Dance and SEL: Making Connections Through Movement

By Noelle Serafino, Kevin Bradley

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The arts, and dance in particular, offer a rewarding way to engage students in learning and practicing the SEL competencies—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.). By incorporating movement into the classroom, educators provide students with the opportunity to be creative and active at the same time. In addition, regularly scheduled movement breaks throughout the school day offer much-needed time for students to refresh and refocus (Roser, 2015). In fact, the more successful SEL programs use active and interactive forms of learning with students, with dance suggested as one of the more effective methods (Toppen, 2019a). Educational media organizations, such as PBS Learning Media (n.d.), also recognize the value of the dance-SEL intersection and offer resources for elementary students.

Dance is many things—an art form, a physical discipline, a cultural expression, a social phenomenon, and a tool for exploration and learning. In the classroom, dance can provide a structured, safe outlet for emotional expression and SEL development (Payne & Costas, 2020). Because many forms of dance employ nonverbal communication, it is a particularly effective means of practicing cooperation and fostering emotional literacy—the ability to “read,” recognize, and respond accordingly to feelings and emotions arising from interpersonal and intrapersonal circumstances (Connor & Hildenbrand, 2020). Dance gives students an opportunity to engage in symbolic emotional expression and relate to and interact with peers in new ways (Payne & Costas, 2020), encouraging social-emotional growth, particularly in the competencies of cooperation, empathy, and self-control. Strengthening these competencies through dance offers a meaningful way for students to make connections with their learning, their peers, their teachers, and their communities.

Studying the role of dance in society enables students to gain in- sights into a society’s values and beliefs and offers lessons in cross-cultural understanding (Toppen, 2019b), resulting in greater empathy (Center for Responsive Schools, 2019). Dance can help students understand and appreciate cultural events, celebrations, and rituals different from their own, increasing their ability to respect and value diversity in others. The dances of ancient cultures can open a window into other times, places, and modes of expression, allowing students to make important connections across cultures, time periods, and academic subjects. Dance can also be a way to build a joyful, inclusive community where students feel a sense of belonging and significance. From hip-hop to Irish step dance and everything in between, dance forms that are meaningful to students—and ones that students can readily view and participate in—offer a pathway to establishing a cohesive classroom community and strengthening teacher-student bonds (Boffone, 2020).

Dance also benefits students outside of school. In general, participating in after-school activities can help students feel more connected and valued. Students learn to enjoy an activity for the fun of it and the challenge it presents, which in turn encourages them to do well both in and out of school (Hayes & Moffitt, 2022). Likewise, improved SEL outcomes occur when students are given the opportunity to practice SEL skills across different settings, including in after-school programs, which tend to be less formal and structured (Gonser, 2020). Massoni (2011) noted the following regarding the benefits of extracurricular activities:

  1. There are fewer behavior problems in the classroom. Students learn discipline and take pride in their accomplishments.
  2. Students achieve better grades and demonstrate a positive attitude. Extracurricular activities build self-esteem, which instills a belief that they can succeed at activities they attempt.
  3. A higher percentage of students complete their schooling. Students are more engaged when they participate in extracurricular activities.
  4. Students tend to be more productive in the classroom and later as adults. Students learn how to work together as a team and acquire other skills that will serve them well in college and work.
  5. There are more opportunities for social interaction. Students meet new people from varied backgrounds.

Leaders in the dance community note that they take an approach to teaching students that incorporates social and emotional learning as a tool for individual empowerment, community engagement, and life skills development (Aarts, 2018; Dooling-Cain, 2018). Dance educators understand the importance of teaching dance not only for dance’s sake but also for cultivating the whole child (Ng, 2020). Similar to sports participation, dance requires practice, teamwork, and a certain amount of dedication, all of which foster self-discipline, responsibility, and perseverance—skills that lead to success in, out of, and beyond school. Just as dance is a tool to build community within the classroom, it can also strengthen connections and a sense of belonging in the community at large and serve as a source of empowerment and a catalyst for social change (TFC, n.d.).

Dance also offers a chance to engage in kinesthetic learning. Students learn better by “doing”—using a hands-on approach or with movement—whether it’s acquiring a new physical skill such as riding a bike or by combining movement with academics, such as practicing simple algebra with accompanying choreography (Sinha, 2014). Active learning can increase how quickly a student picks up on new concepts (Dotson-Renta, 2016). Anne Green Gilbert, an educator and founder of three educational dance centers, highlights the significance of the mind-body connection and describes the positive impact of movement on learning:

“Positive movement experiences, what I call brain-compatible dance education, are beneficial for all ages. Infants develop their brains through movement. Elders delay dementia through movement. Engaging in expressive movement experiences while relating to others keeps our brains and bodies healthy and strong and develops valuable social and emotional skills.” (Human Kinetics, n.d.)

Not to be overlooked are the physical benefits of dance: It’s great exercise. Dance increases flexibility, balance, coordination, range of motion, physical strength, and stamina (Aarts, 2018; Eckelkamp, 2020). These physical skills help students become more aware of and in control of their bodies, which aids movement control, a type of self-control.

Dance connects people and sparks joy. Whether students are working with a partner or group or simply enjoying a performance, a human connectedness occurs. In the classroom, this connection can be not only with classmates and teachers but with their learning as well. Consider incorporating dance in your classroom or after-school program to strengthen students’ SEL skills, build community, and enliven learning.

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Noelle Serafino

Noelle Serafino is an associate editor in the publications department at Center for Responsive Schools. Prior to joining Center for Responsive Schools, Noelle worked in marketing and communications for nonprofit organizations in the arts and culture sector. She received a BA from Hampshire College and an MA from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

Kevin Bradley

Kevin Bradley is a project editor at Center for Responsive Schools. He received a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from SUNY Stony Brook, and has worked in the publishing industry for nearly 30 years.