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The Use of Music and Dance in Teaching U.S. History
Music and Dance Links // Folk Music Webring
One of the most successful techniques I have discovered in teaching
history has been the use of music and dance. As an instructor in
several community colleges, I have found it to be successful with all
types of student populations. The only problem with it is that it
takes a bit of nerve on the part of the teacher.
My experience and that of several fellow instructors who have used
music and dance has been that at first it may go pretty slow. Getting
students to volunteer to get up in front of the class takes some
effort. However, after trying it several semesters, we have found that
more and more students show interest. I have concluded that this must have more to do with
presentation than the students. After trying different songs and
dances, teachers can find out what appeals to their students.
One issue, although I have not had this happen, will be
religious beliefs that do not allow dancing in particular. Because
of this, teachers must first evaluate how much of a problem this will
be in their school. Second, if you decide to go ahead with using
music and dance, there must be an alternative activity for those who
either cannot participate or will not participate. My newest strategy to
deal with this is the development of a "Song and Dance Analysis Worksheet."
Actually, I was also trying to discourage some participation which may
sound strange, but as word of the activities spread through the school, I discovered
that students know what is coming and have no inhibitions. The activities
have gotten so popular that I have too
many students wanting to be involved. I thought some might prefer the
an idea I "borrowed" from the
National Archives exercises.
So far, however, the "Worksheets" have not discouraged many students, and my
main problem is still space for everyone and the noise.
Students may get pretty noisy, but it's out of excitement.
I have experimented with how to grade this over the years.
I assure you, they will not do these exercises unless they get
something for the effort. At first, I used
these activities as bonus point exercises. That proved to be
undesirable when I began to use more and more music and dance activities. It
tended to inflate grades. In addition, those who could not or would
not participate were at a disadvantage.
More recently, I have developed an "Exercise" grade as part of
the required grades each semester. This includes the singing and
dancing, but it also includes such things as reading aloud in class,
textbook exercises, creative opportunities such as drawings,
short research projects and similar options. This seems to working
quite well. Degree of difficulty of each option is as equal as I
can make it. The students who do not participate in the singing and
dancing seem content. At any rate, no one has complained about it yet.
After I first published this article, I received a couple of
e-mail messages asking how I fit the music and dance into the overall
coursework and how I developed critical thinking skills along with
the music and dance. First, I want to assure everyone that music and
dance is just a small part of what we do in class. These exercises
are always part of a larger study. Since my students have to write
lots of essays each semester, the music and dance is a part of these
assignments. I have added some comments in the overall outline of
music and dance that I use to clarify this.
I found most of the music I use at a local library. A few were
found in antique stores. Students have provided a couple of songs
while more recent recordings by folk singers often have
renditions of old songs. In this article, I have included links
to appropriate MIDI files. After years of trial and error, here are the songs and dances I
currently have in my plans for U.S. History:
- Native American - I have several songs and a couple of
basic dances from which the students may choose. See Myth, Music and Dance of the
American Indian by Ruth De Cesare. Recently, I have begun using
contemporary Native American music for the dance which is just the
basic "toe-heel" step. Students seem to like this music, and it
gives us an opportunity to recognize the continuing influences of
Native American music in our culture.
- Traditional African - I am fortunate that I have
many African students, so I obtained tapes of Ibo and Yoruba music
from them and got them to teach me a couple of simple dances. However,
I usually can get an African student to teach a new one to the other
students. I also have a video tape of traditional African dance, and I show
a brief excerpt. I introduce it by saying it's a film of last semester's
students. When the film begins, everyone gets a good laugh since the dancers
are extremely accomplished and in costume.
- Renaissance European - I play excerpts of several songs that
illustrate religious music in Europe during the era of exploration, and
I also have a tape of a harpsichord tune. For dance, we discuss the
ballet, and I did have one volunteer student to demonstrate although
that has been a rare experience. Instead, we do folk dancing.
The flings of Ireland and Scotland are fun. The recent popularity of
"Riverdance" seems to inspire students. Students of all ethnic backgrounds
appreciate the skill demonstrated by these dancers. I generally play a brief
video excerpt and tell students this is an example of what we are going to
do. After a good laugh, we do a very simplified version. NOTE: Generally,
students must deal with a rather long essay that includes our studies
about Native American, African and Renaissance European cultures.
Usually, it is something such as what did you admire/not admire about
each of these cultures. Often, music and dance are specific examples
that they give. Also, I ask the question as to how they think each
of these three types of music has affected today's music with
- Colonial America - While discussing life in the southern
colonies, we listen to "Cotton-Eyed Joe," a slave song
familiar to most students. But, I explain that the aristocrats of
the South tended to try to copy European styles. With this, I
introduce "The Minuet." Students find this relatively easy to do and
comment that they wonder why Virginians and others found this to fun.
While discussing life in the New England colonies, we don't dance
since it doesn't seem to have been something Puritans enjoyed. But, we
do listen to a children's song, "A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go," that the
students usually sing after hearing a couple of choruses.
We also play "The Farmer in the Dell." This is a game most students
know and they are amazed that it is so old. NOTE:
Students generally write essays comparing life in the southern,
New England and Middle Colonies with an opinion regarding which area
they would have preferred. Another interesting approach has been
to have them write an advertisement trying to encourage colonization
and an editorial trying to discourage colonization. They may use
music and dance as specific examples.
- The American Revolution - We sing an old version of "Yankee Doodle."
- The New Republic - To demonstrate how Americans were being
more "Americanized" and moving away from European styles, we dance
the Virginia Reel which is
one of the funniest things to watch students try. I got instructions
for it from the newsgroup on folk dancing.
- War of 1812 - Students sing the "Star-Spangled Banner"
USA History Site) and listen
to the song "Battle of New Orleans" which is a more recent description
of a historical event, but it is a good way to describe the what
- Era of Good Feelings - We dance the waltz. It seems to fit the
topic since it was considered the "dirty dancing" of the era.
- Industrial Revolution - We do the polka as an example of how
immigration affected music and dance. Students find this dance very
difficult. We also sing some Stephen Foster songs that they choose.
- Mexican War Era/Hispanic Influences - We listen to excerpts of
several traditional Mexican songs including "La Bamba" and others that
demonstrate various musical instruments such as the marimba. We dance
La Raspa (we used to call it the Mexican Hat Dance). NOTE: Generally,
students answer a question regarding how Hispanic culture has affected
U.S. culture in general as well as how the Mexican War affected Hispanics.
- 19th Century Life - We listen to the music of the Shakers and
do a Shaker Dance. I also obtained instructions from the folk dancing
In addition, we listen to a temperance song, "Who'll Buy," as well as
several slave songs recorded on the Georgia Sea Islands where
African-American culture has been preserved to some degree due to the
isolation of these descendents of slaves.
During our discussion of the movement west, the students read a
play that I wrote using the diaries of women pioneers. The play
recreates the overland journey to the west. At one point, there is a
campfire sing-a-long, and they sing "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain"
or "Amazing Grace".
NOTE: Generally students write an essay describing life in the 19th
century with specifics regarding women, minorities and pioneers.
They have some sort of opinion component such as was life getting
better or worse. Music and dance may be used again as specific examples.
- The Civil War - We sing several relevant songs including
"John Brown's Body," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and "America."
- Reconstruction - We listen to "I'm a Good Old Rebel"
all the things this ex-rebel hates and how that affected reconciliation.
NOTE: Students must answer a question
about Reconstruction in general. I especially like to ask them about
the different ways southerners, black and white, reacted. This song
serves as an example of one response, but the key to the question is
to encourage students not to overgeneralize. They also evaluate whether or
not Reconstruction was successful.
Since I teach college, this ends the first semester of U.S. history.
The second semester goes like this:
- Dallas and Texas History - This is an introductory section. We sing
"The Yellow Rose of Texas."
- The West - We sing "Home on the Range" and square dance, another hilarious experience. NOTE:
This is part of a larger discussion about women in the West. They
write an essay explaining how the West affected women and how women
affected the West with dances being an example.
- The Rural South - We sing
"Hush Little Baby" (MIDI and Words) and/or
"Skip to My Lou" (MIDI and Words).
- Industrial Revolution - Students sing
"I've Been Working on the Railroad."
- Late 19th Century/Turn of the Century - We listen to several
tunes including samples
of Scott Joplin's ragtime and John Philip Sousa, Hispanic cowboy songs, barbershop
quartet, and post-Civil War minstrel music. The
students came up with the idea to march to Sousa since many are
former band members. They really love this. We also do a later version of the waltz,
the Boston Dip as well as the Two-Step. I also show them the Galop and discuss the Cake
Walk of this era and explain it's origins in the African-American
community and similarity to "break dancing" since it was a "showing
off" type dance. NOTE: Students answer an essay question regarding
life in the late 19th century in general. I have many of these, but
my favorite is to explain how the late 19th century was both the best
of times and the worst of times. Again, music and dance can be used
as specific examples.
- Foreign Policy - We Hula. I learned from a video I purchased over the internet.
We also sing
"America the Beautiful" (words and MIDI). See also
this site about "American the Beautiful".
- Progressive Era - Students sing "The Eyes of Texas" as an
example of a protest song. (Since I'm in Texas, all the students
know this as the University of Texas school song but are surprised to
learn it was a protest song.) We dance "Ballin' the Jack," a simple one
- World War I - We sing "Mademoiselle from Armetieres."
- Post-World War I (I do a short section on 1919) - We Tango. This gives us
an opportunity to discuss Latin influences in the U.S.
- 1919 - We Tango. This is a great introduction to growing Latino influences
in U.S. music and dance.
- 1920s - We listen to several excerpts of Harlem Renaissance music
including Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bessie
Smith, "Ma" Rainey and Ethel Waters.
And, of course, we do the Charleston which the students really like.
NOTE: Again, students are asked to write essays describing the 1920s
and how it affected people. I especially like to separate youth,
women and African-Americans. Then they can evaluate who benefitted
from changes and who did not.
- 1930s - We listen to several excerpts of Latino music that was
very popular in the 1930s and performed by both Latino and non-Latino
musicians. We dance the Conga line. Students also hear excerpts from Big Band and other
music including Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald, Tommy Dorsey and
Lena Horne. NOTE: Students are asked to describe what happened to
Latinos in the 1930s including both increased anti-immigrant feelings and
the Latino fad. They evaluate the results of this for Latinos and
culture in general.
We also listen to Huey P. Long's "Every Man a King," a version of
which can be found on Randy Newman's Good Old Boys album. I
also show a great video excerpt about the Dust Bowl that has Woody
Guthrie singing "This Old Dust Storm" in the background. This is an
excellent video in general. It is entitled "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."
I like it because it is just a series of small clips about innumerable topics
relating to the 1930s. It is very easy to show just a few minutes rather than a
whole film. Students don't have time to lose interest. We also sing
another Guthrie song,
"This Land Is Your Land." In addition, we sing "We Shall Not Be Moved"
as an example of a labor song.
- World War II - We sing "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."
- Post-War Era - We play "Name that Tune" as a class
exercise (everyone tries together) with a variety of
selections that include rock, country, and even Perry Como. They
don't know many of them except Elvis and Patsy Cline. I tell them
it's practice for the next "Name that Tune," the 1960s.
We do this for no points, but they do get points for dancing the
Stroll. Now, baby-boomers know that dance, but the students do not, and they
find it very difficult. But, tell them to line up "Soul Train" style, and they
know exactly what you mean!
- 1960s - Again, we play "Name that Tune" as a class exercise.
Since I teach in community college, I usually have older students who
know the music better than the younger ones. At the same
time, it is surprising how many 60s songs and musicians the youngsters
know. For example, absolutely everyone knows Sonny & Cher. I'm not
sure why, but that's my observation. Others they known include
Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha
Franklin, Santana and the Supremes.
We also dance the Twist. NOTE: Students describe the
changes in music in the 1950s & 60s. They must analyze how it
reflected and affected culture in general, how it influenced today's
music, and choose some personal favorites.
- Since the 1960s - Frankly, I always run out of time at this point
and have to hurry because I feel it's important to cover Vietnam and
Watergate plus an overview of the 1980s. However, once and awhile
students volunteer to put together their own "Name that Tune." That
is very satisfying for me to see they actually understand what I'm
trying to do. Last semester, I asked students to bring a favorite song
from the 1970s, 80s, or 90s. Then, I put together a tape of excerpts and
let them name the tunes. Nice way to wrap-up the semester.
If you have suggestions or comments, e-mail us at the address at the
bottom of this page. I am in the process of putting my complete
onlines. This includes other activities aside from music such as poetry readings,
excerpts to read in class from letters, journals, and interesting short readings from
resources other than their textbook. Eventually, I hope to have a complete outline of
the history courses offered at El Centro College that will include links, exercises,
handouts, and any other relevant information to assist you in your teaching goals.
Thanks for visiting our pages and please feel free to e-mail El Centro College's History Department.
Music and Dance Links
Folk Music Webring
Texas Music and Dance Page //
Music Around the World
Dance Around the World
Music History 102 //
The History of the Power of Dance
MIDI for Ballroom Dancing //
The Acdemy of Digital Music: Classical
Western Social Dance
Dance Instruction Manuals, 1600-1920 //
The Dance Card Museum
Folk Dance - Los Viejos Directions
Sources for Indian Music
Etiquette for the Ball Room //
Victorian Dancing Etiquette
Sing It Again! //
HPD's Nursery Rhymes & Music Page
KIDiddles: Song Lyrics
American Folklife Center: Endangered Music Project Recordings
American Folksongs //
Stephen Foster Collection //
Song Database - Multicultural Pavilion
Folk Music Web Ring //
My Culture Online Page - Music, Dance, Museums, Architecture, Art, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.
Texas Music and Dance
Harry's Blues Lyrics Online //
The Mudcat Cafe
Lyrics World //
Ultimate '80s Songs
BBHQ: Music Room Lyrics
Dance Online //
Voice of Dance //
I Hear America Singing
Mixed Pickles - Outline of Early 20th Century Dance
Mixed Pickles - Outline of 19th Century Dance
American Music Archives //
Mudcat Cafe: A Magazine Devoted to Blues and Folk Music
Folk Music of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and America
Patriotic Songs (American) //
Folk Music, Communism, and the Red Scare //
Songs and Chants to Picket By
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