A Mini History of Dance Education

By Patricia Reedy

December 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Dance has been a part of U.S. public education since the early 1900s, when the concepts of gymnasium and open-air exercise were becoming popular in Europe. National dances were developed, taught, and situated in the gymnasium, which emphasized the importance of attending to both the child’s physical and intellectual development in schools. Around the time that John Dewey, most noted for his education reforms, was advocating curriculum to enhance democracy, Gertrude Colby developed the “natural dances,” mirroring the return to the Greek ideal found in contemporary art circles. Popular dancers such as Isadora Duncan and her protégés emphasized movement founded on the law of natural motion and rhythm.

“The leaders of this movement went to the Greeks because they had accorded dance so high a place in the education of youth. From the Greeks, the leaders learned again the educational value of dance and the need for a technique which rests upon fundamental, natural principles, and not upon unnatural body positions.”

Many books for teachers were written during this time, such as Caroline Crawford’s Dramatic Games and Dances for Little Children and Agnes and Lucile Marsh’s The Dance in Education. Such books began with a preface on the importance of educating the whole child and attending to children’s creative process. Crawford, for example, suggests that children begin relating, organizing, and composing their experiences into wholes before mastering complex symbols. Although she writes with almost prophetic understanding of children’s artistic development, her book, like the others of the time, follows the theoretical introduction with a hundred pages of a musical score and movement games written by adults instructing exactly how the game or dance should be executed.

By the late 1920s science, too, began influencing the dance curriculum. Margaret H’Doubler began the first teacher training program in dance, centered on an understanding of the science and rhythmic underpinnings of movement, which developed into the Wisconsin Idea for Dance. A basketball coach, H’Doubler attended graduate school for philosophy New York in 1916. Her supervisor, Blanche Trilling, then chair of the Wisconsin Physical Education Department, urged her to discover an appropriate dance “worth a college woman’s time.” H’Doubler, who had studied with Dewey, believed the future of dance as a democratic art activity rested with our country’s educational system; she returned to Wisconsin with a theory for teaching dance conceptually, “a theoretical framework for thinking about and experiencing dance and a philosophical attitude toward teaching it as a science and a creative art.”

In a call for holism, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze developed his work in Eurhythmics in the 1920s and ’30s. Adapting musical study to rhythmic movement exercises or “moving plastic,” Dalcroze argues, in his book Eurhythmics, Art and Education, for the use of rhythmic exercises to “break natural patterns” and “strive for mental and physical equilibrium.” Concentration, relationship to work, reflex action, and “free play and expansion of imagination and joy” were the goals of his approach to children’s movement and music.

In the 1930s Rudolph Laban combined scientific inquiry with the natural as he wrote extensively about dance education, particularly modern dance. In Modern Educational Dance Laban makes a case for modern dance over ballet, presents a complete developmental plan for children dancing from birth through adulthood, and introduces his seminal work on movement analysis. He offers his 16 Basic Movement Themes concerned with the body in space, with weight; describes his early effort experiments and the eight basic effort actions, which have to do with force; and begins describing ways to think about and observe movement by dividing space into a sphere—the seed of Labanotation. We creative dance educators owe our understanding of movement concepts to Laban’s work through his protégé Irmgard Bartenieff.

In the 1950s, the growing popularity of psychology and its influence on the educational curriculum heavily impacted dance education. Like their early childhood contemporaries, dance educators added the development of self-esteem as a rationale for their work. Individual awareness and expression were the themes of the decade’s creative dance books, such as Gladys Andrews’ Creative Rhythmic Movement for Children. Andrews speaks to the importance of creative dance for the “whole” child and describes a teaching process resonant with today’s learning theories, such as constructivism, theories of multiple intelligences, and critical pedagogy. For example, she describes how teacher and child learn together through movement experiences. With an advanced degree in education, Andrews writes of a child-centered curriculum as different from learning that presumes the child is a “receptacle.” She states, “[C]ompetent teachers must know and understand children. They must know why they act the way they do and why individual differences among children are so important in the educative process.” Andrews not only describes the child as whole—body, mind, emotions, interrelated and interactive—but also (like the Reggio Emilia teachers of 1999) includes a Children’s Bill of Rights in Creative Rhythmic Movement.

The 1960s and ’70s were foreshadowed by Andrews’ “open classroom” movement and the concurrent advent of brain research, informing educators about the right and left hemispheres of the brain and their independent and intertwined functions for cognitive development. These two movements were another manifestation of the combined natural and scientific rationale used for dance education throughout the century. Dance educators such Geraldine Dimondstein and Mary Joyce were two major influences during this time. Dimondstein was verbose, intellectual, and philosophical, Joyce practical and accessible; both concerned themselves with defining the elements of dance in language they believed would speak to the classroom teacher. Their practical, informative books are still considered essential by most dance educators today.

By 1980, youth had been watching television for three decades and faced problems of increased societal violence as well as the availability of drugs and guns. Children were often left at home to watch TV as parents spent more time at work. And with the ’80s and ’90s came aerobics and the fitness craze, which replaced dance and other artistic movement preferences.

Some dance curriculum books started replacing the word dance with movement. These books emphasized the physical, scientific, motor, and kinesthetic, and provided step-by-step instructions for the teacher to implement activities without having to understand the conceptual and underlying principles of dance. Sheila Kogan’s Step by Step: A Complete Movement Education Curriculum from Preschool to 6th Grade offers a prescription for teaching the movement exercises she developed, including a script of the first class. The introduction lists three benefits of a movement program for children: training for children with motor problems, tools for teaching academic skills, and training for “normal” children. According to Kogan, “Most children are out of shape. They are not necessarily fat but they do not have the agility, strength, or endurance that they could and should have. Most children have weak stomach muscles, bad posture, and a tendency to stop any activity when they feel the least bit tired.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, economics and politics had a major impact on both education and the arts. As conservatives clamored for a back-to-basics approach to education, the arts became even more marginalized as extracurricular, not worth funding in that belt-tightening decade. Dance was considered a frill. The disappearance of art programs furthered the notion that the arts were superfluous to the more important work to be accomplished in school. In fact, both arts and education programs lost funding. As schools became more crowded, classes took over multipurpose rooms and gymnasiums. Some schools dispensed physical education and dance teachers.

Ironically, the fields of neuroscience and educational research were reintroducing the works of Dewey, Piaget, Paolo Freire, and Vygotsky and reestablishing the social justice themes embedded in the multicultural and feminist pedagogical frameworks of the ’60s and ’70s. Teacher education programs focused on child-centered learning such as Bruner’s spiral curriculum, whole-language literacy, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, constructivism, and liberation pedagogy. The arts, offering multiple symbolic approaches to learning, were resurging just as the schools were expunging the arts. Dance educator Sheila Vasquez expressed the paradox: “This conservatism supports older paradigms of teaching which make distinctions between talent and intelligence, which compartmentalize learning and create polarity between body and mind, and which emphasize an elite structure.”

Arts education was then undergoing its own research endeavors. The largest was the Getty study, “Beyond Creating: The Place for Art in America’s Schools,” which generated a field-wide dialogue about the role of arts in education, with the most prolific debates about Discipline-Based Arts Education (DBAE), a topic beyond the scope of this article.

Popular dance educators Anne Green-Gilbert and Susan Stinson expanded the early frameworks of Laban and Bartenieff into dance curriculum grounded in contemporary learning theories, brain research, and critical pedagogy. Gilbert founded the Creative Dance Center in Seattle, Washington, and has become an international figure in brain/body dance for children. Stinson, working out of the University of North Carolina, continues to push the field forward with provocative, research-based discourse on the purpose and practice of dance education. Both worked with professionals within the National Dance Association and National Dance Education Organization to develop national standards for dance.

In this twenty-first century, Luna Kids Dance, through its California Institute for Dance Learning, continues on the creative dance trajectory initiated nearly a century ago by Dewey and Laban. As political activists and feminists, we see the power of creating dances from one’s own mind, body, and spirit—in action. And as humans we recognize the power in the mere fact that dance brings joy to those courageous enough to move beyond those first vulnerable steps. Daily, we combat our own frustration, working within systems that do not -allow time or space for joy or movement or creativity. Even in schools that seek dance and have allocated funds, instructional time, staff and administrative support, we see dance space sacrificed for office space and other non-arts uses.

Yet we continue: Last Monday, Luna teachers taught an MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) class to Oakland families who grapple with the child welfare system. One single mother brought her five children, ages 15 months to 15 years. The 15-year-old discovered she did not have to worry about her younger siblings—she could dance with the other teens there while our staff supported her mother to dance with the young ones. The joy on her face as she explored moving through space and playing with dance ideas was proof enough of the power and purpose of dance.

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.