Informed Instruction: Integrating Motor Learning Principles into Dance Pedagogy

by Lara Davis

Image of dancers in motion

Dance teachers who work in private studio settings are not required to be certified to teach. Yet understanding how students learn and how to effectively present information and correct mistakes are extremely important aspects of teaching that are not necessarily inherently understood. Requiring dance teachers to have a basic knowledge of motor learning could influence the approaches used to teach students at various skill and maturity levels. Knowledge of the research regarding the stages of motor learning, instructional cueing methods, and feedback methods could prove particularly useful for dance teachers. Overall, scientifically informed instruction and feedback practices can have a lasting effect on students by better facilitating learning thus preventing students from repeating physically detrimental mistakes.

For most teaching professions, instructors are required to be certified—math teachers, Spanish-language teachers, yoga teachers, the list goes on—including K-12 public school dance teachers. Yet dance teachers who work in private studio settings are not required to be certified. On one hand, this is beneficial because teachers are able to draw from their unique dance experiences and do not have to finance certification. On the other hand, lack of certification standards can cause dance instructors to fall back on apprenticeship of observation, otherwise known as the phenomenon of teaching the way one was taught (Lortie, 1975, p. 61). This practice is a tradition long engrained in dance instruction. Though many dancers value being able to trace a teacher’s methods back to their teacher and their teacher before them, this type of tradition makes dance instruction practically impermeable to the scientific discoveries behind learning and teaching. Understanding how students learn and how to effectively present information and correct mistakes are extremely vital aspects of teaching that are not necessarily understood without being taught. Just knowing how to dance is not necessarily enough.

One area of research in particular that impacts dance pedagogy, or teaching dance, is the field of motor learning. This field encompasses how changes in motor skill capabilities are impacted by experience and practice (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, p. 327). Changes in skill capabilities are measured indirectly through performance observation since the relatively permanent changes in neural circuits and neuromuscular connections that indicate motor learning cannot easily be measured (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, p. 327). As motor learning involves relatively permanent changes, it is important that dance instructors present new material effectively and provide useful feedback in order for students to pattern motor programs correctly without forming bad habits. Requiring dance teachers to have a basic knowledge of motor learning would not just be an arbitrary guideline. Motor learning principles have indicated that motor learning stages impact the type of instruction and feedback necessary at different levels of expertise and that different varieties of instructional cueing and feedback affect learning in different ways. Dance teachers need to know how to effectively instruct and give feedback in order for students to efficiently learn and how to correct improper and physically dangerous errors.

Motor learning principles can dictate the types of factors that should be focused on when training dancers at different levels of expertise (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). For example, dancers of different levels will need to focus on different aspects of the ballet pirouette, a type of turn performed on one leg. Factors to consider include the coordination of the limbs, leg placement, arm placement, overall spinal alignment, “spotting” (or focusing the eyes on the same point while the body turns to avoid dizziness), how much force to use to turn, timing of the turns, and more. Some dance teachers may know instinctively what to focus on first, and others may figure it out with experience. Yet improper and ineffective training can affect a dancer indefinitely. A dance teacher with knowledge of motor learning would know what factors to focus on first, based on the stages of motor learning: the cognitive stage, associative stage, and autonomous stage (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015a, p. 170-172). A dancer learning a pirouette for the first time would be in the cognitive stage—figuring out the overall objective of the step and what to do, such as the placement of body parts (Kimmerle & Côté-Laurence, 2003, p. 54-56). Therefore, a dance teacher instructing a beginner would want to focus on the program of the movement, or the general goal and limb placement, and aid the student in picking up relevant cues and determining some strategies for practice (Kimmerle & Côté-Laurence, 2003, p. 54-56). During this stage, the skill is being patterned into the neuromuscular system; therefore, effective instruction is crucial for correct patterning. Once the beginner starts to get the hang of the pirouette and the placement and turning aspects become more automatic, the dancer will transition into the associative stage, which is characterized by refining and practicing a previously introduced skill. At this point, the teacher can provide the dancer with additional details about parameters of the pirouette–the coordination of closing the arms at the same time as one leg comes off the floor, the timing of spotting the head, or how hard to press off with the back foot to provide force for the turn (Kimmerle & Côté-Laurence, 2003, p. 57-59). Over time, the dancer will probably need a variety of corrections to refine the movement. Later, if the dancer can perform the pirouette at an advanced level and can even execute the details of the pirouette automatically, the dancer will be in the autonomous stage (Kimmerle & Côté-Laurence, 2003, p. 59-60). Not everyone will reach the autonomous stage depending on physical and cognitive ability, but for those who do, the teacher’s instruction and feedback during the earlier stages of motor learning are crucial in patterning the correct techniques, rather than bad habits, to become automatic (Kimmerle & Côté-Laurence, 2003, p. 59-60).


In addition to a general knowledge of motor learning stages, it is important that dance teachers understand instructional cueing methods in order to utilize them in a way that promotes efficient and effective learning. Teachers can influence students’ perceptions of dance steps and combinations via three forms of instructional cueing: visual, verbal, and kinesthetic cues (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2009).

The first part of perceiving a dance skill is typically observing a teacher’s demonstration. When performing visual demonstrations, also known as modeling, it is useful for a teacher to keep in mind the stages of motor learning to maintain a reasonable expectation of the details that students of various levels may perceive during the demonstration (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). In the example of the modern dance step “stag leap”, a beginning student is likely to observe a leap with two turned-out, bent legs. However, an advanced student watching a stag leap demonstration would notice parameters such as speed and effort since the leap-movement pattern has already been integrated into their motor system. Common mistakes that teachers can make are to model a novel movement too many times or too few. For example, a teacher introducing the jazz square step may model it several times in a row while students watch without actually trying the movement. Many of the students will likely begin to ask questions that could be answered by the students themselves if they had been given time to practice the jazz square step between each time they observed the model. Conversely, if the teacher only demonstrates the movement once and then gives the students too much time to practice without observing the model again, they may begin to consistently practice their jazz squares incorrectly. Therefore, teachers with motor learning knowledge understand why demonstrations should be interspersed with time for students to practice and process the movement.

group of dancers with arms raised

Visual demonstrations are a central part of teaching dance, but teachers may not realize when other types of cueing may be more useful. For example, one student may naturally determine that holding the arms in a supported, rounded position is a key aspect of a pirouette, while another dancer may be focusing only on the leg position after many visual demonstrations. To draw the students’ attention to their arms, a teacher may need to cue the student verbally to imagine they are holding a beach ball. Each dancer learns differently and observes movement differently, so verbal cues can be useful in drawing their attention to aspects of a skill they may not have focused on (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). With knowledge of motor learning, the teacher can become conscious of how to use verbal cues more effectively. A common mistake is to constantly and excessively cue students while they are dancing. Lengthy or detailed cues given while students are dancing can be distracting, causing a student to either continue dancing or falter in their movements to listen to a cue. Therefore, an in-depth discussion of a movement or movement phrase is more effective if held before or after the student has finished dancing, so they can absorb the information fully without the interference of having to dance and listen all at once. A learning-enhancing way to utilize verbal cues is to explain a concept while visually demonstrating it and then to shorten the explanation into a quick cue to be stated while students perform a movement phrase to remind dancers of a specific concept (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). Another common mistake is to verbally cue dancers to factors not suitable for their level. For example, beginners tend to require cues regarding the program of a phrase, while advanced dancers tend to require cues regarding parameters of a phrase. Ideally, verbal instructions should also give information about “why”, not just “what” (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). For example, instructions could include information such as “we are doing dégagés at the barre to prepare for jete in the center” in order to give a purpose to the step and thus further motivate students. Oftentimes, teachers with knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics may want to present this information to their students as part of a “why” explanation, yet caution should be exercised in giving verbal instructions regarding biomechanics or anatomy, especially to beginners, because excessive verbal instructions about mechanical principles have been shown to interfere with motor learning of complex tasks (Wulf & Weigelt, 1997). For example, dance steps are complex motor tasks and in other such tasks, like virtual ball-catching or ski-simulation, withholding instructional information about knowledge of mechanical principles behind the movements actually enhances learning (Wulf & Weigelt, 1997). This is an important finding for teachers to keep in mind, so they can allow students to develop motor skills without the interference of consciously trying to manipulate certain muscles.

When a visual model has not yielded accurate results and verbal clarification has not sufficed in correcting a movement, a teacher educated in motor learning could turn to kinesthetic cueing. This form of cueing involves a teacher or the student using light touch to bring awareness to certain body areas. Through tactile sensations, such as a teacher brushing their hand along a student’s neck, a student may discover their vertical sense of alignment (Bannon & Holt, 2012). Such cues are very useful in general but can be particularly useful if the teacher and student do not speak the same language. Yet even if a teacher and student can communicate using the same language, physical sensation can hold just as much information as verbal instruction and may be more effective for certain students depending on how they learn (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b). Teachers may avoid the use of touch because it may make some students uncomfortable due to its potential to inflict physical pain and to make one feel vulnerable, but with the student’s permission and a gentle touch, kinesthetic cueing can be a useful tool (Bannon & Holt, 2012).

Motor learning research has shown that, together, a combination of visual, verbal, and kinesthetic instruction can reinforce memory of movements and present ideas in different ways to appeal to a variety of learners (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2009).

Once a step has been taught and students have had a chance to attempt the movement, there is an opportunity for students to reflect and teachers to give feedback. Feedback is crucial to performance (Lieberman, 2006). According to Krasnow and Wilmerding (2015a), feedback is “a response to a movement trial that gives information about the result of the trial or about what caused the result” (p. 193). Feedback can be intrinsic or extrinsic (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015a, p. 193-194; Schmidt & Lee, 2011, p. 393-395) Intrinsic feedback is sensory information such as visual, auditory, tactile, and proprioceptive feedback, while extrinsic feedback comes from a source outside of the performer—typically the teacher. Extrinsic feedback can include knowledge of results and knowledge of performance (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, p. 395). Commonly, teachers give feedback regarding what happened, known as knowledge of results, for example, “you fell to your right side.” However, feedback regarding why it happened that way, known as knowledge of performance, for example, “your right hip lifted up during your pirouette due to not fully utilizing your gesture leg turnout, which is likely why you fell to your right side,” is more useful to the dancer because they probably already know what happened and they are looking to find out why it happened in order to correct the error (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015b).

Some additional common mistakes in giving extrinsic feedback include giving too much information at once, which can be confusing, or too much in general over time, which can lead to a feedback dependency (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015a, p. 202). A feedback dependency occurs when a dancer relies heavily on a teacher’s praise and criticism to assess their performance as opposed to retaining information to do so themself (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015a, p. 202). Dancers need the opportunity to develop their own problem-solving skills without the interference of a teacher. Therefore, this is another reason students should be allowed to practice movements on their own several times before feedback is given.


The first time a student learns a movement creates a lasting impression, so it is important for teachers to present new information clearly in a way that appeals to a variety of learners. Even then, students need time to figure out a movement before being presented with additional feedback. Yet many dance studio teachers are not aware of the best methods for instruction and feedback due to a lack of a teaching certification process. Luckily, dance science has become more popular in the last decade, and there are a variety of resources that dance teachers can consult, such as dance magazine articles, the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, and the recently published textbook Motor Learning and Control for Dance, to learn about teaching students effectively. Even the smallest adjustments in instruction and feedback can have a lasting effect by better facilitating learning thus preventing students from repeating the same potentially physically detrimental mistakes. Knowing how to dance is the first step to becoming an informed instructor. Knowing how to teach motor skills is the next.


Bannon, F., & Holt, D. (2012). Touch: Experience and knowledge. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, 3(1/2), 215-227. doi:10.1386/jdsp.3.1-2.215_1
Kimmerle, M., & Côté-Laurence, P. (2003). Teaching dance skills: a motor learning and development approach. Andover, N.J.: J. Michael Ryan Pub., c2003.
Krasnow, D. & Wilmerding, V. (2009). Teacher Resource: “Defining Motor Learning.” International Association of Dance Medicine and Science.
Krasnow, D., & Wilmerding, V. (2015a). Motor learning and control for dance: Principles and practices for performers and teachers. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Krasnow, D. & Wilmerding, V. (2015b). The science of motor learning: creating a model for dance training [Presentation at the 2015 International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference].
Lieberman, Jeff. (2006). Accelerated and improved motor learning and rehabilitation using kinesthetic feedback. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schmidt, R. A., & Lee, T. D. (2011). Motor control and learning: a behavioral emphasis. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, c2011.
Wulf, G., & Weigelt, C. (1997). Instructions about physical principles in learning a complex motor skill: to tell or not to tell… Research Quarterly For Exercise And Sport, 68(4), 362-367.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Professor Rebecca Gose for inspiring me to dive into the dance science and dance pedagogy literature and for taking time to discuss these topics with me. I would also like to thank Amber Pitt for helping me organize my ideas and put them on paper in a comprehensible way.

Citation style: APA

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