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Teacher Trainer Corner – Implementing Dance in Limited Spaces

by Emily Maurek

Dancing is practiced, performed and enjoyed in large, airy spaces with authentic formations, figures, and accuracy, right? However, as many of us know, some classroom spaces are less than ideal and conditions for dancing or even moving with a group of students is problematic. However, for teachers who travel from room to room or who are somehow limited by spatial constraints, dancing activities can still be purposefully taught with integrity.

Perhaps the room is a choir room, an alcove, or a hallway. With modification, the intention of dance can still be realized. Although there are several different traditional folk dance formations (Longways Set, Circle, Sicilian Circle, Square, and Contra,) many share the same figures or can be altered to fit a smaller space. Interestingly enough, children often take dances learned in class out to the playground and reconstruct the moves in their own ways — so don’t be afraid to modify a dance to meet student (or facility) needs.

In the introduction of the book Jump Jim Joe: Great Singing Games for Children by Peter and Mary Alice Amidon the authors encourage teachers to make the singing games their own. The authors state, “Don’t be afraid to modify a singing game to meet the needs of your students.” (p. 6) and “…you and your children can try your own movements as suggested by the words.” (p. 4) After all, it’s the spirit of community we wish to instill in our students.


As Phyllis Weikart suggests in her book Teaching Movement and Dance a model (p. 10) to teaching any kind of movement sequence:

Separate — demonstrate, tell, use hands-on guidance
Simplify — begin with what is easy or manageable to learn
Facilitate — help learners think about and use language to describe their actions

Weikart also suggests introducing movement experiences in personal space before general space. This is especially helpful advice in tighter and more constrained spaces. This also gives students a chance to try moves on for size before expecting them to synchronize with others, says Weikart. Have students work individually, then in pairs and, when comfortable, in groups of four to reinforce concepts and to check for understanding.

With any dance, don’t feel compelled to ‘finish’ the dance all in one lesson. Students need time to process and build on previously learned skills and a finished product will almost always take more than one class session. Add the finishing touches to a dance incrementally and “reward” the class with the final product — one they will ask to do again and again?


Though not a traditional dancing formation per se, the “snowball” concept is a great way to introduce the youngest students to dance figures (or any movement) in a fun way within constrained spaces. Taken from traditional singing games, the snowball is also a strategy in the teacher’s toolbox for teaching certain figures while checking (and correcting) for understanding.

The idea of a snowball is to have students seated in available open space together OR seated around the room in individual or “scattered” spaces. The dance starts with just two movers dancing together. Then, after completing the given figure, they separate and each choose another partner so there are two pairs moving together. Then the two pairs separate to make four pairs, then eight, and “snowballing” until every child is up moving at once. I usually let the last person to be picked to be the first in the next round.

Irregular spaces, smaller areas, hallways, and classrooms with desks or other furniture can define designated “pathways” for movement when the space is tight. Just be sure to outline the expectations of the designated movement zones with students ahead of time. Singing game and dances that make great snowballs include:

Circle Round the Zero (Amidon)
Old Bald Eagle (Amidon)
Rig a Jig Jig (traditional)
Pumpkin Patch (traditional)
Old King Glory (Amidon)
Jump Jim Joe (Amidon)
Turn Cinnamon Turn (Feierabend)
Bow Wow Wow (traditional)
Can’t Jump Josie (Rose)

Snowballs also provide excellent opportunities to review and reinforce the expectations of friendly partnering with other classmates — the partners change very quickly!

Scattered Formation (Free Formation)

Scattered about the room in “personal” space is one of the simplest ways to teach dance to students of any age. Any dance that does not rely on partnering can make a scattered activity and still be authentic. Also, any dance that can be danced in an open circle (with no partners) can generally be danced in scattered places — even if partners or changing partners are introduced later.

No partners:

Head and Shoulders (Amidon)
Seven Jumps (Rose)
Barnereinlender (Longden)
Fjaskern (Weikart)
Pljeskavac Kolo (Weikart)
Irish Stew (Weikart)
Yankee Doodle (Weikart)
Two-Part Dance (Weikart)
Alley Cat (Weikart)

Partners/Changing partners:

Sasha! (Rose)
La Raspa (traditional)
Kinderpolka (Rose)

Scattered formation can also provide the opportunity to teach the sequences of many dances, regardless of formation. For instance, in scattered space different figures can be learned alone, with a partner or even a small cooperative group before combining as a class. This is especially effective if your dance space is a gym or sidewalk and your class is waiting for a specific day to have a turn. Having your figures already committed to memory saves time and come dance day it’s simply a matter of putting the formation together.

Circle Dances

A circle dance can even work in scattered formation, provided the scattering is roughly in a circular shape and provided the participants can envision the room as a giant circle.

Dances that are technically circles that work well in scattered formation could include:


La Raspa (traditional) with or without partners
Les Saluts (Weikart)
Heel and Toe Polka (Feierabend)
Rick’s Mixer (Rose)

Longways Set

Longways sets (two parallel lines of dancers facing each other) can usually be done in smaller spaces but do consider the space behind each line and the length of each line. Dancers need enough room to not only cast off but to have a place once they arrive at the bottom of the set. Dividing the class into TWO longways sets can usually do the trick, as can moving desks and chairs just enough to provide room for the dance. Visual markers on the floor can help shore up the set to keep the shape from ballooning into blocked areas. Purposefully teaching the concept of all couples “shifting” up toward the caller after each round to create a new “top couple” can also help with crowded sets.

Scatter Mixers, Sicilian Circles, Contra Dances

Scatter Mixers are perfect for irregular spaces with many dancers. Whether designated partners or changing partners, couples complete a series of movements and then move on to the next group. This concept is also effective with more challenging and complex dances, like Sicilian Circles (couples facing couples around the room) and Contra Dances (similar to longways set). Arrange the class into scattered groups of four dancers. Practice each step and sequence in these small groups apart from the large formation as needed. Later, the whole room can be the “circle” — just be certain you designate HOW they are to move — some move clockwise, others counter clockwise? Sometimes I tell students to find another group of two and make four, regardless of the direction of travel. Or mark the floor and have students visit every “station” during the course of the dance. The spirit of dancing with fellow classmates is still present as is the cooperation and teamwork required to make the dance run smoothly — even if the dance is a bit messy around the edges.

If your space is slim and long, like an interior hallway or outdoor sidewalk, take a Sicilian circle and dance it like a Contra in two long lines where two lines of dancers each person faces a partner. Starting with the first and second couples closest to the caller join hands to make groups of four until all dancers are in fours. Make minor modifications as necessary for dancers to pass to the next couple — usually a two-hand turn.

Scatter Mixers

Big Southern Couple Mixer (Amidon)
Sasha! (Rose)
Leftover Reel (Amidon)

Sicilian circle dances that could be learned in rotating groups include and/or danced as Contras:

Black Joke (Amidon)
ZOM Out (Amidon)
Haste to the Wedding (Amidon)

Helpful Materials

Sit spots, Poly spots, Velcro floor tape and other floor markers are fantastic for marking out irregularly shaped spaces and movement areas. Marking out longways sets with poly spots helps ensure that no one ends up dancing out the door or into chairs at the end of their sashay! Though not really “authentic” these visual aids can help create the designated area of a set or formation.

John Feierabend’s Word Wall cards (available from GIA Publications) are excellent to help with Weikart’s ‘Facilitate’ step by providing the vocabulary for the movements students are performing.  

Culminating Events

Once students have learned many formations and figures and have experienced the dances cooperatively (even in tight spaces), reward them with a trip to the gym, playground, atrium, or other large group space to perform a dance in its intended form. This can be a great motivator and can involve other classes, entire grade levels, or even families attending a community folk dance at your school!

Don’t let irregular or smaller, constrained spaces stop the fun — get students moving and dancing with one another and the the spirit of community will shine. Happy dancing!



Amidon, Peter and Mary Alice — Jim Jim Joe: Great Singing Games for Children
Amidon, Peter and Mary Alice — Chimes of Dunkirk: Great Dances for Children
Amidon, Peter and Mary Alice — Listen to the Mockingbird: More Great Dances for Children, Schools and Communities
Amidon, Peter and Mary Alice — Sashay the Donut
Feierabend, John — First Steps in Music for Preschool and Beyond
Longden, Sanna — Folk Dance Music for Kids & Teachers No. 1
Rose, Marian — Step Lively: Dances for Schools and Families
Weikart, Phyllis S. — Teaching Movement and Dance: A Sequential Approach to Rhythmic Movement