ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Harriet Tubman: Dancing on the Freedom Trail

Dance with Harriet Tubman and other slaves as they journey the Underground Railroad


Key Staff

Can be taught by the classroom teacher or a dance educator or both.

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


Harriet Tubman was a leading figure in the Underground Railroad movement. In this lesson, students are introduced -- through the observation of a dance performance -- to the emotional struggles Tubman faced as she helped slaves escape and travel north along the Underground Railroad. The students share what they learn about this secret migration through the creation of an original dance/dramatic play production set to the song “Harriet Tubman.”

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Watch a short dance/dramatic interpretation about Harriet Tubman.
  • Observe how emotions can be expressed through body movement, dance, and overall performance.
  • Experiment with the expression of emotions using their own body by creating a short dance/dramatic interpretation to a song about Harriet Tubman.
  • Reflect on the dance experience by capturing a dance scene using drawing skills.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Modeling
  • Large or Small Group Instruction
  • Guided Practice

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Review general information about Harriet Tubman. Suggested resources include but are not limited to:

 Review lesson-specific information for this lesson:

[Note to Teachers: This lesson is based on the first video clip called “Harriet Tubman and the Quakers.” The second video, “Harriet Tubman at the Auction,” should be considered only after reviewing it completely. There are sexual inferences that may not be appropriate for your class.]

  • Worksheet: “Harriet Tubman” lyrics

Obtain a copy of the song “Harriet Tubman” by Walter Robinson.

Prior Student Knowledge

General information about slavery, the Underground Railroad, African American history. (It’s OK if they know little before the lesson.)

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Gymnasium


Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1.    Without introduction, play Sister Moses Dance without the audio.

Ask students:

  • What are you observing? (a dance, a dramatic interpretation, answers may vary)
  • Who is performing? (an African-American main dancer and a Caucasian supporting troupe)
  • What are they using to express themselves? (their bodies, their dance movements)
  • What type of dance are they performing? (a combination of ballet and modern dance)
  • Why role do the costumes play? (show sharp contrast, imply a purity, answers may vary)
  • Why are some dancers “frozen”? (to hold a tension, to allow the viewer to anticipate upcoming action, to prevent distraction when they’re not part of the action)
  • How and why did the director use locomotor movement (walking, running, skipping), non-locomotor movement (bending, stretching), and non-movement? (answers may vary)
  • What emotions do the dancers express through their movement? (happiness, sadness, jubilation, uncertainty, friendship, etc.)
  • What props are used and why? (none, to keep the focus on the dancers)
  • How does the set influence the production? (the set is plain to keep the focus on the dancers)
  • What role does the director play in this production? (controls what the audience experiences by the choices made)

2.    Play Sister Moses Dance with the audio.

Ask students:

  • How does the music and words impact the performance? (helps to tell the story, gives support to the dancers’ movements)

Recommended Resources:

Build Knowledge

1.  Listen to “Harriet Tubman” by Walter Robinson. Ask students to close their eyes while they are listening.

Ask students:

  • What did you envision while you listened? (answers will vary)
  • How did the song make you feel? (answers will vary)
  • What was the songwriter trying to accomplish with his words? (share a story, bring tribute to a woman, tell history)
  • What was the songwriter trying to accomplish with the music? (create a mood, establish a rhythm and format, encourage listeners to sing on chorus, etc.)

2.  Share the song lyrics with students.

Ask students:

  • Who is singing the song? (someone dreaming about being a slave, or a slave)
  • What symbolism is used in the song? (train, conductor, first mate, railroad, lifeline)


1. Create an original dance/dramatic interpretation. Divide the class into dance teams. Ask each team to create a dance to accompany the song, “Harriet Tubman.” Ask them to consider their type of movement (non-movement, locomotive, non-locomotive), emotions expressed, symbolism portrayed, props, what they want the audience to feel or experience, etc. For example, the students may want to literally become a train, have a conductor, pick up passengers, etc. Or, they may represent this collection of people and journey in an abstract fashion.

2. Perform dances. After all of the dances have been performed, ask students:

  • How were the dances the same?
  • How were the dances different?
  • What did the dance teams do well?
  • How did you feel as you performed the dance?

Recommended Resources:

  • Song: “Harriet Tubman”


1. Draw a scene from one of the dance performances. Ask students to select a scene that impacted them in some way. On the back of the artwork, ask them to write a few sentences to reflect on the viewing experience and this particular dance scene.


Use the Assessment Rubric to assess students' peformance.

Extending the Learning

  • Create dance movements to accompany another song about history.
  • Write an original history song to perform with dance and movement.
  • Watch other dance performances that convey a story (with and without the audio).
  • Create a dance show that spotlights women in history.
  • Engage in parts 1, 2, or 3 of this unit.

Recommended Resources:


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
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Gladys Van Der Woude
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley
Original Writer

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