Physical education professor studies dance instruction

How do you get young children excited about exercise? Teach ’em to two step. As more states make dance a mandated part of physical education in public schools, the demand for educators who know the Dosado is on the rise. And that makes Carol Smith, an associate professor of physical education who studies ways of teaching western dance, a well-known instructor in the field.

Professor Carol Smith (left) has authored two instructional dance books and has presented on integrating dance into physical education.

Smith has authored two instructional dance books and has presented on integrating dance into physical education at conventions for the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, most recently this year in Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s hard for the Massachusetts native to say exactly how popular dance has become since her classes are capped at 16 students and there’s never been an open spot. But if pop culture is any indication, television programs such as “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” demonstrate that dance still captures the imagination.

“If students maintain an open mind, they learn it can be kind of fun,” Smith said of the apprehension her pupils sometimes feel when they first enroll in her course. “While there are dance majors and some public schools have dance teachers, often times dance is taught within the field of physical education.  So, since many of our students have never had dance before, it is a required class.”

Smith advocates challenging students to act independently and explore areas outside of their comfort zones.  By incorporating country western dance into the classroom, Smith seeks to prove that anyone, even those with two left feet, can try something new and benefit from the experience.

Picking up new moves is not simple for students in her Folk, Square and Social Dance Pedagogy class, a course required for Physical Education majors.  Smith gives students time to try to coordinate movements on their own, before stepping in with her expertise.  Once everything clicks, Smith finds that the dances resonate with students. 

“When my students first go into the schools, the children just have a ball,” she said. “And of course we’re not as rigid. Sometimes they just walk in place. Kindergartners can’t obviously dance as well as fifth graders.”

That education is not without irony. As a young girl in Andover, Mass., Smith’s parents pushed her to follow in the footsteps of older siblings who had taken dance lessons as well. She hated it, she said. During one recital, she even refused to participate, much to the chagrin of her mother.

“I literally threw a temper tantrum,” she said. “I did not want to go. And my parents were so embarrassed.”

Smith, who first joined the Elon University faculty in 1999 after serving in previous positions in various parts of the country, is passionate about both physical education and dance, because she believes staying active is key to enjoying life.  Beyond serving as an outlet for expression, Smith says that learning a new dance can provide important cultural insight.

“What I enjoy most about dance is the ability to change people’s minds,” she said.  “I love learning the stories behind the movements and what they represent.”

– Written by Bobby Hoppey ’09 with contributions from Eric Townsend, Office of University Relations