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Technical proficiency is the main concern of a dancer who has chosen to be a

performer in a company. Can I get it right? Will my teacher/director be pleased?
Will I remember every move? That challenge is personal; issues of content or composition
are dealt with by another critique. A choreographer must understand how the dance looks
to the audience, on both physical and emotional levels. The view from the audience is
very different from on stage!

Elements of Dance:


symmetry level beat/tempo force
asymmetry direction momentum dynamics
organic floor pattern accent/meter
angular stage space


phrase intent
overall form

Composition: How choreographers put the elements together.

The goal of dance (or art or music) is to convey Emotion & Variety Within Unity.
This means that a dance piece should be interesting, yet not so that it is confusing.
Any dance should have unity with a theme that repeats, reappears in another form, and
grows to a climax. A dance can have so much unity that it is boring; finding a balance
between both is the challenge. "Monotony is fatal; look for contrast." Doris Humphrey

Dance shapes are created by the human body. Your body is your instrument, your
tool, your paint brush. Dancers have advantage over visual artists in that body kinesthetic
shapes are constantly changing. Besides movement noticed by the viewer, the dance is a
series of hopefully beautiful and interesting shapes; that is why dancers often stop or pause
for a split second of emphasis. Those shapes convey various emotional impact:
Organic & curving vs. angular/straight:
Organic- curving shapes are natural and organic, human, soft, relaxing, soothing;
Angular straight shapes are machine like, unyielding, inflexible;
Symmetrical vs. asymmetrical:
Symmetry - The design is exactly the same on both sides: stable, strength, authority,
control, balanced, safe;
Asymmetry - The design or shape differs, is not the same, for variety, contrast,
complexity, excitement, creative risk taking.

Classical ballet tends to be more formal and symmetrical while modern and jazz
dance styles are asymmetrical- informally balanced. However, even classical ballet needs
some asymmetry for variety. The point is that a dance piece that shows only symmetry
can be boring; a little organic design adds interest, and also makes for emotionally charged
scenes. Solo performance may be more asymmetrical. Too much asymmetry can be
unsettling; a little of the opposite makes for variety to engage audience.
"Symmetry is lifeless." Doris Humphrey

low, earthiness; lying, crawling, crouching, sitting, kneeling;
middle, moving, going, demi plie, relave, traveling, standing off point;
high, on pointe arms up, jumps, leaps, partnering-lifts, group-lifts;
(You may chart your use of levels to see if you have sufficient variety- see example).

personal- in front of, behind, sides;
group- away, toward, around, under, together;

Floor pattern:
Direction as applied to the use of a stage in a performance;
Imagine you have chalk on your feet and you are leaving a record of your dance;
Use the whole stage well! (Chart your dance to be sure).
"Two-dimensional design is lifeless." Doris Humphrey

Often used -and powerful -floor patterns

circle: infinite, no beginning, no end, unity;
spiral: hypnotic quality, change inward- toward an end; outward-escape, freedom;

Stage space: Some parts of the stage are stronger and others are more intimate.
"Movement looks slower and weaker on the stage." Doris Humphrey

Front vs Back:
Generally, action takes on greater significance (demands attention) as it moves downstage,
getting closer to the audience space. There is a tradition that scenes of intimacy are staged
down left (front of stage) and movements of less importance are up (back of stage left).
This is similar to body language of humans. Although it is an optical illusion, dancers
seem smaller upstage and appear to get larger as they come forward.
Remember: movement and action downstage must be balanced with dance upstage.
Left vs Right:
Human visual scanning patterns work from left to right; we scan so quickly that we are
aware of this only on a subconscious level. This is true in cultures that read from right to
left or left to right. As seen from the audience, on a subliminal level, time passes from
stage right to stage left (that is -left to right- for the audience) Stage left -from audience
view- would represent the past, center- the present, and right- the future.

Diagonals are powerful!

The most powerful modern dance moves are upstage right to downstage left.
Contrastly, ballet dancers move in an up left to down right diagonal, since that allows the
movement to be performed to the dancers right, that is usually the strongest side.

Turning on an axis (Laban)

horizontal - spins, turns, (ballet uses this axis);

vertical - cartwheel (sagittal axis), somersaults (sigittal plane)- jazz, modern, gymnastics;
Turns are given variety with changes in body design and shape, speed, size, and direction.
Turns also provide variety when contrasted with straight movement.


Changing rhythmns of beat and tempo gives a dance work variety and/or creates
communicates- specific emotional reactions for the viewer.

beat- regular vs. irregular

Regular Irregular
supportive unpredictable
comforting jarring/ disjointed
pleasant sometimes unsettling, hard to watch
monotonous/ deadening exciting, challenging

tempo- the speed of the beat

Fast Slow
frenzy sensuous
quick gentle
dazzle fatigue
spinning pain

momentum- changes in tempo, getting faster or slower

Faster Slower
chase prelude to high points
flashy ending a more contemplative time
change in the story action

ENERGY : Force dynamics

Energy is potential power or force; in a sense it is capacity to overcome resistance
or to defy gravity. Another way to explain that force is, the strength of energy exerted.
Thus energy may be strong or gentle.
Energy has powerful dramatic consequences. When you begin to choreograph, to
consider the energy level of a dance work you need to consider your expressive goals for
the dance. What kind of a mood do you want to create? If your work is telling a story,
then where do you need to locate each of these qualities?

Strong Gentle
Positive bold, authoritative soft, adaptable
Goals dominant, controlling pliable, subtle
powerful, aggressive caring
Negative inflexible submissive
Goals hard, tough weak, wishy-washy
stubborn malleable

Movement qualities or forces

Movement can be sustained or percussive. Sustained movements are smooth,
continuous; they flow and are controlled; they lack accents. Percussive movements are
sharp, explosive, outward; they are high energy and jab; like symmetry and asymmetry
they are opposites. Classical ballet is more sustained. Jazz more percussive. Often the
choice of music dictates dance approach. A quiet piece of classical music like Pachelbel's
Canon almost demands sustained movement, while irregular and fast hard rock music
would invite percussive movements.
Force and movement qualities in dance can be combined in many ways. A forceful
dance can be sustained and full of graceful curving arcs, yet danced in a way that is quick
and powerful. A percussive dance can be staged full of asymmetrical body shapes and a
strong level of energy. It can also be danced slowly, full of agony.
Examples of combinations are seen below.

Strong Force Gentle Force

Sustained emotional graceful, quiet
movement forceful, continues lyrical, symmetrical
to build up pretty, delicate
never lets up (Ravel's Bolero)

Percussive very modern changing, emotional

movement fast, moving outward emotional, agonising
explosive and jarring agonising, painful
could be asymmetrical could be asymmetrical


This is both a musical form and a dance technique.
Classical symphony music composers may begin with a simple recognisable theme;
at the symphony, that theme comes back intact and in ways slightly changed.
The same can be done in dance; this allows a choreographer to create variety and unity at
once. Take a phrase, then change it: upside down, backwards, slower, more elaborate,
simpler, faster, repeat in a different order.

In dance, the phrase is the basic element in composition and choreography.

(From The Intimate Act of Choreography by Lynne Anne Blom & L. Tarin Chaplin)

A phrase is the smallest and simplest unit of form. It is a short but complete unit
in that it has a beginning, middle, and end. Every phrase, even the shortest, contains this
basic structure; it starts, goes somewhere or does something, and comes to resolution.
A phrase is to dance as a sentence is to poetry. A sentence is comprised of separate words
that fit together. A phrase is not just accumulation of movements strung together; just as
a sentence is more than a mere list of words. Phrases of both written language and dance
must make sense. Movements share some common element of intent; so a phrase has both
form and content (Blom & Chapman; page 23).
Choreographic phrase is often confused with movement combination, such can be
merely movements strung together like beads, without notice of individual shape, color,
texture, or relationship to one another. The purpose of a movement combination is to
provide technical challenge such as coordination skills, strength development, endurance,
or spatial discrimination. A choreographic phrase, however, has a different intention- to
convey feelings, images, ideas, to present visual impressions, a story, symbol, or design
element (Blom & Chapman; pages 29-30).

Movements and phrases must be combined as larger units.

This involves sequencing of the parts of the work. Transitions are how you put sections
of a dance together and need to be of a quality matching the rest of the work.
There are some traditional forms of dance choreography combinations
AB form: a theme and a contrasting form; opposites;
ABA form: a theme, contrasting form; then repeat theme again with transitions between;
Rhondo form ABABAB: a theme that keeps returning in a pure or modified form;
Narrative: the form is driven by a story.
*A rule of thumb is to only repeat things for as many times as you have dancers.
A solo would not require repetition, a duet only twice, but a group of twelve dancers
(corps de ballet) could repeat a phrase twelve times.

OVERALL FORM: No matter how complex the dance work is, the piece must work as
a unit. A completed dance should be reviewed (possibly on video) with an eye to the
whole. The ending is should be a critical part of the whole. Most dances are too long!

"A good ending is forty percent of the dance." Humphrey, The Art of Making Dances


Before starting the phrases and movements a choreographer should consider the
intent of the dance. Here are questions to ask yourself:
What do you want to say; what is your message?
How do you want the audience to react?
"Know what your intention is - then say it with clarity and simplicity." Humphfrey

The intent of the Broadway musical Bring on the Funk, Bring on the Noise was to
portray black history through a dance style (tap) that originated by African Americans.
That show could have been quite boring were it not for a second goal to create a high
level of energy. At Funk, the audience was pulled in and energised by the dancing and
percussion working together. Being there, I found myself far more alert and upright in my
seat than I had the night before at another play- Chicago; where the audience was
expected to laugh, enjoy the songs and dance and be as mellow - relaxed-as jazz music.
So, as a choreographer, begin by examining your intent in terms of energy, audience
reaction, and content! Many young dancers select a piece of music they like, and then
choreograph movements they choose to fit the pace and feeling of the song. This way may
not be the best approach, though certainly one of many valid ways to begin to dance.

Dance may develop from any one of these seven (7) starting points:

1. Music: Try choosing a piece of music without words so that movement and character
development is the core of the dance. Listen to the music intensely and see what dance
images are conjured. Two good choices are music from the movie Edward Scizzorhand
and the play by Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite. Find a video tape of the Joffery Ballet,
Billboards; four choreographers each chose a song by the rock star Prince; each rehearsed
the dancers separately. One dance was traditional, elegant, graceful, and did not involve
storytelling. Three others used the words for inspiration, yet results involved a wide range
of dance style. In none of these works was music a slave to dance.
2. Storytelling: Classical ballet is full of storytelling, from the Nutcracker to Swan Lake.
Remember, a story can be told in many different ways; there are a variety of Nutcrackers
(see The Hard Nut); and Swan Lake has been performed in unique ways. In storytelling,
dance gestures become important because dance is silent. Modern dance often tells stories,
yet they convey more personal and contemporary meanings than classical dance.
3. Art (sculptures, paintings) & poetry: Choose a work of art or a poem, then select
music that fits; how could you respond as choreographer to this combination? How does
the art/ poetry make you feel or think? Could you tell a story or create a mood by dance?
4. Feelings, Ideas: Dance is expression of a state of mind or feeling; this is very common
in modern dance. Jazz often expresses a state of mind that involves a high energy level.
How to express love, joy, awe, or anguish- painful depression, or triumph?
5. Kinesthetic: Movement itself can be inspiring. The joy of moving or a particular kind
of movement can be the starting point for original creative movement.
6. Humor: Comedy- laughter- is the best medicine- and a legitimate focus for dance.
7. Character Motivation: Is the character (dancer) flirting, mischievious, etc?


"Don't be a slave to, or a mutilator of, the music." (Blom &Chaplin)

Here are guidelines from teachers of choreography (Blom & Chaplin; Humpfrey):

1. "Retain balance between the number of dancers and number of instruments

playing the musical score. A full symphony orchestra will usually dwarf a solo; likewise, a
group of sixteen dancers will probably demand a fuller sound."

2. Old Favorites &Top Ten. Using well known pieces of music, whether classical,
Broadway musical hits, or recent movie theme songs may be difficult just because they are
so familiar. People may already have formed their own notions, images, and expectations
of what the music is about and so cannot watch your dance composition with a fresh eye,
ready to see what you want to communicate."

And, (Sandra Cerny Milton; Choreography: A Basic approach Using Improvisation)

3. Instrumental vs. Vocal Music

"Instrumental music usually provides a better accompaniment than vocal music
because it allows a greater freedom for choreographic interpretation. If you use vocal
music try to avoid dance movements that literally pantomime the work. "

4. Find music that has variety.

Music with a variety of structure forms, rhythmic patterning, and emotive quality
provides better accompaniment for dance. Dancers usually create repetitious movement
when working with music that has little variety.

Also, (Carol Smiarowski, Dance Director, Brenau University)

5. Cutting and Rearranging Music

"Be careful when cutting and rearranging music. Abrupt changes can be jarring for
the audience and hinder continuity. Dance companies often have professionals do this."

Note: Copyright Laws

Music scores written after 1850, and any recorded music may be protected by copyright.
Generally, 75 years is the limit of a copyright. Contact the music publisher to get
permission before you start choreography. The use of copyrighted music in public
performances is restricted.


Apply the aesthetic criteria of UNITY, VARIETY, and EMOTIONAL IMPACT
to evaluating dance performance design.

Assessment: Charting Levels in a Dance

(Use this chart to analyze how much variety in levels in a dance you have composed.
Make a continuous line as on a heart monitor as you watch a live or video performance).

Low: earthiness; lying, crawling, crouching, sitting, kneeling;
Middle: moving, going, demi plie, relave, traveling, standing off point;
High: on pointe arms up, jumps, leaps, partnering-lifts, group-lifts;

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Assessment: Charting the floor pattern of a dance:

After a dance is choreographed, have someone perform the dance, videotape the
dance, or diagram the performance. Use a continuous line to indicate movement and
direction. Begin by putting a number one inside a circle; as the dancer makes a change in
direction or pauses, record the next number. Also analyze the use of diagonals.

A Note to Teachers of Teens: How to utilize these dance exercises.

These dance activities are appropriate for teens, ages 14-18. The elements of
dance are best taught using an improvisation approach. Introduce the concept, and then let
students truly understand by dancing solutions to suggested artistic problems. Make it a
fun time for them, not dry theoretical assignment.
Two books are suggested for anyone teaching teen choreography; both contain
dozens of excellent improvisational exercises for dancers. Blom & Chaplin is a must read
for teachers, while difficult for teens. A textbook for a teen choreography class is not
necessary. The Sandra Minton book is appropriate for reading by an interested teen.

Blom, Lynn Anne & Chaplin, T.Tarin;(1982); The Intimate Act of Choreography.
University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 0-8229-5342-0 paperback;
Minton, Sandra Cerny; (1986); Choreography: A Basic Approach Using Improvisation.
Human Kinestics, ISBN 0-88011-529-7, $19.95 paperback.

Two other books are worth reading for teachers. Hawkins utilizes recent research
into creativity; she was founding chair of UCLA dance program; sand also has many
helpful exercises and improvisations. Humphrey was a major figure in modern dance; her
sections on group dynamics and the history and philosophy of dance, both classical and
modern, are excellent. Almost all the dance directors I interviewed recommended this
book, however, assignments are few and too complex for teens.

Hawkins, Alma M; (1991); Moving From Within: A New Method of Dance Making.
Chicago: a cappella Books; ISBN 1-55652-139-1, $12.95.
Humphrey, Doris; (1987); The Art of Making Dance. Pennington, NJ: Princeton Books.

Dance improvisation is the topic of a second book by Blom & Chaplin; it makes a
very in-depth look at improv technique, full of specifics on how to teach.

Blom, Lynn Anne & Chaplin, T.Tarin; (1988); The Moment of Movement.
University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN0-8229-5405-2 paperback.

Authors note: These handouts may be reproduced for classroom use. They may not be
sold. Nor may they appear in print unless properly acknowledged and referenced.

Dr. Kathleen Thompson

Arts Education Consultant; Blue Ridge, GA