Talking Without Words: a Creative Movement Lesson Plan Designed for Inclusive Classrooms

By Portia Abernathy

Lesson Title: Talking Without Words: Using Our Bodies and Movement to Show Our Feelings
Designed for: Youth (8-12 years old), Inclusive
Length: 1 hour


Learning Standards

Responding: Respond to movement to match the emotional content, mood, or rhythm of music.

Creating: Use guided improvisation to explore, invent movement, and apply movement concepts.

Performing: Demonstrate movements in straight and curved pathways. Use movement to demonstrate various emotions (happy, sad, scared, surprised, angry).

Connecting: Move in different groups (pairs and duets). Make movement choices based on preferences.



Images of people demonstrating different emotions
Rubber floor markers
Music and speaker OR live musician


Preview concepts: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • Students begin seated in assigned chairs set up in a circle.
  • For attendance/check in, ask students (when their name is called) to freeze their face and body (while remaining seated) in a way that can show the group how they are feeling today.

Warm Up
Review concepts: personal and general space, level, shape, and size (large and small)

  • Lead students (with musical accompaniment) through the 8-step Brain Dance movement series. (The Brain Dance was developed and created by Anne Green Gilbert)
  • Incorporate movements that promote body isolations and highlight the previous weeks’ learning concepts; this can also include seasonal imagery (falling leaves or snow, flowers growing, wind, apple picking).

Concept Introduction
New concept: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • One by one, show students five different images of people demonstrating different emotions.
  • Ask students to silently observe the faces, bodies, movement, posture, etc. of the people in the images.
  • Ask students:
    • What do you see that made you choose that?
    • What is their body doing/what is their face doing/etc.
  • After each emotion, have students freeze their own body to demonstrate the feeling.


Review concepts: Traveling on straight pathways, practicing locomotor movements

  • Have students travel across the floor in straight and curved pathways, from one floor marker to the other.
  • For each round of movement have students (alone or in pairs):
    • March
    • Tip toe
    • Chasse
    • Skip
    • Jump (over another floor marker along the pathway)
  • At the end of each movement round, have students turn and talk to a partner and share which emotion the movement made them feel.
  • Demonstrate (or have students demonstrate) two different responses/emotions to the same movement.
  • Ask students
    • What was different?
    • What did you see or notice?
    • What makes you say that?
  • Ask for 2-3 students to demonstrate their emotion with a locomotor movement, like a gallop or hop, and see if students can guess the emotion.
    • Note that students can share and we can understand how people are feeling without using any words.



  • Return to seated circle.
  • Play a clip of music and allow students to listen and think about how it makes them feel.
  • In pairs or trios, have students go into the middle of the circle and free dance (structured improvisation), matching their emotion and movement to the music.
    • Remind students to use various body parts, levels, shapes, and qualities of movement.
  • Other students should demonstrate audience behavior expectations while observing.



  • Close class with group reverence:
    • Bow to thank teacher
    • Bow to thank musician
    • Bow to thank peers
    • Bow to thank self


A picture of Portia Abernathy, a smiling woman with long blonde hair and a blue jacket

Portia Abernathy, M.A., M.Ed., is Assistant Director of Education and Community Initiatives at Boston Ballet, where she oversees accessible and inclusive dance education and professional development programs.


5 Reasons to Attend the 2017 VSA Intersections Conference

There are lots of reasons to attend the Kennedy Center’s VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Brand New Content

We have tons of new sessions that you won’t want to miss! Here is sampling of what we have planned:

  • It Takes a Village: Inclusive Community Music Programming
  • Teaching Students with Disabilities Using Puppets
  • Blackness, Disability, and Higher Education
  • Using Art to Reach Students Who Have Experienced Trauma
  • The Power Of West African Drumming For Students With Disabilities
  • What’s New? A Fresh Look At Paraprofessionals And Peers As Support For Students With Disabilities

Browse the full schedule here.

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2. Keynote Speaker: Antoine Hunter

The Keynote address will challenge attendees to question how teacher perception of disability affects student expectations and to envision a classroom environment in which every student is empowered to achieve at high levels. In this address, Mr. Antoine Hunter—an award-winning African-American Deaf producer, choreographer, film/theater actor, dancer, dance instructor, model, poet, speaker, mentor, Deaf advocate, and the 2017 King of San Francisco Carnaval—will offer perspective from his own experiences as a Deaf artist and provide insights into how those experiences have shaped his current teaching practice.

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3. Get Inspired Before the New Year Begins

It’s the beginning of summer break and you just want to lay at the pool, spend time with your family, and rest your mind before the new school year begins. We know it’s hard to think ahead to the end of summer. But the VSA Intersections Conference is a great way to get re-energized and inspired, so you can bring new creative ideas to the 2017-2018 year.

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4. Grow Your Peer and Resources Network

Meet experts and newcomers to the field and grow your relationships with other educators passionate about arts education for students with disabilities. Everyone conference is a different experience and there are plenty of opportunities to mingle with other participants.

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5. Explore all that Austin has to Offer

A change of location can inspire you to think differently. Join us in Texas and explore all the art and creativity that it’s capital city has to offer. During the conference, you’ll hear from Austin-based arts organizations such as MINDPOP and VSA Texas.

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We hope you’ll be able to join us as we dig deeper into the critical relationship of arts and education through new content, an amazing keynote speaker, and plenty of learning and fun.  The 2017 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference is taking place August 6-7, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Register by June 30 for the lowest rate.

VSA Intersections is a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program.

Austin Educators Make Creative Movement Accessible to All Students

In Austin, Texas (U.S.), the Creative Learning Initiative seeks to provide a quality arts-rich education for every child, as well as professional development and ongoing support for teachers in arts-based instruction strategies. This work is made possible through a collaboration between MINDPOP, the Austin Independent School District, the city of Austin, and over 50 arts and cultural organizations, foundations, and philanthropists. Krissie Marty and Silva Laukkanen, two Austin-based dance educators, have created a series of movement strategies for the Creative Learning Initiative, along with adaptations so those strategies can be successfully implemented in every classroom and with every student.

Photo of a woman standing in a grassy field wearing a polka dot top.

Krissie Marty

Marty is Director of Education at Forklift Danceworks, a dance company in Austin that makes dances for the masses. She worked in collaboration with MINDPOP to create a series of movement-based creative teaching strategies for the Creative Learning Initiative (CLI) with an eye towards what would be successful in all grade levels and learning stages, from early education through secondary education. Laukkanen, a master teaching artist with VSA Texas and Forklift Danceworks, then worked with Marty to adapt the strategies for different populations, specifically looking at the special education classroom.

Marty calls one of the strategies “Idea and Movement,” in which students are challenged to make movements based on ideas. “This can easily connect movement to a curriculum source,” says Marty. From there, students can take a series of movements and build a phrase, adding their movements together.

Another CLI movement strategy is called “Pathways,” or “Draw Map Move.” Students and teachers make a drawing of their planned movement on paper, then put it in action in the classroom. Marty says this strategy not only encourages gross motor movement in students, but also allows flexibility for educators to incorporate movement in whatever space is available. She says, “Not everyone has access to a dance studio, but that does not mean they cannot use movement in the classroom.”

A woman with short reddish hair wearing a dark shirt.

Silva Laukkanen

In the CLI professional development trainings, Laukkanen works with teachers to brainstorm ways to make the movement strategies work for every student. For instance, she says “Draw Map Move” can be adapted for students who are blind or have low vision by putting rope at waist height and tape patterns on the floor from one end of the room to another for students to follow. She has also put ropes inside of long foam pool noodles so students can experience moving independently in both straight and curvy lines.

Laukkanen offers teachers myriad ways to adapt the strategies, from incorporating props and visual aids to chopping the lessons into smaller segments. She encourages educators to pay very close attention to their students, including those who are non-ambulatory, to recognize any independent movement they make. “Even the smallest independent movement can be a reaction to something, which can then turn into even more creative movement,” says Laukkanen. She adds that allowing students to move as much as they are able is valuable for those with and without disabilities.

Both Laukkanen and Marty emphasize the importance of giving students choices in the movement exercises. “The strategies are designed to allow students to initiate movement and express their ideas and interpretations of curriculum,” explains Marty.

When Marty and Laukkanen train teachers on the CLI movement strategies, they are struck by how excited the educators are to put the strategies into practice immediately. “They feel like they can do this right now,” says Marty, continuing, “…all they need are their students’ bodies!” Laukkanen says the special education teachers she works with express both excitement and relief in the professional development sessions, since the movement strategies are designed to be so accessible.

Laukkanen and Marty will present a session on the Movement Strategies of Austin’s Creative Learning Initiative at the 2017 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, August 6-7, 2017, in Austin, Texas. The session will include opportunities for attendees to learn about the movement strategies, experience them through movement exercises, and ask questions about adapting them for use in their own classrooms.

Check out Silva Laukkanen’s tips for teaching creative movement and dance to students with disabilities, posted on the VSA blog in October 2016.

Promising Practices in Inclusive Dance Education at Australia’s Restless Dance Theatre

A dancer leaps across a dark stage while three other performers, all wearing red, watch.

Dancers Chris Dyke, Lorcan Hopper, Josh Campton, and Michael Hodyl of Restless Dance Theatre performs in Touched, a piece developed by the company’s Youth Ensemble. Photo: Andy Rasheed

Restless Dance Theatre describes its inclusive work as being “informed by disability.” The dance company, based in Adelaide, Australia, creates new works with its youth and senior ensembles, and conducts dance workshops for young people with and without disabilities. We spoke with Artistic Manager Roz Hervey about what makes Restless’ dance education programs work well for all students.

VSA and Accessibility: Can you cite some specific ways you adapt your Restless Central and Links workshops for students with disabilities?

Roz Hervey: We approach our workshops as we would approach our performances. Restless has developed a way of working where participants are given a series of creative challenges and asked to respond in movement. For example, we might ask two people to choose different ways to wrap themself around their partner’s body; the partner responds by removing him or herself from the wrap. Dance sequences are then built up from their responses. This produces unique, distinctive, and very striking dance through a process that nurtures the creative voices of the dancers.

Access requirements are built into the planning of the workshops. For example, when working with the South Australian School for Vision Impaired, the workshop used tactile props and a tactile border to define the space. We also engaged an audio describer to work with the creative team.

Your website specifically mentions that the youth ensemble and workshops are open to both students with and without disabilities. Can you talk a bit about the importance of the inclusive dance environment?

We embrace diversity and create an inclusive environment to be able to create real raw and uninhibited dance theatre. We don’t focus on people’s disability; instead, we highlight each individual’s unique personality and movement vocabulary.

How does Restless prepare their teachers for working in inclusive settings?

Every few years we run a Dot to Dot tutor training program (resource available online). Our tutors have usually started their journey with the company as one of our ensemble members, or have assisted our artistic director in the rehearsal room making a work. In all our workshops, we have a lead tutor, a senior tutor, and a tutor with disability. New tutors gain experience working with the lead tutor and eventually go on to lead workshops themselves. We encourage potential tutors to attend our Central workshop to gain knowledge about the company’s working methods.

Do you have any recommendations for arts organizations that want to make their education programming more inclusive of students with disabilities?

We would encourage organizations to have people with disabilities as part of planning sessions. Don’t be scared! Just ensure there is a positive and safe environment for everyone.

To learn more about Restless Dance Theatre, visit its website or follow the company on Facebook.

Combining Movement and Classical Music at the Australian Chamber Orchestra

A woman plays a cello while a teenage boy in a wheelchair touches it with his right hand.At the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), access and inclusion are core organizational values. Their triennial disability action plan is a major part of the strategic plan, and comprehensively sets goals for inclusion in every aspect of the organization’s work. This includes their signature education program for students with disabilities, ACO Move.

ACO Move is a series of sessions for young people with disabilities featuring movement and live music. ACO Customer Relations and Access Manager, Dean Watson, who has a background in dance, conceived of the program six years ago to offer adolescents with disabilities an arts learning opportunity with the Sydney-based string ensemble.

ACO Move takes place over five two-hour sessions, with a group of approximately ten young participants alongside program facilitators, a quartet of ACO musicians, and a percussionist. Each session begins with a welcome, warm up, and introductions, followed by a series of music and movement exercises. Watson says the facilitators plan many exercises to allow for flexibility in the sessions and “are prepared to adapt.”

Two teenage boys raise their arms in the air while musicians play violins.Watson says some of the student participants have never heard classical music before, and creating a “soundscape” helps to familiarize everyone. The percussionist brings instruments for the participants to use, and everyone works together to build up sound based on a given idea, such as a storm or wave. This builds a sense of community and trust among the group, says Watson, adding, “Everyone performs together, including the ACO musicians, and by the end we’ve created a new ensemble with a composition we can call our own!”

The sessions focus heavily on the theme of dynamics, and Watson and his collaborators use musical terminology like crescendo, diminuendo, staccato, rhythm, and rest to convey this idea. When a term is introduced, the ACO artists first demonstrate the concept musically. The facilitators then turn it into a movement, and the participants imitate and improvise, ultimately building a theatrical piece.

Tactile and sensory learning are also core components of the ACO Move sessions. Participants touch instruments at rest, lay on the ground while a cello is played, or hug a double bass while it is played. Watson also incorporates the sensory learning and soundscape creation as major parts of the ACO’s education sessions in primary and high schools for students with disabilities.

Young adults with disabilities dance to live classical music.Each year, Watson seeks to engage a guest artist with a disability to collaborate on the ACO Move program. The upcoming 2017 sessions will incorporate original compositions for string quartet by a young Australian composer with cerebral palsy. In 2016, the young writer and actor Emily Dash diarized the project and created original spoken word pieces to perform at the presentation day that concludes each ACO Move series.

According to Watson, ACO Move’s success can be attributed to the organization’s commitment to the program, from the administrators to the board to the musicians. He says, “When we invite people to participate [in ACO Move], we want them to feel as though they are part of the ACO family. This means they have access to everything in the building, can communicate freely with the musicians and staff, and feel like an equal part of the ensemble we create.” ACO is currently investigating opportunities to expand ACO Move through partnerships with arts and disability organizations, as well as with the venues in which the orchestra plays.

For more information, contact

Five Tips for Teaching Creative Movement and Dance to Students with Disabilities

By Silva Laukkanen

These tips are inspired by my three years of teaching creative movement and dance in a school in Austin, Texas, that serves students who have significant disabilities, including children who are medically fragile or who need intensive behavioral support.

  1. Create a fun routine. It is important for sessions to have a clear beginning and end that stays the same. I begin and end in a circle with a song that includes the same movements every time. I alternate between exercises that are high energy and calming, which gives students and teachers time to refocus. In cases when a class comes in and is very upset or has a high energy level, I start with calming exercises and continue with more rigorous dancing and movement, but always end with calm and quiet.
  1. Engage with visuals. I try to give visual cues for every aspect of the class. I clearly mark where all dancing will happen with two long lines of painter’s tape on either side of the space. It is good for students who are blind or have low vision because they can feel the tape. I also use “spots,” which are colored, rubbery circles. One of the many ways that I use them is to give students their own “lane” when I want to have everyone do locomotive movements in a straight line. This allows me to provide an adequate amount of personal space between the students who need it and to give visual cues for where to stop and begin. The class schedule is also visual. I take pictures of the actual props we will use in the exercises and arrange them in a timeline that students can see at all times. As we complete each section, the visual cue is removed. This lets students see when their favorite part is coming up and also how much is left in the class.
  1. Use a variety of music. There is music that will draw out the creative mover in each one of us and it is good to ask your paraprofessionals about the students’ favorite music genre or artist as it can change the mood of the student and the whole class instantly. It is also good to know if you have students that are sensitive to certain sounds. In my class we explore all different styles, traditions, and tempos of music.
  1. Dance through transitions. In order to keep everyone engaged the entire time, I have created a way to have transitions as their own dance. For example, I play calm music and we do a balancing dance and balance the rubber spots on our bodies as we return them to me, and that balancing dance marks the transition to the next activity.
  1. Honor the students’ movements. Pick up the smallest movements that you see and amplify them; notice even the tics that someone has and use those in your lesson. This will make the students feel valued. If someone walks only on their tiptoes, have everyone do a transition dance between two activities on tiptoe. When you play someone’s favorite song and they can’t help but dance, follow their movements and see their face light up with pride. Become a student yourself and see everything as a possibility. Be open and ask questions from the people who know the students best, and have lots of fun dancing!


A photo of the author, a woman with short red hair wearing a blue and white scarf

Silva Laukkanen

Silva Laukkanen is a teaching artist who focuses on community dance and bringing dance to non-traditional places for everyone to experience. She has been with VSA Texas since 2012.

Five Tips for Teaching Dance to Students with Disabilities: Teaching with PRIDE

By: Jenny Seham, Center for Creativity in Health and Education (CCHE), Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY.

The ritual and rehearsal inherent in most dance disciplines provide a sturdy, safe, and flexible foundation upon which we can scaffold strategies for teaching students with disabilities. Building upon this dance foundation begins with a passionate commitment to the art form and an avid interest in the expansion of language and technique necessary to teach students with wide-ranging physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Teachers must observe classes and watch videos; attend professional development workshops and speak to parents, teachers, occupation and physical therapist, and para-professionals. Increasing your knowledge base and comfort with different ways of learning gives you the exhilarating artistic freedom to allow your students to help guide your pedagogy and practice. These five tips integrate important, intrinsic dance education values with specific methods for teaching dance to students with disabilities.

  1. Create PEER PARTNERSHIPS. This is an exciting way to expand your teaching practice and teaching time. Collaborate with your school, dance company, or community organizations to build a culture of sharing dance with diverse learners. Provide time for dyadic learning, improvisation, interpretation and mirroring practice between partners. Have partner dyads share their discoveries with the class.
  1. Be consistent with class ROUTINES AND RITUALS. Begin your class with a centering routine: arriving, taking places, and proceeding to familiar warm up exercises or choreography. This should be an opportunity for students with disabilities to practice and improve technique and for you to observe their progress. Establish a class-ending reverence that honors your dance discipline, the music, the teacher, and the students.
  1. Provide structure for frequent IMPROVISATION. Give students an emotion, tempo, piece of music, or story to inspire their own dance. My students have performed animal fables, become hurricanes, and danced concepts of revolution, freedom, and civil rights.
  1. Use and repeat DANCE VOCABULARY. A student recently told me that she could dance salsa at a community event because she had learned the names for steps in class. Give students the confidence to participate outside of class.
  1. Acknowledge individual and group EXCELLENCE. Recognize and identify individual achievement throughout class. It might be the movement of an eyebrow in lieu of a tendu, keeping tempo, or the creative and adaptive interpretation of your instruction.
Dr. Jenny Seham headshot

Dr. Jenny Seham

Dr. Jenny Seham is a clinical psychologist, dance education consultant, paradigm shifter, and advocate for social justice. Visit to learn more.