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Elements of Dance

This is an excerpt from Dance Appreciation With HKPropel Access by Dawn D. Loring & Julie L. Pentz.

As previously mentioned, the primary elements of dance are time, space, and energy. Time relates to how long a dance is or how the choreography uses time as a prominent factor in a dance. Dancers often approach time as it relates to music; however, dance can occur in silence or to spoken word and other types of accompaniment. The use of space in a dance is considered the design of the movements and choreography, and also pertains to its location onstage. Energy refers to the dynamic quality of the movement within a dance.

Time

Humans mark increments of time by tracking the passage of hours, days, weeks, months, and years using clocks and calendars as reference points. The steadiness of these measures gives a sense of predictable comfort when going about daily life. When studying dance, students are encouraged early on to associate the timing of movements with specific counts in the accompanying music, which provides a steady and reliable rhythm for learning particular exercises. This practice helps dancers both listen and respond sensitively to the music, a skill known as musicality. Later in their training, however, dancers are exposed to irregular, or unexpected, time structures in music and are introduced to the use of sounds or silence as accompaniment for dance. In these situations, dancers might be called upon to follow cues in a soundscape, ignore the music and follow another timing, or self-pace to the rhythm of their own breathing. These approaches are useful skills to master in order to be a flexible performer with the ability to meet the challenge of dancing within time.

Rhythm

Even before birth, humans experience the steady pulse of our mother’s heartbeat and the cadence of her breath. Each beat of the heart as it pumps blood around the body and each inhale and exhale of the lungs forms a simple rhythm, or a regular pattern of repeated movement. This consistent timing could be a driving force for continued action, or it could make the dancing become monotonous and stagnant for the viewer. Dancers and choreographers manipulate the timing of movements in order to respond to music or other accompaniment, to provide variety within dance phrases or to indicate theme within a dance work. If a dancer doesn’t follow a consistent, or regular pulse in the movement, the timing can instead appear irregular, and the change in rhythm can make the dancing appear exciting and unpredictable.

One method of using an irregular rhythm is by the use of breath. When breath is a motivator, a dance phrase, or a collection of movements with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, exists within the timing of one or more rounds of inhalations and exhalations, following the natural rhythm of a body exerting itself in motion. Variation of timing is assured, as the phrase doesn’t depend on a regular pulse. Another way to refer to the timing of a dance phrase, or how fast or slow it appears, is tempo.

Meter, Accent, and Syncopation

When dancing to musical accompaniment, often the music sets the tempo of the dance phrase(s), and the consistent pattern of time value is known as meter. Most music for dance is expressed in either duple meter (having two beats per measure) or triple meter (having three beats per measure). Duple meter songs resemble marches and are counted 1-2, 1-2 . . ., while triple meter songs resemble waltzes and are counted 1-2-3, 1-2-3 . . . . A large portion of popular songs are in duple meter, and this forms the basis for counts the dance instructor uses during dance class. To provide signposts for organizing a dance phrase to music, the teacher will count the music in eights (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) and repeat that counting structure until the end of the movement combination. Although counting in eights is typical, it is by no means the only way music is counted for dance, as some composers use alternative meters or even irregular meters that alternate during a song.

Using an accent, or a stress on a particular count (in bold), (1-2, 1-2, 1-2) or (1-2-3, 1-2-3) produces a dynamic feel to the dance phrase, and varying the accent (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3) or (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) yields unexpected surprises for both viewer and performer. Movement that accents the weaker beat or an off-beat in a musical phrase is known as syncopation. Highly skilled and sensitive dancers who are able to alternate smoothly between stated counts within the choreography and an ever-so-slight hesitation in the phrasing of their dancing are said to have exceptional musicality.

Other Types of Accompaniment

Music and dance are not required to have a close relationship and dance phrases can follow the ebb and flow of the music or exist alongside the music with no relationship whatsoever to the meter of the music. Conversely, the accompaniment might consist of sounds without a musical pulse or silence. In that case, the dance piece has an internal rhythm dependent upon the performers as they dance.

Dance can also be performed to spoken word text or poetry (either live or prerecorded). Both types of utterances depend upon the speaker’s cadence and often provide a loose time structure for dance phrases performed at the same time. The dancing might mirror the meter of the poetry or the choreographer might use particular words as time “signposts” for the dancers to follow in order to stay “on time” within the dance so that they reach the ending at the desired spot.

Space

All dances take up space, and how a dance uses space often refers to the relationship between the space the dancers’ bodies occupy and the space around them, known as positive and negative space. When dancers occupy space in a particular shape, they are considered to be occupying positive space. The space all around them and even between them is called negative space. How a choreographer uses these two contrasting ideas to shape space is one of the elements that gives each dance its own unique look. The design of the movement and groupings of dancers, either symmetrical or asymmetrical, contributes to the balance of the dance. Most dances use a combination of locomotor and non-locomotor movements within the choreography of the dance. The methods of shaping space are categorized according to whether they move around within the performance space or tend to stay in place. Locomotor movements (examples: walking, jumping, skipping, sliding, leaping, turning) are basic movements that travel around the performing space, most often on a stage. Non-locomotor movements (examples: twisting, reaching, melting, swaying, rising) are basic movements that do not travel around the performing space.

Pathways and Patterns

Dances shape space onstage by bringing attention to particular areas of the performing space itself. Pursuing a particular pathway, or direction, or a specific floor pattern, or line of motion, indicates the importance of the direction the dancing travels or the shapes made on the floor by the dancers. The range used within a dance piece can be small, just taking up a portion of the stage, or encompassing the entire stage, and the distance separating the audience from the dance can also be impactful to the audience. Dances happening at a closer depth can encourage familiarity or highlight humor or smaller gestural details. Dances happening farther away may create more of an emotional as well as physical distance. The width of a dance can affect how an audience watches a dance by creating the need to change the focus from one side of the stage to the other, or allowing audiences to freely scan the stage space.

Position, Level, and Facing

The orientation, or position, of the movements also shape the space the dance exists within. Movement can range from linear, or straight line shapes, to curvilinear, or curved line shapes, and can be performed at different levels: on the floor, standing, in the air, and facing directions other than the audience. While most dances are created for an audience to view, not all dances automatically face the audience, and changing the level or the facings, or directional orientations, can add visual interest to a dance phrase. Additionally, the plane a movement exists on highlights either the dimensionality or the flatness of the movement. The three pure planes humans inhabit are vertical, horizontal, and sagittal, though we are still three-dimensional beings and do not purely exist in any one plane (figure 3.1). Movement existing primarily in the vertical plane focuses more on length and height. Imagine standing in a doorway and stretching arms and legs into an X shape; this plane is also called the “doorway plane.” Movement in the horizontal plane is primarily focused on movement perpendicular to standing, which is why it is often referred to as the “table plane.” Movement in the sagittal plane focuses more on depth, which is why it is known as the “wheel plane.”

Figure 3.1 Vertical, horizontal, and sagittal planes.
Figure 3.1 Vertical, horizontal, and sagittal planes. Reprinted by permission from D.H. Krasnow, M.V. Wilmerding, A. Sugano, and K. Laws, “Dance Training and Technique,” in Dance Wellness, edited by M.V. Wilmerding and D.H. Krasnow (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2017), 19.

More Excerpts From Dance Appreciation With HKPropel Access