Little Johnny Brown
K-12EducatorsThe Arts

Dancing with a Purpose – Lesson Plan

Students will perform the folk dance “Little Johnny Brown” and discuss its historical and cultural meanings.

  • Length: 1 class period
  • Grades: 6-8

Concepts/Objectives:

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the role and purpose of dance from different cultures and/or time periods.
  • Students will be able to recognize and analyze how the elements of dance are used to create and preserve histories of cultures.

Resource Used:
Little Johnny Brown
Found On: Dancing Threads

Instructional Strategies and Activities

Background To Help You Lead Class Discussion
Throughout history, dance has been used as a means of worship, a way of expressing and reinforcing unity and strength, a framework for courtship or mating, a means of communication, and a therapeutic experience. Perhaps one of the greatest purposes of dance has been to establish social unity and provide a means of collective strength, purpose, and social identification.

It is likely that the use of dance as a means of aesthetic expression, with only a few skilled artists performing for large audiences, would rarely have been found among early lineage-based cultures. Instead of forming audiences for such performances, the people danced themselves. In such cultures there were numerous harvest, victory, and other celebratory feasts with music, dancing games, and other play-like experiences that were thoroughly integrated with the productive life of the group. Everyone participated.

The Story of “Little Johnny Brown”
Though small in stature, Little Johnny Brown felt big and important because he was so good at picking cotton. When his boss said Johnny’s bag weighed only 20 pounds, Johnny knew it weighed much more. Johnny decided that if the boss was going to cheat him, he would cheat the boss back. So he began putting bricks, stones, dead animals, and whatever else he found into his sack. When Johnny’s mother heard of his scheme, she told him to lay his blanket on the ground and pour the contents of his sack onto the blanket so she could have a look at it. She explained to Johnny that while the boss might cheat him out of money, no one could cheat him out of his soul. If he stayed honest, he would grow up to be a better man than the boss who stole.

During America’s slavery period, traditional African dance forms continued to be practiced as a matter of custom and pride, as social entertainment, and as a tenacious and deep-seated retention of past beliefs and practices. Singing was an integral part of these practices because it could be done while doing something else. When drums were forbidden, the slaves devised substitutes to provide rhythm: jawbones, blacksmiths’ iron rasps, and especially hand clapping and foot beating. Foot beating, with increasingly intricate heel-and-toe beats, was based on traditional African step dances and eventually gave birth to popular tap dance forms.

Class Discussion and Viewing of the Video Excerpt
Hand out the list of Pre-Viewing Questions. Discuss them as a class, then show the video excerpt “Little Johnny Brown.” If any students know tap dance, hambone, or steppin’, ask them to demonstrate a few steps for the class.

Why a Buzzard?
The image of loping like a buzzard refers to a tradition dating back to the days of slavery. Sometimes a slave would die in the field and be dragged off to the side so as not to slow down the work. At the end of the day, the other slaves would find their friend and perform a dance with the motions of a buzzard, escorting the deceased spirit as it soared up to heaven.

Explain to the class that even though this “ring play” is very simple, it is a good example of combining dance, song, and rhythm. Use the Post-Viewing Questions to continue the class discussion. Discuss “Little Johnny Brown” as a courtship dance, a vehicle for teaching values, a source of fun, and an opportunity to improvise. Discuss what the images in the dance might refer to. For example, the circle might represent a unity and a gathering of forces, a wedding ring, the circle of life, etc. “Lay your blanket down” refers to being honest, showing your true self to others, including potential partners. “Show off y’motion” is a representation of courtship that gives the lead dancer a chance to see whether the partner will go along for the fun of it.

Suggested Movement Activity
Divide the class into groups of 8 to 10 and perform “Little Johnny Brown” along with the video. First perform it in a pedestrian (non-dance-like) way.

Repeat the activity, but focus on manipulating the elements of dance to create a more “dance-like” performance. Consider adding more rhythmic variations (using hands or feet), spatial variations (bigger), or changes of force (stronger).

Expand and develop the new dance. Each group could perform its variation/interpretation for the rest of the class.

Discuss observations:

  • What dance elements did you observe and use?
  • What images were being represented? Were they clear?
  • How could this dance be used to carry on “new” traditions or stories?

Students should record their observations.

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Writing To Communicate

  • Write the lyrics for a dance game that reflects a social tradition, such as the harvest, or a significant event.

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Open Response Assessment

Prompt: Throughout history, dance has been used as a means of worship, a way of expressing and reinforcing unity and strength, a framework for courtship or mating, a means of communication, and a therapeutic experience. Perhaps one of the greatest purposes of dance has been to establish social unity and provide a means of collective strength, purpose, and social identification.

Directions:

  1. Describe a contemporary or historical social situation where dance is used to establish social unity and provide a means of collective strength, purpose, and social identification.
  2. Describe how the elements of dance are used to define social unity, strength, and identification. Use examples.

Open Response Scoring Guide

4 3 2 1 0
Student’s response is complete and demonstrates extensive knowledge of the elements of dance and how they are used to define social unity, strength, and identification. The response clearly and accurately describes a social situation where dance is used to establish social unity. The student communicates effectively, using insightful examples and relevant details about dance. Student’s response is complete and demonstrates broad knowledge of the elements of dance and how they are used to define social unity, strength, and identification. The response accurately describes a social situation where dance is used to establish social unity. The student communicates effectively, using examples and sufficient details about dance. Student’s response is complete and demonstrates basic knowledge of the elements of dance and how they are used to define social unity, strength, and identification. The response basically describes a social situation where dance is used to establish social unity. The student communicates basically, using some examples and details about dance. Student’s response demonstrates limited knowledge of the elements of dance and how they are used to define social unity, strength, and identification. The response ineffectively describes a social situation where dance is used to establish social unity. The student uses few or no examples and details about dance. No answer or irrelevant answer.

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Support - Connections - Resources

  • Welsh-Asante, Kariamu, ed. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry. Trenton, NJ: African World Press Inc., 1997. ISBN 0-086543-196-5.
  • 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, 1987. ISBN 0-8203-0960-5.
  • Kraus, Richard, Sara Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989. ISBN 0-13-389362-6.
  • Downloadable teacher’s guide for Dancing Threads (PDF format)

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