We all know how much kids love to move. But in an elementary music class what should that movement look like?
Movement can take many forms, but one of the most culturally and socially significant ways for your music classroom is to teach folk dance. Not only do kids love doing this, but they also get a lot out of it musically.
Teaching folk dance can be intimidating though if you’re not sure what you’re doing. That’s why we compiled this list of 6 simple tricks for teaching folk dance.
Read on to gain some knowledge and be more confident in leading your students through engaging and fun movement activities.
There are a ton of reasons to teach folk dance to your kids. In fact, we could spend a whole article just talking about why folk dancing with your students is so awesome. For time’s sake, let’s focus on these important reasons:
Beat and Phrase Reinforcement
Conductors never complain about their musicians’ steady beat skills, right? (Read: Sarcasm). In folk dancing, the moves are usually lined up with the beat of the music. By using their whole bodies to follow the steady beat, we’re building a deeper connection with the beat in the brain.
On another level, the steps of the folk dances often follow the phrasing of the music as well. After doing folk dances for a while, your students can start to sense where the cadences and phrases are.
After folk dancing for years, my fourth graders can be given directions and told to change “when the music tells them to.” Almost every time, the kids change the steps at the exact right points because their bodies and ears have been trained to sense the phrasing of the music.
Music, at its core, is about artful expression. Music is a language that expresses what words can’t. It can be hard to connect young folks with the expressive qualities of music.
When addressing this, many experts in music education turn to movement. Folk dancing is one of these movement activities that often addresses the feelingful qualities of the music with the steps.
How important is it right now in our current world to be aware of and empathetic with other cultures? This is a huge issue, and empathy stems from understanding.
By teaching students about the folk dances of different cultures, it gives students a new perspective on the culture and builds an unconscious connection. With this connection, students are more likely to be respectful of other cultures because it doesn’t seem so alien to them.
Social and Emotional Engagement
Let’s face it. Many of our students are stunted socially and emotionally. Our culture has moved away from face-to-face interaction. Folk dances force us to look and engage with each other in a physical and musical way.
Folk dancing breaks down walls. Dr. Ashley Allen starts every class with a folk dance to break the ice and get her students to interact with each other.
On top of this, the studies around movement, exercise, and mental/emotional health are clear. Even with the simple act of getting our students active, we are increasing the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—key chemicals for regulating mood and increasing happiness.
Folk dancing is fun!
If I had to be honest, all of these other reasons are great, but I teach folk dancing because I find it fun, and the students do too. It’s hard enough to engage students when all they want to do is play Fortnight and lounge around. If we’ve found something that works and engages them, let’s teach it!
Are you convinced yet? Maybe so. But many general music teachers were never taught how to teach folk dancing. Here are the Michigan Kodály Educators 6 simple tricks for teaching folk dance.
1) Follow a sequence
I always tell my student teachers: “You could teach Kindergarten students their multiplication tables if you wanted to given enough time and repetition. But they’ll never truly understand unless you build on their math knowledge in a thought-out sequence.”
The same is true for folk dancing. I love doing complicated folk dances with a million moves that test your brain to the limits. I just don’t do that with my littles.
What I do is look at the folk dances I want to teach and organize them into an order from easiest to hardest. As I’ve done this, I’ve noticed the following trends:
If building your own sequence on folk dancing seems like it’s too much, you don’t have to. Our favorite resources (below) often have a sequence with them to help you on your way. For an in-depth movement sequence, check out the Weikart text.
2) Choose the right folk dance set
Not all folk dance sets are created equal. In fact, choosing a complicated set can mean the death of your folk dance before you even present it to your students.
What is a set? - A folk dance set is the formation of the dancers. There are many types, but these five are the most common. They’re also arranged in order of generally easiest to hardest.
3) Chunk it out
Maybe you’ve already picked a folk dance to teach, but you need help figuring out how to teach. Here’s a motto I follow with all of my teaching, and it’s served me well:
When in doubt, chunk it out!
Just like when you teach a song using the rote method, it helps kids to break down the steps into manageable chunks. Here is a sample chunking process for a generic 4-move folk dance.
All the initial steps should be done without music.
Pro-tip: For really complicated moves, add another step after model where a small group of students demonstrates the move.
4) Finger practice
I had already been teaching folk dances for a few years when I started my Kodály Level I training at Central Michigan University. As part of that training, we spent a few hours one day doing a bunch of folk dances and learning more about how to teach them.
As our instructor, Dr. Joy Nelson, led us through the folk dances she introduced me to the idea of finger practice. Believe it or not, this thing blew my mind.
Every time I had my students put several moves together, we made it through, but it was always touch and go. Finger practice changed all of that.
Finger practice is when the students think through the moves by moving only their fingers in the general shape of the moves as you call them. For example, when you call a do-si-do, the students move one finger around the other.
It helps students visualize and think about the moves without the pressure of potential collision if they forget what’s coming next. This extra step also helps to get them focused on what is coming. Many kids have a hard time following two-step directions, and we’re basically asking them to do a lot more than that.
At our Michigan Kodály workshop on April 6th, 2019 titled, Folk Dance Favorites, I experienced firsthand what happens if I forget to finger practice.
I was teaching a simple dance that goes with “The Noble Duke of York.” Everything was going great, but I skipped the finger practice step as we put everything together. Even in a room full of music teachers, there was a moment of confusion when we began the dance!
All because I forgot to finger practice.
5) Get student motivation and buy-in
You might be thinking, This is all fine and dandy, but my older boys will never do this.
Well, if that’s your attitude, they probably won’t. But there are some proven tricks to boost student motivation and get all student (including your super athletic boys) buy-in.
6) Adapt moves as needed
You can use all these great tricks, but there may still be some moves in a folk dance that your students are just struggling with. Here’s my last and greatest secret:
Change the move to an easier one.
Of course, you never want to give up easily, but sometimes the return just isn’t worth it. As a teacher and expert, you have the prerogative to adapt your instruction to meet the students’ needs.
If you do change the move, make sure that you follow these general rules:
As long as you don’t go right for the simplification without trying the harder move, feel free to change the moves as you need.
Pro-tip: If a move is confusing to you, try finding a video of the dance or move. You can always ask on our Facebook page (Michigan Kodály Educators) or email us for help.
Hopefully, at this point, you’re feeling ready to jump in with your students and take the time to teach some awesome folk dances. But where to start?
There are literally dozens of excellent resources out there for folk dancing. Here are some Michigan Kodály Educators favorites:
Teaching folk dance is a central part of any general music curriculum. Kids from ages 4-100 can have a meaningful experience with this activity. By understanding folk dances, teaching them sequentially, and getting to the students’ level, you’ll find a lot more success and have fun!
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