Dance of the Planets

A ½ hour performance piece created by and for elementary school children, in which the motions of the planets and largest moons of our Solar System are depicted in art, rhythm, and movement.

The following is a sample curriculum or time line, in which to introduce, create, and perform the Dance of the Planets.  Each “day” represents one classroom period of about 40 minutes, occurring once per week for 6 weeks. Videotaping the classes is strongly recommended. 

Day 1: Introduction:  Dance of the Planets

Create a visual representation of the solar system on the blackboard or overhead projector, with students describing as many features of the 9 planets and major moons as they can from previous knowledge, including the distances from the sun to the planets, and their periods of revolution and rotation.  Correct any errors. Show recent NASA slides of the sun, the planets and major moons. 

*Live music accompanies the slides, with 3-4 musicians playing harp, tamboura, douzongoni, synthesizer, and small percussion.  An audio tape accompanies the musicians.  Ask for 3 children who practice some kind of music on a weekly basis to play tuned small bells, listening for when to chime.  Also, ask for 3 children who take any movement art class on a weekly basis to dance the planets (in a prescribed small space) with scarves, which we will provide.  Next time they can also bring their own.

*This could become a warm-up exercise for each class, with each subsequent slide show shorter and shorter, as the need for practice time increases.  The slides would include galaxies, nebulae, clusters, stars, solar system models, and the music and dance would cycle through the class so all children do everything at least once!  It would a great time-saver if the class was cleared of desks and chairs (stacked on the sides) before we get there so we start right on time.  End the movement and images with all sitting on the floor, listening to the music fade to silence.

Day 2:  Scaling the Solar System’s Distances and Times

Warm up exercise…music, movement, slides
Discuss the relationship between space and time…we live by the latter, but it in turn, is created by the former.
Discuss the AU (Astronomical Unit – average distance between Earth and Sun)
Discuss Keper’s 3rd law of proportion between a planet’s mean distance (in AU’s) from the sun and it’s orbital speed (revolution period in years).  Distinguish between revolution and rotation.  Students can demonstrate, one at a time!
Discuss the concept of scale… Include the information that at the next class, we will be creating an approximate scale of the distances to the planets, and approximating a scaled but sensible version of their movements (time).

Suggested homework:
Find 5 examples of the space/time relationship in everyday life for them (ie. movement, rhythm, travel, growth, sports, etc)
Calculate the distances to all planets in AU’s (see first day’s exercise.  These values will be used in our performance dance)
Create a scale model of their bedroom on paper (2 or 3 dimension), being sure to state the scale conversion factor for this model (ie. one inch = one foot).           

Day 3: Scaling the Solar System to the school gymnasium or other performance location

Warm up exercise…music, movement, slides. This class should be conducted entirely in the gym or other performance space where the piece will be played.

One team of 2 children will measure the width of the performance space (width of the solar system), and with that scale conversion factor, the rest of the class will divide into teams, one team per planet, to calculate their approximate distances across the room.  They will be surprised to discover that the inner planets will cluster nearly on top of the poor sun, and will have to figure out how to approximate all the distances, or where to put a  “fudge” factor (some fudge could be provided here!) in order to include all the planets at a reasonable scale for the space.  The student who figures out that you can put your fudge (literally!) between Mars and Jupiter gets 2 pieces.

A separate team can model the distances of the major moons (Moon, Europa, Titan, etc – as many as can be sensibly worked with) from their planets.

At the end of this day, students form (or retain) the teams that will create the masks, costumes, principal musical ideas, and principal movement ideas for the final performance.  A special team will create the Milk Way Galaxy, with a tie-dyed sheet and wooden or aluminum frame to hold a shape.  A second special team will paint a stage-size backdrop mural of the universe…showing expansion, stars, galaxies, nebulae, clusters, black holes (???), supernovae, etc.  Each team should have members with fairly distinct duties, though some overlap is ok…including mask makers, costume designers/creators, musicians/composers, and dancers/choreographers.  The teams themselves can help each other by having lines of communication open, for instance, between all the mask-makers, who can share construction materials.  All the musicians/composers have to work together to create a coherent musical theme, with adult support, and the same applies to the dancers/choreographers.  So there is interaction between teams as well as within teams. 

Day 4: Designing the Performance

            Warm up exercise…music, movement, slides