Proprioception is the body’s unconscious ability to sense the position, location and movement of the body and it’s parts. In dance this is often referred to as spatial awareness. In ‘Every Child a Mover’, Jan White describes it as “An awareness of the body, knowing where our limbs and ‘edges’ are and where our body is in space.”
The Vestibular Sense refers to the body’s vestibular sensory system that monitors and adjusts it’s sense of balance and orientation to the world. This sense is what keeps the us upright while standing, sitting or walking and it is primarily located in the inner ear.
Together proprioception and the vestibular sense allow us to move purpose, grace and without knocking into things (sometimes!), but as with all our senses and most bodily functions, we have to learn how to use them and they can be developed and improved slightly throughout life. Babies and toddlers, have to develop these skills from scratch and they are still developing through primary school. Young people, teenagers through adolescence, often suffer temporary loss or impairment of proprioception and the vestibular sense.
In general, for young children developing these areas of body awareness is achieved by doing as many different movements in as many different ways as possible. This blog post will explore some specific ways in which we can support these areas of development and changing needs within our dance classes. This blog post does not refer to when there is a medical need for improvement. For these times professional medical advice should be sought. This blog post is designed to support those who work with children and young people.
Mariinsky’s Swan Lake The corps de ballet must be keenly aware of where their bodies are in space.
Balance is associated with the vestibular system as well as the motor and visual systems more so than with proprioception, but they still work in tandem.
Travel stop is a good game to improve balance. The participants move around the room in a way that relates to the class theme or using a travelling movement such as a gallop. When the teacher shouts stop and/or holds up a sign to signify stop, the participants hold a still position in a similar way to musical statues. The next stage of this game is to call out a position for participants to get into. For example, in an opposites theme you might ask them to make a low shape and the next time a high shape. This is where the balance comes in, state that they need to be on one leg or show them the balance position you want them to do.
You can use balance to bring everyone back to focus anytime during the school day or at the end of a cool down as a calming item. Just ask the group to stand with their feet slightly apart (in ‘place’) and the slowly rise up onto the balls of their feet. They could hold their arms out to the side or on the hips to help them. Closing eyes emphasises the affect on their balance development as well as their focus.
Another fun balance game is sitting on a ball. This works with balls of lots of different sizes, but they can’t be spongey because then they squash flat. Ask the children to pick a ball and take it to their space. The aim is to sit on the ball for the duration of the song. If they find it easy the task can be developed for body parts or types of balance. This is great for a creative dance class where balls are used as a prop or for one of our ball skills classes (all sorts of ball props and creative dance coming together! Imagine soft squishy snowballs, shakey cat bells and giant balloon balls all in one very fun class for under 5s!).
Have you ever wondered why babies prefer to be in bare feet? My daughter spends a great deal of time removing shoes and socks and she was one of the reasons I began learning more about the vestibular sense and proprioception because refereed to a lot when researching physical development in babies.
Going barefoot helps to map the body and, although many dance styles require shoes to be worn in class, tap, character and street come to mind, we can help children in their development by encouraging them to move barefoot in creative dance or for sections of a dance class.
Part of a creative dance class could explore different ways the feet come into contact with the floor… stamping, jumping, sliding, tip toes, feet edges (being extra careful!), light taps and stronger taps etc. Barefoot races with different forms of travelling such as running, hopping, galloping or slime slid
es (when the floor is covered in slime and you have to get through it but sometimes it’s slippery and then suddenly it’s sticky and then it’s back to slippery again).
Going barefoot can also apply to our Active Armchairs sessions with older adults, many of whom spend most of their lives in slippers or shoes. Perhaps we could organise a barefoot class with sensory boxes for the feet (sand or tiny fluffy pom poms), a giant elastic to signify the edge of the sea for dipping toes in and a ball to try and keep under the foot.
For a little bit more about Barefoot Babies you can read Dr Kacie Flegal’s article:
This involves stimulating the receptors in the skin and is great for developing an inner ‘map’ of the body. Movements like rolling, crawling like a baby or a bear, army crawling, crab walking or being a worm or snake are great. All you need is an empty space like a dance studio or school hall!
Props can also help. Games with lycra such as when the group holds the lycra and an individual makes shapes underneath or all sitting around the lycra pushing the feet and hands up to make shapes.
Move With Others
As well as moving by themselves, children develop their vestibular sense by being moved by others. This includes everything from being thrown in the air by a fun uncle to giving and / or receiving a great big bear hug! This links in with body pressure (above).
Some rhymes and games can be done with a friend or as a group and these make a great brain break during the school day or a quick, related or unrelated section in a dance class. Some to try include Row, Row,Row Your Boat, Ring a Roses, In and Out The Dusky Bluebells and many of the songs that involve horses, but performed with a partner or sitting on an adults lap (perfect for our TRS Tots classes!). Try Mother, Father and Uncle John, This is the Way The Lady Rides or Horsey Horsey.
In our school staff training programme, Dance: A Cross-curricular Approach, we teach staff how to give ownership of the movement to their pupils. Although this does make it a lot easier and more enjoyable for school staff who are teaching dance as a subject, it is also very beneficial for the pupils. It has been established that children learn through play and at their own pace. When developing body awareness, children have to go through a process in their own time. A creative dance class supports this order of development because it both gives young children the opportunity to move in the way their body needs to move on that day and also includes sections of taught movement that provide examples of other things they could do.