family folk dance night

Making It Work: Family Folk Dance Night

Making It Work:
Family Folk Dance Night

Folk dancing is one the most popular components in our lower school music curriculum.  Through controlled chaos the dance consistently brings a sense of joy and a feeling of community to its participants. In a subtle way folk dancing encourages risk taking, exercises a sense of self-confidence, and adds to the student’s social, physical, and emotional well-being.

But you already knew all of that!

So why not show off and share all those terrific qualities the dance offers to a larger community? At our school we did just that and expanded that joyful success of the dance outward toward our parent community by creating, “Family Folk Dance Night.”   Through collaboration with colleagues, administration, and parents, your school community can create a lasting tradition that brings families together in a joyfully creative way while promoting a sense of community and school spirit.


Once my colleagues and administration were on board with the idea of “Family Folk Dance Night,” to insure family participation the school body treated the night as a substantial event on both the internal and printed calendars that go home with each student.  As such an attitude of full participation by homeroom teachers, students, and one accompanying adult, became the expectation for the given date.  Each child was expected to be accompanied by an adult for the event.  This event can have the potential for turning into a drop-off center for kids, the antithesis of the whole goal!

The event was discussed in music class and in homerooms so students were well informed about what the evening would look like.  As the date approached, homeroom teachers and administrators mentioned the event in their weekly newsletters, our school website, and other written correspondence that is sent home.


Besides music class, folk dancing can show up in a variety of other curriculums.  For a large event like this it typically feels safe to have a “partner in crime,” which is why I enjoy collaborating with our school’s P.E. department. The P.E. teachers share a similar feeling around the benefits folk dancing offers and typically it fits nicely into their curriculum.

The cornerstone of this event is that students learn the dances in class, and then become the teacher/partner to their parent.  To them, it is a delightful role-reversal!  Student-lead teaching becomes the organizational tool that solidifies their learning and perhaps as important, helps you manage a very large crowd of people!  I think you’ll find this technique surprisingly effective.  Inform students right from the start that along with your guided calls of the dance moves, they will be the teacher to their parent.  Encourage them to model your language and teaching techniques.

Working with the P.E. teacher, we agreed that in order for the night to feel like a legitimate event we should plan for it to be one hour in length; this would include one or two breaks for drinks, the restroom, and of course socializing.  Between music and P.E. class, ten dances of varying degrees of difficulty according to grade level were taught.  You can consider doing this as a unit, or as a continuing component you teach throughout the year.  Surprisingly, your older students will enjoy revisiting the basic dances you use in Kindergarten to introduce folk dancing, and vice versa. Encourage the older kids to give their parent a break and to ask a younger student to partner with them for one of the dances, like, “Rakes of Mallow.”  All of the dance music comes from recordings so that they can be practiced during music class.


Choose a space that has a sound system that you think can comfortably accommodate the dance.  I felt our gymnasium was too large, but the carpeted auditorium was just right.  It has an easily accessible sound system that can play CD’s, adequate restrooms and water fountains, and overlooking side rooms that serve as areas for sitting, food and drink concessions, and socializing.  We closed the curtain on stage, cleared the floor of the chairs, and made sure to have one microphone available for me to call out the dances.  In our auditorium, there are side classrooms with walls open up to the main floor.  We used that area for food and drinks brought in voluntarily by parents.

Plan to prepare ten dances. Groups of students should be very familiar with all 10 so that they are the leaders for the event. This is the perfect opportunity for your students to be the teacher.

Prior to the event, try to figure out how many couples per circle or line will work best with the counts in the music.  Often 8 couples per formation is best for the music so that each move can cycle through. Encourage multiple circles or lines.

If possible tape the floor to help get the lines or circles in shape.  If you’re feeling extra controlling, designate taped areas according to grade level.

Music along with FOOD always brings people together and lifts their spirits!  Collaborate with your parent’s association or room parents to bring anything from a potluck dinner to just desserts. Perhaps it’s the end of the year and your administration is feeling extra generous and will splurge on pizza if the parents association will supply paper plates and drinks.


This event has a celebratory feeling and as such, our school has recognized that the best time of year to plan it is either mid-October when we see it as a social icebreaker that welcomes our new and returning families or we plan the dance in May as an end-of-the-year celebration.  You might consider offering the suggestion to your colleagues and administration that this event be tagged to some other event at your school: a student art show, a fundraising event, or a “Celebration of Learning” display of students’ work.

This is a successful model for organizing a family folk dance night in Jenifer’s school. Please share your family or community folk dance ideas and suggestions in the comments below so we can all have a family folk dance night and ‘Make it Work”.

family folk dance night

Children Dancing in a Ring by Hans Thoma, 1872

Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer Shaw teaches K-5 music at Lake Ridge Academy, North Ridgevile, OH.After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia with both bachelor's and master's degrees in music, she earned all three levels if Orff Schulwerk teacher education certification. She is past-president of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the American Orff Schulwerk Association, commonly known as ""Chapter One." Ms. Shaw has given presentations on the Schulwerk at The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, and Marywood University, Scranton, PA. Her students have performed at Ohio Music Educator's Association's professional development conference in Columbus, OH in 2014.

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  1. Aimee on January 26, 2017 at 8:55 am

    We have a folk dance night also, in lieu of what used to be our spring concert. We have it on the Thursday before spring break, which is perfect timing for us, and call it “Jammin’ in your Jammies”. Coming to school at 6 pm in pajamas adds to the gun feeling of the evening and we also have our third graders perform a maypole dance and our fourth grade students perform the North Skelton Sword Dance. Performances and community dancing combine and the parents love it!

    • Jennifer on February 2, 2017 at 9:39 am

      Love this idea and the timing sounds just perfect!

  2. John Buschiazzo on January 26, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Our PTA paid for a professional square dance caller from the community. He visited our school uring the day to see what Ss already knew. At the evening event, he called mainly dances from his library, new to Ss, but within their level of experience. It was a huge success and folks didn’t want to leave.

  3. Kathi Bass on January 26, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    This sounds like so much fun. I can see tying it in with our annual Mother-Son, Father-Daughter event around Valentines Day. Thanks so much for the tips.

    • Jennifer on February 2, 2017 at 9:38 am

      Those events, father-daughter/mother-son, sound like the perfect opportunity for some fun folk dancing!

  4. Brian Michaud on January 26, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    I have done family folk dance nights with my students, and they are an absolute blast! Thank you Jennifer for sharing your time and talents!

  5. Kathy Disney on January 26, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’m hoping to do this very thing, so your information is very much appreciated. What are some of your tried and true all-time favorite dances? I have some ideas, but at my new school, we have major space limitations in my classroom (though ample space for the event), so I haven’t been doing as much folk dancing as I would like. When the weather improves, I’d like to take the class outdoors, but then sound becomes an issue, and a piano, if the music requires accompaniment.

  6. Becky Burdett1 on January 27, 2017 at 7:53 am

    Jennifer! Thanks for sharing this! This is something I’d love to do with the students in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and you’ve described it in such a way that makes me think it’s approachable.

    • Jennifer on February 2, 2017 at 9:37 am

      Yeah!!! Becky, I’ll come home and let’s do one together, how fun would that be!

  7. Sabrina on January 29, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    I would like to know if it is possible to include dance as a sort of warm up for teaching English as a foreign language.
    Sabrina Dávila

  8. Amy on January 30, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    What a great idea! I have always wanted to do something like this. I teach in a k-3 building. Do you have any recommendations for dances with such young grade levels?

    • Jennifer on February 2, 2017 at 9:35 am

      Hi Amy! Thanks for asking. I typically start in Kindergarten with Seven Jumps, then to Shoe Maker….Jump Jim Joe takes a little time because they have switch partners and have some difficulty with the switch, but with some isolated practice they begin to dance that one smoothly. It’s also their first “partner dance,” and plants the idea that switching and sharing partners is an important aspect to the social piece of the dance. Next, Alabama Gal. Again, isolated practice of certain parts of the dance, in a scattered formation first is helpful to solidifying the cornerstone of so many of these dances, which is: R.H.; L.H.; then later both hands, do-si-do. After Alabama Gal is mastered, we move onto Rakes of Mallow, Fjaskerin, and Nigun Atik.

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