Taking the Leap: Teaching Math Through Dance

It’s a common lament: “Kids spend too much time in front of screens!”

These days, it’s tough to open a newspaper or click on a news website without coming across someone worrying about our kids being too sedentary. Whatever happened to playing outside after school? Don’t families know that exercise is vital to helping prevent childhood obesity?

To add insult to injury, all the supposed tech savvy stemming from screen time doesn’t seem to be making kids any better at their studies — especially not in math, with already-low national test scores falling further this year.

How do we get kids to both move and think about numbers more?

The answer may be to teach math through dance.

The connection between music and math has long been acknowledged, so connecting math and dance isn’t exactly a leap. And luckily, there are a number of programs, in the United States and abroad, that are encouraging mathematical thought through movement.

Math in Your Feet

When most people think of geometry, they think of triangles, circles, or other flat shapes on the Cartesian plane. But after spending just a little time in a Math in Your Feet workshop, they may very well start picturing geometry as the angle of a step, the arc of a leap, or the symmetry of arms spread wide. They can also create patterns with their movements — loud ones, if tap shoes are involved.

Based in Bloomington, Indiana, Math in your Feet is the product of a decade’s worth of research by teaching artist Malke Rosenfeld. A professional percussive dancer who performed with the Riverdance company in London, she taught clogging in North and South Carolina schools before moving to Indiana. When Rosenfeld began teaching schoolchildren in her new state, she noticed that, while her students enjoyed learning to dance, they did not enjoy learning math.

“I saw kids hitting their heads against the wall with math,” Rosenfeld said.

She remembered her own struggles with the subject as a child: “I wanted to do it, but I didn’t understand it. I asked people to help me understand it, but that didn’t help.” Part of the problem, she noted, was that math often was — and still is — not taught in a way that helps people see it in a larger context.

“I’m a big-picture person.”

But could tying math to something more dynamic and three-dimensional, like dance, help contextualize it within that bigger picture? Rosenfeld decided to find out. Since she didn’t have the background to develop a curriculum on her own, she turned to an educator named Jane Cooney, a mathematics coach in Indianapolis. After working with Cooney for about nine months, Rosenfeld developed an initial version of Math in Your Feet. The program has since integrated a range of math concepts. It is also aligned with the Common Core standards for math.

The program is geared toward elementary school students, and it teaches everything from fractions (by learning the difference between a quarter- and a half-turn), congruence (by dancing in unison) and reflection symmetry (by taking opposite but equal steps). Participants have the option of taking single workshops, and fourth- and fifth-graders can also take a five-session residency.

Rosenfeld also has a program for teachers — not just math teachers; music and PE teachers, as well as homeschoolers, are encouraged to enroll — who would like to implement Math in Your Feet in their classrooms.

While Rosenfeld travels to teach the workshops, she has also written a book so teachers across the country can take advantage of her lessons. “Meaning in the Making: Embodied Mathematics in the Classroom” will be published next year.

Maths Dance

While many in America are concerned about poor math test scores and sedentary kids, we are not alone. Educators and policy makers in the United Kingdom share these concerns, which Maths Dance has addressed since its inception in 2013.

The program was founded by Panorea Baka, who has taught math in both England and Greece. Her decision to start Maths Dance was motivated in part by her own experience of not being encouraged to explore her creative side in school, and by the school system’s unwillingness to fit math into the bigger picture.

“I was never told about the different links between mathematics and other curriculum subjects, or, for example, the applications of mathematics in science or social sciences — not to mention the arts and the creative subjects,” she said. “Math was taught in isolation, and math education was theory-centered rather than practice-centered.”

Her frustration with this approach, however, did not diminish her love of math, which came from her mother. “As a child I remember her enjoying doing math. Even when she would find solving a puzzle challenging, she would spend time to think about it without getting upset or disappointed.”

Majoring in applied math in college, Baka finally got to explore her artsy side at 20, by taking contemporary dance.

“I never thought about myself as a dancer, but I enjoyed and appreciated the benefits of dancing: this perfect combination of physical activity, mental stimulation, social interaction, and — perhaps most importantly — self-expression.”

Maths Dance travels to schools, offering workshops that focus on teaching mathematical concepts like ratios, shapes, probability, combinations and permutations, and number patterns through choreography and movement.

Maths Dance is offered to students up to ninth grade. This can be a challenge, since teens are not always as open to her approach as younger children.

“Teenagers who are not used to a more creative approach to teaching and learning usually are afraid of making mistakes and need more time to actively take part in and enjoy the creative tasks,” she says. “When students tell me that they don't like/can't do math, my reply is 'I love mistakes.' I think the fear of making mistakes is what holds them back.”

Maths Dance also offers workshops for teachers who want to bring the curriculum back to their own classrooms. While the program is based in the United Kingdom, Baka has run workshops for students in Greece and for teachers in Norway. Her long-term plan is to expand the program to other countries.

SHINE for Girls

Middle school is a rough time for most kids, but for girls, it is too often the time when they lose confidence in their math abilities. But there is hope, at least for girls in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago (and, the hope is, next year in seven more cities, including Los Angeles). It’s called SHINE for Girls, and it’s an eight-week after-school math tutoring program for 12- and 13-year-olds.

SHINE teaches girls math concepts through a range of dynamic activities, from hip-hop to Twister. For example, algebra equations are made clearer by equating x’s with jumps and y’s with twirls, so 3x plus y becomes less of a head-scratcher once it’s been danced out.

After their dance lesson, students put what they learned from movement (dance sessions typically start with a specific math problem they have to solve) on paper. According to organizers, this kinesthetic approach has not only improved participants’ problem-solving skills, but it has boosted their confidence, as well.

By exploring math through dance, “girls realize they are capable of doing these things, and say, ‘maybe I am a math person,’” said Kirin Sinha, who founded SHINE three years ago in Boston as an undergrad at MIT. She is currently in a graduate program at the London School of Economics, all the while overseeing SHINE’s expansion from abroad.

Sinha says she was motivated to start SHINE because too many middle school girls think they’re not meant to be math people, and while there are quite a few programs these days that encourage girls in science and math (including the Girl Scouts), they’re usually for those who already have an interest. SHINE looks to engage the girls who have lost, or never had, that interest, Sinha said, through activities many have likely been encouraged to pursue since kindergarten: ballet, tap, and modern dance.

“Dance is what allows us to engage the right demographic,” Sinha noted.

Sinha was part of that demographic, starting dance lessons at age 3, then making her professional debut at 16, only to be sidelined with an injury six months later. But unlike many of the girls in SHINE, Sinha never lost interest in math.

“Math was my first love,” she said, adding that she studied calculus as early as eighth grade. Once at MIT, she majored in theoretical math, as well as electrical engineering and computer science. And while she was often the only girl in her math classes (in school and at college), her love of dance gave her the confidence not to mind, and to push herself forward and stand out from the crowd.

“The mentality I had gotten from dance helped,” she said. “The goal [in dance] was to really stand out, to have that mentality of being OK with standing out.”

SHINE and the other programs that promote math through dance aim to encourage participants to adopt that mentality — whether they’re on stage or in math class.

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