Place of Dance in Basic Education

by Harbans L. Nakra, Ph.D. No Comments


It has been recognized for well over a century now that dance is an excellent activity for children and for that reason has been a part of many school programs for the better part of the twentieth century in both Europe and America.  However, for a long time, it was mainly considered a suitable activity for girls to develop grace and elegance, serving as a counterpoint to physical education (training) for boys.  It is only recently, in the second half of the last century, that serious interest has developed in viewing dance as a tool for child development.  The main argument advanced in support of this has been that it helps in the development of aesthetic sensibilities with the accompanying development of creativity and imagination, in addition, of course, to the development of skills associated with physical body movement and mind-body co-ordination.  Peter Brinson has given an excellent review of the efforts that have been made in Britain to get dance treated as a discipline in itself, like music and fine arts, and not just an appendage to physical education [1].

In the U.S.A., recognition of a place for dance in schools recently got a major boost when, in 1990,  the Paideia Council decided to move ‘coaching in the performing arts’ from the category of ‘understanding of ideas’ to that of ‘skills development’ in its curriculum framework.  This latter category also includes such other subjects as reading, writing, problem solving etc.  In presenting the arguments for this case, the noted philosopher, Mortimer Adler, posed the following questions [2]:
“When musical compositions, paintings, ballets, and so on are not associated with words in any way, do they have anything at all to say about the ‘great ideas’?
If so, what do they say?
It is clear that they are to be enjoyed for their beauty or intrinsic excellence, but in addition, should they be discussed in terms of their relevance to the ‘great ideas’?”

After an elaborate discussion, he concludes that, yes, indeed these non-verbal activities have something important to say about the ‘great ideas’ and that they do so through a process of perceptual thinking as different from conceptual thinking.

In arguing as above, Adler makes a strong case for the inclusion of the performing arts in education.  He does not specifically speak about dance, although it is included by implication. The argument is similar to that cited by Brinson - the case for developing skills for increased sensitivity, imagination and creativity.

[1] This paper was first presented at the “Dance and the Child International Conference in Regina (Canada) in 2000 (daCi200).

[2] The author is associated with the Kala Bharati School of Indian Classical Dance in Montreal and was formerly a  researcher in electrical power systems at the Hydro-Quebec Research Institue (IREQ).

Goals of Education

Attempts to introduce new material in a curriculum or even to modify its place and importance, brings us face to face with the question of ‘what are the goals of education?’ - a question that has engendered answers of a great variety but which, in general, emphasize the development of intellectual skills. Typically, the recent publication “The Estates General on Education 1995-96, The State of Education in Quebec” defines the role of a school in terms of instruction, socialization and preparation for a role in society; instruction being further defined as intellectual development and the teaching of basic skills [3].  Similarly the goals suggested by Mortimer Adler, in his Paideia Proposals [4] also speak of intellectual skills: The acquisition of organized knowledge, the development of intellectual skills and an enlarged understanding of ideas and values. These kinds of suggestions merely reinforce the concept already engraved in the minds of the public that the three R’s make up basic education.  David Perkins suggests more general goals [5]: Retention, understanding and active use of knowledge, where the word knowledge is used in its most general sense and includes skills, presumably all kinds of skills.  Elsewhere [6],  he has argued forcefully that some aspects of intelligence are indeed learnable and implies that education should aim to make the child more intelligent.

A more radical proposal has come from Howard Gardner [7] who argues that the term intelligence in the conventional sense reflects abilities only in the domain of language and logic-mathematics, abilities that are targeted for measurement in IQ tests, whereas human beings have capabilities in several other domains equally important in life, but which get relatively short shrifted in the current state of affairs.  According to his multiple intelligence (MI) theory, the human child is endowed at birth with a certain potential for development in each of seven domains, of which language and logic-mathematics are but two, and the goal of education should be the cultivation of all of these multiple intelligence's.   Two of the intelligence's he defines are spatial intelligence and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence which should be of particular interest to dance educationists.

Earlier, Glenn Doman et al [8], had argued that “Physical intelligence is the most basic of the kinds of human intelligences,” and that “in human beings, the urge to move is second only to the urge to breath.”  In the foreword to their book, Ralph Pelligra, M.D. (space medicine) writes:  “A commonly used aerospace research tool for studying the effects of weightlessness on the human body is to confine normal, healthy adults to complete bed rest. The results of this forced inactivity, or so-called hypodynamic state, are remarkable.  Within as little as 72 hours, multiple systems in the body begin to show evidence of change and deterioration.”

Doman defines physical intelligence as comprising three sensory abilities (vision, auditory and tactile) and three motor functions (manual, language and mobility) and suggest that this intelligence is acquired.

The sense in which Gardner has used the term intelligence, has come in for some criticism. In response to suggestions that capabilities in the area of music and body-kinesthetics have been usually referred to as talents and gifts, and to call them intelligences might therefore be confusing, Gardner says that restricting the application of the term intelligence to only linguistic and logic capabilities puts these on a higher pedestal and is culturally biased; he would rather see all our basic intelligences treated on a common basis - “call them all talents or call them all intelligences”.

The development of linguistic and logic skills is favoured for higher education in college or  university but it can be argued that other skills are also valuable in walks of life outside academia.  The question of success or failure might therefore be a matter of judgement based on a particular frame of reference.  It has been heard said, for example, that Einstein is the Gretzky of Physics.

A question that has come up in this connection and one that has not been fully answered is the  following:
Are these intelligences separable from each other and can we compartmentalize the development of different skills ?  Or, are they interlinked and interdependent so that they in fact make up one whole or total intelligence? Defining a total intelligence that includes all of the basic intelligences would certainly seem like an attractive proposition, but clearly further work would be required to come up with a suitable measure for it.  Whether one develops a single IQ (modified to cover multiple intelligences) or a number of IQ’s, the mere recognition of the other intelligences should certainly help the identification of a wider spectrum of potential development goals for individual students which should in turn help prevent the turnoff of educational pursuits in those who do not fare well with the traditionally measured IQ.

The term intelligence, as used in the polyvalent sense above, includes not only cognitive capacity but also qualities of perception, evaluation and expression. The cultivation of this intelligence, as the goal of education, therefore implies honing of the senses, acquisition and understanding of knowledge and the learning of skills of learning; and it implies learning the skills of decision making and of action or expression.

While researchers in psychology have been busy improving our understanding of intelligence and the learning process, great strides have been taken in the recent past by researchers in the neural science field that have given new insights into the working of the human brain.  Before considering the implications of dance in the learning process it might therefore be useful to take a brief look at the human neural system.


The Human Neural System and Learning

The human neural system, of which the brain is the central part, is made up of myriads of nerve cells and from each cell emerge dendrites that connect with dendrites from other cells, across synapses.  The nature of these synapses is such that they give to the connection a certain quality of strength.  Thus, some connections are strong and others less so.  Brain power, which can be characterized by memory and cognitive abilities, is highly dependent on the number of nerve cells and the number and strengths of the dendritic connections.

The number of nerve cells increases rapidly in early childhood and gradually reaches a plateau in early adulthood.  It used to be believed that past the age of forty the number of cells begins to diminish but recent research has established that this is not true and that in fact the number in normal human beings doesn’t change much.  The number and strengths of dendritic connections, on the other hand, are known to vary significantly.  These also grow rapidly in early childhood and through the schooling years but any given connection can become very weak and die if not used or stimulated.  Equally, weak existing connections can be made strong and new connections can grow even late in life.

The neural system can be thought of as operating in two modes: the learning mode and the experiential mode.  In the former, the understanding of any experience is helped and guided by reference to an external pre-established knowledge source (this could be a teacher), whereas in the latter mode, the significance of the experience is deduced by the experiencer based on his previous accumulated knowledge. The experiential mode could become a learning mode if at some later time the true significance of the experience is revealed.  Thus, in a way, all experiences can eventually become  learning experiences.  In a school environment, the learning is structured and controlled and therefore rapid.

The effectiveness of the learning process can be greatly enhanced if it can be experienced in a number of different ways or through different senses.  To take a simple example, consider viewing a soccer ball lying isolated in the field.  It will appear as a small object of a round profile. Then, seeing someone holding it and moving it around will reveal that it is uniformly round, about a foot or so in diameter and not too heavy.  Actually holding the ball oneself will give one a more true feeling of its size, smoothness and weight; and finally, kicking it around will reveal its true nature as a moving body.  In the process one will learn also just how much force needs to be exerted to achieve a certain transport and what effort the body has to make for the purpose.  Thus one has a better idea of what a soccer ball is because one has seen it, felt it in one’s hands and kicked it around.  Researchers have demonstrated that the more ways in which an experience is registered the more strong is its imprint on the mind and the easier it is to recall.

The neural system can be viewed as an INPUT/OUTPUT system. The input is generally from the five senses with some input coming via receptors within the body. Of the latter, two need special mention in the present context: the kinesthetic sense and emotions. Although these two are secondary inputs in the sense that they are dependent on inputs registered by one or more of the five senses, they are so directly related to the external senses that they can be treated as primary, specially in view of the considerable information they provide as input to the total learning experience. The kinesthetic sense for example tells us not only that an external body is in physical contact (touch) but also the nature of the force it is exerting and in what direction. The emotional factor is important because it is believed, according to Katz and Rubin [9], that this is one of the factors that determines whether the brain stores an experience in memory or not.

Not all inputs get registered with equal strength.  For example when meeting a person for the first time, one might be struck by some outstanding characteristic feature that registers and becomes the defining mark of recognition, but other features will also get noticed, the way he smiles or moves his head etc.  These may make weak connections in the mind that might not surface to the conscious level when thinking about that person but which are there in the background and serve to confirm one’s identification of the person met.  Polanyi’s tacit  knowledge (one can know more than one can tell) [10] can be thought of as information stored in weak connections. Mari Sorri [11], also speaks of the body sometimes knowing more than the mind can explicate, and ties her own experience in ceramics to Polanyi’s work.

The output of the neural system is the reaction to the input.  This could be a passive enjoyment or suffering of the experience or a decision to act followed by action.  The psychology of the ‘decision to act’ process and the motivational factors associated with it are important in education but their consideration would be beyond the scope of the present paper.  However, the follow up action itself is very relevant.  This is usually a motor output requiring the movement of some body parts.  Therefore, skills have to be developed that translate the ‘decision to act’  into action, or in other words, to exercise mind-body co-ordination.

Although neural scientists have not ventured into the domain of psychologists and offered a definition of intelligence in terms of neural components, it would appear that the total intelligence of a person must reflect, in some way, the number of nerve cells in the person’s neural system and the number and strengths of their dendritic interconnections.  Therefore, the cultivation of intelligence(s) as a goal of education can be thought of as being equivalent to the growth in the number and the strengths of dendritic connections and, to the extent possible, the number of nerve cells.

Neural scientists have identified a group of substances called neurotrophins which play an important role in the functioning of the brain.  These neurotrophins, produced in the nerve cells, act as nutrients for them and have a catalytic effect on the growth of dendrites and their strengths.  Researchers have also shown that the production of neurotrophins can be increased when the brain is stimulated in a certain way.  Katz and Rubin [9] cite a number of studies in support of this and have come up with some exercises for mental fitness and memory-loss prevention, which they have called neurobics.  They define a neurobic exercise as one that increases the nurotrophins in the brain and  which, they think, will occur if the exercise

- involves one or more senses in a novel context,
and/or      - engages the doer’s attention,
and/or      - breaks a routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way.


The Role of Dance in Basic Education

With the above review of the psychological and neural aspects of development, the final question that needs to be addressed is “How does dance fit into the framework to serve the goals of education.

 Dance as a Learning Tool
The notion of idiokinesis is widely accepted as a training tool for dancers.  Just as one can have the sense of real body movement through mental imaging, real sights of others moving can create kinesthetic sensations in the viewer. (The kinesthetic response of the viewer, in fact, is an important part of appreciating dance).  This is particularly true when the body has been tuned to the mind  in some previous experience.  Thus the body registers in its own way what the eyes see and the ears hear.

Dance offers various possibilities for training the body to respond in this way.  In this connection, the work of Elain Sommers on somatic education (as described by Jill Green [12]), is of particular relevance.  The mind is made aware of the sensations in each part of the body through exercises involving balls.  There are other methods to achieve the same thing.  Indian classical dance, for example, stresses very much the manipulation of all the limbs, both major and minor.  In this way dancing makes the whole body an extension of the senses, opening up numerous possibilities for picking up tacit knowledge; and the more ways  knowledge is acquired the more permanent is its retention.  Sherrie Barr and Philip Lewin [13], also speak of how kinesthetic sense is integrated with cognitive skills through the learning of movement.

In-dwelling is another notion that is widely accepted in dance training where the dancer trains to become the character portrayed.  Thus, while portraying emotions, the dancer learns to actually experience the emotions to some extent, which in turn, enhances his sense of emotions and emotional responses.  As mentioned above, emotions play an important role in transferring experience to long term memory.

 Dance as a means of expression
Through exposure to the imaginative ways in which choreographers work to express ideas and emotions, dancers build up a vocabulary of body movements that permit them to express themselves in imaginative ways, thereby encouraging and feeding creativity.

Dance as Physical and Aerobic Exercise
Dancing is already well recognized as a means of oxygenating the brain cells, which is one of the reasons for a  place for dance in physical education programs in schools,  the other reason being the toning of muscles and the development of a well co-ordinated body ready to take on challenging tasks.

 Dance as Neurobic Exercise
Judging from the conditions required for an activity to be described as neurobic, it is obvious that dance offers a gold mine of opportunities for generating these exercises.  Learning new dance movements or doing a known dance to a different musical score or rhythm, are activities that meet the criteria of involving the senses in novel ways, besides being highly engaging of the dancer’s attention and breaking the routine in unexpected ways.


Dance richly deserves a place in basic education because

  1. Dance trains the mind and body to express ideas in imaginative and powerful ways and it also helps develop a greater appreciation of the expressions of others, thus enhancing the value of one’s experiences.
  2. Dance is a tool for somatic education, enhancing proprioception and developing the whole body to function as a sense organ, thus increasing the capability to receive and absorb knowledge.
  3. Dance provides physical and aerobic exercise for the body enhancing its capability for physically challenging tasks and improving  the blood circulation to all parts of the body, including the brain.
  4. Dance is an excellent resource for neurobic exercises, with its emphasis on mind body co-ordination, infinitely varying patterns of movements and challenging space-time organization.



  1. Brinson, Peter(1991),Dance as Education: Towards a National Dance Culture, The Palmer Press, London.
  2. Adler, Mortimer J.(1994), Art, the Arts, and the Great Ideas, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York.
  3. The Estates General on Education 1995-96, The State of Education in Quebec.  A publication of the government of Quebec, Ministry of Education, 1996 - 95-0964.
  4. Adler, Mortimer J.(1982,rev.1990), The Paideia Proposal: An educational manifesto, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York.
  5. Perkins, David (1992), Smart Schools, The Free Press, New York.
  6. Perkins, David (1995), Outsmarting IQ - The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence,The Free Press, New York.
  7. Gardner, Howard (1993), Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, Basic Books, New York.
  8. Doman, Glenn et al (1988), How to Teach Your Baby to be Physically Superb, The Better Baby Press, Philadelphia.
  9. Katz, Lawrence and Rubin, Manning (1999), Keep Your Brain Alive, Workman Publishing, New York.
  10. Polanyi, Michael (1966), The Tacit Dimension, Doubleday, New York.
  11. Sorri, Mari (1994), “The Body Has Reasons: Tacit Knowing in Thinking and Making”, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol.28, No.2, Summer 1994.
  12. Green, Jill (1992), “The Use of Balls in Kinetic Awareness”, JOPERD, October 1992.
  13. Barr, Sherrie and Lewin, Philip (1994), “Learning Movement: Integrating Kinaesthetic Sense with Cognitive Skills”, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol.28, No.1, Spring 1994.