Folk Dances For Elementary Students: Grade By Grade

image folk dances for elementary students grade by grade

Are you looking for folk dances to do at different grade levels? 

It seems like I’ve been doing a ton of work with folk dance lately both with my students and in presenting. I’ve even written blog posts about it for the Michigan Kodaly Chapter

Then someone asked me what my must-do folk dances for elementary students are for each grade level. 

Here are my favorite folk dances grade by grade, Kindergarten through 5th grade. They are sequenced from simple to complicated, but each one is a fun and positive experience. 

Read ahead for directions and links to recordings for each dance. 

Why We Should Have Folk Dance In Elementary Schools?

Folk dances are a must in schools and especially in music classrooms. Long papers and presentations have been made on this single question (I’ve done it myself a few times), but here are some of the most important reasons real quick. 

Reinforces Beat – There is no better to understand the feeling of beat than through movement. With folk dance, your feet along with many other body parts are always moving (hopefully) with the beat. 

Deepens Understanding Of Form – Form is one of the most important elements of music. It can make even complicated classical pieces like Carmina Burana easily accessible to students. 

Folk dances help understand form because the moves will follow the form of the music. If you do this year after year, you’ll find your kids will be able to better sense where phrases begin and start with less help from you. 

Engages The Whole Body – We all know how important differentiation is. Accessing other intelligences helps the brain build the “roads to knowledge” easier, and this moving accesses the aural and kinesthetic for sure. 

The movement also helps with keeping the kids engaged and on task.

Encourages Appropriate Social Behavior – It’s a sad reality we must accept, but our students nowadays have little idea how to interact with each with “proper” manners. 

I’m not talking about all the fine dining and such, but simple things like: 

  • Making eye contact
  • Shaking hands
  • Bowing 
  • Moving with control and consideration

Maybe this makes me old school, but I do believe these kinds of things will help these kids succeed in life no matter what they choose to do.

Folk dancing is a great way to teach these ideas.   

Elementary Folk Dances For Each Grade

Here we’ll go through each of my #1 favorite picks for folk dance for each grade level. I’ll include directions, sources, and links to its resources and music. 

Kindergarten Folk Dance – Royal Reel

Source: I created this one on my own. I humbly suggest that it’s not going to win any folk dance awards, but I do believe it’s an effective dance to get young ones started in folk dancing. 

Music: See video link below for what I prefer, but any reel will work. 

Directions: 

  1. Students are in a line following the teacher. 
  2. March around in follow-the-leader fashion behind the teacher for 16 counts. 
  3. Walk on tip toes in follow-the-leader fashion behind the teacher while clapping hands to the beat for 16 counts. (Teacher ends this phrase with the class back in a circle)
  4. Students and teachers face inside the circle. Students follow the teacher’s beat motions (i.e. clapping, patting, etc) for 16 beats. 
  5. Teacher passes the “royal scepter” (fancy mallet, stick, or boomwhacker) to a student, and they are the ruler and give 16 counts of beat movements. 
  6. Class turns to their right (or left, it doesn’t matter as long as they all move the same way!) and follows the new leader as you repeat the moves from the beginning.

Other Notes: Be prepared to step in and help the royal to get the group into the circle before the B section. However, it’s so simple and relaxed you could always wait until the wait phrase if you miss it. 

Check out more Kindergarten folk dances. 

1st Grade Folk Dance – Bo Diddley

Source: Sashay The Donut by New England Dancing Masters

Music: Music comes with the book above

Directions: 

  1. Students in longways set facing partners (two long lines) 
  2. Head couple take hands and sashay up and down the set
  3. Partners take hands and circle around each other 2x then return to the same spot
  4. Head couple promenades (or just marches) down to the end of the set
  5. Lines move down one spot and shake their hips
  6. Repeat

Other Notes: 

2nd Grade Folk Dance – Kings And Queens

Source: Alabama Gal by New England Dancing Masters (amazing folk dance resources)

Music: On the NEDM website

Directions: 

  1. Students in longways set (2 long lines facing partners)
  2. Taking hands with the people next to them, students go in for 4 beats and bow their heads
  3. Student go out for 4
  4. Right hand turn with partner for 8
  5. Left hand turn with partner for 8
  6. Do si do for 8 with partner
  7. Head couple sashays up and down the alley for 8
  8. Head couple interlock arms like a King and queen and head to the bottom of the set; students bow their heads when they walk by
  9. Slide down one spot
  10. Repeat until all have had a turn

Other Notes: If your students can’t even handle the idea of taking hands or interlocking elbows, have them hold onto scarves in between them. 

3rd Grade Folk Dance – Rocky Mountain

Source: Traditional 

Music: Notation at Beth’s Notes

Directions: 

  1. Students in concentric circles (one big and small like a donut) facing partner in the other circle. 
  2. Students turn to the right away from their partners and walk around the circle during the first section until they get back to their partners. 
  3. Face their partner and “hang their head” and pretend to cry when the words say. 
  4. During the first “do” part, students do the following moves with the rhythm of the words
    1. Pat, pat, clap, clap, partner, partner, partner partner, partner, partner
  5. During the second “do” part, do the following moves along with the rhythm of the words
    1. Pat, pat, clap, clap, right partner, clap, left partner, clap, both partner 3x
  6. Turn to the right and repeat. This time go one person past your first partner to get a new one. 
  7. Repeat several times as desired. 

Other Notes: I also play this where each repetition gets faster and faster. 

4th Grade Folk Dance – Los Machetes

Source: I first heard this from one of my mentors, Joan Long. She got it from Sanna Longden’s book, More Folk Dance Music For Kids And Teachers. 

Her book is available for free on her website

Music: Song, Los Machetes, available on Apple Music or you may check out the YouTube video linked below.  

Directions: 

  1. Circle right for 16 beats while clapping above your head
  2. Circle left for 16 beats while clapping above your head
  3. Face the middle, move in for 4 while clapping from the ground to the air
  4. Move out for 4 while clapping from the air to the ground
  5. Danger time moves: Clap, clap hands under right leg, clap, clap hands under left leg, clap, clap hands behind back, clap, clap
  6. Repeat step 5
  7. Step sideways right to the half note beat for 4 while circling right hand in the air
  8. Step sideways left to the half note beat for 4 while circling left hand in the air
  9. Repeat steps 7 and 8

Other Notes: Once students have the moves down, they can do them all with rhythm sticks instead of clapping for a challenge. 

5th Grade Folk Dance – Going To Boston

Source: Child Informant, Jean Ritchie from Viper KY. My Little Rooster by JIll Trinka. 

Music: Recording at video below; notation from American Folk Song Collection

Directions: 

  • FORM: Longways set in promenade position. All couples are facing the top of the set. 
  • V1: All couples promenade to right around in a circle until the head couple returns to the top of the set. 
  • V2: Sides take hands and then skip circle to the left until the head couple returns to the top of the set. Then couples drop hands and return to longways lines with a couple of feet between them. 
  • V3: Head couple sashays down to the bottom and back. 
  • V4: Reform circle. Head couple starts grand right and left around the circle until they return to their original spot. CHORUS can be sung to extend the phrase if the head couple has not returned. 
  • V5: Back to longways form. Head couple right arm swings each other then the left arm of the waiting person in line. They alternate swinging themselves and partners until they are at the bottom of the set. 
  • CHORUS is sung until the head couple reaches the bottom of the set. Then we begin with the new head couple. 

Other Notes: This one is tricky. You may be better off breaking up this dance into different days to learn each move. But with work, it’s possible for sure!

5 Quick Tips For Teaching Folk Dance

Here are a quick 5 of my favorite tricks when teaching folk dance. These make a big difference to me when I teach movement games like the ones above. 

Learn more about easy folk dances. 

#1 Part-Part-Whole

Unlike the normal process for teaching musical ideas, you don’t want to try and throw the whole folk dance at kids at one time. Breaking it up from the beginning will make it easier.

Start with one move at a time. Teach the first two moves, and then put them together. 

Teach the next two moves, and then put those two together. Now, put all four they’ve learned so far. 

Continue in this manner until they’ve learned all of the moves. 

#2 No Music First

This one may seem obvious, but it’s essential that you don’t play the music while learning it.

For one, you’ll have to split your attention between teaching the kids and managing the music. If the students mess up or slow down, then the music would be way off. 

In my experience, playing music while learning just makes everyone feel rushed and anxious. 

#3 Say The Moves 2-4 Beats Before It Starts

Not a lot of people think to do this one, but if you’ve ever been part of a really good folk dance or contra dance, you’ll notice the caller always lets you know what’s coming before the move starts. 

The video below by New England Dancing Masters gives an excellent example of this.

For example, if the next move is a right hand turn, I would say this 4 beats before the move starts: 

“Right hand turn, here you go.” 

Or if I only wanted to call 2 beats before I could say: 

“And right hand turn.” 

Either way the kids (and adults) find it helpful to get a hint ahead of time. And my students tell me it helps them better connect how the phrases lead into each other. 

#4 Give Specific Feedback  

The importance of specific feedback is one of the best tools for fostering student success. Hattie, world-respected education researcher, concluded the effect size of feedback is 0.70 in his book, Visible Learning in 2009.  

This is the equivalent of almost two years of learning. 

Fortunately, in music, we already do this naturally. With folk dance, we need to make sure we continue this trend. 

Tell students exactly what it is they’re doing well and what they could do better. 

For example:

Instead of: “Good job!”

Tell them: “Good job moving your feet to the beat of the music! This time, think about the moves ahead of time, so the transition is smooth.”

Instead of: “Awesome!”

Tell them: “The way you all showed focus by not talking was awesome! The next time you go, see if you can do your right arm swing with your elbows interlocking and hands pointed down instead of up.”

#5 Make It A Competition

We live in a hyper-competitive society. It’s true, but we may be able to harness this energy to encourage better performance. But we can avoid the negative aspects of competition by: 

  • Making the reward doing a good job rather than a prize
  • Encourage success of all rather than a few
  • Establish clear rules of behavior and sportsmanship
  • Make the learning process itself rewarding rather than the end result

In general, I enjoy teaching folk dances while encouraging the classes to see how fast they can master the dance. I time them and place their scores on the board. 

There is no prize for being the fastest class other than the fact you’re class name is clearly the fastest. 

Conclusion

I hope you’re able to take this grade by grade by grade list of folk dances for elementary students and use it in your classroom right away. 

Along with folk dances, I believe connecting to classical music is important too. One of my fave resources for this is the stuff over at Maestro Classics.

They have books, songs, lessons, recordings, and videos to use in your classroom.

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

Recent Posts