Deirdre Moore | November 2012

From Movement to Meaning: A Study of Synonyms and Antonyms through Dance

Recently I was modeling a smattering of ideas for using movement to teach different elements of grammar and word study for second grade classroom teachers.  One idea was simply to give a word and have the students find a synonyms and antonyms for that word and dance those words.  I had so much fun with just the few quick examples that we did in class, that my mind started imagining ways to use this technique with a variety of words and not just words that obviously lend themselves to movement (like feeling words such as ecstatic, despondent, furious, exhausted).  By focusing on time, space, energy and type of movement we had such rich discussion and movement exploration of word meanings.

Synonyms and Antonyms through Dance

While dancing synonyms, it was fascinating to observe the students go from ecstatic to happy and really see the difference in those words.  The dancers were jumping and pumping arms up in the air, they were spinning and skipping with great speed and suspension when trying to dance the word “ecstatic.”  When they started to dance “happy” the arms came down, the movement slowed but the smiles and skipping continued, just with less speed and height.  The obvious level change and use of force and speed was so clear.  So was our discussion of the dance elements  they used to show each pair of synonyms.

This really clarified for the students the idea of words that are similar in meaning but NOT the same.  I can only imagine how helpful it would be for English language learners to both move and observe movement of the words to learn word meanings.  When we changed to dancing the antonym “despondent,” the energy shift was immediately evident.  The dancers‘ energy became heavy, their bodies slumped over and more closed, feet dragging, some dancers even sitting on the floor slowly rocking or curled up in a fetal position.  The teacher observing even said, “This is so painful to watch.”  I told the dancers they had just received the highest compliment – they made their audience feel the word they were dancing!

When I was a classroom teacher I had used charades with vocabulary but I had never challenged my students to use dance to represent word meanings.  I can just imagine how well students would understand vocabulary if they had to work in a group to find a way to represent word meaning through movement or, as an audience member, discuss how the performers represented the word through their movement.

Not only would the students be embodying and internalizing the meaning of the vocabulary but they could also be guided to use dance terminology to explain how the dancers interpreted the vocabulary – a true integration of dance and language arts.  While this exercise of dancing synonyms and antonyms is simple and quick, the possibilities for enriching not only student vocabulary but also ability to intentionally choreograph for different effects are powerful and promising.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.