Writing About Dance


See a live dance performance (contemporary or ballet) and write about it!  It is important to see a live performance.  While videos of dance can be good, you are not the boss of what is to be looked at.  You cede your control to an editor.  Often editors jump to close-ups in the middle of a long developing gesture, totally ruining it, in my opinion.  Attach the program to your paper, if available.


The challenges of writing about music can be compared to the challenges of writing about dance.  Here is an example of good descriptive writing about dance.  It describes the beginning of Alvin Ailey's Revelations.


Six dancers are grouped center stage, arms reaching high, fingers spread, heads tilting back.  The men are bare-chested, wearing only body-hugging pants.  The women's long, sleeveless dresses are plain but drape loosely around their thin bodies to reveal breasts and hips with a similarly plain, unsensual beauty.  Warm light pours down from above, fixing the dancers in a moment of the exaltation and yearning.  "It looks so simple, and it is," Dorene Richardson said.  The dancers move very little in what follows, and after they separate as a group they return and pull together.


. . . those elements -- bodies that contract and hinge, sudden sinkings and almost instantaneous rises, sashays across a crowded stage -- are used not so much to narrate or to suggest but as direct expressions of emotion.  Ailey's sense of theatrical effect and pacing served him well in the steadily building Revelations.

From Alvin Ailey, A Life in Dance, Jennifer Dunning, 1996


Usually when I watch dance, I am most interested in large choreographic designs that use at least several dancers.  For many years, I tended to find solo dances much less interesting to watch.  The following essay helped me to see more, to notice more of the fine points of execution.


            When you watch ballet dancers dancing you are observing a young woman or young man in fancy dress, and you like it if they look attractive, if they are well built and have what seems to be an open face.  You notice the youthful spring in starting, the grace of carriage, the strength in stopping.  You like it if they know what to do and where to go, if they can throw in a surprising trick or two, if they seem to be enjoying their part and are pleasantly sociable as performers.  All this is proper juvenile charm, and it often gives a very sharp pleasure in watching dancers.


            But you are ready too for other qualities besides charm.  The audience soon notices if the dancer has unusual control over her movements, if what she is doing is unusually clear to the eye, if there are differences of emphasis and differences of urgency in her motion.  Within single slow movements or within a sequence you enjoy seeing the continuity of an impulse and the culmination of a phrase.  Now you are not only watching a charming dancer, she is also showing you a dance.


            When she shows you a dance, she's showing how the steps are related, that they are coherent and make some sense.   . . . at other moments you notice especially the changes in the dancer's energy, the dynamics of a sequence, which contrasts motion as taut or easy, active or passive, pressing or delaying, beginning or ending.  Dynamics, space and time -- the dancer may call one or the other to your attention, but actually she keeps these three strands of interest going all the time, for they are all simultaneously present in even the simplest dancing.  But the dancer who can make the various factors clear at the proper passage so as to keep you interested in the progress of the dance is especially attractive become she is dancing intelligently.  She makes even a complicated choreography distinct to see.


 . . . and just as you become really absorbed at a play when Romeo is not only distinct and spontaneous, but also makes you recognize the emotion of love, which has nothing to do with the actor personally or with acting in itself or with words in themselves, so the dancer becomes absorbing to watch when she makes you aware of emotions that are not make-believe at all.  Some of my friends doubt that is possible to give so much expressive power to dancing, though they grant it is possible to performers of music or of plays.  To recognize poetic suggestion through dancing one has to be susceptible to poetic values and susceptible to dance values as well.

from "How to Judge a Dancer," in Looking at the Dance, Edwin Denby.  First published in 1949.  Horizon Press, New York, 1968.


When watching good dance, some gestures just click with me as being "just right" or "beautiful" or "true."  Exactly why seeing a particular gesture in time and space causes this emotional spark remains a mystery to me; fortunately, it is a pleasurable mystery.  If you go to a dance performance, I hope you will experience it too.  While we may not be able to explain the mystery, we can least try to say and write words that describe what that moving movement looks like.


As you write about dance, write about its appeal to the eye, but also to the body and imagination.  Remember those mirror neurons firing as we watch other people dance -- they pull the image of dancing into our minds in a way that also stimulates our imagination.  What does it feel like to move that way?  What mental state or emotion flows from that body-centered feeling?  Use these questions for prompts if you need them:


What do the movements look like?  Does the torso flex or is it kept straight?  Is there one axis of movement (for example, spinning) or do movements seem to originate in many different ways?   What is the range or variety of motions?  Small gestures or large sweeping ones?


Is the particular dance piece narrative (Does it tell a story)?  Non-narrative?  Symbolic?  Abstract? Anti-narrative?  Does it have multiple narratives on different levels?


What is the relationship between movement and sound/music?  Tightly coordinated (each movement seems to coincide exactly with the rhythms in the music)?  Loosely coordinated (movements match the general shape of phrases in music)?


What is the degree of co-ordination or synchronization among dancers?  (If poetry is speech made strange, it seems to me that dance uses synchronization -- something that doesn't happen in ordinary life, since we really walk down the street in-step -- to make movement strange, to make it Art.  Do you think that synchronization used in this way?)


How is the stage space or volume used?  For example, do dancers start off in only one section of the stage and then gradually use the whole space?  Is there a sense of geometric planning?


What is the pleasure in watching others move? 


A+ = vivid writing that is emotionally engaging.

A = clear writing that conveys a good mix of detail and overview.

B = adequate writing that lacks detail or is missing an overall perspective.

C = generally adequate writing but incorrect or confusing use of terms

D = incomplete work; poor writing

F = does not meet standards for college work, but much better than zero points for the assignment


DC Meckler
March 2008

the arts the senses & the imagination