Dance Teachers, at some point in your teaching career you will come across dancers with special needs; whether it is associated with Autism, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, social-behavioral or emotional issues, physical limitations, etc. These children are coming to dance class for the same reason any other child comes to dance…to have fun, to learn and to be around other students participating in an activity that facilitates both physicality and thinking.  It is surprising how many dance teachers are uninformed and unsure of what activities might be appropriate.

So, if you do have special needs dancers or even those that are young, beginner or shy, the following is a wonderful introductory improvisation lesson plan I developed to introduce your students to dance that is non-threatening, engages the senses and builds trust among the dancers in your studio. The key is to gauge your dancers. Go slow and assess along the way. Before you know it, you will have an integrated class built on trust and mutual experience.

“Emotion Shadow”

 “Emotion Shadow” is a mirroring exercise where “the leader” moves to how a specific piece of music makes them feel while their partner shadows their movement. Once the music changes, partners switch and the follower now becomes the leader.  This exercise allows for free movement and emoting without verbalization as well as validation and acceptance of the movements from their partner.

“Emotion Shadow” is beneficial because it provides the child/adolescent the opportunity to freely express emotions without verbalization. It creates a mind/body connection through sensory perception by keeping focus on moving in ways that won't be judged by anyone else. By allowing control and leadership over the small movements students make, their partner’s act of mirroring instills validation of their feelings in a safe, trusting and accepting environment. The activity also increases peer interaction and can start to reflect movement patterns depicting deeper meaning regarding the student’s past experiences.

Age Range: Children (late elementary)-Adolescents

Materials: Variety of music choices       

Suggested Warm-Up for the Activity:

Students begin either in a circle or in a spot of their choice. Start seated on the floor. Have students close their eyes with hands on their stomachs and breathe deeply; feeling the rise and fall of their belly. The teacher should then guide class through an isolated, somatic warm-up to include light stretches seated in place and a varied selection of music (calm and happy) to set the tone of trust, peacefulness and fun. Ask students to give “a thumbs up” if they liked the music choices for the warm-up or “a thumbs down” if they didn’t.

Presentation of the Activity:

Teacher begins class/session by welcoming students.  Begin by asking students to do the following…”If music makes you happy, please clap your hands for me.” Continue to insert different emotions into the question and ask students to respond. Point out how many different ways music can make us feel.

 Pair students up.  Have them sit on the floor facing each other. Refer back to question as to how music can make us feel.  Tell students that you are going to play a piece of music. They are to sit with eyes closed and just move slowly (with small movements) to the way the music makes them feel.

Development of the Activity:

Now designate a leader and a follower within each duo. Explain to students that you will now put on various pieces of music. This time (with eyes open) the leader will start to move in slow motion to how the music makes them feel with small, contained movements. *Have them remain sitting to limit range of motion so child does not feel threatened or fear loss of control. The “follower” will try and mirror what the leader is doing, so that both partners are moving and feeling in unison. Explain that when the music changes, that means it is time to switch roles and the “follower” will now become the leader and the leader will now follow. Repeat this 2-4 times.

Strategies for Differentiation:

  • Modify range of motion as students progress to include: standing, locomotor movement, increased tempo, one leader in the middle of the circle while the entire class follows them.
  • If a student doesn’t want to participate, have them control the music and when to make the changes.
  • If child is not ready for peer work, they can continue exercise with their eyes closed, or teacher can be their partner and let them solely be the leader while teacher is the reflection of their movement.
  • If performing this exercise with child and teacher, teacher may eventually progress to include adjustments while following the child’s movements:

            -Expanding the movement: Will draw attention to the child’s potential

            -Accenting the movement: Will emphasize a part of the movement that seems        important to the child

            -Contrasting the movement: Proposes an alternative way to moving and showing child how to be adaptive


Make children aware of when you are going to be winding down the music. Tell them to find closure in their final movement and begin deep breathing from warm-up with their hands resting on their stomach with eyes closed.


  • Check in with students individually to see how they are feeling and what their mood, spirits are like after the session.
  • Exercise follow-up would include the progressions as discussed in the development section of lesson plan.

Remember, dance is for everyone!

Good luck!

See you in the dance studio,


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