SideKick Dance: The importance of dance for those with Special Educational Needs


Importance of dance for those with Special Educational Needs

Charlotte is Artistic Director and Dance Leader for SideKick Dance who primarily work with disabled dancers and dancers with learning difficulties. Charlotte won the One Dance UK award for Inspirational Community Dance Practitioner (2017) and is co-author of Safe Dance Practice: An Applied Dance Science Perspective. Simon Coopey is Deputy Head of Primary Education at Netherhall special school in Leicester and is SideKick’s Chairman. Simon has been a leading influence in the development of dance in special schools over the last decade, giving hundreds of young people the opportunity to perform at Curve Theatre each year as part of the special school’s showcases. He and Charlotte work closely together to run the annual Bloom Inclusive Dance Festival.

Wow, where do you start?! For those of us who work in inclusive dance settings the list of benefits of dance for people of any age with additional needs is endless! Together we have hopefully been able to consolidate the reasons as to why dance is a must do activity in Special Educational Needs (SEN) settings. Here we go….


The curriculum:

Firstly, dance should be a vital part of ANY school curriculum, not because we want everyone to have a dance career, but because dance unlocks potential that many academic subjects do not. In fact, there is not a subject within a school curriculum that cannot be well supported by dance in a special school setting. Whether it be counting and sequencing in maths, telling a story or exploring other cultures through dance, exploring nature through dance, dancing the planets of the solar system – dance really does cover all bases. Physical exploration of a theme, subject or topic will embed learning in a powerful and real way – leading to higher and wider attainment across the whole curriculum. 

Physical development, skills and healthy lifestyles:

Obesity is a growing concern and people with a learning or physical disability are at significantly higher risk of being obese in the UK (NHS Digital). Any activity that promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices is going to be of benefit to this demographic group. Dance is no exception; it is a great form of exercise which can raise the heart rate to working at an aerobic level supporting weight control and cardiovascular health. Range of motion and mobility can be increased which in turn will support ease of movement ability outside of the dance class. Dance can also play a significant part in the physical development of children – developing skills such as coordination and balance, static and dynamic stability as well develop important motor skills. Having the freedom to move, create, and explore the bodies physical capabilities can only increase physical potential in dance and in everyday life.

Learning sequences and patterns:

Many young people with a learning disability can find it difficult to understand what they are doing now and what they are doing next. A well-structured dance curriculum will support a child in developing understanding of sequencing through choreography. The dance environment can often free the shackles of academic frustration and children who might struggle to remember their daily timetable in class, can remember fairly complex sequences of movements and understand movement and sound cues for what they should be doing subsequently. Learning sequences can also help those with dyspraxia (a motor learning disability that impairs the organisation of movement skills) in improving their coordination in and out of the dance session. When combined in a holistic curriculum there is a transfer of learning into day to day routines and activities – therefore supporting children with additional needs to be as independent as possible.


Many children in SEN settings are placed there because they have some sort of diagnosed difficulty with their communication. Dance provides an obvious channel for this. When children are given opportunities to explore expression through dance, they can convert their feelings and thoughts through physical movement, thus stripping back the frustrations and limitations that they may feel in their spoken or formally signed speech. Dance provides a blank canvas for their own communication and when combined with music to accompany dance we often see children become ‘unlocked’ and express and communicate more freely, than they may not be able to in their day to day interactions.

Social, emotional and mental health:

Unless one is working independently, dance is not a solo activity and within special school settings, and inclusive dance environments, it can provide vital cues in developing relationships and positive social interactions with others. Freed from some of the frustrations of communication in other settings people can communicate through movement. This can be done through creating simple choreography with a partner, building friendships within a dance group setting and also just that wonderful feeling of belonging and being part of something that a group dance performance can provide. Wider curriculum opportunities in dance such as outside dance groups and after school activities are also vital in tackling the social isolation that many in the disabled community can often feel outside of their school setting.

Case study – Miles is a 16-year-old autistic boy who has been dancing with SideKick for 5 years. As well as this he has a gift for music and plays numerous instruments. His mum explains:

‘By its very definition Autism has meant my youngest son, Miles, has struggled with social interaction since he was very young. His natural aptitude for music and performing arts has helped him enormously in recent years. It’s an outlet whereby he’s be able to express himself without hinderance and build in confidence.

Miles has been welcomed into a very supportive network through SideKick and been given opportunities and experiences I don’t believe would have been afforded to him under any other circumstances.’

Dance is a powerful tool that everybody should have access to, it provides a valuable learning experience and enhances life, it is something that we simply would not and should not be without.

Charlotte Tomlinson & Simon Coopey – SideKick Dance