February 16, 2023

Teaching Rhythm and Dance In Physical Education

Dance is a polarizing subject in the world of physical education: some teachers love to teach it, other teachers can't even imagine themselves teaching it.

Regardless of your personal comfort level with the activity, I believe dance should be a part of every student's physical education experience.

Despite it not being a part of every family's traditions, dance is a part of our collective human experience. As a key component of many cultures, dance has been used throughout our history to share stories, celebrate as communities, and express ourselves as individuals.

That said, I get it: dancing in front of others can be scary. Our needs for self-preservation and social acceptance often get in the way of our desire to move and express ourselves as freely as possible. Because of this, dance gets labelled, stereotyped, and looked down upon.

However, refusing to embrace our desire to dance – a desire that is baked into our social DNA as humans – is a strategy based in fear. Even worse, it's a fear-based strategy that has the potential to rob us of some of the happiest moments in our lives:

🪩 Going our dancing with friends.

💒 Dancing at your wedding with your parents, family, and spouse.

👨‍👧‍👦 Dancing with your kids in your kitchen while cooking supper.

So, how can we – as physical educators – prevent this fear of dancing from taking root in our students hearts?

We teach them to love dancing, as early and often as possible.

In the rest of this post, I'd like to share some ideas and resources that can help you break down dance education, focus on its individual parts, and grow your confidence from there. These are tools that I've developed throughout my teaching career as well as some that I'm currently exploring with fellow #PhysEdU community members.

This post was built around the following learning targets:

🎯 I know the difference between beats and rhythms.

🎯 I understand the importance of support musicality when teaching dance.

🎯 I can use the Rhythm Challenge Cards to build a foundation for dance musicality.

Let's dive in!

Learning About Dance in Physical Education

This whole post started based on a conversation I had with a fellow #PhysEdU community member on how to teach dance in elementary PE.

After digging through my curriculum documents, I found resources that I had created for my grade two dance unit.

The unit was built on the following grade-level outcomes:

🏁 Performs a teacher and/or student-designed rhythmic activity with correct response to simple rhythms (S1.E5.2)
🏁 Identifies physical activities that provide self-expression (S5.E3.2)

Based on those outcomes, I designed the following student-friendly learning goals (a.k.a. unit-level learning targets):

⛳️ I can move my body to the rhythm of the music.
⛳️ I can express myself through dance.

Based on these learning goals, I created the following Learning Roadmap:

Helping students learn how to recognize and move to different beats and rhythms was definitely outside of my wheelhouse when I was teaching this unit... especially considering that I had a hard time differentiating/defining the two myself! 

One resource I used to help students make sense of these two concepts was Beat Sheets. 

A Beat Sheet is a sheet on which different movements/actions are presented in a 4x4 grid. The idea is that these sheets can help students

8️⃣ Break music down into 8-counts (i.e. two bars of music)
👀 Visualize how actions within a choreography are synchronized to the beat.
🕺 Perform actions/movements to the beat and rhythm of a song.

I had first learned about Beat Sheets on Twitter (although I cannot remember the exact source, I'm pretty sure it was through Captain Pete's account). Here's what my original Beat Sheets looked like:

Needless to say, these were a first attempt. After sharing these on #PhysEdU, I couldn't stop thinking about how Beat Sheets could be made better. By "better", I mean:

  • Help students understand – through a visual tool – the difference between beat and rhythm.
  • Help students make sense of dance musicality (more on that later).
  • Help students learn the difference between different note values (whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth notes)

To create something like this, I was going to have to deepen my content knowledge (which is always a good thing). Here's what I've learned and what's come out of that learning so far.

Making Sense of Beats and Rhythms

The first step along this quest was to make sure that I actually knew what I was talking about in regard to beat and rhythm.

🥁 The beat is the unchanging pulse that music is built upon. It sets the pacing, timing, or tempo of any given musical piece that you are listening to.

🎼 The rhythm is the pattern in which musical notes flow. A musical piece's rhythm can change throughout a song, speeding up and slowing down while the beat remains constant.

To help you better understand this (and how to teach it) here is an excellent example of a music lesson that breaks down the difference between beat and rhythm:

Side Note: This lesson is also a great example of how to use learning targets effectively.

If you'd like to try this activity out with your students, I recreated the tracking sheets that the teacher uses in the video. You can access those here. Be sure to check out this blog post as well: it seems to be the original source of the tracking sheets and links to additional activity ideas and resources for this kind of lesson.

Recognizing Note Values & Time Signatures

Ok, so this part might seem like a bit much, but it makes more sense if I tell you that I dove into this after learning more about dance musicality (I'm presenting my learning out of order here).

If rhythm is the pattern in which musical notes flow, then I would have to have a basic level of knowledge in regard to musical notes. I should probably mention that I had no idea how to even begin reading sheet music until I started digging here: I don't play any instruments and I only have my once-a-week elementary school music class to my name. I now have what I think is a first-couple-weeks-of-the-school-year, kindergarten-level understanding of musical notes, and that's enough to give me the confidence I need to move forward.

I found that these two videos from RIAM Exams (as well as this blog post) broke it all down in plain terms that I could wrap my head around:

So, why would I – as a PE teacher – take the time to gain some basic knowledge about music theory? Because doing so is going to help me:

  • Identify the beat of the song.
  • Identify the rhythm of the music.
  • Help my students do the same.

Again, deepening your content knowledge is always a worthwhile endeavor. It helps spark ideas, puts you in a better position to find different ways of presenting materials, and allows you to teach with much more confidence.

Oh, and it will improve my ability to help my students develop dance musicality.

Building Dance Musicality

Musicality seems to be a challenging word to define. From what I've learned, dance musicality refers to the way each individual dancer understandsexperiences, and expresses music.

In her blog post on the topic, Nichelle Suzanne shares that musicality has two main components:

  • Musical Receptivity: "One's ability to receive, comprehend, be sensitive to, and have a working knowledge of musical concepts like rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and even mood."
  • Musical Creativity (Musical Artistry): "The ability to connect with accompanying music, interpret it, or phrase and add movement dynamics that relate to music even in the absence of accompaniment, in a way that is unique or interesting."

With this definition and components in mind, you can see how having a basic understanding of musical structures serves as a building block of dance musicality. This is why I spent so much time trying to learn as much as I could about musical theory.

Let's break musicality down a little further.

🧠 Understanding Music: Using 8-Counts

An 8-count is an important tool that allows dancers to measure, map, and discuss music. 8-counts also help dancers plan their movements and design choreographies.

Again, understanding bars, time signatures, and note values helps us recognize musical structures and patterns which puts us in a better position to play around with the music.

The Steezy video above is a good introduction to 8-counts (and can serve as a bridge from what we've learned so far about musical theory and where will be going in dance).

Here's another video in which viewers get to follow along as the Steezy crew plays around with 8-counts:


❤️ Experiencing Music: Developing One's Dance Vocabulary

In many ways, dance is a form of language: 

Instead of words, we have movements. 

Instead of phrases, we have sequences.

Just as in language, fluency also plays an important role in dance. Ultimately, competent dancers have something to say and are able to say it with as little friction as possible.

One of the building blocks of fluency is a broad vocabulary. To help students develop their dance vocabulary, consider the following progression:

  1. Free Play Dance: Allowing students to move their bodies however they like to various musical styles, structures, and rhythms.
  2. Imagination-Driven Dance: Providing prompts that guide dance movements while still providing room for creativity (e.g. "Can you dance like a mouse? Can you dance like an elephant?")
  3. Explorative Dance: Providing specific movements while allowing dancers to explore various ways of performing them (see Melanie Levenberg's DANCEPL3Y session video below for a great example of how this can be approached).
  4. Teacher-Led Dance: Following a choreography that is provided by the teacher (or a Just Dance video on YouTube).
  5. Creative Dance: Designing your own choreography that includes movements and sequences that dancers have acquired and/or developed throughout their dance journey.

To get the most out of this progression, here are a few things to consider:

  • Expose students to a broad variety of musical styles.
  • Help students experience a broad variety of dance styles.
  • Encourage students to be mindful of the various movements they observe/perform along the way.
  • Encourage students to discuss music, compare music, and explore music as much as possible.

✨ Expressing Music: Pairing Movement, Energy, Style, and Texture.

Finally, dancing comes down to having something to say and saying it through movement.

We dance to express joy. We dance to express confidence. We dance to express vulnerability, power, attitude, and so much more. 

As we dance, the way we move our body expresses different emotions, ideas, or even stories.

Our ability to dance with clarity (i.e. clearly communicating what we want to say through dance) will be empowered or limited by our understanding of music, our personal dance vocabulary, and our understanding of other dance concepts such as textures.

My Updated Beat Sheets

"Joey... what the heck. Wasn't this a post about Beat Sheets!?"

It is! I just wanted to make sure that we had a solid understanding of how these sheets fit into dance education and why I've designed them this way.

As I mentioned a thousand words ago, these updated Beat Sheets (which I'm now calling Rhythm Challenge Cards) were designed with the following goals in mind:

🥁 Help students differentiate between beat and rhythm.
🎶 Support students' understanding of music structure.
🕺 Support dance musicality.

That said, here's what I've come up with:

These Rhythm Challenge Cards do a little bit more than my original ones.

Each tile represents one beat (count) within two bars of music (8-count).

On each tile, students will have a clear visual of the movement to be performed within that beat, the note value for that beat, and the count number.

The example above is the simplest version of these sheets: one movement per beat for eight counts, with each beat having a quarter note value.

But what do we do for beats that have a slower note value (e.g. half note, dotted half notes, or whole notes)? That's what the markers between each tile are for. 

First off, notice how the notes on each tile's staff have changed to represent the updated note values. The time signature has remained the same (4/4: four beats per bar with each beat being set as a quarter note), but the number of notes per bar has changed.

Also, for movements that count for two beats (half note values), the minim symbol(representing two counts) between the two beat tiles is highlighted and the second tile's movement space is left blank (to represent the movement has been carried over).

Ok, but what about faster note values, like eighth or sixteenth counts?

Again, the notation has been updated. As for the movements, additional movements have been added to the beat tile (similar to the bees in the video lesson I shared earlier).

For beat tiles with multiple actions, I also added a visual ampersand (the "&" symbol) to help students remember to count that beat as "1 AND" and not "1, 2" (so the entire bar reads "1 AND 2, 3 AND 4").


Dance and music go hand in hand.

If dance is the way that we physically express the way we feel music, than it makes sense for physical education teachers to help their students make sense of how music is structured as they explore dance.

Plus, developing a deeper understanding of music can help those students who are wary of dance look at the activity in a different light:

Instead of dance being this thing that "just comes naturally" to some, it becomes a series of challenges and opportunities. Music's structure can help boost creativity by providing both a space and set of constraints in which movement-based ideas get to live. Dance becomes a fun puzzle that we get to piece together, an activity we can lose ourselves in as we work to solve it.

Along the way, as we find joy in the challenge, fun, social connection, and creativity of it all... we might just end up dancing.

If you are interested in bringing the Rhythm Challenge Cards to your teaching, you can purchase the set of 20 cards in the shop. Doing so helps support, which means I get to keep putting together posts like this one.

Download The Rhythm Challenge Cards

As always, the resource is also available to all members of the Ongoing Leaner tier over at #PhysEdU.

Thanks for reading! Happy Teaching! 🕺

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Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of
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