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Structure and Content of Individual Dance Sessions

This is an excerpt from Safe Dance Practice by Edel Quin,Sonia Rafferty & Charlotte Tomlinson.

Formal research on dance session progression and sequencing in general, let alone for specific genres, is comparatively limited, although class plans, guides to styles, vocabularies, glossaries and how-to tutorials are abundant, both in print and online.


The physiological or kinesiological viewpoint, as opposed to the skill acquisition emphasis, is not always taken into account. The components for each style may differ, but they all have (or should have) commonalities: warm-up and preparation, exercises that improve skills, specific elements that work towards dance movements in combination and attention to cooling down. In the recreational format, these specific parts might be less defined so that the focus is on having fun and enjoying the dancing (Kassing & Jay, 2003). In this case it is usual to see combinations of steps linked together to form longer sequences, practised in each session so that the learning time is reduced, and saving time for more doing. The variability for vocational and professional dancers is likely to be greater. In creative classes, the focus is more on exploration and discovery of movement potential through open tasks rather than on prescribed exercises.


In general, whatever the purpose of the dance session, progression can be thought of as the preparation, the practice or training and the recovery (see figure 6.3). Different types of activity can be inserted into this progression to ensure a logical arrangement that minimises stress on the body.


In all styles, the basis for the construction of a safe and effective session is a logical progression of suitable exercises and activities guided by a clear methodology. Dance leaders must have the ability to devise exercises that make sense and fit together (White, 1996). The template for dance leaders is based on movement principles that make anatomical, kinesiological and physical sense, and it is the leaders’ responsibility to highlight these principles to their participants and indicate clearly how they should be applied (Berardi, 2005). Tradition has a substantial influence on methodology, particularly for the more formal, established styles. On the other hand, a word-of-mouth or mimicry (passing on by copying) type of approach can also communicate newer, less codified sub-styles.


Much of the research into dance class structure has been undertaken with classical ballet, precisely because it is one of the oldest, most recognisable forms, with little practice variation. Because of all the attention and the employment of new technology and physical assessment techniques, some of the actions that have long been an integral part of the ballet vocabulary have come into question. Examples of these are included in the Contraindicated Movements and Actions section later in this chapter. Although some of the most readily available dance science research is based on the classical ballet form, it is especially important for emerging styles to take note of any exploratory research in order to create viable, safe and effective training plans. Dancers, students and especially dance leaders in all genres should be open to new ideas and prepared to investigate their own stylistic vocabulary and session structure. Gaining knowledge in order to make informed decisions will help prevent risks and allow the styles to continue to develop safely.


The basis for determining the sequencing and progression of dance content is the choice of movements (vocabulary), the amount of repetition and the location of the specific movements in the scan of the whole session. Whether a class, rehearsal or supplementary workout, each session should be built on principles that progressively develop the dancer’s technique, skills or fitness. A well-designed structure that helps dancers acquire both vocabulary and skills and improve physiological components is the key to training effectively (Kassing & Jay, 2003). An understanding of the energy systems required for performance in different dance styles would also be helpful (the mixture of aerobic and anaerobic demands). Certain skills are common to many styles, for example, alignment, motor control, co-ordination and balance. The foundation for the basic skills in each genre must be set in place before more complex and sophisticated vocabulary and combinations can be attempted (Mainwaring & Krasnow, 2010).


Each part of the dance session has specific demands. The selection of appropriate activities for each stage depends on the purpose, the skills to be learned and the people doing the learning.


The structure of almost any dance class can be distilled down into the following template:

  1. Generic warm-up, followed by a style-specific warm-up
  2. Preparatory exercises to introduce and break down stylistic movement patterns, actions and sensibilities (often emphasising alignment and technical concepts)
  3. Progressive exercises that specifically address dancers’ physical capacities for that style (for example, the development of required strength and flexibility)
  4. The actual dancing: combinations of movements that move through space, using different orientations, levels, speeds, intensities and dynamic movement qualities, and test the dancers’ knowledge, understanding, adaptability and readiness for performance (which means ability to dance successfully in the style rather than being on stage)
  5. Cool-down


However, this template needs to be applied by considering the context of the session. The first question to ask when planning a dance session is to determine its purpose. Is it a creative class, a recreational session, a rehearsal towards a performance, a warm-up or one of a daily set of training classes? The level of difficulty of material and the physiological demands to be made will need to be determined with this purpose in mind.


The priority in planning is to consider the participants: their reason for dancing, their ability level and their age. The key point to remember is not simply to teach the session effectively but to teach effectively to the specific people in the session.It is important not to judge all dancers by their ability to achieve perfect technique or their intention to work towards achieving it. For example, adult participants in social settings may consider enjoyment and interaction more important than achieving technical perfection in their motivation to dance, while children may be more engaged by creative, expressive movement than formalised techniques (Gibbons, 2007).


Unique population groups are directly addressed in chapter 10, but there are broad theoretical questions to ask in determining the basic dance material (Gibbons, 2007):

  • What is the aim of the session (training, social)?
  • What is the ability level of the group (for example, in terms of degrees of strength, flexibility and cardiorespiratory capacity)?
  • Are there unique considerations for the group (age, sex, life stage, ability or disability)?
  • How does the class contribute to the overall amount of dance practice?


In planning their sessions from a physiological perspective, dance leaders could take the lead from sports and consider a training needs analysis (Kenney et al., 2012). This can be adapted to fit the dance session by asking:

  • Which muscles will be used, or need to be trained?
  • How will they be used or trained?
  • Which energy systems (aerobic or anaerobic) are involved in the dance style?
  • Which are the primary sites of concerns for injury prevention?


Depending on these needs, the dance leader then needs to logically select:

  • The exercises that will be performed
  • The order that they will be performed in
  • The number of times they are to be repeated to produce a training effect and avoid fatigue
  • The amount of rest between each exercise or set of exercises


Examination of the preceding questions and points will inform the overall structure of the session. This can be broken down into several stages: in very simple terms, the beginning, middle and end. While this seems quite obvious, there can sometimes be a blurring of activities that sit most comfortably and efficiently within each stage. The beginning of the session will include the warm-up and preparatory exercises and activities. The body of the class will increase in difficulty and demand to develop the specific skills for each style, working towards a peak of activity, the actual dancing, which brings together the preparatory and developmental work in combinations, sequences and routines. Following this peak, the demand will reduce and the material will focus on a cool-down and recovery. This pattern may be contrary to the structure of many dance sessions, where it is common to see a more or less gradual and consistent progression of intensity that culminates in a peak at the very end. Rather than sustaining or increasing the intensity throughout a session (see common practice, figure 6.4a), the dance leader could include periodic short rest and recovery periods, working towards the peak in activity (the big dancing combinations) before bringing down the intensity earlier in the session (recommended practice, figure 6.4b). A session that takes into account pacing and recovery by following the recommended pattern will be more beneficial for dancers. This is discussed further in the section End of the Session later in this chapter. The Repetition section earlier in this chapter provides some guidelines as to the type of activities that might be appropriate in order to follow this pattern.


Learn more about Safe Dance Practice.