Various aspects of pure dance, its structure, technique and possibilities and relation to music in different dance styles of the world.
I am interested in music and dance in general, and while enjoying various styles of these, I also find basic similarities between them to be very beautiful. I will also share some things that I personally like and find interesting in certain styles of dance, and discuss my aesthetic preferences in general.
Dance can be broadly defined to be the art of beautiful rhythmic movement. In this way, it is related to rhythmic music but with a visual medium instead of the aural medium of music. Dance may be performed to express the beauty of musical movement by itself, or even to narrate some literature or emotions. The first kind of dance is dance by itself, so it may be called pure or abstract dance. The second kind, narrative dance or pantomime, is related to dramatic acting because of its narrative gestures. We will look at pure/abstract dance here.
Dance and rhythm in music
There are many kinds of art forms which use human movement as the medium of performance, but each of them is different because of the way in which physical movement is used. Drama with acting, sports, acrobatics/gymnastics and circus acts, magic illusion (natural), performance art and dance, all use human movements in their presentation, but in rather different ways. Dramatic acting is based on the skilled expression of emotions and portraying characters through movement, sports use human movement for achieving some physical goals as in a game, acrobatics/gymnastics and circus acts display athletic skill and amazing physical feats, magic illusion (natural) uses sleight of hand and showmanship to give surprising and intelligent tricks, while performance art is like an interactive visual art (like a sculpture or painting). Dance is distinguished by the use of rhythmic, musical movements that are visually beautiful. The musicality and beauty of movements are what make it dance. In fact, musicality and rhythmic nature are a little more prominent, because beauty of movement by itself may sometimes be associated with some other art forms (such as acrobatics, sometimes). In this way, dance is intimately linked to music, and rhythm in particular, since that gives structure to dance (more is explained below). I would insist that dance is itself a kind of music, visual music. Music is implied by the rhythmic and musical quality of dance movements and almost always, dance is done to some music, that gives it a clear reference and context.
Body movements in dancing
Pure dance movements have mainly two aspects, one of time, which is rhythm, and the other, of form. The rhythmic aspects of dance are the same as in music - beat, metre, time signature, rhythmic patterns, articulations and dynamics (see below for more explanation). The other aspect, of form in movement, is determined by which part of the body moves, how it moves, and where in space it moves. Since different parts of the body move differently, but are still connected, different regions may be separated to describe possibilities of dance movements. Steps are single movements done by different parts of the body, and since stepping in common language usually refers to foot steps, this may also be specially used for the steps in foot movements. Steps of different parts of the body are generally in a harmonious relation with each other, both in rhythm and form.
Footwork (Feet and lower leg)
Movements of the feet are some of the most important in dances, since they support the whole body above (most dance is done standing, see torso movements below), and are necessary to move or shift on the ground. Feet movements directly control the movement of the lower leg that is immediately above the foot, and the movement of this region is called footwork. Footwork often gives a clear indication of rhythm since the strikes of the feet on the ground may be counted in patterns like musical sound strikes in rhythmic music. To an extent feet control movement of the whole lower body. Feet are generally moved as a whole and toes are mostly not moved separately. Since feet are what mostly support the whole body, they are unique because of being in contact with the ground. Because of gravity, leaving the ground can only be temporary and a the feet once lifted have to be placed on the ground. A step in footwork is basically lifting a foot from the ground and keeping it back on the ground, or stepping on the ground. This may be done in different ways.
Foot support - The region of the foot supports the leg is a determining factor and it can be divided broadly as:
Flat and backward support - In this, the foot is supported by (i) the sole flat on the ground, or (ii) only the heel of the foot is on the ground, the ball (forward foot) lifted up. The flat support of the foot is most stable, and the flat step is the most common form for a step. A heel step is much less stable since it is less natural to stand on the heel, so it is generally used much lesser than flat support. But stepping with the heel first while moving forward is natural so the heel step is generally used in some forward position, since keeping a foot backward while bending the heel alone to touch the ground is unnatural and is almost never done. A side step with the outer side of the foot sole in contact with the ground (and the inner side lifted upwards and inwards) may also be used, but it is less common and is generally used similarly to the heel step. Forward support is sometimes called falling in some dance styles.
Forward support - In this, the foot is supported by the ball or toes of the foot on the ground. The ball support is the next most stable to the flat support, so ball steps may be commonly used. Toe support is very unstable, since a very small part of the feet are on the ground, and so are generally used much less than ball steps and mostly with a single foot. Since it is natural to first lift the heel off the ground and step with the ball when moving forward, the ball step is generally used in some backward position. This is also true with the toe step. A side step with the inner side of the foot sole in contact with the ground (and the outer side lifted upwards and outwards) may also be used, but is less common and is generally used similarly to the ball step. Backward support is sometimes called rising in some dance styles.
The usage of these kinds of foot support depends on the dance style. Some dance styles use steps with only particular kinds of backward and forward foot supports. Although backward support is likely to be used forward and forward support often backward, different variations in relation to position may be used depending on the style of dance. Also, even though steps with different foot supports vary in stability naturally, their usage may not be proportional to their stability and it depends on the dance style how much each of the supports are used. Similarly some of these supports may not be distinct in a dance style and if separately used, may be variations of the same kind of step.
Single foot step - A step of a single foot may be performed with different supports, with or without fully lifting the foot off the ground, and either on placing the foot after lifting, or even while lifting the foot. Combining these possibilities, various steps of a single foot can be:
Lifting a foot and stepping with a flat step, ball step, heel step, toe step or (outward or inward) side step.
Lifting only the ball of the foot (with the heel still on the ground) and stepping with it (placing it back on the ground) - in step, similarly lifting only the heel of the foot (with the ball still on the ground) and stepping with it - out step.
Stepping the ball or heel of the foot off the ground, or stepping as the foot is lifted off the ground - upward ball and heel steps, similarly stepping the flat foot as it is lifted from the ground - upward flat step.
Which of these is used and how much, completely depends on the dance style, but generally some flat and ball steps are found is almost every dance style. Among these steps, some steps like the in step (with the ball of the foot) are smaller so they can naturally be performed very fast and the others may take comparitively more time. Upward steps take the most amount of time since they have to be placed back on the ground after being lifted while stepping. The presence of any of these steps depends completely on the dance style.
A step of the foot may involve discrete or stepwise strikes with the ground, or even a continuous contact. A continuous contact is achieved by dragging the foot from one position on the ground's surface to another position, along some curve connecting the two points. Such dragging or continuous movements are used much lesser than separate steps, since they don't change rhythm of the steps and too much smooth stepping may make the rhythm unclear.
Steps and the two feet - When a foot performs a step, the other foot may be still and on the ground, or may move simultaneously.
A step made by a single foot while the other foot in stationary is a proper step, which is detached form other steps before or after it. An attached step is made when a foot makes a step, and just as it is kept on the ground, the other foot is lifted up simultaneously (and placed back on the ground sometime later), and this results in the second foot being lifted for a longer time than in a detached step. A step may be with at a single position of the ground or with shift in position on the ground's surface, which gives a moving step. Generally dense steps with much movement of the foot are made without shifting on the surface, so that the movement of shifting does not obscure the form of the individual steps. Moving steps generally have less movement of individual steps between shifting.
When a step is made by a foot, the other foot may step while the first foot is still lifted off the ground. The step by the second foot on the ground is like an addition or ornament to the first foot's main step since it is between the step of the first foot. This gives a skip step, and the step in between is small since only one foot supports the body, generally it is a flat or in step (with the ball). If the skip step is a flat step, the second foot (not lifted) has to leave the ground and be kept again, so it would give a jump with that foot while the other foot is still up. If the skip step is an in step with the ball, it does not leave the ground fully and gives a small step in between.
Stepping may be done such that both feet are simultaneously lifted as well, and this gives jumps. In jumps, both the feet may be lifted at same or different times, and similarly kept at same or different times. If only one foot is kept in the end, this gives a skip step (the other foot is kept sometime later). When both feet land at different times after being up simultaneously, a hop step is made. When both feet land at the same time after being up simultaneously, if they land at the same place as from which they were lifted, we get a proper jump step, and if they land at a shifted place, we get a leap. By bending down before jumping, a jump can be made higher, with the jump being higher with more bending before it, within the limits of gravity. Similarly higher jumps take longer times because of the bigger upward shift. In a few dance styles (mainly European), in a high jump that is a long step, the feet may be beaten forward and backward rapidly to give small pickup steps, that ornament the main step made on landing.
Position - Feet may be placed on any part of the surface around the dancer. The position may be measured by the region on the ground surface, which is two dimensional. Since, the feets' positions have a symmetric relation, because of which, for example, when one foot is forward and the other is behind it, by interchanging them, we get the position with the second foot forward and the first behind it. So we can describe feet position by the relative positions of the feet. Shifting along the surface with both feet does not affect this position.
One foot may be symmetrically just near the other (neither forward nor backward), with small or big distances between the feet. One foot may be extended before the other foot, forward, and the other foot is then behind the first, backward, with the legs crossed (the feet making a vertical line). The interchanging of these gives a backward position of the first foot is extended behind the second foot which is then forward, the legs crossed again. One foot may be extended away from the other foot making a diagonal line with it. This diagonal extension may be forward or backward. When reversed, the feet are extended along the other diagonal. A foot may be extended to the side of the other foot (making a horizontal line with it), and when reversed this gives an extension on the other side. In each of these positions the feet may be relatively close together, giving narrow steps or farther apart, giving broad steps. Broad steps need a longer time to be performed than narrow steps. In each position, the foot may step with any support, although as mentioned before, heel steps are naturally linked to forward positions and ball steps to backward positions, so this is most common. Similarly broader steps are often flat or ball steps since the forward foot is on the outer side, while heel steps, in steps with the ball and such, are more commonly found in narrower steps.
The feet may be turned in any direction in a position, straight/vertical, slightly turned out almost at right angles or fully turned out to be along a line. They are generally not turned it since it is a less natural rotation of muscles. The amount to which feet are turned out completely depends on the style.
Direction - Foot steps may be performed while shifting in any direction, when such shifting is continuously along a single direction, it gives a movement in a specific direction. The whole body then moves along this direction. The direction may be a line or curve, or even along a circle, which gives a turn or spin.
In a turn/spin, the whole body rotates or turns clockwise or anti clockwise, supported by the feet moving about an axis at the centre of a circle. The turn may cover full circles or parts of circles (arcs). A supporting foot may drag on the ground, with a part on the centre of the circle, or it may shift stepwise at different points of the turn, with the other foot or alone like in a skip step. Since turning is moving in a round direction, any steps may be made while turning, shifting steps along the circle. A single turning step may be made by lifting a foot, turning on the axis of the other foot, and keeping the first foot on the ground after turning. The supporting foot's ball may be lifted (then stepped by the ball in an in step), and the moving foot may be brought closer to the supporting foot, to sustain many consecutive turns. Turns may be performed on a fixed axis, to give proper or pivot turns, or while moving, giving revolutions. Since spinning or turning brings dizziness, the head is generally stopped to one point and held back before turning quickly and staying again at a point, to bring focused vision and avoid dizziness, and this is called spotting.
In some styles of dance, some footwear like shoes (in European and North, Central and South American dance styles) or bells on the ankles (particularly in South Asian dance styles) may be worn that is tapped when the feet step, and this tapping plays the rhythm of the footwork like in rhythmic music. Dances featuring such footwork are called step dances, and different steps of the foot (with different support) may give different variably pitched sounds tapped by the footwear.
Feet may not always support the body alone, and a bigger part of the body may also be in contact with the ground. In a sitting position, the lower leg from the knee to the feet may be in contact with the ground. In a position of lying down, the whole forward or backward body may be in contact with the ground. Since dance is generally done standing, these supports are generally used in lesser steps than steps with footwork and thus foot support. The movement may be in a kneeling down position, and the knees may step separately, drag smoothly, or even step or drag around to give turns, and such movements may or may not be used depending on the dance style.
Arm work (Arms and hands)
Arm and hand movements are prominent movements of the upper body. They may be described the change in position along some direction. Arm positions may be described by rotations along the joints of the shoulder, elbow and wrist. The shoulder, elbow and wrist may each be straight, moved upward, downward, forward or backward. Combining these different rotated positions of each of the shoulder, elbow and wrist gives different positions of the arms. Movements can be short with small shifts or smoother with wider shifts. The palm and fingers may be folded, opened and joined to any shape between a fully closed fist to a fully open flat palm. When resting the hands may also be placed above or below the sides of the hips, or hang straight on the sides.
Arms may move freely as described in the above, or it may also be used to handle some objects or to give contacts with other dancers by holding them. Hands may be used for clapping (used in many dance styles), or patting the forearms, thighs or sheen (famous in Central European, Southern African and Oceanian dance styles), which plays rhythm and so rhythmic music, and similarly even snapping fingers (famous in Iberian, Iranian and Southern Central Asian dance styles), or playing some clapping instruments such as clappers or castanets, small cymbals, etc. (common in some Southern European, West and Central Asian dance styles). Like with footwork, some jingles or jingled bracelets may also be used as rhythmic instruments by jingling with the arm movements in their rhythm (used in some South Central Asian dance styles). In group dances, dancers may also hold sticks that they beat with those of other dancers to give rhythmic tapping sounds (found in some South Asian, British, Iberian and Oceanian dance styles). All of these give rhythmic music that is part of the music matching the dance, and are used in various dance styles as special ways to express rhythm.
Some pieces of cloth or even parts of dress may be waved for beautiful effect, such as waving hand kerchiefs, fans, or waving the broad folds of a skirt at the sides (used in many European, Asian, Upper African and North, Central and South American dance styles). These can also give beautiful results when coordinated with other movements. Many styles of dance are partnered and chain dances, where the dancers, form couples (sometimes even more than two people) holding each other (in partnered dances) or groups holding each other in a line forming a chain of attached people (in chain dances). A dancer may be held by other dancers even for support to perform unstable movements which need external support to be sustained. Hence such dances necessarily need more than one dancer to be performed. Some dance styles like Maypole dances (found in Europe), have a group of dancers holding strings attached to the top of a pole and moving around the pole in different directions so that the strings are wound around the pole in different patterns. Some objects like canes, and sometimes even weapons may be manipulated in some dance styles, and this can look somewhat acrobatic (common in some British and Peninsular Arabian dance styles). When arm work involves handling such objects or contacts with others, often footwork has more separate movement.
Torso and upper leg
The torso is important in dance because it gives the body its shape, being in the middle. Proper posture of the torso is necessary for good form in dance. Most dances are done while standing, that is, with the torso upright and straight. This is common because of the freedom of arms and legs possible from this position. However there are dance styles which use most bent or squatting positions of the torso, where the dancer is almost sitting in air. Dance styles may use slight bends to support movement in general, without having the torso fully upright. The torso, from the chest to the hind, is directly attached to the upper leg and the movements of any of these affects parts of the other. So they may be considered to be a single region. However there are a few dance styles (such as in Arabic regions and Ocenia), in which some or even all dancers are sitting or almost sitting while dancing, and while others may even dance standing up, these dancers may or may not shift vertically. Most dances also sometimes vary the vertical height by bending to different heights. When the body is bent (the torso mainly) to a very low position, it is like sitting, and the thighs and sheens are then close by, with the heels raised. Dance movements made with the legs very near to the floor, or the body resting on the floor, make up floor work. Any dance movements done while sitting, lying down, moving with the knees, and dragging on the ground, are all part of floor work.
Torso movements can be described, other than height/vertical level, in relation to the turning of the different muscles within the torso and upper leg. The positions on rotating these muscles can be generally said to be forward, backward, leaning left or right and being straight/flat for each of the chest and shoulders, stomach and waist, hips and hind sides, and hind and upper leg. The region of the chest, shoulders and stomach and the region from the hips and hinds to the upper leg are each interconnected and can be considered separately as upper and lower torso movements. When the upper and lower torso are bent in opposite directions this gives a twist, which may result from the direction of movements of the upper and lower body even otherwise. Torso movements may be used along with arm movements to support upper body movements, or in some dance styles may even be isolated to give specific movements of the torso region. These movements are also specially used in some dance styles (some of which are found in Central and South America, Northern and Eastern Africa, Turkey, Northern Central Asia and Oceania). When dance uses the whole body, upper torso work may be connected to arm work and breathing, while lower torso work may be connected to footwork sometimes. The torso is turned around or rotated with the whole body, in turns or spins. The torso may be slowly swayed sideways and by slightly rocking in height or level, to give a beautiful effect.
Head and neck
The head and neck are a small part, and their movement depends most on the rotation of the head and neck. The neck's rotation from one side to the other, can give positions on the sides, and further even towards the back, diagonals and straight forward. The arms and torso may be turned and accompanied by the turning of the neck and head, which may then possibly be even further behind. The level of the chin can give different heights of the head, low, middle/straight and high. A combination of neck roation and lifting the head can give various head movements like rotation and moving along various curves. The dancer may look towards movements of other parts of the body, or towards the audience, for a harmonious effect. Facial expressions can make a dance lively or pleasant and even exciting to the audience because of expressiveness but in pure dance, they don't convey any particular emotion. A calm or excited expression may be used in many dance styles to give a balanced form in dance. Longer hair may also be used to dance, by waving it in different directions and along different curves. Some dances make a very special use of hair movements, like many dance styles (for example from the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa). Swaying, smooth head movements with slow swaying of the torso may be used to give a very pleasant effect. Head movements are generally harmonious with movements of the other parts of the body.
Steps, cells and phrases in dance
Single steps of various parts of the body performed with their specific form and within a certain time suitable for the kind of movement, are combined to give small groups of movement made of a small sequence of steps, called a dance cell or motif, formed as letters are combined to form words. In different dance styles, different cells or motifs are made, with their particular rhythmic pattern, and are used according to the dance style. These cells or motifs are combined to form lines called dance phrases, which are like sentences formed out of words. Such phrases are then placed in some order or sequence to give movements or sections of compositions, which are put together give whole pieces or compositions of dance. This structure in dance is parallel to musical structure, with single steps grouped in the same way musical sounds are in compositions.
Bigger steps may generally be used for main or comparitively accented rhythmic points, while smaller steps can be used for some other unaccented rhythmic points or even as additions to ornament these main steps. Just as in rhythmic music, dance ornaments may be measured by the separation between different steps. In footwork, the steps of the two feet may have different amounts of separation. When there is a very small separation between two steps, so that when made one after the other, they almost look like a single step, we get an ornament similar to acciaccaturas or flams in rhythmic music, and these steps are nearby in space but still distinct. When there are short steps leading to a main step from nearby and done just before it, either by stepping on the ground or beating feat in the air in a few styles, but still separate from the main step, giving an ornament of pickup steps similar to appogiaturas or drags/ruffs in rhythmic music. Fast sequences of short steps rapidly made, separate but very nearby, give ornaments similar to runs, tremolos/trills and rolls in rhythmic music. Stepwise stepping of short steps between two positions gives a movement similar to stepwise glissandos in rhythmic music, while smooth dragging on the ground gives an ornament comparable to continuous glissandos or portamentos in rhythmic music. These are generally used less than separate steps so that the rhythm of the movements is clear.
Articulations and dynamics - Long articulations/legato correspond to long steps and longer times taken to rest, while short articulations/staccato correspond to short steps and shorter times taken to rest. Accenting may be done either using main steps, which are bigger than unaccented small steps. Accenting may also be done by changing dynamics. Dynamics in dance are related to force in movement, and softer dynamics mean gentler movements and louder dynamics mean more forceful movements. Forceful movements may be used for accenting, compared to gentler unaccented movements.
Rhythmic structure in dance and choreography
The framework of time is given in dance by beats, metre and time signature, just as in music with rhythm (please see a previous post). Just as in rhythmic music, different patterns of short and long rhythmic sounds (tuned or variably pitched) and silences of varying length, give rhythmic patterns, similarly in dance, different patterns of short and long steps (movements of a single gesture) and pauses of varying length, give rhythmic patterns. Shorter and longer notes of the rhythmic pattern correspond to relatively short and long steps, or short and long articulations. Different musical steps and movements take naturally more or less time, and generally, broader movements are related to longer times while narrower movements are related to shorter times. For example, shorter steps with less shift in position (on the ground or a parallel surface) and less shift between displacing and pausing (which includes not lifting feet very high or for much time before stepping) can easily be performed in shorter times (although they can be made slower if wished), while some longer steps with broad shift in position and long gaps between displacing and pausing (including jumping and turning) actually need longer timess to perform. This is simply because of the natural human physiology, where greater shifting needs more time, and is also because broad and still fast movements cannot be clearly seen by the audience. Making very broad movements in very short times can cause muscle pain and fatigue so it is generally avoided.
Dance music - Since for music to be danced to, the music needs to clearly indicate rhythm that may be in some way matched by dance, music used for dance has to have some layers of rhythmic music. Not all layers of music have to necessarily be rhythmic, but generally, at least accompanying layers that may indicate beats and metre, and often even some leading or independent layers are rhythmic. When a dance composition is performed to a musical composition, its rhythm is in an even relation to that of the music, that is, the dance and musical rhythms are in a homorhythmic relation. Although a polyrhythmic relation between some musical layers and dance may be found, there is generally some musical layer that is still homorhythmic with the dance. The simultaneous music and dance have to have a common rhythmic base to appear coherent. For this, the tempo has to be matched, the beats, metre and time signature have to coincide to some extent, and the music and dance have to be rhythmically in phase, to an extent. Dance should be performed to music in which it falls in place, or moves with the music. If dance is performed with music that it does not match in its flow, the result would be chaotic and may appear unpleasant. Because of this, a dance composition and the music to which it is danced have proper relations between them and one of them cannot be randomly replaced without changing the other. But every musical sound and silence need not be matched by every dance step and pause (although in some dance styles this is done to give a generally united beautiful movement), instead the relation between dance and musical movements is broadly parallel. Because movement has to be matched between dance and music, their patterns of accents, non - accents, articulations, rests and dynamic quality are matched between dance and music. Music may be specially made to be played with dancing, and to highlight movement in dance, and such special music for dance is then called dance music. Dance music generally has some rhythmic instrument to give a clear reference of rhythm to the dance performance.
Cadences and poses - A dance composition ends with some phrase which indicates the end of the composition. Like rhythmic music, the end or cadence is performed by repeating some patterns or become regular till the ending step is reached at the first beat of a bar or cycle. In relation to form, the dance comes to rest by staying at a stable position. Stationary positions in dance in which dance may stay momentarily, are called poses. Dance by itself is not a sequence of changing poses with different durations, but actual movement, and not just any movement but rhythmic movement that is musical. So poses by themselves do not give dance but are rather like static sculptures. But pausing may be done in the dance to give different endings to phrases and parts of a composition or performance, and meaningfully divide the performance. Pausing may also give a dramatic effect between movement and rest. So poses or positions taken while pausing have to have a beautiful form since they are a part of dance. Comparitively stable forms are generally taken since the dancer has to stay in those positions and so that the form looks consistent and even. Cadences at the end of compositions are generally reached by reaching a very stable form, which generally has a relaxed position for the arms, head and torso, and the feet reach the ground completing a step in the end. The position may be standing, or even reaching the ground in a position similar to sitting. However as an exception, some dance styles sometimes also use a comparitively unstable position in the end before soon reaching a fully stable position, such as placing feet on the ground.
Formations in dance - In group dances, another combined effect may be produced, by making formations of the dancers. The dancers can weave different patterns on the floor and join with each other in some formations that get their shape from the relative positions of all the dancers. Thus formations in dances need more than a single dancer. Circles, lines, or any curves and even solid figures may be made by groups. These may be formed for sometime, with or without pausing while the formation lasts (individual dancers may be still moving in dance), and then broken to reach other formations.