This is the third article in a series on the importance of the arts in education: Intro | Visual arts | Dance | Drama | Music

Dance, defined as movements of the body that are expressive rather than purely functional, has existed as long as we have. Using the body to express feelings, sensations and emotions is the oldest form of human communication — uniting communities, emulating and honoring natural cycles, celebrating harvests and hunts, and signaling rites of passage.

Dance in today's modern societies has largely been reduced to a form of entertainment. While indeed an excellent form of entertainment, dance plays a more profound role in the mysterious human psyche — it deeply connects human beings with their environment and each other.

Dancer Adolfo Chavez points out that dance is an ephemeral art form where each expression is instantaneous and gone the next instant. Unlike in the other fine arts, the body itself serves as the instrument of expression.

"Having contact with dance for children is as essential as learning to talk," explains Chavez who is also a dance instructor. "Considering that the body is the closest thing we have — our house, so to speak — the experience of communicating with body gives us consciousness of who we are as humans. Through the body we can develop a broad language."

This is one key reason all school-age children should have the opportunity to express themselves through the body's nonverbal language, Chavez emphasizes.

Incorporating creative or expressive movement in the classroom gives students confidence, spatial awareness, an emotional outlet as well as a mental break from academic tasks. Unlike classic forms of dance which often involve elaborate movements that require arduous years to develop and hone, corporal expression uses everyday movements making it accessible to all.

When present in the school setting, such expressive movement practices are commonly lumped in with physical education. Both are positive in that they exercise the body, but sports activities emphasize competition and pushing the body whereas corporal expression is more about self-knowledge and expression of emotions. The experience can be more personal because the focus is inward versus outward.

Chavez, who runs a private dance studio, shared some of his observations from his experience teaching in an elementary school setting.

First of all, he noticed a significant difference between children who had previous contact with dance in terms of responsiveness, coordination and ease in their bodies. There was also some initial resistance on the part of certain students who were unfamiliar with expressing themselves through movement. Yet with weekly sessions over the course of the school year, many overcame their hesitation and demonstrated increased comfort with the activity.

One group that particularly benefits on various levels from dance and movement are children with special needs. According to Cara Batema in an article on SpecialNeeds.com, incorporating dance can aid them in breaking out of their shell and expressing feelings and emotions in a safe, nonthreatening atmosphere.

On the physical level, it's an enjoyable way to develop fine and gross motor control. Dancing also promotes social interaction with peers, an area that is often challenging for some special needs students.

In many areas of the world, especially here in Mexico, childhood obesity and diabetes is a growing problem. Yet most children I've observed, regardless of their size or shape, love to dance. So providing opportunities to dance regularly in a nonjudgmental environment could make an impact on such health issues.

Despite its obvious benefits, the low status of dance and lack of provision for dance in the compulsory years of education on the global level were among the concerns raised by an international team of dance professionals. As part of a study, they conducted a survey of 178 students enrolled in university dance programs around the world on the topic of dance as part of young people's education and ultimately published a book on their findings.

One student surveyed responded to the question whether dance should be part of elementary school curriculum by writing, "It is core curriculum and a way of learning and knowing the world. Dance is a language of expression and is universal. Dance is movement, and we need to move to stay healthy, strong and confident. Dance is art, and we need art in our lives to know what it is to be human."

Coming in contact with dance is life-changing for many youth in terms of body image, self-esteem and confidence. It is a way to take ownership of their own bodies and minds in the face of the challenges found in adolescence.

"I feel like I can open up and express another part of me through dance, things that wouldn't normally show up because in everyday life I am more inward and shy," says high school student Sarai Posadas, whose experience with dance is similar to that of several students who responded in the international survey.

Posadas also enthusiastically shared about a research project she recently did on street dance as a form of social protest in Mexico City, reminding me that there's a wealth of cross-curricular opportunities inherent within the study of dance.

Through dance, we not only can open a window to soul but also to the world, its cultures and history.

In Part 4 of this series, we examine the benefits of involving school children in drama.