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How Not to Dance to Lyrics

  • Lesson Plan Creator: Nicholas Cendese
  • Grades: Junior High, Highschool
  • Subjects: Music
  • National/State Fine Arts Standards: Create, Perform/Present, Connect, Respond, Connect/Analyze
  • Tags: Creative Movement
  • Skills Addressed: Creation of Patterns

The goal of this lesson plan is to re-enforce the importance and power of abstract thinking and abstract movement in the choreographic process. This lesson plan can help teachers fight the pre-conceived notion that dance MUST TELL A STORY, that dance MUST BE ABOUT SOMETHING.

Often, young choreographers will select a pop song because they like the lyrics. As a result, they end up choreographing to the lyrics rather than the song itself: the mood, feeling, or other associations that go along with their dance’s theme. Hopefully, this lesson plan will showcase that often times, forgetting about the lyrics and finding a different “inspiration” from the music can be successful and, in fact, better than dancing to the lyrics.

This lesson plan can take place in two parts – however, part one can be done without part two.

This lesson plan is written for four groups; however, you can break your class into any number of groups as long as it is two or more. If using more or less than four groups, adjust the supplies and songs as needed.

Learning Objectives/Goals

Composition, use of abstraction vs. literal movement, teamwork, creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, use of music as accompaniment and as inspiration for movement invention.

Materials Needed

  • 2 Note cards for each group
  • Sticky Notes
  • A selection of popular/well-known pop songs…one song for each group of students. Each group’s song should be unique and different from the others.
  • 1 envelope for each group
  • A few pieces of music that would traditionally be thought of as more "modern dance" music. These will be used for group discussion later in the process.
  • Each group will need access to a phone or a way to stream/listen to the music selected for their group.
  • Writing utensil and an envelope for each group.


To prepare for the lesson, you will need the following:

  • A list of songs with titles and artist names. Select a few more than the number of groups in your class.
  • Write the name of the song and the artist on an index card and indicate in the corner what group will use this song, (Group 1) or (1)
  • On another index card write “Qualities of Music…” and indicate the group number again
    on card.
  • Include the following instructions with the index card that lists the song and artist.
    • Listen to the song on this index card as a group.
    • Brainstorm and write down the qualities of music on the index card so labeled. Please include at least 4 qualities.
    • After completing steps 1 & 2, place index cards in envelope and return to teacher.


Gather the class for a discussion. Play for them one of the POP music selections, one that has NOT been assigned to a group. Ask them to listen for musical qualities. Share their ideas as a group for about a minute. Repeat this process two or three times with different music selections that contrast one another. Point out if a quality could be translated to dance/movement. For example: strong, soft, fast, rough, stutters, etc. Point out if a quality is more abstract and brainstorm HOW such an abstract quality might be turned into movement. For example: dark, sad, shadowy, bright, queasy, etc. Encourage students to be far-reaching and unique in their suggestions. There will be some qualities that are easier to hear than others – but diving in deep and finding unique qualities will help this process.

It is important to point out that some songs may have CONFLICTING/CONTRASTING qualities. For this exercise, it’s important that we not brainstorm/write down any qualities that conflict. Sad/Happy is difficult to use. If there ARE conflicting qualities, ask them to focus on just one set for today.


Break the class into groups. For this written lesson, we are using four groups. Your choice on how many groups you want to use. BEFORE HANDING OUT THE PREPARED ENVELOPES, make sure you share the important information below.

  • Each group’s envelope is a total and absolute secret. You should NOT share the contents of your envelope with another group. You MUST keep the information in the envelope 100% secret so that no other group knows what song you have.
  • Tell the students there are instructions in the envelope, but before opening, relocate to a spot in the room far away from other groups, take 1 phone and 1 writing utensil with you.
  • Follow the directions in the envelope. Once completed, return to your teacher and do not discuss the contents of the envelope with anyone in another group – it must be a secret!
  • For the teacher, once you have the envelopes back, remove the song/artist index card from each envelope. The only index card remaining in the envelope should be the card that lists four or more movement qualities.


Next, re-distribute the envelopes making sure each group gets a different envelope than the one they first used. This is why the envelopes have been labeled… to make sure you don’t give a group the same envelope twice.
Ask each group to do the following:

Choreograph a unison phrase based on the movement qualities listed on the card in their envelope.

Tell them NOT to worry about formation, spacing, cannon, elements of choreography. The goal is to develop a unison movement phrase that fully embodies the movement qualities listed on the card.

Stress that they work as a team, sharing ideas, listening to each other and give them at least 15 minutes to work but the more time the better.

It is not important, how long the phrase is, at least four sets of 8 is best, but if they can get more done, great!


Once the phrase work is completed, have each group show their movement phrase to the music that originally went with the qualities card that was assigned to them. Because, the index cards were labeled with group numbers this should be easy to figure out. Be sure to have each group start their phrase WITH THE LYRICS. If there is an intro, let it pass and start where the pop singer/lyrics start. This will help with part two of this lesson. It might be helpful to count each group in. After each group performs, discuss what worked or was successful for each group.

  • How did the movement match the music? Did it match? Did it NOT match?
  • Was the song “embodied” in a fulfilling and interesting way? Did this surprise you?
  • How do you imagine the movements created embodied the song so successfully when the group had NEVER heard the music before?
  • Would their choreography have been as successful if they KNEW they were
    choreographing to that specific song?

Have each group show again, but this time play a more traditional “modern dance” musical selection – one that they would expect to hear at a modern dance concert. After, reflect on the difference...How did the choreography succeed or suffer with a different sound choice? What it better or worse than the pop song? Why? What does this experience tell us about selecting music for our own choreography?

Extension to the Lesson

Print off the official lyrics for each song used in part one. Most songs can be found online. For ease, label each copy with the group it is assigned to.


  • Break into the same groups as for part one.
  • Hand out the printed lyrics to each group – making sure that each group gets the lyrics to the song they choreographed to in part one.
  • Ask each group to choreograph a new unison movement phrase that is as LITERAL an interpretation of the lyrics as possible. Ask them to try and be as literal and non-abstract as possible. This means following along with the lyrics and trying to make their movements match the words in some fashion. Again, ask them not to worry about formations, timing, facing, choreographic elements, etc. All we are looking at is movement invention and sequence – nothing else.
  • Once the work time is up, ask each group to show their finished product. Again, as in part one, have them start when the lyrics start/when the pop singer starts to sing.
  • Compare and contrast with the movement choices/sequence from part one.
    • Which version was more interesting? Why was it more interesting?
    • What did the literal movement do to the song, the lyrics, the dance over all?
    • Which would you prefer to watch as an audience member? Why?

Follow-up Resources

Look for other abstraction vs. literal composition problems in RDT's lesson plan archive.


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What People are Saying

The diversity of the dancers really spoke to my students! It was great to see boys and girls dancing, and different races. The high level of engagement was so refreshing and got students excited about thecontent.
This activity was valuable because it helped students make connections between dance, rhythm, healthy lifestyles, and expression. The students were impressed by the talent of the dancers and it was motivating to them.
Opportunities for art and expression are so limited at school but so essential and valuable for all students, especially those who struggle to learn through traditional methods. My Kindergarteners have been dancing since you left!
This was so engaging. I looked around the auditorium and every student was watching. Not one person was talking or distracted
This activity is valuable to teachers and students because it gives them a creative outlet. We need movement in the classroom to engage, energize and deepen student learning.
I got great ideas on how to incorporate movement into math and science lessons.
I loved how you made movement and exercise relatable to the students. The dancers were full of energy and there was very little down time so students stayed engaged.
Our children were captivated by the performance. They listened to you and they were learning without knowing. They usually giggle when bodies are shown and talked about. But the way you presented it was so tastefully done, they now do poses and movement around the room and outside. You brokesome barriers and they took that permission and literally ran with it!