The Evening Dance Program at Camp

by Jim Cain, Ph.D.

I was recently asked to provide an evening dance program for a summer camp staff-training weekend. Personally, I remember the joy of dancing at summer camp under the evening stars, so I said yes. After a bit of discussion about the program, I discovered that during the previous summer, a summer camp board member had visited the camp and witnessed a rather unsuccessful evening dance program in progress. Most campers were somewhere outside the dance hall; few if any were dancing; the lights were out; and there was little leadership and no social interaction. In short, the board decided on a policy of “no more evening dances!” until the camp staff could create a program that truly delivered an engaging and socially interactive, community-building event.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve had the opportunity to assist camping programs with recreation, games, evening programs, and challenge and adventure activities. My favorite of all is the dance — and here are a few ideas to help your evening music and dance program be successful.

Evening programs in general, and summer camp programs specifically, have the unique opportunity to build community and help campers feel a part of the whole. Few things, however, are more threatening to a young camper than feeling awkward dancing. To avoid this situation, I specifically sequence an evening dance program to maximize the comfort level of the participants and create an atmosphere of fun and involvement.

The Start of the Program

Begin the evening dance program with some general musical activities, and save the actual dancing for later in the program. Name games, activities with and without partners, small group games, and activities with the entire camp are good places to start.

Next, introduce musical activities that don’t actually involve any dancing. Singing is a good choice, especially those songs with some movement as well, but here are a few more activity ideas:

  1. Name that Tune. Visit your local library or music store and collect music from television programs, game shows, and movies. Then play a few seconds from each tune and let the audience, working in small groups, try to identify as many tunes as possible. CDs are a good choice for this activity. Then, replay the music in the same order, and let groups shout out their answers.
  2. Music Around the World. For an international theme, try collecting music from different countries, and again play a short segment of each selection. Small groups are asked to guess which country or what style of music each selection represents.
  3. Sing a Song about _______! With the entire camp split into small groups of about eight to ten campers, select a single word, such as “blue.” Groups are then given two minutes to brainstorm as many songs as they can with the word “blue” somewhere in the lyrics, and then be prepared to sing this line of the song. Groups take turns, singing one song per round. As the activity continues, any group that runs out of songs or repeats a song previously sung by another group are out for this round. Next round, try another word, such as other colors, camp themes, holidays, animals, or countries.
  4. What Are We Singing? Provide each small group with a song title and lyrics. Each camper selects one word from the opening line of the song and with the rest of the group sings this word at the same time. So, for the song “I Love the Mountains,” several campers would all sing their word from the first line, “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills,” in one, mashed chord of words. The object for the rest of the audience is to guess what the song title is.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum

This next level introduces music, but still provides some security for young campers by providing structure and the unity of a group. I call this activity, Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum. Collect a series of different music segments (popular songs from various artists, music styles, and locations, but especially music with a definite beat). Different Drum begins with each group counting off, and each camper remembering his or her number. Camper number one has the opportunity to lead the very first song. If it is a marching band number, they can march — or use any other movement that is safe and appropriate for the physical ability of the rest of the group members. Song segments are typically only about thirty seconds long. The next song belongs to camper number two. The unique thing about this activity is that everyone in the group has the opportunity to lead, even if only for a short time.

Hint: For younger groups, the first leader can be a counselor to demonstrate how to lead the group.

Another large group activity that can be performed with a variety of music is a grand march — where campers join hands in a large circle and one counselor begins to lead this long line in a series of spirals, twists, and circles, until they are again in a large circle.

Dances without Partners

There are a variety of musical activities and dance styles that don’t require partners — line dancing, step dancing, jump roping, tinikling, and limbo dancing. In many cases, some of the older line dances can be taught using recent songs from current artists.

Tinikling (rhythmic dancing between two poles), limbo dancing (passing below a slowly lowered stick), and jump roping (double dutch, multiple ropes) are all forms of dance that can be used during refreshments or break periods and still engage many campers at one time. These and several other styles of ethnic dances can also be used during a cultural appreciation program or “around the world” event.

Hint: Encourage counselors to learn the dances prior to camp and then spread out during the dance to teach small groups the difficult steps.


After some solo dancing, introduce some partnered dancing using mixers. These dances quickly change partners and keep campers active and moving. The Jiffy Mixer, Down on the Corner, and Oh, Susanna are great for groups of any size. The World of Fun recordings have even more.

Hat mixer
One of my favorite mixers, which works to a variety of music, is the hat mixer. Two lines of campers form an “alley” — boys in one line, girls in the other. At one end of the alley are three chairs, with a large hat at the center chair. The music begins. The first boy sits in the middle chair and places the hat on his head. The first two girls take the seats on either side. The boy places the hat on one girl’s head, and then dances with the other. The girl with the hat moves to the middle chair, and the next two boys sit on either side. The dancers move to the bottom of the alley, and then join their respective sides again. For those who are not immediately chosen, they have the next opportunity to choose their own partner.

Hint: For very large groups (more than 100 campers), try having three or four different locations in the same room with the alley and chairs setup. When couples are finished dancing at the end of the line, they can join any of the other lines.

The tunnel
For those situations when a camper remarks, “but you never play MY KIND of music!” here is a modern mixer that works very well. Partners face each other, join hands, and form a long “tunnel.” The music begins, and these couples dance. A few (about eight) campers enter the tunnel, one at a time. When they find a person with whom they would like to dance, they simply back in front of this person’s partner and bump him or her out of the line. The displaced camper then moves to the top of the tunnel and has the opportunity to find a new partner on the next round. This activity works with all kinds of music, so here is your chance to try a few minutes of even the most unusual music, and keep everyone dancing.

Other Musical Activities

Don’t forget to plan some activities or music for the break portion of the program. Classical dance tunes like Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys (campers can stand on benches or wooden planks like surf boards), Shout from the Animal House Soundtrack, and other party tracks are popular. Or, find the CDs that baseball and other sporting events play between innings to get the crowd up and moving.

There are also a variety of ways to make music without CD players. Jug bands can be formed using a variety of percussion instruments. Sportime sells “boomwhackers,” which are tuned plastic tubes that play different tones. Perhaps your camp craft program can include some musical instruments in its daily program (shakers from film canisters and rice, pipe chimes from electrical conduit, and other instruments made from recycled materials). Finally, consider using live music (a local band or DJ) or organizing a camp band to perform for the evening dance program.

Hint: For those programs without easy access to electrical power, or musical amplification, there are several “singing games” like “A Bear Went over the Mountain” and a variety of “play party” games, that are the early versions of modern mixer and social dances. And all they require are dancers who will sing!

Dancing with Partners

While square dancing is popular at some camps, this is not the case everywhere. The World of Fun recordings have several square dances, but here are ideas for other forms of partner dances.

Ethnic dancing
Nearly every location has ethnic dance groups or social clubs that can be invited to your camp to teach their style of music and dance. Scottish dancers, contra and square dancing groups, military reenactment groups (such as the Civil War or colonial periods), ballroom dancers, and modern dance troupes are some possibilities. Plus, these groups often provide some educational content with their dances, such as historical facts, food events that add to the evening events, traditional costumes, and more.

There are a variety of athletic dance styles, including tap, jazz, aerobics, tae-bo, cardio kickboxing, and other forms of music-related dance. Some of these forms use partners for stretching and balance.

Conclusion of the Dance

Don’t feel compelled to end the dance evening with “slow dances.” But, if you choose to include some slower dancing music, consider the “snow ball” approach. Every time a counselor yells “snow ball,” dancers must find a new partner. This makes even the slow dances a type of mixer.

Music can also be used to set the final mood of the evening. If you wish campers to be in a quiet mood for an end of the day program after the dance, use music that will set the tone.

Dr. Jim Cain, Ph.D. is the author of Teamwork and Teamplay (available from ACA) and has been involved with youth development programs and camping for nearly thirty years. He is a musician, a third generation square dance caller, and has always loved dancing at camp. Contact him at 585-637-0328 or

Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.