Policy briefs

null Policy Brief: Let's Dance!

Photo: Eeva Anttila

This policy brief has been originally published in January 2019 in Finnish. It has been addressed to the Finnish National Agency for Education, teachers, teacher trainers, headmasters, municipalities, and political decision-makers.

Dance is both culture and art. It is also a holistic form of physical activity. Dance can be used to promote learning, physical activity, and cultural participation of all primary school pupils, and to improve their readiness to express themselves in diverse ways.

Dance is a popular leisure activity and form of physical exercise. Dance ranks second of all forms of art when measured by the number of students in basic art education, and there is great interest among pupils in schools in dance and other creative forms of physical activity.1 However, not all children and young people have equal opportunities to participate in dance activities outside of school. As school activities have the potential to reach entire age groups, it is incumbent upon schools to diminish this inequality.

The key objectives of basic school education include the following: to encourage the pupil to be more active, to make the studies more meaningful to the pupils, and to make it possible for each pupil to experience a sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, the aim is that the pupils learn to express themselves in different ways and to present themselves in different situations and that they gain the ability to use movement as a form of interaction and self-expression. In basic education, “pupils are instructed to appreciate and control their own body and to use it to express emotions, opinions, thoughts, and ideas.”2 Embodiment and the senses play a central role in the concept of learning on which basic education is founded.

Embodiment has recently been increasingly recognised as the basis of holistic learning. The development of consciousness and thought is based on a variety of sensations, observations, and experiences about the environment mediated by the different sensory channels.3 Physical activity generates various sorts of sensory information and observations about the environment, and it also produces kinaesthetic experiences which reinforce the individual’s agency.4 Thanks to the results of recent research, the significance of physical activity and action-based teaching to the pupils’ learning results has been acknowledged in the national core curriculum for basic education that came into effect in 2016. Indeed, learning through movement, and the adoption of action-based approaches to pedagogy, are central themes in the development of pedagogical approaches in basic education.

Action-based pedagogy and learning through movement are themes that are increasingly discussed in connection with school reforms, but the view of the embodied basis of learning, and dance as a form of embodied learning, have not yet been widely applied to pedagogical practices in schools. Indeed, dance has substantial, and largely unused, potential to promote the development of action-based pedagogy and embodied learning. Dance can support every pupil by promoting their learning, levels of physical activity, cultural participation, and ability to express themselves in different contexts.

In this policy brief, we make suggestions about how pedagogy and school culture can be developed by considering the notion of holistic embodiment and the pedagogical opportunities offered by dance. We propose that the following procedures should be applied in order to make better use of dance in basic education:

  • Dance is integrated into the instruction given in different subjects
  • Dance is used to support the pupils’ readiness to learn, group dynamics, and special education both in pre-school education and at different junctures of basic education
  • Short dance sessions are organised between classes to provide the pupils with physical exercise
  • Dance activities and clubs are offered in the school premises in collaboration with e.g. institutes of basic art education
  • Dance is made more visible in everyday school activities and as part of special events and festivities
  • Different forms of dance and their cultural significance are introduced in parent-teacher meetings in order to diminish any negative preconceptions concerning dance that may arise, for instance, from religious views

In addition to the pedagogical solutions listed above, there is also need to develop the teachers’ pedagogical skills:

  • The possibility to undertake minor studies in dance should be included in the pedagogical training of classroom teachers and art educators
  • A programme for the professional development of teachers should be established with the aim of providing the teachers with the basic competence to integrate dance into the instruction of different subjects and to use dance to support group dynamics and the pupils’ readiness to learn
  • The role of dance, embodiment, and embodied forms of expression should be further emphasised in the training of physical education teachers
  • A booklet illustrating the pedagogical potential of dance should be compiled; it would be intended for principals in particular
  • Educational material to support dance teaching should be created


The Problem

The level of physical activity among children and young people is alarmingly low.5 The decrease in physical activity can already be seen in school: less than a half of primary school pupils and only a fifth of upper secondary school pupils engage in any form of physical activity for at least one hour a day, which is the recommended minimum. Pupils get approximately one third of all their brisk physical activity during the school day, and the proportion is even greater, around 40 per cent, for pupils with low levels of physical activity. It therefore seems that the physical activity organised during the school day would have a particularly important effect on the overall activity levels of children who are physically passive.6

There is indisputable evidence of the adverse effects of the lack of physical activity on people’s overall health and wellbeing.7 According to a national report, one factor that discourages children and young people from engaging in physical activities is their general lack of confidence in their own physical ability.8 Many are also put off by the evaluation, comparison, and competitiveness associated with various forms of physical activity.9 The increased amount of time spent with digital entertainment and social media also reduces the time spent on physical activity and leads to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Using one’s body in unergonomic ways is particularly problematic for children and adolescents.

The level of physical activity in schoolchildren keeps decreasing. Indeed, it is now more important than ever to focus on the development of an embodied school culture. In forms of embodied expression and dance, the physical activity becomes interconnected with emotions, social interaction, and cultural participation. This creates a multidimensional link to the pupils’ holistic development, learning, and wellbeing in the school context and shows that dance may also proactively support children and young people who are suffering from mental health issues, or who are in danger of becoming socially excluded.

Dance is an integral part of Finnish culture. It is both an autonomous form of art and a popular leisure activity. However, some people have negative preconceptions and prejudices towards dance because of religious reasons, for example. The hobbies which children and young people engage in are partly affected by their parents’ preferences, cultural perceptions, and peer pressure. Furthermore, regional and socioeconomic inequality, as well as differences in the families’ cultural capital, have resulted in substantial differences in the ways in which Finnish children and young people spend their free time.10 Different cultural perceptions can in part explain why the pedagogical potential of dance has been realised so slowly. Indeed, the development of embodied pedagogy should be based on existing research.


Dance supports pupils’ holistic development and learning capacities

“The Entire School Dances!” was a four-year research project. The research carried out within the project supported the idea that if dance education is integrated into the curriculum, it will help the pupils to approach different forms of bodily expression, interaction, and performing more readily than before. Engaging in bodily expression and activities on a communal level allows the pupils to become less inhibited and less prejudiced, and it also serves to alleviate their fears concerning bodily expression and performing. Once the pupil gains more self-confidence, they may wish to take part in performances; and when they start performing, this will provide a further boost to their self-confidence.11 It is obvious that high-quality dance education offers great opportunities for making the school a more enjoyable place for the pupils and for improving their central capabilities.12

The ArtsEqual research initiative has organised several dance-pedagogical interventions. In these interventions, it was observed that dance promotes interaction and sense of community within the group and is a source of empowerment for the participants in multilingual groups with no common language.13 Moreover, dance significantly improves group cohesion in primary and special education groups. It is clear that pupils who are given more possibilities to participate and to enjoy from positive experiences will also benefit from improved wellbeing and an increased motivation to learn in school. This, in turn, will proactively help them ward off a cynical attitude towards school and reduce the risk of becoming excluded in adolescence. The instruction given by professional dance pedagogues provided the pupils with an opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment. According to the group instructors, engaging in a form of bodily expression in a group context not only boosted the pupils’ self-esteem but also increased the sense of community within the group.14

International studies provide further evidence to the idea that dance is connected to the development of social cognition and empathy.15 These skills are particularly important from the perspective of a positive atmosphere in schools, tolerance for diversity, and prevention of bullying. From an economic standpoint, it also makes more sense to take proactive measures than to retroactively resolve problems related to the youth and their exclusion from society.16

According to existing research, physical exercise has a positive impact on learning. Furthermore, it seems that demanding forms of exercise which develop people’s neuromotor skills, such as dance, have the most significant effect on the improvement of cognitive skills.17 In particular, it has been found that brief spurs of physical exercise during classwork and the integration of movement into teaching have a positive impact on learning results.18 Moreover, movement improves people’s cognitive operations, such as the regulation of one’s behaviour and reactions, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, and it therefore seems to have a positive impact on the pupils’ attention span, their ability to focus on exercises, and their participation in classwork.19

State-of-the-art neuroscience has shed new light on the connection between dance and brain development. According to a recent doctoral thesis,20 the processes related to emotions and memory were stronger in dancers. These processes are essential components in the construction of personal memories and social interaction. In other words, from the perspective of brain research, dance truly has substantial potential. The research of the ArtsEqual consortium, however, is based on the idea that intrinsic and instrumental effects are interconnected in human development and learning. In every case, high-quality pedagogy and meaningful learning experiences are prerequisites for achieving both instrumental and intrinsic effects.

There are various kinds of dance styles and cultures. While dance can offer challenges and competition, it is generally regarded as a creative and pleasurable activity that improves people’s wellbeing. Many children and young people who are reluctant to take part in performance-oriented physical activities may enjoy a more relaxed form of activity, such as dance.21 Dance can also provide a particularly favourable setting for pupils who find it easiest to learn new things through kinaesthetic and creative processes. It can offer experiences of accomplishment to pupils who find academic studies and the related social contexts challenging. Furthermore, the integration of dance into an inclusive learning environment may help find solutions to the needs of pupils who require special support. According to previous research, the inclusion of dance in basic education improves the academic skills of children who are on the autistic spectrum, pupils who suffer from learning disorders or cognitive impairment, or who have problems with social-emotional skills. Dance education that brings together all the pupils can also help the pupils relate to diversity and differences both in themselves and in others more openly and naturally.22

Dance can help us reach the goals of the core curriculum for basic education in many ways. For instance, dance can increase sense of community within a group of pupils, be a source of empowerment for individual pupils, and contribute to the formation of an embodied, active school culture. More generally, the question is about cultural inclusion and active participation.

Dance brings people together

Dance is generally a group activity that brings about a sense of communality. Being in contact with other people, as well as the audience, is a key component in dance. Although dance is not part of primary school curriculum as an independent subject, there are many ways in which dance can be incorporated into both everyday school activities and special events at school. The new curriculum emphasises phenomenon-based teaching, variation in the learning environments, and different ways of learning, which further support this idea.

Dance makes you stronger

Dance is a multisensory, sensorimotor activity, which improves understanding of one’s own body and develops coordination skills in various ways. Dance is also an efficient way to maintain and develop mobility and other physical attributes. When people perceive their own body as capable, strong, agile, and dexterous, this will have a positive impact on their self-esteem. Furthermore, being seen in the context of dance performance will improve one’s ability to express oneself, and it also gives a boost to one’s self-confidence.

Dance broadens your horizons

Dance is a creative activity, which allows everyone to be seen and treated as who they are. Dance also allows people to reinforce and broaden their understanding of their own body, its boundaries, and possibilities. Moreover, dance can provide pupils who need special support with positive experiences of expressing themselves and interacting with others by using their own bodies.

Dance is movement

Dance is a form of physical activity, which evokes emotions and produces holistic experiences. Dance also makes it possible to express feelings that are difficult to verbalise. Dance produces joy and pleasure.


Many children and young people who dislike performance-oriented games and sports enjoy a more relaxed form of physical activity, such as dance. Dance promotes equal opportunities for children and young people to participate in cultural and artistic activities.

Dance promotes holistic learning by its embodied, sensory, and interactive nature.


1 Regional State Administrative Agency for Southern Finland 2012, 34; Husu, Paronen, Suni & Vasankari 2011, 21; National School Survey 2016

2 Finnish National Agency for Education 2014, 21

3 E.g. Anttila 2013; Johnson 2008; Thelen 2008 4 Haywood & Getchell 2009; Rouhiainen 2011

5 Report card 2018

6 Tammelin et al. 2015

7 Lee et al. 2012; Sallis et al. 2016

8 Aira et al. 2013

9 Vanttaja et al. 2017

10 Purhonen et al. 2014; Af Ursin 2016; Martin 2017; Kuoppamäki & Turpeinen 2016

11 Anttila 2013

12 Anttila & Svendler Nielsen, 2019; Nussbaum 2011

13 Anttila 2019

14 Jaakonaho 2017; Turpeinen 2018

15 E.g. Bojner Horwitz 2011; 2013; Grape Viding et al. 2015; Ijdens, Bolden & Wagner 2018

16 Ristikari et al., 2016;

17 Budde et al. 2008; Gao et al. 2013; Kumpulainen et al. 2015; Kantomaa et al. 2018

18 Beck et al. 2016; Fedewa et al. 2015; Howie et al. 2015; Mullender-Wijnsma et al. 2016

19 Carlson et al. 2015; Goh et al. 2016; Grieco et al. 2016; Hill et al. 2011; Reed et al. 2010

20 Poikonen 2018

21 E.g. Anttila 2013

22 Hickey-Moody 2017; Munsell & Bryant Davis, 2015; Skoning 2008


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Eeva Anttila (Doctor of Arts (Dance), Lic. Phil. (Education)) is Professor of Dance Pedagogy at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She is also the Director of the Arts@School research group in the ArtsEqual initiative. Anttila was the leader of “The Entire School Dances!” project, funded by the City of Vantaa and the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2009–2013. eeva.anttila@uniarts.fi

Liisa Jaakonaho (MA) is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA), University of the Arts Helsinki. Jaakonaho is a professionally trained dance and performance artist, dance pedagogue, and dance therapist. Her doctoral research examines ethical questions pertaining to participatory dance-pedagogical activities organised for disabled people. liisa.jaakonaho@uniarts.fi

Marko Kantomaa (PhD, MSc, M.Ed.) is a researcher whose work focuses on physical activity and learning. Kantomaa has been trained as a public health researcher, a social epidemiologist, and a classroom teacher. Since 2004, Kantomaa has worked in a health and welfare research programme on Northern Finland Birth Cohorts. m.kantomaa@imperial.ac.uk.

Mariana Siljamäki (Doctor of Sport Sciences) is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä. The faculty organises university-level education in dance pedagogy, bodily forms of expression, and cultural diversity in physical education, for example. In the ArtsEqual initiative, Siljamäki’s research has delved into questions about how students of sport pedagogy have experienced working in intercultural settings, for instance. mariana.siljamaki@jyu.fi

Isto Turpeinen, (Doctor of Arts (Dance)), works as Art Advisor at Arts Promotion Centre Finland. He is also a visiting Postdoctoral Researcher at the Performing Arts Research Centre (Tutke) at the University of the Arts Helsinki. Turpeinen was a researcher in two research groups in the ArtsEqual initiative: Basic Arts Education for All and Arts@School. He organises father/son dance workshops and leads dance groups for boys in basic dance education. isto.turpeinen@uniarts.fi