A basic knowledge of these elements will not only help you to understand dance—it will help you dance, too.
What is Dance?
That’s a big question! Here’s an answer that’s short and sweet: Dance is an art form that uses movement to communicate our ideas, feelings, and experiences.
The Elements of Dance
Dance can be broken down into the following five elements:
These five elements are inter-connected; at times it’s hard to separate one from the other. But as we discuss each one, we’ll include specific vocabulary used to talk about dance and examine how each element can be manipulated to create different results.
Who Dances? The Dancer
Imagine a body moving with rhythmic steps and motions, usually performing to music. That’s dance. Sounds simple, right? Dance critic Walter Terry put it best this way:
“No paints nor brushes, marbles nor chisels, pianos or violins are needed to make this art, for we are the stuff that dance is made of. It is born in our body, exists in our body and dies in our body. Dance, then, is the most personal of all the arts . . . it springs from the very breath of life.”
The human body is what others see when they look at dance. Sometimes the body is still; other times it may be in motion. A dancer can use the whole body, or emphasize individual body parts, when moving.
When you watch dance, try to notice the position of the body. Is it symmetrical, with the right and left sides doing the same thing, or not? What shape is the body making? Are the shapes sharp and angular, or soft and rounded? Is the body curved, twisted, or straight?
Just as some colors in a painting may be more vibrant than others, you may notice dancers who have exceptional body control. They have worked hard to train their bodies (essentially their instrument of expression) to achieve superior balance, strength, and agility. Pay extra attention to how dancers use their breath when working through a dance phrase, or series of movements.
Dancers use their bodies to take internal ideas, emotions, and intentions and express them in an outward manner, sharing them with others. Dance can communicate this internal world, or it can be abstract, focusing on shapes and patterns.
In this excerpt from George Balanchine’s Apollo, you can see how the dancers use individual body parts to create a beautiful effect in space. The three ballerinas touch their toes to the male dancer’s hand, and then link their arms through his.
The Dancer Does What? Moves!
Action is any human movement involved in the act of dancing. What do dancers do? They move—this is the action they perform. Movement can be divided into two general categories:
- Non-locomotor or axial movement: Any movement that occurs in one spot including a bend, stretch, swing, rise, fall, shake, turn, rock, tip, suspend, and twist.
- Locomotor movement: Any movement that travels through space including a run, jump, walk, slide, hop, skip, somersault, leap, crawl, gallop, and roll.
Action includes small movements like facial expressions or gestures, as well as larger movements like lifts, carries, or catches done with a partner or in a group. “Action” is also considered the movement executed as the pauses or stillness between movements.
Dancers work together with a choreographer to practice and refine the action of the dance. When the action has been “set,” or finalized, the dancers must memorize their movement sequences in order to be able to perform them.
Watch the Mark Morris Dance Company perform L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The action of the dance includes slaps and claps, falls, prances, jumps in place as well as turns from side to side.
Where Does the Dancer Move? Through Space
We’re not talking about the final frontier here! We’re talking about where the action of dance takes place. Dance moves through space in an endless variety of ways.
To better explain, here are some ways a choreographer or dancer thinks about space:
- Level: Is the movement on the floor, or reaching upward? Are they performed high, medium, or low?
- Direction: Does the movement go forward, backward, sideways, right, left, or on a diagonal?
- Place: Is the movement done on the spot (personal space), or does it move through space (general space, downstage, upstage)?
- Orientation: Which way are the dancers facing?
- Pathway: Is the path through space made by the dancers curved, straight, or zigzagged? Or is it random?
- Size: Does the movement take up a small, narrow space, or a big, wide space?
- Relationships: How are the dancers positioned in space in relationship to one another? Are they close together or far apart? Are they in front of, beside, behind, over, under, alone, or connected to one another?
The list above helps us understand how to think about movement through space. Imagine how many ways you could perform a simple movement, like clapping your hands if you ran it through the different concepts listed above. Remember, space can be both indoors and outdoors, and some dances are created with specific spaces in mind.
The action in Paul Taylor’s dance Esplanade is very simple, consisting mostly of walking and running. Notice how the concept of space is explored in a variety of ways as the dancers constantly change direction and orientation. Their relationship to one another also keeps shifting. At times they form two lines, passing through one another. At other moments, they move in unison. Watch for both straight and curved pathways and think about how many ways the choreographer was able to manipulate the element of space.
How Does the Body Move in Relation to Time?
Choreographers have to make decisions about timing. Are their movements quick or slow? Are certain steps repeated in different speeds during the work? If so, why? We can think of time in the following ways:
- Clock Time: We use clock time to think about the length of a dance or parts of a dance measured in seconds, minutes, or hours.
- Timing Relationships: When dancers move in relation to each other (before, after, together, sooner than, faster than).
- Metered Time: A repeated rhythmic pattern often used in music (like 2/4 time or 4/4 time). If dances are done to music, the movement can respond to the beat of the music or can move against it. The speed of the rhythmic pattern is called its tempo. \
- Free Rhythm: A rhythmic pattern is less predictable than metered time. Dancers may perform movement without using music, relying on cues from one another.
The element of time is easily noticed in Step Afrika’s work. The action of the hands slapping and feet stomping creates the complex rhythm that the audience hears.
How? The Dancer Moves Through Space and Time With Energy
So now we have bodies moving through space and time. Isn’t that enough? Not quite. We need the fifth and last element of dance—energy.
Energy helps us to identify how the dancers move. What effort are they using? Perhaps their movements are sharp and strong, or maybe they are light and free. Energy also represents the quality of the movement—its power and richness. For choreographers and dancers, there are many possibilities.
The effort the dancers use can communicate meaning, depending on the energy involved. A touch between two dancers may be gentle and light, perhaps indicating concern or affection; or it may be sudden and forceful, indicating anger or playfulness. Energy is crucial in bringing the inner expression of emotion out to the stage performance.
Some ways to think about energy are:
- Attack: Is the movement sharp and sudden, or smooth and sustained?
- Weight: Does the movement show heaviness, as if giving into gravity, or is it light with a tendency upward?
- Flow: Does the movement seem restricted or bound, with a lot of muscle tension, or is it relaxed, free, and easy?
- Quality: Is the movement tight, flowing, loose, sharp, swinging, swaying, suspended, collapsed, or smooth?
Finally, a great way to remember the five elements is by thinking of the acronym BASTE: Body, Action, Space, Time and Energy. Or you can download this BASTE chart.
The element of energy is important in this performance of dance team Kaba Modern. The dancers use a sharp, percussive attack and have pauses between movements that break the flow. Kaba Modern, like other hip hop groups, has a sense of weight. They bend their knees and frequently move to the floor.