child dancing

Movement and Dance

What’s the difference between movement and dance? Why are both important and enjoyable experiences for young children? This program shows a wide variety of dance and movement activities—from African and Appalachian dance to ballet and modern dance. In St. Louis, youngsters learn a dance from Mali, “ballet babies” explore the stories of dance, and parents and children have fun with music and movement in a class at the Center of Creative Arts. Traditional dance brings together all ages in Berea, KY; youngsters at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia learn a Mexican hat dance in honor of Cinco de Mayo; and children in Louisville learn to communicate self-confidence and cultural pride through movement and dance. Movement education specialist Rae Pica explains why it’s important to pay attention to movement basics.

In the Program

  • About community arts partnerships
    A dancer from the Center of Creative Arts teaches 1st graders at Adams Elementary in St. Louis the Jansa, a traditional dance from Mali.
  • Key points
    Educators discuss the benefits of dance and movement activities.
  • More about movement basics
    New Hampshire movement specialist Rae Pica teaches basic movement to a group of preschoolers.
  • Movement and lap games
    Parents and toddlers have fun together at the Music and Motion class at the Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis.
  • Dance Styles
    Learn about different dance styles and begin to explore the basic movements
  • Ideas for parents
    Educator and parent Jennifer Rose discusses traditional dance as a community activity for all ages.
  • Dance basics and terms

Movement and Dance (Video)

Explains the difference between movement and dance and why both are important and enjoyable experiences for young children. Visits to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Berea, and Louisville spotlight activities using African, Appalachian, classical, and modern dance, and movement education specialist Rae Pica explains why it’s important to pay attention to movement basics.

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About Community Arts Partnerships


“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Sharonica Hardin, principal of Adams Elementary, a neighborhood school serving St. Louis’ Forest Park Southeast. “And COCA [the Center of Creative Arts] is part of our village.”

Adams Elementary dates to the late 1800s, but closed in the mid-1980s when school district administrators decided not to renovate the building. “At that point, the Forest Park Southeast residents became very involved,” Hardin says. “They understood that in order to redevelop and revitalize their neighborhood, there needed to be a good school.” It took 10 years and the support of nearby Washington University to convince the Board of Education to reopen Adams Elementary, but it finally happened in 2001.

The school’s 400 K-5 students “have multiple needs, and they need various outlets to succeed,” Hardin says, and COCA’s Urban Arts outreach program has been an invaluable partner. “What COCA provides is realistic, hands-on, practical, and meaningful experiences for our children through the arts, and not just singing, dancing, drumming, and painting, but also it’s intertwined and integrated to the educational program to help our students succeed academically.”

Meaningful Experiences

“Our mission is really tied to serving the entire community,” says COCA Director Stephanie Riven. Founded in 1986, this multidisciplinary arts organization provides classes and performances for all ages, both at its main facility and in schools across the St. Louis area. COCA’s nationally recognized Urban Arts program, designed to reach children who otherwise would have no access to arts programs, provides arts instruction, performances, workshops, and residencies in schools and at after-school and summer programs. The programming is provided at no cost to participants and is funded by national grants and local community donations.

Diadie Bathily, COCA’s West African dancer-in-residence (featured in Program 4 of Art to Heart), is one of several artists who teach classes at Adams Elementary. There’s also a storyteller, a jazz dancer, and a glass artist. The arts classes give students meaningful opportunities to gain self-confidence and to express themselves in a nurturing environment, Hardin says. They also serve as a haven from academic struggles and societal problems. “The classes are a major outlet for them, and it really helps to enable them to give their best.”

Bathily agrees. “If you want to give a good shape to your tree in your garden, you have to give the right care and direction. You take care of it, [and] it’s going to grow nicely, the way you want. The kids are like that. Their minds and bodies are fresh. These kids can do anything.”

Keys to Success

In discussing artist residencies with the Center of Creative Arts, Adams Elementary principal Sharonaka Hardin kept student success at the forefront of conversations. I asked, “How is this going to impact student achievement?”

What the school has found, Hardin says, is that the arts programs have enhanced self-esteem and brought out talents and strengths that had previously gone unrecognized. “The students are just brought to life in a different way, so it encourages them to also succeed academically.”

Getting Started

Artist residencies are programs that bring artists together with students and teachers in a school setting. They are usually developed by arts organizations in partnership with school administrators and teachers to supplement and extend the school’s own arts programs. A residency may be a one-day visit or extend across weeks or even months. It is usually designed to spark students’ interest in the arts, to build knowledge and skills in the arts (or to teach other subjects through the arts), and/or to build teachers’ abilities—or to serve all of these purposes.

To find out about residency opportunities and plan a successful residency at your school, start with your state or local arts council. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies web site has links to councils along with other information on the benefits of the arts for schools and families.

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Key Points

Why Are Movement and Dance Important?


“It’s a wonderful experience, working with the children. They have so much energy and so much joy, and the dance and the music help channel their energy in a way that makes them happy and gives them a real sense of accomplishment.”

Adam Rugo, percussionist, Center of Creative Arts Urban Arts Program

“Children need to feel successful. And if they’re struggling academically, if they’re facing numerous societal problems that most adults can’t handle, they need to find a haven. And sometimes art class, dance class, is that outlet for them. Academics can be pretty tough, even if you’re good at it. Sometimes you just need a break. Kids need a way to show their expertise; they need ways to express themselves—and it might not be through paper and pencil. It might be through a song, or it might be through a dance. And I think that providing them those opportunities is definitely addressing and meeting the needs of the whole child, which is what education should be about.”

Sharonica Hardin, principal, Adams Elementary

“The mind-body connection is an essential one for learning in the early childhood years. And the arts will ensure that a child is making a mind and body connection because they are physically engaged as well as cognitively engaged. Shortchanging the arts is shortchanging the learning process.”

Liz Armistead, director of early childhood programs, Settlement Music School

“I don’t know what else you’d do with very young children—you don’t want to fill them up with facts. They’re artists; kids are just born artists.”

Deborah Harris, dance instructor, Center of Creative Arts

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More About Movement Basics


“Parents can do so much at home to encourage physical fitness,” says Rae Pica, a movement specialist who is featured in Programs 4 and 8 of Art to Heart. “They first of all can encourage their children to be active, because the children who are most active are those who have been encouraged by their parents to be active. They can play with their children. That serves two purposes: It gives their children someone to play with, but they are serving as a role model as well. They’re giving the impression that play is a good thing.”

And play is a good thing, Pica asserts. “Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them. It’s how they learn how to get along with other people; how they learn to resolve conflict; how they learn the importance of rules and strategies; how they learn critical and creative thinking skills, through imaginative play, making up their own games.”

The Power of Play

Play is also linked to physical fitness and health. Sedentary lifestyles and organized sports programs where children spend more time waiting to participate than actually participating are contributing to skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes and may have long-term negative impacts. “This is thought to be the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents,” Pica says.

Learning movement basics and enjoying games and free play should be a priority in early childhood, rather than organized sports, Pica says. “My feeling about soccer for 4-year-olds is that they have no place in the soccer program because they don’t yet know how to use their bodies well. Nor do they have the social, emotional, or cognitive skills to handle complex games and rules and strategies or to understand competition.”

Early childhood physical activity focusing on movement education gives young children knowledge of body and spatial directions and how to use their bodies, Pica says. “They learn how to perform fundamental motor skills like running and walking and jumping and bending and stretching. And if they can use their bodies well, then they’re going to have the confidence and poise to continue to use their bodies throughout their lives. And then they can go on to sports and dance.”

Creative Thinking Through Movement

Early movement education also builds creative thinking, Pica says. In Program 4 of Art to Heart, she shows a group of preschoolers doing movement exploration and divergent problem solving. “Divergent problem solving means that there are going to be a lot of possible responses to any single challenge,” Pica says. For example, she might ask the children to show her a crooked shape, a round shape, or a flat shape. “And the children would find their own responses to that. And whenever possible, I tried to point out the different responses that I was seeing so they understood that it was OK to find their own way, to express themselves individually.”

As children move on to the early elementary years, Pica says, convergent problem-solving activities are more appropriate. A physical education teacher, for example, might call for movements that would guide students toward doing a forward roll or another specific movement. With preschool children, Pica recommends emphasizing creative movement exploration, divergent problem solving, and noncompetitive physical games where the emphasis is on fun. “Parents need to realize that it’s OK to play with their children, that they—and their children—don’t have to be ‘accomplishing something’ every minute. Accomplishment should not be the main purpose of childhood.”

Find Out More

  • You can read an article by Pica on how to encourage the physical fitness habit in the Art to Heart Viewing Guide.
  • Pica’s web site, Moving and Learning, has numerous articles on movement and physical education in early childhood, as well as activity suggestions.

Rae Pica has served as an adjunct faculty member with the Department of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues. As a member of a task force of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Pica helped to create the Active Start national guidelines for early childhood physical activity. She’s the movement consultant for Bo on the Go, a new Canadian TV program promoting physical activity for preschoolers, and is an expert for

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Movement and Lap Games


The idea behind the Music and Motion classes at St. Louis’ Center of Creative Arts, says teacher Deborah Harris, is that “you can be a musical person if you can keep a steady beat, hear a tune in your head, and respond to the expressiveness in music.”

The class is geared to children ages 18 months to 3 years. Many of the activities can be duplicated at home. Play a variety of music and allow children to move to it, clap to it, bounce to it, and move using streamers or scarves.

The “lap experience” is also important, Harris says, “for children and even for adults. It always works well in my classes to start with kids bouncing in their parents’ laps. Then they move away from each other and we dance and we come together in a lot of ways, dancing, and then we always end with the child in the parent’s lap with a lullaby and a stuffed animal.”

Young children spend a lot of time in their parents’ laps. And many “lap games” combining music or songs and movement are perfect for this special time. “Games like peek-a-boo and patty-cake have survived for generations because they offer so much of what a baby needs,” says movement specialist Rae Pica, also interviewed in Art to Heart. “Peek-a-boo provides bonding in the way of eye contact and laughter, and it teaches the child about object permanence [the concept that things don’t disappear simply because we can’t see them]. Patty-cake provides physical touch and gives babies a chance to cross the vertical midline of the body, which requires that the two hemispheres of the brain communicate. This is later critical to, among other things, reading and writing skills.”


Some sources for additional lap and movement games for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers:

  • Baby Lap Games downloadable activity sheet (PDF)
  • Rae Pica’s Moving and Learning web site has lots of game ideas for children of all ages, along with information on the importance of physical activity and bonding.

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Dance Styles


People dance for many reasons. In some cultures, specific dances are part of a ceremony or religious ritual. Artistic dances are dances created as works of art to express ideas, images, or feelings. Recreation and social interaction are another reason people dance; these types of dances may include folk/traditional or ethnic dances as well as ballroom styles of dance.

A variety of dance styles are mentioned or shown in Program 4 of Art to Heart:

African Dance


In the series, Diadie Bathily teaches young children at a St. Louis elementary school a traditional dance from Mali, the Jansa.

In West Africa, dance is as much a part of the culture as working, playing, and celebrating. Dance is not just an artistic expression; it is an important way to commemorate special occasions and rites of passages. For example, the Jansa is a ceremonial dance honoring the family.

The rhythms of African dance are at the root of many contemporary American dances, from tap dance to hip-hop.



Art to Heart visits the Ballet Babies class at the Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis. Ballet is a form of classical dance—a dance that has developed over time into highly stylized structures and forms. Ballet began in the 17th century in France. Like artistic dances in general, ballets tell stories, express ideas or emotions, or respond to music.

Although contemporary ballet choreographers blend classical ballet with more modern forms to keep it fresh and alive, ballet is marked by certain conventions. A classical ballet dancer undergoes formal training that can be very grueling, requiring perfection of positions and a variety of movements. Female dancers often dance en pointe (on their toes). Male dancers are known for their amazing leaps. The physical demands and stresses on the body are one reason the teacher at COCA emphasizes the story aspect with her youngest students and recommends waiting until a child is older to start her en pointe.

Folk/Traditional Dances


Art to Heart features traditional/folk dances in Berea, KY and at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, where young children learn a Mexican Hat Dance.

Folk/traditional dances are usually created and performed by a specific group within a culture. These dances generally originated outside the court or circle of power within a society. Some traditional American dances include reels and square dances. The Mexican Hat dance is also an example of an ethnic dance, a dance associated with a specific culture.

Modern Dance


In the Art to Heart program, Louisville teacher Audra White teaches youngsters a variety of dances, including modern dance. Modern dance was developed in the early 1900s by dancers who wanted to break away from the strict traditions and structures of ballet to a form of movement that allowed more freedom of movement. For example, Martha Graham, one of the early modern dance choreographers, thought it was ridiculous for people to dance on their toes and rotate their legs into the unnatural turned-out position of classical ballet.

There is no one modern dance technique; instead, choreographers explore various ways of moving. Modern dancers usually perform barefoot and make use of the whole torso. By the 1990s, the distinctions between modern dance and ballet were not as rigid as they once were. Today you’ll often find performance dances combining elements of modern dance and ballet.

In the segment, White’s students also perform jazz dance honoring the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz dance is intimately connected to jazz music. Jazz began as a social dance form in the 1920s with dances such as the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, and the Big Apple, but evolved to become a performance art as well. Tap dance is another artistic form of jazz dance. In this percussive dance, the dancers create rhythms with their feet and wear metal taps on their shoes. Tap dance is also an example of how the dances of cultures blend to become a new art form. Tap dance borrows from West African dance and music as well as from Irish step dance and English clogging.

These are just a few of the many styles of dance. Every culture has dances associated with its own traditions.

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Ideas for Parents

Nurturing a Love for the Arts


Jennifer Rose, who is featured in Program 4 of Art to Heart, is a teacher of traditional dance as well as a professional performer whose work combines dance, music, and drama. (You can find out more about her at the Jennifer Rose web site.) Jennifer’s husband, Alfredo Escobar, is a visual artist. In this article, she shares thoughts and encouragement on how parents and their children can enjoy arts activities together.

Is it genetics or environment? The age-old chicken-and-egg question about children’s abilities and preferences goes on and on. My parents are not musicians, but they raised six children who are all musically talented. My paternal grandmother’s family were all good singers, and the folks who believe that genetics play a role in artistic talent are content to point out that “it often skips a generation.” My husband Alfredo’s parents are both talented artists, so naturally he got it “from both sides.” The fact is, we don’t know what will make a child interested or talented in anything, and our responsibility as parents is to give our children healthy experiences in many areas. Whether we feel qualified or not.

It is important to Alfredo and me that our children love the arts, so we started early to lay a foundation for that to develop. As soon as we found out we were expecting Lydia, I began singing “Kentucky Babe” to her when I lay down for bed at night. Sure enough, when she got big enough for me to feel her activity inside my tummy, I could sing that song to calm her down when I needed to rest. When she was crying in the birthing room after her introduction to this world, I began singing that song from across the room. Her crying stopped immediately. Now, even five years later, she still knows that’s her special song. I chose a Danish song for Isabel, with similar results.

Simple Games, Simple Joy

Both girls had danced with us for hours in their little front carriers by the time they were 2 years old, and it has not been necessary to “teach” them to dance. They are both incredibly expressive and creative in their dancing. I sometimes get moves from them that I use in choreography! When they were tiny, I often played patty-cake with them, holding their hands and clapping them together with mine. Later I played little singing games with them that helped identify body parts, colors, or other things I wanted them to learn. Counting songs came later, and then spelling songs and songs with improvisational rhyming. I usually lead those myself, and we also listen often to some great CDs with fun, educational music led by accomplished children’s musicians. The great thing about little kids is that they love to spend artsy time with their parents and couldn’t care less if their parents are any good at it!

In an effort to help teachers and parents remember and play singing games with their young children, I put 42 of my favorites in a book called American Heritage Playparty and Singing Games. The notebook has written lyrics, instructions, and historical notes, and the accompanying CD and DVD have complete demonstrations of the games. The games the girls and I currently play most often include “Little Johnny Brown,” “Marching ’Round the Village,” “Looby Loo,” “Jump Jim Joe,” and “Mazudio.”

Talk to Your Baby!

Both research and instinct tell us that the first five years are incredibly important in a child’s development. Face-to-face time with family members is essential to the development of a baby’s emotional sense. The amount a baby is talked to directly affects his linguistic development. The kinds of sounds a baby hears in its first few months will be the kinds of sounds she makes as she imitates the language of her family and caregivers. A child may be born with talent, but environment shapes values and behaviors that can open the door for natural talent or slam it completely shut.

Time Matters

If I had to put a name on the parenting style that Alfredo and I have chosen, it might be “deliberate parenting.” We feel that raising children isn’t a random thing that one can leave to chance.

While we’re constantly watching for the things that make our girls tick (with Lydia, it’s bugs), we’re also constantly making deliberate choices about what we expose them to, because that will ultimately affect their behavior and determine in large part who they become. We tell a lot of stories together, including established tales and those we make up as we go. We look at family pictures from years gone by and tell the girls about their ancestors and living relatives, so they’ll have a healthy sense of where and who they came from.

We limit their TV time to almost nothing, because we want them to create their own games and spend as much time as they can outdoors. We let them paint in Alfredo’s studio with real acrylic paints and canvas, so they know what their father does for a living. And they understand the thrill of creating a work of art, no matter how abstract it looks (and the grandparents love it). We have been to see some really great musical shows together, and we’ve always talked beforehand about what we would see and how we would act, with expectations and rewards clearly outlined to ensure success.

We look at pictures or listen to the music from the show afterward to help them remember the experience. We watch scenes from Broadway musicals on DVD before bedtime a couple of nights a week, and I often catch the girls acting out the roles and singing the songs in their play together. I reinforce the responses I like by complimenting the girls on them: “I love the way you sing that song so emotionally,” or “That was a beautiful dance—can you do some more?” Of course, all of this requires that we spend a lot of time with our children, another responsibility that we take very seriously.

Parenting is the most fun, most rewarding, most difficult job either of us has ever had. We chose this job with great excitement, because it is the one thing we can do with our lives that will truly fulfill our reason for being on this Earth. We started off with the end in mind: children who will know the value of expression, of nature, of humanity, and of themselves. We can’t think of any better way to that end than a life filled with art.

Jennifer’s Thoughts for Parents

  • Remember that the first five years lay the foundation for who your child will grow up to be.
  • Expose your children to a broad range of creative experiences.
  • If you’re not confident in a particular area, seek out resources or people who are.
  • Watch your child for strong responses or talents in any area.
  • Music can teach much more than singing. It helps with learning in language, math, history, turn-taking, physical control, and endless other things!
  • Planning and focus are important in parenting; don’t leave your child’s creative development up to chance.
  • You’re the most important teacher your children have, and they think you’re wonderful. Believe it yourself!

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Dance Basics and Terms


Dance is the art of human movement—using movement to convey ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

Another term you will hear in the Art to Heart series is creative movement (sometimes called creative dance). It refers to movement activities and strategies to help children develop their physical skills, explore different types of movements, express ideas using body movements, and promote creative thinking.

Two general categories of movement are used in dance and creative movement. Locomotor movements are movements in which the body travels from one location to another. Examples include walking, running, hopping, jumping, skipping, leaping, galloping, and sliding. Non-locomotor movements are movements performed around the axis of the body while the person stays in one place. Examples include bending, pushing or pulling, rising or sinking, shaking, stretching, swinging, swaying, twisting, and turning.

The building blocks, or elements, of dance are space, time, and force.

Space is the element of dance that has to do with

  • shape (either the shapes dancers make with their bodies or the shapes that groups of dancers form, such as lines or circles)
  • direction (whether movement is forward, backward, or sideways)
  • pathways (whether movement is straight, curvy, or zigzag)
  • levels (whether the dancer reaches high, stays at a medium level, or is low and close to the floor)

Time is the element of dance that has to do with

  • beat (the underlying pulse of the dance)
  • tempo (whether the movement is slow, medium, or fast)

Force is the element of dance that has to do with the energy of the movement—whether it is sharp or smooth, heavy or light, stiff or free-flowing.

Exploring the Elements of Dance

  • As you talk to your baby or toddler, point to and name body points. Describe your movements and your child’s.
  • With toddlers and preschoolers, dance and sing songs with movements, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “I’m a Little Teapot.”
  • Encourage toddlers and older children to develop body and movement awareness. Make a game of it: Ask, “How many ways can you move your arms (legs, etc.)?” Practice both locomotor and non-locomotor movements. Be sure to include cross-lateral movements—movements that require crossing the midline of the body (such as patting a knee with an opposite hand). They’re important because they stimulate communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
  • Play games like “Copy Cat,” in which you and your child take turns mimicking each other’s movements. In a group, children can play in a circle, with everyone mimicking the movement chosen by a child in the center.
  • Play a variety of music to move to. Let preschoolers and elementary students move using scarves, crepe streamers, or hoops. Encourage them to vary the shapes, directions, tempos, and forces of their movements.
  • With older preschoolers, play “Move Like …” games. Ask the children to “move like a lion” (a bird, a motorboat, a princess, etc.) or to move like they’re trying to run through mud (a snowstorm, water, etc.). Use characters in stories to inspire movement. Again, encourage trying a variety of levels, shapes, directions, and tempos.

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Other Programs in this Series

Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?

Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.

Visit the Art to Heart Collection

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