INCLUSION IN A HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICAL EDUCATION DANCE CLASS
written by Diane
Sniegowski, High School PE Teacher and Distance Education
Student, University of Florida
education in a public high school is a rewarding experience
for students who are fortunate to take these classes as part
of the curriculum. Students may be able to experience various
styles of dance, including ballet, jazz, tap, modern, and
social dance. In a physical education setting dance classes
often include students who are physically or intellectually
challenged. The educator need to consider many approaches
to teaching those with special needs in order to make the
classes fun and challenging.
The students in a dance class may
have physical disabilities involving limbs, hearing, or vision.
Some students may have autism or Down syndrome. The teacher
who prepares for the instruction of a dance lesson can adapt
each lesson to the needs of the learner. By examining the
teaching strategies that have been studied and applied in
inclusive dance classes, high school dance teachers can assist
those students who are physically and intellectually challenged
to become successful at learning dance skills.
In a high school dance class, physical
disabilities may involve students in a wheelchair who have
full use of their arms, or students who use a wheelchair but
do have some mobility in their lower legs. There are also
students who wear a permanent brace or use crutches. Adapting
dance for these students is important in an inclusive physical
education dance class. A Chinese study of people in wheelchairs
who used taijiquan
video), a form of graceful mind-body movement, showed
that their overall physical and mental health improved (Guo,
2009). Dance movement can also improve the overall health
and well being of participants, regardless of (dis)ability.
For the dance teacher, the best method
to use while exploring approaches to teaching those who use
a wheelchair is to actually sit in a chair to experience how
dance steps can be performed. Ginger
Thatcher, who worked to create a dance show for the Cleveland
dance group, "Dancing
Wheels," put herself in a wheelchair to experience
a great many movement ideas she could construct for the dancers
(Carlon, 2010). Thatcher needed to understand where spinal
injuries were located on each dancer in order to determine
how much movement could be performed.
For example, if the dancer was able
to actually stand up from the chair for a few movements, then
the choreography could vary movement and more level changes
could be added to the dances. Thatcher also explored the possibilities
between stand-up and seated (wheelchair) dancers so interesting
duets could take place between them (Carlon, 2010). Classroom
teachers should also gain prior knowledge about physical abilities
of any student who uses a wheelchair in order to develop movement
patterns that can be used in the dance class. By understanding
the range of motion and the physical strengths of the student,
appropriate dance steps can be constructed, taught, and learned.
Some examples of dance class adaptations
have shown that students in wheelchairs can learn dance movements
using their hands and arms, as well as movement of the chair.
If the dance student can use hand gestures, which are nonlocomotor
movements, then the student can do the same movements
as standing dancers. These can be done with a partner close
by them. In addition, the dancer in the chair can turn to
face any direction in the dance class just as standing dancers
turn directions (Boswell, 2005).
By pairing a standing dancer and a
seated dancer, a ballet skill such as an arabesque
can be successfully performed. The seated dancer would roll
the chair forward, while at the same time the standing dancer
would hold on to the back of the chair. When the chair stops,
the standing dancer would lift her leg in an arabesque
while the seated dancer moves her arms to ballet
third position. This would be a most beautiful movement
that would exhibit the gracefulness of the step, and the relationship
between the two dancers (Block & Johnson, 2011). In a
classroom setting, this would provide a level of respect among
the students, as each is aware of the importance placed on
both of them to achieve a successful dance performance.
When including seated dancers with
standing dancers, a whole-group approach to the class can
make for a fun dance lesson using levels and direction changes.
Cone and Cone (2011) described the use of a small parachute
using streamers tied from the center to each dancer to make
it look like the arms of an octopus. Using a scripted story
that the teacher writes in advance, the octopus moves in various
ways and the students follow the words (of the story) as the
story progresses. The teacher can use words that mimic waking
up, eating, dressing, exercising, etc., and the students move
their bodies in those ways while holding on to the streamers.
These actions can be performed for both seated and stand-up
dancers (Cone & Cone, 2011).
Look at these fun possibilities for
inclusion! Don't miss the 3 video links above.
Modern dance classes in a high school
setting include lessons and explorations in improvisation,
which allow dancers to discover new ways in which to move.
When a wheelchair is part of this exploration, those who are
not seated in the chair should view this as an aid to creativity,
not an obstacle (Stark, 2009). How can the chair, and the
dancer who is seated in the chair, provide the choreography
with a dimension not present in a setting with only stand-up
Through improvisation the class of
dancers can find as many movement possibilities as possible
to open the doors for creativity in modern dance. These explorations
also provide trust and an important socialization factor that
is most needed in a class where students learn from and respect
those with disabilities.
When a student uses a wheelchair, but has the ability to
move their legs while seated, the teacher can provide adaptations
to lessons that allow lower leg mobility. For example, any
movement style that uses a rhythm, such as stepping or tap
dance, can be performed while seated. For those students who
are able to move their feet while in the wheelchair, they
can wear tap shoes and learn the exact steps as the stand-up
dancers. The sound patterns, timing, and dynamics are virtually
the same from both positions (Cudjoe, 2006).
Also, there are some teachers who make gloves for the hands
with taps attached that can be worn if the seated dancer does
not have the strength to move their lower legs. This allows
the dancer to clap out the rhythms using tap sounds (Cudjoe,
2006). It is also possible to use these gloved taps on a wooden
board mounted on a table in front of the seated dancer. The
seated dancer can tap out the sound on this board and make
the same tap beats as the standing dancers.
Strange how the male dancer expresses
so much grace, and then has some really awkward moments!
Beautiful dance though.
Including 'chaired' people in high school ballroom dance
can make for interesting varieties in floor patterns. Teachers
should pair a stand-up dancer with a seated dancer. An example
of interesting pairing can happen in a cha-cha lesson. The
two dancers face each other and begin the cha-cha
progression on counts one and two, moving forward and
backward, standing or in the chair. On the cha-cha-cha rhythm,
the standing dancer shakes his/her shoulders and the seated
dancer shakes his/her head. This is the basic cha-cha
When adding the crossover pattern, the seated dancer uses
a 45° turn to the right and the other takes a left turn
on counts one and two (Hill, 1976). The main objective is
to have both dancers face each other as often as possible
to provide that important social interaction that is needed
in inclusive dance classes.
When a student uses a crutch or wears a leg brace, there
are several ways to make adaptations for that student. First,
the teacher should be aware of physical limitations prior
to giving instruction. The student should have a dance partner
who can stand nearby to demonstrate and give positive feedback.
One modification to a dance step would be for the student
to lift or raise his/her arms anytime there is a jumping or
kicking motion in a dance. This would keep the dancer on both
feet, in proper balance, but will allow the teacher to see
that the student understands that a kick represents "arms
If a student uses 2 crutches and is able to balance on one
of them, then the free arm can swing the crutch in different
directions to the beat of the music. The teacher can set a
specific pattern for using this swinging action. This works
particularly well in social dance steps that do not require
a great deal of space (Hill, 1976). Any type of assisted device
that is used by the dance student can be incorporated into
the movement patterns through exploration. The teacher should
be aware that the student is an expert when it comes to the
use of the device, and that student may be able to show a
creative way to incorporate it into the choreography
(Block & Johnson, 2011).
Hearing music while dancing is an important part of one's
ability to move in time with the song. However, for those
dance students who are hearing impaired, the music has to
be felt or read in modified methods. As with any disability,
the dance teacher should be made aware of the degree to which
the student is deaf or hard of hearing. If a hearing aid device
is utilized, it is best to be aware of the distance from which
the dancer can hear instructions or music (Reich & Lavay,
2009). The teacher should communicate with the student prior
to the first day of class in order to make adaptations from
Sometimes the hearing loss is not severe and having the student
stand closer to the stereo speaker is enough modification
for the student. Several approaches to teaching dance to students
with more extensive hearing loss can be used, and sometimes
the techniques can be changed depending on the style of the
dance being taught for a particular unit.
In a ballet unit, the teacher - prior to the demonstration
- can show large cards that list the names of the steps. The
cards should be bold and printed with large letters. With
the student in close proximity to the teacher, this step is
then easily identified and learned through repetition, while
the student reads the card and sees the movement made by the
teacher or student peer helper (Snyder, 1999). Some students
can read lips as the teacher pronounces the name of the step.
Since ballet words are in French, this card system will simplify
the identification of each step with the corresponding technique.
Sometimes the cards can be placed on the floor in front of
the dancer so that the order of the steps and directional
arrows are read in order to learn the dance pattern (Snyder,
Another technique used by teachers for hearing counts
is to hold up fingers in succession with the musical beat.
For those students who can hear low levels of sound, it can
be beneficial to increase the bass sound on the stereo, especially
when there is a wooden floor in the dance studio. Some dance
teachers use a drum, and they beat the rhythm of the song
as the music plays so the hearing impaired dancer can watch
the action of the teacher (Gallaudet University, 2011). Sometimes
information is given to hearing impaired dancers through touch,
in order to communicate which leg or arm will be used to perform
a step (Green, 2009).
A physical education class with a fan or running air conditioner
could cause 'interference sound,' so the student and teacher
should be at a distance from those contraptions. Also, the
teacher should use a remote control for the stereo or MP3
player so that when oral instruction is given, excess sound
is minimized. In addition, direct eye-to-eye contact should
be made with the student who has hearing impairment when a
teacher is giving verbal cues or instructions (Reich &
Sometimes a dance teacher will place students in small groups
to practice dance combinations or experiment with choreography.
If a dance student has a hearing impairment, the group work
should be 2-3 people so that students can closely communicate
with each other. This can allow the teacher to write instructions
to the student in order to make corrections or give feedback
(Reich & Lavay, 2009). These same small groups can be
used in a modern dance unit where activities such as mirroring
and contact improvisation provide a close working space in
which dancers who are hard of hearing can quickly adapt to
the lesson (Block & Johnson, 2011).
Dance students (who are visually impaired) face other challenges
in a high school dance class, but can be helped with several
adaptations. As with any student who has a disability, the
teacher must communicate with the student prior to class to
ready all necessary modifications. One of the important goals
for a dance teacher is to help all of their students have
a better awareness of how their bodies can move in a space.
For the students who are visually impaired, they do not know
if their bodies have improper posture or if tension is being
held in the shoulders. They cannot see those images in the
mirror. The power of touch and manipulation for correction
and awareness is the key to helping these students become
aware of body placement (Silliker, 2009). For example, to
stand up straight in a ballet class students need to pull
the shoulders back and pull up in the front of the abdomen.
The teacher can verbally describe (to the students who are
visually impaired) how to achieve this ballet posture.
The teacher can also physically manipulate or gently move
the shoulders, legs, or arms in order to instruct or correct
any step in a dance class. Prior to the start of any dance
unit, the teacher must discuss this tactile correction style
with the student. There are teachers who use imagery to inform
about dance movement. If a teacher wants the students to open
arms wide and then close them together, the teacher can relate
that to opening and closing a door. The students then associate
a basic movement they have done with a specific action of
the arms. This becomes a type of muscle memory for them when
it is repeated (Silliker, 2009). Numerous verbal imageries
assist dancers with movement, so good verbal communication
is a vital part of teaching students how to move - including
direction and force.
Dance research has been conducted with students who have
visual impairment, as they dance alongside those students
who are not visually impaired. The most important form of
dance learning takes place when contact
improvisation is a part of the learning process. Contact
improvisation involves two dancers who use touch and body-part
movement to practice and learn various dance steps and sequences.
With the guidance of the teacher's voice, the dancer who has
sight watches the demonstration and then conveys this by touch
to the dancer who is visually impaired (Paxton, Kilcoyne,
& Mount, 1993). Research has shown that the dancers who
are visually impaired feel empowered to move their bodies
more freely through the use of contact improvisation. Not
only does this convey a sense of self-importance in the dance
class; it also develops a mutual cooperation, trust, and partnership
between the two dancers (Paxton, et al., 1993). As with other
types of dance partner practices, the disability does not
matter - the learning is mutual between all involved (Figure
In a high school dance class, a student who is visually impaired
should be carefully paired up with a peer in the class. Research
has shown that the academic
learning time (ALT) increases for a student who is visually
impaired when a peer tutor effectively assists and guides
the student (Ayers, 2009). Peer helpers should have a clear
understanding of the disability and receive proper instructions
from a faculty member who works with that student daily. The
positive effect of feedback, skill help, and verbal instructions
will prove beneficial for the student who is visually impaired,
and can act as an aid to the teacher when it comes to safety
in the dance studio.
As discussed, high school dance students with physical disabilities
can be provided with a number of ways for the dance studio
to be adapted and modified for successful learning to take
place. This is also the case for students who have an intellectual
disability. Students with autism and Down syndrome can be
included in all dance classes when effective inclusion ideas
are in place prior to the start of the dance units. Depending
on the degree of the disability, each dance student can achieve
success at learning basic ideas, movements, and concepts in
many different dance styles.
A male dance student with autism, who attends the Murphy
School of Dance in North Carolina, although unable to tie
his own shoes he learned over 15 ballet French terms and could
perform each one, (Harold, 2008). This speaks for the variances
in the learning process among students with autism. The dance
educator needs to become familiar with the students who have
an intellectual disability by speaking with their special
education teachers and parents about how the disability challenges
the learning process.
It is vital that peer helpers or aids are present in the
dance class to participate along with all of the students.
Peer helpers should be pre-selected and have a clear understanding
of how to assist the student who has the disability (Figure
2). The dance teacher should not expect the peer helper to
discipline, but to provide clear directions and feedback throughout
each class period. The peer helper is an extra set of ears
and eyes for the teacher who may have many students in the
class. However, it is the sole responsibility of the teacher
to monitor any and all issues that may be of concern to the
student who has the disability (Cone & Cone, 2011).
Inclusion in a dance class requires that the teacher have
certain rituals that are followed no matter who the dancers
are in the studio. For example, setting a warm-up exercise
that is repeated daily will provide dancers with special needs
a type of ritual that is followed and is predictable - allowing
consistency and structure (Kassing & Jay, 2003). All dance
students benefit from repetition - not just those who have
a disability. This becomes a routine for all students in the
class, and provides a sense of security for dancers with disabilities
who require repetitive patterns.
The dance teacher should select appropriate and fun music
that energizes the class and provides that added spark of
enthusiasm. By finding out which musical artist or songs that
the student with autism or Down syndrome enjoys, the teacher
can add some of those tunes to the lesson planning. For example,
if the student enjoys the music of Michael Jackson, the teacher
should use one of his songs somewhere during the dance unit.
In addition, if the student has a sensory issue with extremely
loud sounds, then the music selection should reflect that
concern (Cone & Cone, 2011).
Often the dance student who has an intellectual disability
will take longer to learn a dance step or movement than the
other students. This is when a peer or buddy can be of value
in showing encouragement and dancing the steps side-by-side
as partners in the class. The teacher can make a connection
with these steps or movement by chanting the counts, lyrics
to the songs, or humming the tune as the steps are practiced
(Kassing & Jay, 2003).
The actual learning environment in the dance studio space
should be welcoming, spacious, and provide the dancer with
a disability appropriate viewing of the teacher. Attendance
should be taken in the same spot at the start of each class,
and clear and concise directions about what will be covered
in the class should be part of pre-movement directions. Sometimes
a visual checklist of the day's activities can be posted on
a dry erase board for those students who can read simple directions
(Cone & Cone, 2011).
Since each dancer with an intellectual disability has a unique
learning ability, the actual dance steps and movements must
be constantly monitored for change and adaptation. For example,
if the dance teacher presents a series of jazz steps such
pas be bouree, pirouette,
this pattern can be shortened or simplified by removing the
be bouree step. This is the most difficult step in the
pattern and it can be added in if the student successfully
performs the other steps. This simple modification keeps the
entire class dancing to the same music with the same type
of dance combination.
When it comes to introducing abstract concepts in modern
dance, there are several approaches that a teacher can use
to assist the dancer who has an intellectual disability. For
example, if the concept of light or flowing is explored, the
teacher can describe those words by talking about a leaf falling
from a tree. Another way to describe this abstract concept
is to show a photo or picture of light snowflakes falling
to the ground. Also, the teacher can give the student a tangible
object such as a feather that can be released and observed
as it lightly flows to the ground. It is important to support
all verbal directions with an object or picture for clarity
(Cone & Cone, 2011).
Besides the fitness and motor skill aspect of a dance class,
an important physical education objective is to provide a
social exchange between all those present in the dance studio.
A goal in a physical education class should always be to show
mutual respect, trust, and a positive attitude about learning
and appreciating dance no matter a person's physical or intellectual
(dis)ability. Communicating any type of information, from
learning a specific step to creating choreography, is a shared
process that enhances the experience for all students.
In addition, the emotional aspect of self-discovery, expression,
and creativity is a learning objective that develops over
days and weeks in the dance class.
A dance teacher's main goal in an inclusive classroom should
center on the overall atmosphere of accomplishment - that
each and every student has been successful in acquiring new
skills and unique ways to explore body movement. Each student
in the classroom should have a relevant and meaningful dance
experience. Above all, the dance learning experience for all
students should evoke feelings of excitement, satisfaction,
Diane Sniegowski holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from
Arizona State University, secondary education certification
in dance in Illinois, and a Master of Science in Physical
Education from Chicago State University. She taught ballet,
jazz, tap, lyrical, modern and pointe in private studios for
a number of years and many of her students have won awards
in dance and have become professional dancers and teachers.
For the past 11 years she has taught dance in the Physical
Education Department at Lockport Township High School in Lockport,
Illinois and is the director of the Orchesis Dance Club.