Dancing to Learn - an artists viewpoint

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Dancing to Learn – an artists viewpoint


Can dancing improve performance in literacy? Does it matter anyway? Oliver Scott is a choreographer and Artistic Director of Mercurial Dance. He writes about his experience of a dance project designed not only to explore children’s expressive abilities but to enhance their attainment. 


The project


I was invited by Rex Pogson, of Art Zone in Warwickshire, in early 2006 to become part of a team of artists for the LPSA2 (Local Public Service Agreement)  – Dancing to Learn  project.  Dancing to Learn is an arts partnership programme designed to enhance children’s attainment through dance in primary education. Since its launch the steer has been taken over by  John Haggett of Warwickshire Arts in Learning and the project itself has gone from strength to strength.


Over eight terms between September 06 (Y4) and March 09 (Y6) 19 classes would receive artist workshops led by seven dancers. The workshops were planned to occur twice termly for each of the 19 classes. Each of the twelve schools had identified distinct areas of focus that they wanted to tackle in attainment and dance work with their Y4 pupils.  Schools in my cluster chose to link to literacy and creative writing with dance.


Participating schools have signed up to a ’stretched’ % L4 FFT target for the pupils in 2009 and the 2009 results of national tests in English, Mathematics and Science for this cohort will be correlated with pupils’ experience in dance.  An action research philosophy was to be the focus for planning, implementation and evaluation.


The Aims of Dancing to Learn


It was planned that children would become better learners and that their attainment would be improved by exploring and expressing their observations, memory and imagination through dance.  The children would be interpreting and articulating their thoughts and feelings through dance and related work, along with using the codes and conventions of dance to support their confidence and understanding in all other areas of learning.


In addition to the project aims, Mercurial Dance had other dance specific objectives in keeping with the company’s values and ethos. Children and school staff would have an increased engagement and greater appreciation of the value of dance. It was hoped in particular to be able to change the perceptions and attitudes of boys. It was also intended to find links between subjects, forging a more thematic curriculum and building working practices between artists and teachers. And, of course, a main aim was to stimulate children’s creativity and imagination.


The structure of the project


In each half term Mercurial Dance taught two half days per class. During this time each lesson was based in content on another curriculum subject (eg history) and dance skills teaching.  The structure was usually a dance based introduction and warm-up which included theme setting, followed by theme development and main activity.  The lesson always ended with a short performance of work made in the lesson and a cool down/writing activity linked to what had been taught.  A variety of lesson lengths were experimented with over the course of the year, from hour long through to half day workshops with the children. The teachers were expected to participate fully and teach some other related elements (eg literacy) By the end of the year the teachers led successful sessions on their own.


During this project Mercurial Dance worked on a three-part model for workshops.  Each step is named Micro Intervention, Midi Intervention and Macro Intervention.  Each one has a different form and function:


1.    Macro Intervention

A Macro intervention is a dance lesson developed directly from another curriculum subject. E.g. Romans – a day in the life of a roman soldier taught through dance.  Feelings, thoughts and actions – training/combat/partner work/life on the march - are developed with the children into movements and choreographed into a dance to perform to each other. From this the children would use their imagination stimulated from the session to feed into a creative writing session such as a diary entry for a roman soldier. These Macro Interventions fit very well at the beginning or end of a unit of work as an activator or consolidator.


2.    Midi Intervention

A Midi intervention lesson involves taking a curriculum subject out of the class room and into the hall. It combines dance and writing together in activities that access the creative and logical centres of the mind. e.g the Poetic Rainforest. Using improvisational and taught movement to stimulate ideas and make a word bank, the session develops towards a writing outcome for a Rainforest Haiku.  This fits particularly well with the ‘gathering ideas’ initial phases of the renewed framework for literacy.  The Midi Intervention uses quality dance input to support other subject teaching, at the same time challenging the children’s and teachers concept of ‘a literacy lesson’.


3.    Micro Intervention

This Micro intervention brings elements of dance into the literacy lesson.  For example, using small motif’s as ‘signatures’ for remembering, the kinaesthetic approach to ideas generation. Often the changing physical state can help children to improve their concentration.



The Poetic Rainforest – an example of a detailed session plan


One of the sessions that was most successful in drawing together the different elements of Dancing to Learn, and exploring the Midi Intervention was the Poetic Rainforest. The workshop was placed at the end of a unit of work on Rainforests, just prior to moving to different cultures, with a focus on Japan.


The children had already spent some time learning about the rainforest as a topic. The Midi Intervention started with an activator and visual stimulus to remind them and stimulate their learning.  From this we developed movement ideas and dance phrases, working with improvisational tasks.  We moved from writing exercises, using ‘ink wasters’ [DO1] (Pie Corbett 2007) and generating word banks to dancing and back again. Their teacher introduced the haiku form of poetry writing, which they had looked at in the past, and taught the literacy aspects of Haiku’s, and our writing outcomes with specific tasks.  This included mind mapping words, creation of first and second lines of the Haiku reflecting/discussing in pairs, then sharing with the group. Together we started a Haiku.  Depending on ability the children then finished this Haiku, or re-wrote their own depending on their ability groups. During the writing session Mini Interventions took place to stimulate the children and connect with kinaesthetic learning.


Text Box: Y5 Pupil’s Rainforest Haiku

Swishing through the trees
Glittery mist sprinkles down
Droplets on my tail











There have been some real successes this year. From observation and evaluation with the staff it is possible to draw some conclusions to project into the final year of Dancing to Learn.  The development of curriculum dance has improved substantially – in some cases there was little or no quality dance teaching prior to this project, and this has been brought about by regular dance input by a specialist. Teachers’ competencies and confidence with dance has improved, with teachers being able to deliver a Macro Intervention.   Children’s dance skills have been enhanced. An enthusiasm for dance, particularly with the boys has been observed and there is an excitement and engagement during the workshops.  


At the time of writing the Y5 SATS are being marked and we will see if this year’s input has made a difference at a ‘statistical’ level, and whether direct correlations can be drawn back to these artist sessions. However, as a visiting artist the benefits observed are frequently to do with learning in a broader context - changes to attitude, approach, involvement, engagement, confidence, and abilities.



Are there any pointers for others who wish to establish a similar project? On consideration the project has worked best when there has been dedicated join planning time, and time to reflect on the ideas generated in these sessions before working with the children. As part of the project twilight, and during the school day CPD and development sessions were structured to address this need.  This has required support from Senior Management Teams in making  time available during the school day. These sessions have been the period when the teachers’ learning takes place.


Good communication between the staff and artist in-between sessions, with both being able draw on each others subject specialism is important. The match between the artist and the staff is key. Conversations about fulfilling statutory curriculum demands in terms of time spent on ‘lessons’ vs ‘the workshops’ has led to an understanding that these sessions are delivering the curriculum but from a different angle. It has been important  to focus on the process of learning for the children rather than the outcome and to distill this into an aspect for the session. For example in the early stages of the project it was important to build an enthusiasm for dance. Practical considerations are also important, beyond the nuts and bolts of adequate spaces to work in, such as where will the workshop sit in the unit of work – beginning middle or end, and what time can be set aside to follow up the session. 


Dancing to Learn is mid project and the children are now entering year six classes and their final year.  This means a new group of teachers join the project.  So far the project has been rewarding and stimulating, and enabled a new approach of the Micro, Midi and Macro Interventions to be explored.  Over the next year fresh challenges and ways of engaging with the curriculum will be explored and we will find out how the results are improving.