Guest Post: The Five Universal Elements of Dance, by Nora Heston Tarte

The Five Universal Elements of Dance
By Nora Heston Tarte

Nora is a Columnist at several publications at Bay Area News Group and a Contractor at SF Gate and San Francisco Chronicle

Dance is an expression. From solo lyrical pieces to group ballets each performance uses movement to tell a story. As the audience watches a performance, they interpret the emotions and movements portrayed on stage. Our own relationship with dance can influence what sentiments are evoked inside of us as well as what we take away from dance. Judges and reviewers, however, have tools available to fairly critique performances. Understanding the elements of dance that dancers themselves are aware of as well as those elements judges look for, can increase a viewer’s understanding of dance. There are five main elements as identified by KQED Arts that exist across all genres.

I grew up in dance. I didn’t take it into adulthood, but as a child I learned the fundamentals of dance. Having this foundation helps me appreciate the art form and I’ve noticed I gravitate toward performances that mimic those I performed as a child. The additional understanding I have of ballet for example allows me to appreciate the effort that goes into it more. Learn about the five main elements of dance to further your understanding of dance, as well as offer new ways to discuss and review your own choreography as well as choreography you view.

Body is the first element to consider. For a dancer, the body acts as their work materials, much like acrylics and canvas are the materials for a painter. Their arms, legs, heads, torsos and facial expressions all play in to how they tell a story on stage. Dancers create lines and shapes with their bodies as well to add to the visual appeal of dance.

Action is another way dancers portray emotion. Whether they stand still, take a pause or leap across the stage, every movement made is a representation of character, tone and theme. Action is used to breathe life into dance. It helps audience members draw conclusions about what is happening on stage, without the use of words or narration.

Space is a less obvious element of dance to the average viewer. How an individual or group uses space on stage or in a performance adds to the visual appeal of a piece. This refers to both the available space on stage as well as the way dancers use their bodies to fill that space. Large open arms and big movements are oft an important part of stage performances as they project to the audience better, however a dancer who makes themselves small on stage or acts in a small space on purpose is portraying a different emotion or intention by doing so. While space may seem like an afterthought to a viewer, its use is intentional by performers and crew.

Every performance piece has a beginning, middle and end. Time is an element of dance that refers to many aspects of the art form. How long a character takes to complete a movement as well as the rhythm used during their performance add to the energy and tone of the piece, evoking different emotions in the audience.

Lastly, there is energy. Dancers are also actors. The energy they use to perform speaks volumes about their character. There is a reason the swans in Swan Lake move gracefully in opposition to the jester who has more frantic, free-flowing movements. The levels of energy portrayed through movement, music and facial expressions tell the audience who that character is. Viewers develop opinions about protagonists and antagonists, as well as the relationships they have with each other based on energy and movements.