‘Children are always more than their label’ – Dance workshops with children from London to Lesbos

‘Children are always more than their label’ – Dance workshops with children from London to Lesbos

Wieke teaches a Zumba Kids class to children in a London sports centre. She has also done dance workshops for children in a Dutch asylum seekers’ centre and in a refugee camp in Greece. In this blog, she shares her experiences and tips for setting the right atmosphere.

Rhythms from around the world
I have always loved dance – from hiphop to salsa and from soca to flamenco. I was already teaching dance classes when I was an adolescent myself and for the past two years, I have been teaching Zumba to children and adults. My classes for children are a bit different from the shimmy and shaking you might expect. Each week, we ‘travel’ to a different country, where we learn a new dance style. I show the countries on a world map, while the children keep track of the visits in their dance passports. We also do some games in class, usually related to our travel destination. The format is simple, exciting and joyful. While each week is different, the children know what to look forward to and also bring their own ideas for dances and games to class. ‘Where are we traveling next week, Miss?’. They become co-creators of their own sessions and share in the team work, creativity and fun.

My regular dance classes are in a vibrant London sports centre on Friday afternoons. The kids come in after school, ready for their weekend. Some come with their siblings or friends. They talk about what happened at school, what books they are reading, the infamous floss (if you are a grown up and now think about the teeth cleaning procedure you should do more often, think again).

I have also been teaching workshops to children elsewhere in Europe: to children in an asylum seekers’ centre in the Netherlands and most recently, to children living in the refugee camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. For these workshops, I use my favourite choreographies and games that do not require a lot of shared language. Good old Freeze Dance remains a classis. For the songs with steps, it is the music or a sound that indicates a rhythm change, while body language demonstrates the next move. With this dance pedagogy, it becomes possible to work with different groups around the world.

From London to Lesbos
Life in the EU-sponsored refugee camp Moria in Greece is precarious. Human rights organisations have repeatedly voiced their concerns on both the overcrowding and dire conditions in the camp (see, for example and this example). People that have already been traumatised from their past experiences and on their journeys to the island, develop further trauma in the camp. There is only limited access to basic services, while even the first appointment in people’s asylum cases may take ages – creating a situation of prolonged unsafety, uncertainty and insecurity. In such a context, children are particularly vulnerable. 

There are different humanitarian organisations in and around the Moria refugee camp, providing support and much-needed services in this setting that clearly also requires political action. While on Lesbos, I was part of the psychosocial team of the Dutch NGO Boat Refugee Foundation. With my background in teaching and child psychology, I volunteered in the School of Hope, where children between 6 and 10 years of age get some basic education in Farsi/Arabic, English, mathematics and crafts. For the Greek Christmas break, we were also able to do some dance workshops with the children – both for our own pupils and some of the other children in the camp; some of whom don’t have access to education at all. Clearly, one dance workshop is not going to provide structural relief in a situation that is putting constant strain on their development.

It does, however, provide for a brief change of perspective: for a moment, all that matters is not the next step in the asylum procedure, but the next step in the choreography. Imagine the mud, the barbed wire, the smiles, the reggaeton and waves of children going ‘I like to move it, move it!’.

More than their label
I have had the opportunity of teaching children in different stages of their journeys to safety, while also teaching children in more conventional sports settings. It has showed me an important thing: children are strikingly similar in many ways – whether in gyms, in a new country or in no man’s land. They all enjoy a safe space to learn and play. They are usually curious to learn new things and only laugh at a joke if it is actually funny. They grow with good education and health care – if we let them.

Dance is about sharing a moment together; about meeting in the rhythm of the music. It also brings home an important message: children are always more than the labels we use to describe them. Refugee and asylum-seeking children are first and foremost children, with their own stories and needs. Same thing for children with special needs. The more secure children feel, the more comfortable they feel to participate, express themselves and share their own movements. This is not only relevant for children on the move – but for anyone moving. Because ultimately, around the world, we could all use a little Despacito from time to time.

Tips for setting the right atmosphere in children dance workshops:

Be prepared. My sessions are usually accessible to children from 4 to 11 years old, as the groups I teach can have a wide age range. Each move can have different levels of difficulty. Pick songs with a distinct sound, so children know what flavour to put in, based on their own styles and dance experience.
Be flexible.
If you know your choreographies well, you can focus on interaction, group dynamics and anything happening in the moment. I remember this one session where I was teaching outside at our community centre in Moria. Suddenly, a big flock of birds flew over. We all watched in awe and ended up applauding together. It was just beautiful!
Bring yourself.
While teaching young dancers, it’s not just about the music and movements you bring. It is also about bringing yourself. Only if you share something of who you are, children will feel safe to open up about themselves, too.
Bring something to drink.
In any regular class, there is always a kid (or parent) who forgot their water bottle. In other settings, children might not have easy access to water at all. Especially if you are doing high-intensity choreographies, it is important for everyone to stay hydrated.
Wear something funky.
It helps to be recognizable in the crowd, especially when creating some chaos while moving across the space. It also shows that this is a place where you can be free and where even adults are prepared to be a bit silly.
Ask the audience to join in.
If there are adults hanging around, ask them to either wait outside or join in for a bit – so nobody is just standing and watching. Older adolescents love to help out by playing DJ.
Be creative with games.
Pick games that are easy, fun and suitable to the context. Be creative with roles. If there is stuff that needs to be cleaned up, you can make that a game, too. 
Let the children decide.
Give your participants a say in how you run the workshop. Ask them about their favourite moves, any songs they like and if they need a break. And don’t think you have to solve everything by yourself. Children themselves know really well who might need a bit of extra support and how to provide it to each other. They have a great capacity to come up with creative solutions, even in difficult circumstances.


Wieke Vink

Wieke Vink is a Dutchie living in London. She studied international law and human rights law and currently pursues a master’s in Child Development. She also works as an educator and writer.