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Body Engagement: Multiple Functions of a Movement-Inclusive Classroom

Body Engagement: Multiple Functions of a Movement-Inclusive Classroom

For many, the joy of attending a music workshop is interwoven with the interactions we have with the other participants in the room. When we apply our own creativity to the work at hand, we develop a stronger investment in our learning and emerge with more than just a shared experience. We often leave with an excitement to try what we have learned. Yet, how do you take a movement experience from a workshop and translate it to your own teaching in a way that ensures success?

The Pitfalls of the Unsure Movement Lesson

Building a strong movement culture with students takes time. In America, many people feel reluctant towards movement and have a sense of inhibition due to cultural and social upbringings. In our classrooms, we may encounter limitations to movement, for example, students may not be allowed to touch other people, or you may lack space, limiting how freely students can move and explore. Many factors that prevent teachers from engaging their students in movement activities that are out of the teacher’s control.

One thing that should not prevent you from teaching with movement is your own inhibitions. You are the expert in your classroom and you can inspire the culture by leading the culture. The more you demonstrate and join the lessons, the more trust your students will have in what you are presenting. Be clear in your intentions. Providing opportunities for students to ask questions: “Why are we walking around the room in random directions? Why are we pulling an elastic band to Adagio for Strings? Why are you asking me to make shapes that are taller or shorter than the ones next to me?” can allow students to reflect on the purpose of movement, begin to synthesize the connections between music and movement, and encourage mindfulness in their movement. One of the biggest reasons our society is resistant to movement is because it seems frivolous to most people. Knowing this, you can begin to advocate for purposeful movement.

You may be thinking “how do I begin?” Here are three ideas to get you started.

Movement as the Facilitator

Is the function of the movement to get students from point A to point B? Transitional movement can be a handy management tool that builds vocabulary and motor development. “Can you tip-toe to your spot… skip around the rug… walk in a low level and end in a scattered spot?” These types of explorations benefit the movement culture in your classroom and take very little time and investment from the students. These transitional exercises can serve to set up the next concept in your lesson to improve student success by internalizing the concept in the body before being presented with it in an abstract way. There are endless quick reaction games that can be used to prepare a lesson including:

  • Walking a pulse in one direction to a set phrase length and changing direction at a sound cue that begins the next phrase.
  • Stepping into a hula-hoop on down beats of a meter while stepping outside of the hula-hoop for all weaker beats.  The teacher can alter the meter by leading from a drum.
  • Moving around a room and quickly snapping into a shape on a random sound cue.

Movement in the Literal Sense

This is an attainable and basic approach to movement. The general term would be “choreography.” This can come in many forms that are acceptable and useful from a presentation standpoint. Choir movement on risers can be enhanced with literal translations of the lyrics. Students enjoy the movement choices more if they are permitted to have a say in how to interpret them. The teacher’s role here can become more focused on polishing the look of movement choices:

  • Balancing movement choices to show levels, body facing directions, and contrast.
  • Having facial expression to match the movement expressions.
Balance and expression!

The literal interpretation of movement is the safest place to be in the movement classroom. Literal movement lessons allow students to synthesize known movement vocabulary and explore structures presented by the teacher. Some starting for using literal movement with your students ideas are:

  • Act out a story read by the teacher while keeping at least one body part connected to a wall at all times.
  • Compose/adapt a folk dance using known vocabulary.
  • Compose/improvise a movement sentence that matches an elemental structure (aaba, abab, abac).

Movement as an Artful Expression

Expressive movement is why we fall in love with the idea of using movement in our classes. This poses a danger that many teachers fall into as eager movement facilitators. You cannot force artistic expression into a student with the expectation that they are going to love it as much as you did when you first experienced it. The students you have at the beginning are not the students who will likely become your first group of free movers. The students you will have in four years, five years, or even six years from now are the ones who may have their artistic expression fully realized.

It is important to truly distinguish between literal and artful movement. Both can be student-led and can be drawn out of any impetus (art, poetry, storytelling, drama), but artful movement drives itself. Literal movement is driven by the impetus from the beginning of the lesson to the end. Artful is when the impetus is no longer present to an outside observer. The choices of the mover may be amplified and supported by the music, but it should also drive the music too. A strong, tense gesture should alter the sound of the accompaniment. Jagged punches might initiate harder articulations.

artful movement drives itself

Poetry as Movement Inspiration

Poetry can be used in a variety of ways to spark movement. The poem “Inflation” by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is an example of a concrete poem with text that can kindle movement possibilities, engaging for use with students of all ages.

                Used with permission


With its simplicity of language and playful nature on the subject of balloons, “Inflation” can be used with Kindergarteners to explore space around the body. It can also serve as as both a literary and movement review with older students, as well as in preparation for longer poetic works.

Redacted Poetry

Another possible entry point for using “Inflation” with your students is through the idea of redacted or blackout poetry. In this way, a movement experience can grow from the removal of text:

Redacting the selected text allows students to focus on the growth words “bigger” and “blows up.”  Given time and space, students can to explore ways to move the poem from viewing only the blacked out text. After performing the poem with a narrator reading the redacted version, you can then reveal the full poem. Because the movement choices have been restricted to growth words, the movement will be literal and show expansion of the body, arms raising, and the widening of the bodies stance.

Addition through subtraction 

To add depth to the movement experience, the anonymous “Tree Poem” and “Thunder in the Distance” by Susan Lacovara can be used in the same way as “Inflation.” In these two examples of redaction, the nouns have been redacted to hide the literal meanings of the poems. Movement choices naturally become more descriptive since there are no suggestions of what characters the dancer is imitating. There may still be a literal translation, however, when the full poem is read aloud, there are more opportunities for gestures to contrast with the playfulness of the text. The descriptive verse and imagery leads to larger gestures and greater intensity in the movement choices.

Possible teaching structure:

  • Present poems with nouns blacked out except for key movement descriptions.
  • Explore the revealed words in the order of appearance while students move in free space.
  • Use similar movement choices while reacting to the poem being read aloud with all words included.
  • Students are presented with the three poems in order, intentionally scaffolding their movement experience from literal, to interpretive, to expressive.
  • Cross-curricular connections can be made in your classroom, supporting student learning of literacy,  parts of speech, poetry forms, expressive reading, art, and could extend further with older students into topics of censorship, government, and society.

Abstract Art Choreography

Artwork can then be used a creative conduit for a collaborative movement experience for your students.

  • Spend a minute quietly analyzing the shapes and subjects between two pieces of art, for example,  The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí and Watery Paths by Jackson Pollock.
    The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí               
    Watery Paths by Jackson Pollock









  • Add a tic-tac-toe crossing over the paintings to make it easier to navigate the pictures. 
  • Each student chooses one tic-tac-toe box from each paining.
  • Ask that the two boxes are from two different zones of each painting, thus necessitating a level change or body facing change.
  • Practice transitioning between the two shapes in personal space to a sustained sound cue, or to a recording of music that uses long sustained phrasing. Transitions should move smoothly from one painting to the other. Practice going back and forth between the two paintings.
  • Work with a partner or small group to create more parts of the paintings that move at the same time. This work should prompt level changes, play with positive and negative spaces, and sometimes allow for points of contact with other movers.
  • These two shapes serve as the opening and closing formations for the group choreography.
  • Incorporate choreography from the poem “Thunder in the Distance” between the formations.
  • Set the choreography to a recorded piece of music, such as Ronan Hardiman’s Lament.
  • Use this corresponding Google Slide presentation to engage your students.

Movement is not only a classroom tool, but is an embodiment of what an artist feels from an artwork. It is subjective. It is constantly being edited and revised by the performer. It is an improvisation based on the expectations of the artist. As you continue to develop your movement culture, remember that you, the teacher, are on the journey with your students. Playful imitation is a fine and necessary step in order to reach reactionary movement towards more artful musical selections. The challenge is how patient you can be to build the culture and stretch the comfort level of both you and your students. Are you willing to take the risk? Are you willing to spend the extra time intentionally planning movement lessons? Once you decide you are ready, the journey can begin!

​​Michael Vasquez teaches K-5 music at Kuentz Elementary in San Antonio, TX. He is an ACEMM spotlight award recipient and active clinician on Orff process, elemental movement, and recorder methodology. He is a NISD teacher of the year and HEB Educator of Excellence Nominee. Michael enjoys teaching summer courses across the country as an AOSA movement and recorder instructor. Michael co-wrote the first supplement to the Purposeful Pathways, Percussive Play, with Roger Sams.


The American Center for Elemental Music and Movement is to committed to promoting the artistic and pedagogical possibilities of elemental music and movement. In the belief that all human beings have the capability and need to express themselves through these media, the Center will offer educational programs and performance opportunities for children and adults. The goal of the Center's work is to provide learning opportunities for all ages that center around the intrinsic value of elemental music and movement experienced in an artistically meaningful way. Encouraging and creating opportunities for the study of pedagogical approaches toward facilitating experiences in elemental music and movement within and for a variety of communities is an extension of our main goal. This is accomplished through the creation of programs for educators and community members that explore and develop the skills to perform and create as well as foster the appreciation of elemental music and movement styles. We invite you to explore our growing resources and articles. Add you voice among our supporters! Our programs are expanding, and our impacts are creating positive ripple effects in classrooms across the U.S. and the world.

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