    Curves Medium Soft Turning 8
    Twists Low Entwined Freeze Shape 8

    *All these elements put together make a dance. Bill T. Jones says in his book, "Dance is action and shape designed in space and time to express feelings and ideas."
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    Assessment Recommendations

    Dance is both a visual and a physical activity. Students must learn to "see and do" in order to dance. They must observe how the body makes straight lines and then use arms and legs to create those lines. These shapes are coordinated with music to counts of 8. There are many activities to try and master on the way to making a dance. In assessing what students are learning, look for:

    • How each student experiments with different ways of making the shapes?

    • To what extent students are able to coordinate making shapes, adding actions (jumping, turning, freezing) while keeping the count of 8?

    • What are the different ways students learn to do this activity: by watching others? By counting? By trying out different shapes on themselves?
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    Extension/Adaptation Ideas: Middle School Students (Grades 6-8)

    The Middle School years present students with many challenges concerning their identity. With rapidly changing bodies and social relationships along with new academic demands, a study of dance and dancers can help students explore aspects of body image and how people come to identify themselves later in adult life, i.e. as dancers.

    The PBS shows on dance, such as WHO'S DANCIN' NOW? and FREE TO DANCE, provide many examples of people who have found their place in the world through dance. These are people who love their work and have contributed so much to the lives of others. After a shining career at the New York City Ballet, Jacques d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute so that many children could experience dance. Bill T. Jones wrote a book because, "Children need to know that their bodies are wonderful instruments that can bring joy to themselves and to others-movement is good for us." Students can research and present information in a poster session for others in their schools about the great American dancers featured in these shows.

    Ask students to study about some of the dancers featured such as: Jacques d'Amboise, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, and others you may learn about in the documentaries.
    • How did the dancer you are studying get interested in the first place?
    • How and where did they learn to dance?
    • What are they trying to express in their dances?
    • Provide some information about their company if they started or dance in one.
    • Why did you pick this person to study? What have you learned from them that is important to you?
    Students can obtain photos of the dancers they select from Web sites or books. Ask them to prepare a poster with the dancer's photo, and an arrangement of information cards based on the research questions. Students can send away for information from the dancers or their companies and include that in the display. Invite others in the school community to learn about dance and dancers from your students who can also answer questions as visitors view the display.

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    Relevant National Standards

    These lessons address the following national curriculum standards for dance as presented in:

    National Standards for Arts Education: What Every Young American Should Know. Developed by: The Consortium of National Arts Education Associations.

    Grades 3-8:
    Content Standard #1: Identifying and demonstrating movement elements and skills in performing dance.

    Content Standard #2: Understanding choreographic principles, processes, and structures.

    Content Standard #3: Understanding dance as a way to create and communicate meaning.

    Content Standard #4: Applying and demonstrating critical and creative thinking skills in dance.

    Content Standard #5: Demonstrating and understanding dance in various cultures and historical periods.

    Content Standard #6: Making connections between dance and healthful living.

    Content Standard #7: Making Connections between dance and other disciplines.

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    PBS Resources (to order call 800-336-1917):

    Home videos relevant to this lesson plan:


    Additional Videos from the Thirteen series GREAT PERFORMANCES:

    • DANCING (the set): Comprehensive look at dance over time and in different cultures and settings. A great resource.

    • BILL T. JONES: Documentary on his life and work.

    • GARTH FAGAN'S GRIOT NEW YORK: A personal, artistic, and cultural view.

    • HYMN: REMEMBERING ALVIN AILEY: Views of the man and his work by those who knew him.

    • HE MAKES ME FEEL LIKE DANCIN': The first documentary on Jacques d'Amboise and the National Dance Institute

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    About the Author

    Since 1983, Roberta Altman has been the Creative Movement and Physical Education Specialist for the Bank Street School for Children in New York City. She also teaches courses in the Graduate School of Bank Street College in music and movement. With a special interest in curriculum development, she serves as the Learning Coordinator for the partnership between the American Museum of Natural History and The Afterschool Corporation (TASC) for offsite elementary afterschool programs in Bronx Districts 9 and 12. Roberta is currently enrolled in the doctoral program for Arts in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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