In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Dance

  • Introduction
  • Spirituality
  • Dance, Reality Television, and Social Media

Childhood Studies Children and Dance
Judith Lynne Hanna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0249


Evolution shows that human development has been influenced by movement, including dance. Why? Attention to motion is critical for survival to cope with eating or being eaten, social bonding, and shaping and sharpening both body and brain. Dance is a complex physical, multisensory, emotional, and cognitive form of communicative motion with widely distributed processing in the internally differentiated brain. These facts contradict earlier views of dance as merely physical and emotional. Dance is a language, composed of purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, and culturally influenced sequences of nonverbal body movements and stillness in time and space, and with effort performed with notions of aesthetic value and competency. A method of conveying complex concepts and ideas with or without recourse to sound, dance is more often like symbolic poetry than prose. Dance occurs in formal and informal settings. The body sounding off with cognition, affect, continuity, and change in dance may reflect or influence society. Amazingly, researchers from at least twenty-two disciplines worldwide have conducted research on dance and the child, including anthropology, Asian studies, computer science, dance, education, endocrinology, occupational therapy, neuroscience, humanities, mechanical engineering, medicine, movement science, nursing, physical education, pediatric oncology, psychiatry, psychology, public health, sport and human performance, theater, urban studies and planning, and therapy. The discipline of dance is relatively new compared to that of other art forms. In the United States, Gertrude Colby was employed to teach dance pedagogy courses to aspiring and experienced educators at Teachers College as early as 1912. Her approach was a creative process, “natural dancing.” The first university dance major was in the Women’s Physical Education Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1926. Today there are university dance departments offering PhDs. Movement is the defining characteristic of life, and a healthy child continually develops dance movement skills. They learn to imitate. Most people of the world learn to dance in family and community settings. There are also schools, site-based dances, and flash mobs (groups of people assemble suddenly in a public place to dance for a short time and then disperse). The process of dance education for child development is as important as the outcome. Today we have an amateur visual/auditory history of dance created by children and adolescence on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. Sections in this article are Dance Theory/Action, Early Childhood, Learning Dance and Other Subjects, Teaching Approaches, Dance and Health, Spirituality, and Dance, Reality Television, and Social Media.

Dance Theory/Action

Dance is a form of movement, language, and emotional expression. Attention to childhood dance is lacking in historical writing, as Cunningham 2020 points out. Indeed, most historical writing about childhood has been about Western society, and more is written about parents than children’s experience. From classical and Christian reports, infanticide, slavery, and abandonment were common. In the Middle Ages and following, childhood merges into adulthood from about seven years. Folk dance was for village and town folk. Commoners often had many children—some died early, and some worked to support the family. From the Renaissance onward, elite families had strict dance masters for the adults and youth to teach the precise, patterned dances of the period to instill an appreciation for order and good manners in young people. From about 1830 to 1920, street children and child labor appeared in historical accounts (see Mintz 2012). In the 19th and 20 centuries, state police and administrators in the United States provoked changing concepts of childhood in relation to schooling, poverty, delinquency, factory labor, and criminal justice. Middle-class families sent children out to play. Girls may have had dance lessons at private studios. Today, however, parents often keep their children home for fear of violence. Social media occupy children. Also, children and adolescents have much less free time than their predecessors did. Many parents are putting their offspring into adult-structured, adult-supervised activities, from dance to sports and academics. Multitudes of dance opportunities have opened up for children. Dance organizations and the media shape ideas about the body, dancing, and education, and transform the ways people are seen and understood. Lancy 2015 takes us beyond Western society. In early childhood, dance is play in which motor and social skills develop. Dance education and performance are offered in multiple ways. There are texts, such as Bond 2019, Koff 2021, and Nielsen and Burridge 2015, that give an overview of dance history and its development as well as ways of teaching and viewing dance. Emphasis has been on the “thinking” body, but in the 21st century, research of neuroscientists studying dancers’ brains places the brain as dominant in dance while also interpreting bodily sensations, as explained by Hanna 2015. The brain is constantly rewiring itself as physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage new neurons and their networking. Dance is exercise plus—it is complex whole body movement enmeshed in a full suite of multisensory, emotional, and cognitive functions. Children commonly study dance as a preparation for a performance (teacher directed) or an exploration of dance movement (student-centered learning).

  • Bond, Karen, ed. Dance and the Quality of Life. Social Indicators Research Series 73. New York: Springer, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-95699-2

    There are 570 pages of phenomenological inquiry, perspectives on dance ecology, spirituality, gender, family, health, well-being, ability, and schools. Four chapters are specifically on children.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500. 3d ed. Studies in Modern History. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781003033165

    Cunningham reviews the literature and finds there is more written and evidence about ideas about childhood than the actual experience of being a child. More is written about parents, and there were manuals for them. Change has evolved from classical elite training and infanticide and abandonment to present concerns for the safety of children and future needs of the state that have catalyzed public action concerning children.

  • Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

    A synthesis of research in neuroscience with knowledge in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and education supports dance as nonverbal language affecting similar places and learning processes in the brain as verbal language, and thus a powerful means of communication; dance as physical exercise that sparks new brain cells; and dance is a means to help us cope with stress that can motivate or interfere with learning.

  • Koff, Susan R. Dance Education: A Redefinition. London: Methuen Drama, 2021.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350088047

    This volume addresses the history of dance education, experiences offered to young people in various settings, and cross-cultural questions: what dance is, dance as an art form, how people talk about dance, how dance is created and performed and why, how dances convey meanings and emotions, how social contexts shape the making and interpretation of dance, and how and why is dance transmitted.

  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Based on research in history, anthropology, and primatology, Lancy counters the understanding of childhood based on knowledge of Western cultures. He asks how children are raised in different cultures, their role in society, and how families and societies affect them.

  • Mintz, Steven. “Why the History of Childhood Matters.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 5.1 (2012): 15–28.

    DOI: 10.1353/hcy.2012.0012

    Reasons to study the past is to defamiliarize the present, to know that the meanings assigned to childhood and the actual experience of childhood continually change, and the growth of the state’s police and administration in the United States affected changing definitions of childhood. Children were the focus of conflicts over schooling, poverty, delinquency, factory labor, and criminal justice.

  • Nielsen, Charlotte, and Stephanie Burridge, eds. Dance Education around the World: Perspectives on Dance, Young People and Change. London: Routledge, 2015.

    Reflection, evaluation, analysis, and documentation shed light on dance in early childhood and primary and secondary schools across the globe. Experiences come from a spectrum of countries from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, offering fresh perspectives on contrasting ideas, philosophies, and approaches to dance education.

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