Why Dance Belongs in the School Day (HINT: SEL is its Soulmate!)

Years of research point to dance and Social Emotional Learning as a powerful combination with great potential to address issues of equity and inclusion.

The most successful Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs use active forms of learning,  and evidence suggests that dance out-paces other forms of physical activity AND other forms of arts learning when it comes to measurable SEL outcomes.

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In a comprehensive literature review of studies measuring the connection between dance and SEL, University of Illinois at Chicago Psychology Ph.D. candidate Teresa Borowski synthesizes the undisputable evidence supporting the potential of dance as an “active, engaging, and valid method of teaching Social Emotional Competence in children and youth of all ages.” This post includes a few highlights from her literature review. Publication of her full research paper, which proposes a compelling theory of change, is forthcoming.

Throughout history, dance emerges in nearly every culture as a social activity that brings people together and provides an outlet to express personal and group identity.

In schools, both dance and SEL programs are proven to produce similar outcomes including:

  • Positive social behavior
  • Fewer behavioral problems
  • Improved academic performance

More Effective Than Other Physical Activity

In several studies that compare the outcomes of dance to outcomes from other kinds of physical activity, dance consistently results in greater positive changes in overall well-being, increased self-awareness, and gains in self-confidence.

More Effective Than Other Arts Disciplines

Similarly, in studies comparing the outcomes of different kinds of arts programs (visual, music, dance, etc.), students in the DANCE groups show the greatest gains in perceiving and managing emotions, as well as greater gains in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.

Despite this evidence, dance is not included or prioritized in the curriculum of the vast majority of schools in the U.S. and around the world. When it comes to SEL outcomes, dance consistently outperforms other forms of physical activity and arts practices. Because of this, dance holds immense potential as an under-utilized tool for engaging students.

Dance outperforms other types of physical activity when it comes to SEL outcomes.

Dance & Intrapersonal SEL Skills

Self-Awareness and Self-Management are fundamentally rooted in the body, making dance an excellent tool for building such competencies as emotional awareness, accurate self-perception, and impulse control.

In her 2010 study of the use of creative movement to enhance social and emotional development, Lily Thom observed that through dance, children make connections between physical expression and abstract concepts of emotion in both themselves and what they observe in the facial expressions and gestures of others. Through this process, children discover the similarities between themselves and others, which is essential to developing empathy.

Dance & Interpersonal Skills

Many dance activities promote teamwork and cooperation and provide rich opportunities for developing Relationship Skills and Social Awareness.

In her 2010 article, “Dancing the Curriculum”, Stacey Skoning reports that kindergarten students who participated in dance at school showed significant gains in their ability to solve problems, take turns, resolve conflicts, set group goals, and work together to succeed.

Additional research on programs that focus on cultural and social dance show that these kinds of dance experiences foster respect for others and collaboration across age, culture, and socioeconomic status.

Building social awareness and relationship skills happens naturally through dance.

The Magic of Cultural Dance

Cultural dance, in particular, fosters cross-cultural understanding and respect. In their examination of how students learn about culture through dance, researchers Tamara Lutz and Wilma Kuhlman found that learning cultural dance provides a means for students to understand the feelings of others, as well as develop cultural understanding and respect. Through studying dance forms that originate in other parts of the world, students gain understanding of the history, identities, and values of others.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Dance is a way to build confidence and self-esteem for students of diverse backgrounds and provides a particularly meaningful opportunity for expression of cultural identity and pride. Dance also helps students overcome cultural and linguistic obstacles due to its focus on nonverbal communication.

In her 2011 research, Sinead Kimbrell found that diverse learners who engaged in a dance program had more confidence because they could express themselves through dance.

For English language learners, in particular, dance provides the opportunity to express oneself through the body and is shown to bolster self-esteem.

Despite extensive evidence showing the strength of dance as an effective learning strategy for students of low socio-economic status, schools that support these students often do not have resources to offer robust arts education experiences. Low-cost, culturally responsive programs that intentionally integrate SEL and dance have great potential to address issues of equity and access.

How to Get Students Dancing

In many schools, the greatest barrier to bringing dance into classrooms is a lack of comfort with dance on the part of classroom teachers. For most students, permission to move, and especially moving to music, offers considerable stress relief and an immediate boost to their sense of optimism and joy. EduMotion: SEL Journeys offers an easy-to-implement solution that combines explicit SEL lessons with cultural dance activities, presented through animated videos. Solutions like this provide the opportunity to get students dancing in classrooms across the nation and around the world.

Special thanks to Teresa Borowski for sharing a preliminary copy of her paper, “Dancing to Social-Emotional Competence” and granting permission to share highlights from her literature review in this post.


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