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The Innate Nature of Dance as a Language in Childhood

Young children all over the world respond to sound and music using their bodies and their voices. Cross-cultural study of young children moving and dancing shows an intuitive response to sound, to rhythm, tempo and volume, pattern and form during childhood. Sadly, in the western world, in our contemporary times, dance is often a forgotten and neglected language of self-expression, creativity and meaning making. The implications are significant for the child’s physical health, for strength, balance and coordination as well as for emotional well being and for perceptual and cognitive development. However, when dance is valued as a language of childhood and when dance is modelled and enjoyed by the people around them the child’s early predisposition to dance is strengthened and refined, with positive benefits for the whole being across the life span.

The Early Development of Dance Skills in Infants and Toddlers

At this time, they learn to dance primarily through their bodies and senses. Through listening, observing, touching, and moving children explore and make meaning of the worlds they inhabit. First dance knowledge builds on awareness of the movement of various body parts, in isolation and together. The encouragement to shake hands and feet, clap, stretch and curl and the opportunity to touch, shake, and connect different objects enables the child to practice and refine their skills. Through practice and repetition, they develop coordination, strength and control. Opportunities to bounce, crawl, climb, and roll the whole body expand this repertoire of possible physical responses which the child can bring to encounters with sound and music. Tuning into sound and music also develops the child’s perceptual capacity and cognitive processing. The child develops visual and auditory memory and acuity, and begins to coordinate body actions in time and space. Such skills and abilities are the foundation of dance.

The Role of Imaginative and Expressive Ideas in Children’s Dance Development

During this stage children begin to engage in symbolic representation where an object or action can represent something.  For the three to five-year-old this is an exciting time for play creativity, fantasy and imagination. Stories and songs, props, dress-ups and natural and recycled objects can become partners in play and in imaginative dance responses. Dance sequences gradually become more complex and may tell a story or explore a character. The increasing refinement of physical skills and aspects of physical development such as flexibility, balance, strength and coordination are brought to this expanding realm of dance possibilities. Conversely the child who is mostly sedentary and unable to explore and experiment with movement and not encouraged to try will have a limited physical capacity to bring to the world of dance.

For children aged five to eight there in an increasing awareness of the social world and the opportunities that come with collaborative and cooperative play and exploration. This capacity also influences the ways in which dance is learnt, developed and shared. Children at this stage watch each other closely, they also engage more with social media and explore and experiment with dance styles and routines observed on television and online. The subsequent sharing with peers may involve a lot of discussion and exchange of views and perspectives but also demonstration, assistance, giving feedback, observing, practicing and refining, all of which are valuable learning processes, useful in many other contexts.

How Significant Adults Impact a Child’s Development of Dance Proficiency as a Language

Throughout this entire period from birth children learn to dance, however the degree to which dance becomes a proficient language for the child is influenced by the nature of the encounters with the significant adults around them. The adult carer can encourage and motivate dance exploration and expression by being present, interested and attentive. While the need to be in close proximity diminishes over time (from 2-8 years) it is by observing and listening closely that we can tune in to what the child might be thinking, wondering and trying. Time is an important ally. Rather than do things or solve problems for the child, the child learns when given time to resolve a challenge for him or herself. When success is achieved both the child and the adult carer can enjoy the success and the child is more empowered to persist in the future. By offering a verbal description of what the child is doing we also affirm the child’s endeavours as well as enrich the child’s language with new terminology and descriptive language. We can draw attention to different elements of music and dance such as rhythm and tempo, not by being “teachy” but by simply describing and making connections. The adult carer can also scaffold learning by offering support without diminishing the child’s agency and autonomy. This could be by modelling or demonstrating, with your own body or by offering a mirror for feedback. It can also include verbal scaffolding, describing what might help or extend an experience by offering suggestions such as “you could try…” or by offering an additional resource or prop such as a scarf or a balloon that might help the child to stretch and bend, twist and turn.

In conclusion, Children enter the world rich in dance potential but the realisation of this potential is significantly impacted by the opportunities provided and by the attitudes toward dance that they see around them.

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