Students perform a folk dance and learn about its cultural and historical meaning.
- Length: 1 class period
- Grades: 6-8
- Students will be able to perform the dance/game “Little Johnny Brown.”
- Students will create and perform non-locomotor movements emphasizing the accent in music.
- Students will know the ways that dance demonstrates community values and history.
Little Johnny Brown
Found On: Dancing Threads
Vocabulary, Materials, and Handouts
accent, purposes of dance, force, locomotor movements, non-locomotor movements, shape, space
TV/VCR or DVD player, “blanket” or piece of fabric about two feet square, instructions for the “Little Johnny Brown” dance
- The Story of “Little Johnny Brown”
- How To Do the Dance “Little Johnny Brown”
- Exit Slip for “Little Johnny Brown”
- Exit Slip Answer Key
Instructional Strategies and Activities
Tell the story of “Little Johnny Brown” or give out the handout of the story. Explain to students that this is a recreational dance, done for fun, but that it also teaches important lessons about becoming a responsible adult. In African-American communities of slavery times (as in many cultures), stories, songs, and dances were used to teach values important to the community.
Have students make or bring in their own “blankets” (pieces of fabric about two feet square). Each student should have a “blanket.”
In African and African-American culture, the circle is very important. The circle of the community surrounds the individual and supports him or her in dance—and in successes and failures in life.
It is important to note the contributions of African Americans to Appalachian culture, beginning in Colonial times. “Square dancing” in the Appalachian region and elsewhere in the southeastern United States actually is usually danced in a circle, a tradition that probably has a connection to the African and African-American supportive community circle. The practice of rhymed calling for square dances probably has some roots in African-American dances such as “Little Johnny Brown,” in which the words tell what movements to do.
Ask students to fold their blankets. Tell them to notice all the different ways that the blanket can be folded. Try folding the blanket with great care and then folding it sloppily. Remind students that in the song, the blanket represents honesty. Spend a few minutes on this activity.
Ask each student to hand the blanket to a partner. Try using different kinds of force and notice the effect. What happens if you hand it sharply? Smoothly? With tension or relaxation? What happens if you hand it heavily or lightly? Try handing it to your partner with respect and then as if you do not care about the blanket or the person. Remind the student that in the dance, how you hand the blanket might indicate how you would treat a life partner. Spend a few minutes on this activity.
While playing the “Little Johnny Brown” song (make an audiotape from the video segment or play the video segment without the picture), ask students to improvise locomotor or non-locomotor movements, using their arms, legs, and toes. As they improvise, they should emphasize the accents in the song:
“Now y’show off y’motion, Johnny Brown,” etc.
Pair students and have them copy their partners’ movements as exactly as they can. Remind students that in the dance, this is one way to demonstrate respect for one another.
Students may make their own blankets by tie-dyeing, block-printing, or weaving, so that each will have his or her own blanket. You must have at least four blankets to do the dance, but one per child is preferable. If there is no time or opportunity for students to create blankets, you can use inexpensive purchased handkerchiefs.
Teach the “Little Johnny Brown” dance, with all students doing the whole dance together. You can take the role of “Show me y’motion” and have the students copy your movements. Note as you go how the elements of dance are employed. How is the space used in the dance? What is the shape of the dance? What kind of force is used in handing the blanket to a partner? What kind of movement is used in “show off y’motion”? Or have students describe the dance using dance terminology.
Review what students learned in elementary school about the style of African and African-American dance: groundedness, use of multiple parts of the body, mimicry. Watch the discussion of “Little Johnny Brown” on the video segment and focus on the symbolism. Ask students to summarize points they remember from the videotape. Ask: How do the elements used in the dance reflect the symbolism? Compare the dance to the characteristics of African and African-American dance.
Remind students of the origins of the dance; the symbolism of the blanket; the symbolism of handing it to your partner; the symbolism of the buzzard lope (in which slaves honored fallen fellow slaves); and the importance of the circle, in which the whole community supported the individual.
Review the dance and perform it, beginning with four individuals who will put full energy and creativity into it. Distribute Exit Slips to assess understanding of the dance’s historical and cultural meanings.
Try dances of the 1960s that used mimicry (the Swim, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, the Hitchhiker). These dances are of African-American origin and use mimicry, just as “Little Johnny Brown” does. Have students invent some dances of their own using mimicry.
Try swing dancing, in which partners do not copy each other, but instead one partner leads the other in doing moves.
Ask students to think about the dances they do. What do they say about the way people should relate to one another? How are these messages similar to and different from the lessons learned in the “Little Johnny Brown” dance?
Performance Event: You will perform the dance “Little Johnny Brown” and demonstrate your understanding of its cultural and historical meaning.
Directions: Perform the song and dance with full energy. Then fill out the Exit Slip. Make sure that your non-locomotor movements emphasize the accents in the song and that you use your arms, legs, and torso. Make sure you know who began this dance and when and the ways in which the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior for adults in the community.
Performance Scoring Guide
|Student remembers the entire dance and song. Student performs the dance and song with full energy throughout. Students non-locomotor movements emphasize the accent and use arms, legs, and torso. On Exit Slip, student accurately identifies when the dance originated and by whom and explains at least three ways the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior.||Student remembers most of the dance and song. Student performs with confidence through most of the dance. Students non-locomotor movements emphasize the accent and use two of the three body partsarms, legs, and torso. On Exit Slip, student accurately identifies when the dance originated and by whom and names at least two ways the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior.||Student remembers some of the dance and song. Student performs with some energy. Students non-locomotor movements keep the beat but do not emphasize the accent. Students movements use two of the three body partsarms, legs, and torso. On Exit Slip, student accurately identifies when the dance originated and by whom and names at least one way the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior.||Student remembers a little of the dance and song. Student performs with little energy. Students non-locomotor movements keep the beat but do not emphasize the accent. Students movements use one of the three body partsarms, legs, and torso. On Exit Slip, student accurately identifies when the dance originated or by whom and names one way the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior.||Student does not perform the dance and song and does not identify when the dance originated or by whom. Student does not name how the dance demonstrates appropriate behavior.|
Support - Connections - Resources - Author
- Jones, Bessie and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1972.
- Downloadable teacher’s guide for Dancing Threads (PDF format)