Dance can be intimidating for beginners which is why I put together this guide to the elements of dance. Whether you’re a beginner or a parent, these are useful concepts and definitions that will help you understand the language used to describe dance. In this article, I’ll cover dynamics, direction, length, speed, rhythm and weight in detail. I hope it helps make your experience with dance and the theoretical and academic side a little less daunting!
The elements of Dance refer to the attributes and characteristics of movement. Some of these attributes are known as dynamics, direction, length, speed, rhythm, weight, energy, force, and quality.
If you are a parent of a senior dance student you may have heard your year 12 student talk about the elements of dance as they study for their exams or write about them in an essay. Or you may have read comments on your child’s dance competition or exam report card talking about your dancer’s energy and not fully understood what it meant.
THE ELEMENT OF ENERGY IN DANCE
Energy is the force that drives movements. It can be seen in a dancer’s body language, style and level of intensity as they dance on stage or practice their combinations backstage. Energy also refers to how much mental and emotional energy an individual has for the activity at hand: Is your child tired? Do you need to encourage them more? Does he or she seem excited about it?
THE ELEMENTS OF DYNAMICS IN DANCE
Dynamics describe the quality of movement in dance. There are 6 different qualities generally used to describe movement in dance which are: sustained, percussive, suspended, swinging, collapsed, and vibratory. When a dance teacher or adjudicator asks for more dynamics to be shown in a performance they are usually referring to being able to show the difference between each dynamic to create contrast and interest within the dance as well as to demonstrate their ability to interpret the cadence and emotion of the music.
Sustained Movement: A sustained movement is a continuous or flowing motion and can be thought of as the opposite of percussive movement.
Percussive Movement: a percussive quality to movement is usually short, sharp and quick in nature with fast-moving energy that produces an impact on those observing it.
Suspended Movement: a suspended quality to movement is one that seems to defy gravity. It is when the dancer is at the highest or widest point of a leap, movement or pose but then are able to push it even further to the extreme to make it look like they are hovering or suspended in space.
Swinging Movement: A swinging quality involves pendulum-like motion, swaying to and fro. It can also include spinning and twirling and uses inertia and gravity to carry the body to a tilting point and back again.
Collapsed Movement: The collapsed dynamic in dance refers to a dancer producing a noticeable release of tension and letting go in order to achieve an effect, such as falling downward.
Vibratory Movement: A vibratory quality is a movement that oscillates quickly and with force.
As you or your child explore the different types of dynamics in dance, think about your own body and how each type would feel for you. Can you demonstrate this quality? What does it look like when someone else demonstrates it to you? Experiment with these qualities as you practice them so that they become more familiar to your muscles as well as your mind so that you can incorporate their feelings into your performance.
THE ELEMENT OF SPACE IN DANCE
The element of Space in dance describes how dancers use the area they are dancing within. It can also refer to how they use the floor and any other surfaces during their movements. Dance spaces can be large, like when performing on a huge stage or just a small corner in a room. They can also be used to enhance a particular mood in the dance. For example, if you’re doing an upbeat country song, your space might have hay bales for props and a barn door or wagon wheel. You want it to make people feel like they’re at a barn to watch and engage in a good old-fashioned hoedown! If you are performing something more somber, such as “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton, then there would not be as much of a need for props because the music will evoke that feeling without them.
THE ELEMENT OF SPEED IN DANCE
The element of speed in dance refers to how fast or slow a dancer moves. Speed can be dependent on the tempo of the music a person is dancing to, but within the confines of the music, the beat can be halved or quartered so the dancer moves twice or four times as fast then normal or slowed down so they dance to every second or fourth beat. The speed can also depend on what the choreographer wants to convey with their work. Dancers can speed up so they look like they’re running across the stage, or you might see moments where they move slowly as if walking through molasses.
THE ELEMENT OF DIRECTION IN DANCE
The element of direction in dance refers to where a dancer faces or turns their body in relation to the front of the stage or dance space. Directional changes in dance can create excitement and interest as the audience wonders where the dancer will go next. Being able to change direction quickly is difficult and shows great control and skill as well. It takes a lot of practice and skill to be able to change directions at the height of jumps or while executing turns.
THE ELEMENT OF LENGTH IN DANCE
Dance can last anywhere from one count to several hours such as when you watch an entire ballet it all depends on what a choreographer plans for that particular dance or any restrictions are given such as when competing on stage where dances need to meet strict time limits. But length can play a vital part in the way dance is performed and created. A short 2 min dance needs to pack a lot of punch to show what a dancer can do or to portray a story or message, whereas a 2-hour long ballet will evolve slowly with highs and lows as well as breaks for the dancers to rest and recover.
THE ELEMENT OF RHYTHM IN DANCE
Rhythm in dance is the timing of the movements combined together. Dance depends on how movements are matched to the rhythm of the music and even when no music is used there is usually some recognizable beat or rhythm that the dancer is following even if it is unheard. The steps can be on the beat, off the beat, or can follow a melody within the music. Dance that is dance independently of the music although not unheard of especially in modern dance, can look disjointed or wrong.
Depending on what rhythm is chosen the same movements and steps can look different from each other and give off an entirely new feeling altogether which is why every dancer can make choreography unique as they create accents and pauses in various ways in rhythm with the music.
THE ELEMENT OF WEIGHT IN DANCE
The element of weight in dance refers to whether the movement has a light or heavy characteristic. The qualities of heaviness are typically associated with having slower movements without much momentum behind them which gives dancers an opportunity to emphasize each movement as well as feeling grounded in what they are doing. A light quality would look like fast flowing movements with plenty of space between steps where jumps might have height but not too much force behind them.
THE ELEMENT OF FORCE IN DANCE
The element of force in dance relates to energy but can be described seperately as how strong or gentle the movements are. A forceful movement might be a jump that is done with the intention to go up high and land back on both feet. This would look like an abrupt burst of energy followed by a quick return to normalcy, but it could also show as smaller movements such as lifting one foot while balancing on the other for just a second before repeating this motion. The quality of gentleness can be seen when dancers have soft flowing movements without much force behind them which may include things like standing in place or moving very slowly through big sweeping motions as if they are trying not to disturb anyone else around them.
As a parent, it is really helpful for you to be knowledgeable of and understand all the elements of dance so you can help guide your dancer to know when different intensities will work best for certain choreography as well as to be able to decipher the comments of teachers and adjudicators when they are for example asking your child to give them more energy or to use the space more etc… You will also be better able to understand why they are learning about the elements of dance at school or in dance class and how it is beneficial for them to deeply understand their impact on their own dancing.