Katz, M. (2008). Growth in motion: Supporting young women’s embodied identity and cognitive development through dance after school. Afterschool Matters, 12-21.


This research examines embodied learning, how we know and learn through our body, from the perspectives of 30 teenage women participating at two community-based dance studios in Oakland, CA. The researcher used longitudinal ethnographic analyses to investigate how participation in dance leads to personal, interpersonal and academic benefits. The findings show that positive identity formation and cognitive growth are supported by the interactional and multimodal opportunities in the dance afterschool program.

Key Findings:

The researcher distilled the teen’s expressions of the benefits of learning through dance into five outcomes:

  • A chance to develop a sense of control over their bodies, emotions, intellects, and interactions. Dancers cited examples of how this skill of control was applied to situations outside of dance class and how they felt more under control with life situations immediately after finishing dance class. The dancers described dance as a “safe place.”
  • An unusual capacity to take the long view of their development. The dancers described how they could view their own progress over many years. They cultivated a sense of self-awareness and patience.
  • An opportunity to participate in a supportive, communal learning environment. Dancers spoke of working together and helping each other succeed. They also spoke of the trust required in partnering work.
  • Multiple, multimodal entry points for learning dance skills and for expanding social, physical, and intellectual repertoires. Teachers often use verbal cues, metaphors, vocalizations, physical demonstration and at times touch to communicate how to dance. Students listen, mimic, ask questions, notice how the movement feels in their body, watch other students as well as the teacher, and have time for multiple trials. They are intimate witnesses of each other’s learning processes.
  • A constructive conception of “mistakes” that underscores how risk taking fosters learning and development.

Significance of the Findings:

This research’s interest in embodied teaching and learning contributes to scholarship on multimodality in education. The findings demonstrate that interactions and multimodal learning opportunities in afterschool programs have the potential to support youth in positive identity formation and cognitive growth. These are particularly important benefits for youth who are “at-risk” and struggling with relationships, school and difficult circumstances at home. Notably, the benefits gained from learning dance extended beyond achievements in the dance studio; dance provided them with powerful tools for developing a sense of agency and self-efficacy along with positive identities that supported them in other areas of their lives.


The study’s participants were drawn from two separate sites and were of diverse socio-cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The original study, conducted from 2002 to 2005 focused on nine high school-age women primarily from middle and working class families who had been learning dance together at the Oakland Dance Center since preschool. The research was expanded in 2006 to include 21 young women who participated in a Teen Summer Dance Intensive at the Berkeley Center for Dance.

This research was interested in the following questions: In what ways is participation in dance connected to the development of young women’s identities? How does dance contribute to the cognitive, social, and emotional growth of the young women of the study? How might the nature of learning in dance help us rethink the organization of learning both in and out of school?

A multi-method research design using ethnographic, multimodal, and discourse analytic strategies were used to explore data sources including: informal conversations, focus groups, interviews, student dance journals, photographs, artists’ statements, field notes, and over two hundred hours of videotaped classroom observations.

Limitations of the Research:

The participants in this research had mostly studied dance for an extended number of years. Therefore, the findings cannot be generalized to students who participate in afterschool dance for a short time frame. The findings are also limited to students participating in a dance studio environment where the training is in classical and contemporary dance forms.

The reporting used in the analysis limits the understanding of the relationship between the women’s dancing and reported positive outcomes. The analysis relies primarily on interviews that highlight the dancers’ perspective on their experience. Additionally, there is little description of the teaching or other classroom activities to provide context for the findings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Longitudinal research is needed in multiple settings – dance studios, community centers, and schools – that follows a large number of dancers. Sophisticated methods for tracking individual student progress as related to a number of factors, including identity formation, self-efficacy, cognition, and other possible variables, are important to further understand positive outcomes and their possible relationship to embodied learning. This research might also follow the subjects beyond the years of participation in dance to determine whether the advantages carry over to later in life. In addition, effective methods for documenting and demonstrating the effects of embodied learning in school and out of school should be further developed.