By Rebecca Jacobson

Carrie Lewis and Kelly Steele’s fifth grade students slide and spin across the classroom floor, doing the hustle, the robot, and the running man. While it may look at first glance like goofing off, these students are actually dancing for a higher cause…math.

Lewis, a STEM specialist for Virginia’s Lynchburg city schools, and Steele, who teaches gifted education in Bedford county, Virginia, are both math enthusiasts eager to instill in their students a love of the subject. And dancing, they hoped, might be just the thing to help tackle a common fifth-grade learning deficit — number patterns.

“Dances are patterns,” Lewis said. “We had identified that our students had trouble with patterns and this was a way to get them involved in it.”

Both teachers are part of Sweet Briar College’s STEM teacher education program, where they worked together to design “dance by numbers,” a lesson plan that relies on dance to teach pattern recognition. In the video above, Lewis explains how the lesson works.


The first step was to turn a dance routine into a number pattern. Students logged onto the Pillsbury Dough Boy website and watched, studied and deconstructed the cartoon mascot’s six dance moves. They assigned each step a number, and charted the patterns in his dance.

“Once they translated the number to a movement, they began to see how it would be really easy to get a pattern,” Lewis said. “I had them watch ‘America’s Best Dance Crew’ so they could see that they’re just doing the same thing over and over again.”


The students then choreographed their own dance routines. The teachers required that each routine contain at least five moves that repeated at least once. Songs were to be set to instrumental music of the students’ choice — some opted for hip-hop; others for the Mario Bros theme.

Using stopwatches to clock the average time of their routine, students were asked to then calculate how many times their pattern would repeat throughout the course of the song, and then turn the resulting data into a graph.

“If your song is 100 seconds, how many repetitions will you do of your dance?,” Steele said. “If you use the extended version of your dance, 200 seconds, how many repetitions do you need to do? They are using their graph to figure that information out.”


Finally, each group performed their original routine for their classmates. And midway through the dance, they’d freeze, and the class would be asked to predict the next move in the pattern. (Lewis called these “jump-ins.”)

In addition to patterns and graphing, the dance lesson helps students with averaging and calculating elapsed time, along with multiplication and division.

“If their pattern was seven [steps] long and they were asked what jump-in 23 was, rather than sit there and count, count, count, they realized they could do multiples,” Lewis said. “You could almost see that light bulb go on.”

“Dance by numbers” received enthusiastic feedback from a regional conference for STEM teachers, said Arlene Vinion-Dubiel at Sweet Briar College, who helped the teachers implement their lesson plan.

And inside the classroom, results were tangible. Math test scores went up. Shy students happily break-danced at the front of the class. One group performed their routine for the school talent show last year.

“They were 100% into it,” Steele said, who expected the boys in her rural classes wouldn’t dance in front of their peers.

“Math is such a challenge,” Lewis added. “What you’re trying to teach them is that what they’re learning isn’t isolated to a work sheet. That’s what STEM is all about — letting the measurements or the math speak to you and letting it teach you something.”

Watch the students in action here:

Via PBS NewsHour.

  • Engaging the whole child–not truly an original concept.

  • Molly

    This is awesome! I use dance in my math class as well. Students learn the Geometry Dance to help kinesthetic learners make connections to the shapes and vocabulary they are studying. Check it out!

  • Eli

    I still do not understand – why is this math? If this had anything to do with math, mathematicians would be at least among the best dancers in the world. Are they? To me, more than anything, this shift seems like a desperate move toward being ridiculous.

    • I think your comments are important. You’re
      right to be skeptical, but look more closely at the article.

      The Analyzing the Dance section describes
      how students are making predictions, identifying patterns, and utilizing
      multiples (understanding the concept of sets). These are all math skills and
      some are fairly abstract. Consider the likelihood that this lesson engages an
      array of concrete and higher order thinking skills for students who may have a
      broad range of abilities, learning styles, and preferences, let alone needs, all
      in one classroom. One-on-one curriculum design would address these variables,
      but in a classroom that could be an untenable set of goals. Additionally,
      integrating movement can be a critical learning experience for some people –for
      all kinds of reasons.

      I teach in graduate medical education and while I
      don’t ask a roomful of residents to dance, I do ask them to stand up and
      stretch or move around when we are sitting for more than 45-50 minutes at a
      time. There’s a different level of engagement in the classroom when that
      happens. Undoubtedly, it helps revive people who are tired, and that alone can
      be a plus. But I wonder if the suggestion to stand up and stretch also engages
      people because it’s more personal. It’s not rote, it’s not predictable, it implies
      some understanding of how effortful it can be to simply be still and engaged
      for protracted periods of time while actively learning, or passively learning
      (I’m not advocating that).

      With the 5th graders I’m thinking there’s a benefit
      to standing up and moving around, but with an added bonus of self-expression,
      creativity, and possibly greater personal investment. For a different
      discussion, perhaps it’s worth looking at or designing longitudinal research
      that considers some of these more intangible components of STEM curriculum.

      I’m not sure what shift you are referring to in
      your comments. Was it a shift in methodology or outcomes? The methods seem to
      have effectively engaged the students and the outcomes produced were positively
      described in one of the most traditional ways, improved math test scores. Just

  • What an innovative way to show kids that math is relevant and based on noticing patterns … in nature and in life like dance!

  • Can you show us a link to where to find music without shifting through thousands of samples?

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