Integrating Dance into History Lessons

Dance and Cultural Change

“Seeing” and “doing” dance is a key resource in teaching history


This article outlines one of five suggested areas of history that can be illuminated and enriched through dance visuals and student dance performance.

Be sure to review the entire series for suggestions in other areas of history.

Using visuals that help define elements of historical time periods is a valuable way to clarify and enrich the presentation of a variety of history topics. “Virtual” history that reconstructs aspects of history in role-playing modes also is a valuable and enriching reinforcement. Including dance within these lesson frames adds yet another meaningful way to engage students in a study of the past.

Whether presented in a Web source or video to be observed, researched, and explicated as a significant statement informing diverse studies of an historical era, or assigned as a student activity to inspire imaginative identification with the era’s people, issues, places or events, dance can be a compelling way to immerse students in a close study of various components of history.

A study of indigenous dances in areas of Africa and Asia chronicles how very little change dance genres have undergone in many of those areas throughout history, giving witness to the powerful reverence for tradition. A study of dance in areas of Europe and, especially America, reveals, by contrast, a pattern of increasingly rapid cultural change—notably in the decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries, driven not only by shifting philosophical ideologies, societal outlooks, and historical events, but also by changing demographics and new developments in science and technology.

These rapid cultural changes within the context of history (America’s growth on the international scene; wars; women’s liberation; Hollywood influence; political realignments, etc.) are brought alive through exploration of dance styles that help characterize each decade. Student research into and student demonstrations and full class performance of basic movements of the following dances prevalent in America and parts of Europe and other parts of the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries, accompanied by a specific analysis of the cause and effect relationship to forces of history, help inculcate the history of those time periods.

Some of the Social Dances prominent in the following decades:

  • 1890–1920 The Waltz and Polka were still favorites, but the new “ragtime” dances including the One-Step and Two-Step were the most popular; also, the Turkey Trot, Foxtrot, and the Argentine and Brazilian Tango invaded the ballroom scene
  • 1920–1929 The dances of the “Roaring Twenties” including the Charleston; Lindy Hop; Varsity Drag; Shag, etc. become the “rage”
  • 1930–1940 The Foxtrot and “big band” Swing/Jazz come to the foreground; new Latin American dances, such as the Rumba and Samba, are introduced to America (mainly via Hollywood)
  • 1940–1950 Slow Foxtrot; Swing takes on a new dynamic such as the Jitterbug
  • 1950–1958 Line dances such as the Stroll, Bunny Hop; Hand Dances such as the Monkey, Pony
  • 1958–1970 The Twist; Watusi; variations of “rock and roll” dances; new variations of Swing; Disco
  • 1970–2010 Jazz dances become increasingly “edgy;” Swing takes on new variations (East Coast; West Coast, for instance); street dances such as Breakdancing, Hip Hop become popular; Latin American dances such as the Cha-Cha-Cha and Salsa become popular


Dance offers a fresh medium for today’s “visual-minded,” “hands-on” students. The experience of viewing Web clips or videos of performances of celebrated dancers and/or dance choreographies crafted in a variety of dance styles provides challenging avenues for problem-solving assignments that can broaden and deepen students’ understanding of many forces of history. Engaging students in actually performing dance styles of historical eras is a provocative way to evoke interest in history, enhance students’ grasp of diverse elements and influences of the past, and gain comparative insight into contemporary life. To “see” and to “do” dance is a winning combination in the history classroom.



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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