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Home >> Learn >> Elements of Dance


There are certain shared foundational elements which all dance shares. Dance, whether in apparent motion or not, requires a body, space, time, and some quality or effort to produce the motion or the lack of it. One does not have to be standing to be dancing. One does not have to have legs or the use of them to dance. Dance occurs in chairs, on the floor. Dances produced have encompassed a wide range of settings, from a bed to a boardroom. There is always movement going on within the human body, even when still. Stillness is a contrast to movement. It is one end of the time spectrum. Fast means something relative to what slow means. In dance, dancers are fine-tuning their instruments, their bodies, daily to realize every available use of time, from moving in slow-motion to very slow to slow to medium to fast to very fast to fast-forward. The elements all have a range.


The Body

The body is the dancer’s instrument. As with people, the instrument itself can be as varied: any size, shape, ability, training, experience. What makes a person a dancer? We believe it’s a frame of mind, a choice to call oneself a dancer, a comfort to do so. Anyone can be a dancer. The specific training that a professional dancer obtains is unique to a genre of dance. The tap dancer’s instrument shares many things with a modern dancer’s instrument, yet the instruments are also singularly shaped. Technique in contemporary concert dance can range from exacting to effortless. There’s a technique to making things look like there isn’t a technique too. Pedestrianism is a style, a vocabulary, a compositional device, within modern dance, and dance in general. A person inherently moves as a dancer moves. Dancers heighten this movement and stylize it. Movement is movement. What is the difference between a professional dancer walking in a pedestrian way and a pedestrian walking? What makes one call someone a dancer? View themselves as a dancer? In dance, the framing of movement is focused on the body.


Filmed during the pandemic, this narrated dance film was crafted and shot in the span of one hour. A collaboration between choreographer and filmmaker Daniel Gwirtzman and dancer Dwayne Brown, the solo is titled Duet With Railing. In this film you will see how the dancer's body can adapt to a unique environment based on training, exploration, and skill. It is an example of site-specific work. See below.




Puzzle is a signature dance and audience favorite from the repertory. Choreographed in 2002, Puzzle is an exploration of form as made possible by three varied bodies. The original cast of Cary McWilliam, Jason Garcia Ignacio, and Daniel Gwirtzman demonstrate how shapes can occur not only within a body, but from multiple bodies coming together and attaching. Shapes can be straight, bent, curved, spiraled, or twisted. They can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. They can be compact or expansive, detailed or broad, narrow or wide, high or low. There are an infinite number of shapes the body can produce by itself and in relationship to others. This image was captured by photographer Lois Greenfield.


Creating is at the heart of the Dance With Us philosophy. Learning to use one’s body to create movement is the beginning of dance composition. In these videos, Kindergarten through Fourth Grade students make shapes one at a time and in duet form, with two joining to make a collaborative shape.


In both visual art and the performative art of dance, the space that surrounds and fills in the cracks between subjects or bodies is known as “negative space.” As an audience member, one may experience a moment in which the eye is drawn not to the dancer but to the space that one or more dancers create as they move and connect to form new shapes. That is a moment of witnessing negative space. Negative space is the space that is created in and around a shape, which is referred to as a positive shape in virtual art. 

In this photograph you can see the rectangular negative space created in the space through Daniel’s arms, like a window. In the dance film Duet With Railing you can see an example of this in action.

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A body exists in space…moves in space…is contained by space. A dancer’s place and design in space, the direction and level she moves in, and her attitude toward the space, all help define the image being created. Where and how the dancer looks can shape the space. Space is a three-dimensional canvas on which the dancer creates dynamic images. Space can be considered an active participant, an abstract partner.  Murray Louis, in “Dance as an Art Form,” wrote: “In its basic form, space is a void—silent, sterile, innocent—before consciousness, before life.” A choreographer must fill and mold that void. Space can be symbolic. Something occurring in a corner of a stage space can be interpreted differently than the same action occurring in the center of the space. Certain connections and connotations come from viewing a body’s orientation to the space. We jump up. We fall down. Or we might fall back. Or fall forward. A race goes forward. A retreat pushes us back. We move forward in space when confident and aggressive. While these are all broad and there are exceptions to all, associations remain. Certain actions have certain spatial affinities. The dancer can be working in a limited, personal space or they might be working throughout a larger, more general space.


In Dollhouse, the space the dancers are working in is very prescribed and unique. It is an example of site-specific dance, where a dance is made in conversation with the space in which it is occurring.


Sometimes, space can be an obstacle in dance. Here, dancers Simone Stevens and Simon Phillips were tasked with performing a dance in the back of a truck! Dancers excel in spatial sensitivity, learning how to adapt dances to a variety of spaces. This is an example of site specificity, which you can learn more about below.

In June of 2016, Un Lieu, Une Oeuvre, a gallery in Ménerbes, Provence, France, invited Daniel to perform in its space, the first time the gallery had featured a live performance. His conception to dance behind the door was in keeping with the gallery's premise: one artwork displayed at a time. The crowd outside became agitated when their ability to see the dance was impaired by their own reflections. Mireille Cartet, owner of the space, interrupts Daniel mid-performance of Character, a signature solo. He begins again with the door open, then continues with a series of improvisations in the street.


The dance film Willow, which has premiered with the platform’s launch, is a terrific example of a stationary dance. The finale from Encore is an example of the opposite, with dancers traveling across the space almost all the way through. You’ll be able to identify when the dancers stay in place or work in a stationary space versus when they are moving throughout the general space.






In this footage from a 2018 rehearsal of Affront, as the work was being created, you can enjoy a look at how the dancers respond to the space around them, the specificity of their pathways, and how their sensitivity to each other maintains appropriate distances. It is not uncommon for dancers to bump into each other and collide as these spatial negotiations are being discovered and worked out. Dancers solve spatial problems in real time as they sculpt the space with attention to shape, time, and quality.


Dances that are specifically choreographed to be in a different space than the typical stage or studio are called “site-specific.” These are dances that choreographers do not see existing anywhere else; they invent movement that could only happen in that certain space. One might choreograph a dance on a street, on a roof, on a lawn, in a playground, or even in a bathroom. In the video below, watch Pier, a site-specific dance choreographed and filmed on a pier on the island of Itaparica, in Bahia, Brazil.


No Trespassing is a dance choreographed in a barn. Some of the movement was brought into the space to fill the void, the center space. Other parts of the choreography were born completely from that space and could only be used in this space: you can see examples of how the architecture of the space inspired the compositional choices: the walls, the ledges, the beams, and the stones.

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Another example of site-specific work is the film Sisyphus, shot in northern California and narrated by one of the platform's guests, choreographer and company director JoAnna Mendl Shaw. She describes how this is an example of task-based choreography, that the viewer is observing a real task unfolding in real time, and she discusses how the film is deeply connected to the space in which it occurs.

Site Specificity
In The Studio


Time is an inseparable component of choreography. When talking about time, there are multiple aspects to discuss. Tempo and Stillness are defined below. Duration refers to how long an action or movement lasts. It could be five seconds, five minutes, an hour, or a day. Momentum is the product of the dancer's mass and velocity and is created by the dancer moving in a constant direction. Just as a car gains momentum so does a dancer when traveling across space. Meter is a group of beats occurring with some pattern of intervals, whether even or uneven. Is there a beat to the music? Is there a meter? Are the dancers keeping a regular or irregular timing? An even or regular beat can be comforting, but it can also be monotonous, or worse, deadening. An irregular beat can have an array of suggestions: surprise, hilarity, annoyance, unpredictability, awkwardness, disjointedness. Accenting certain beats affects time. A movement lasting shorter or longer than others inherently creates an accent and gives it emphasis. Rhythm is formed from a pattern of beats or steps that occur over time. Our heartbeat is a rhythm. Our breath is as well. In both the rhythm can be altered for a variety of reasons. It can become less steady, the tempo can increase, it can alternate in an unpredictable fashion between regularity and irregularity.


One of the most difficult dances in the repertory, set to Chick Webb’s Harlem Congo, is lovingly referred to as Congo. The dance begins with a flurry of fast footwork that is both pedestrian -- based on walks and skips -- and virtuosic in its use of speed, rhythm, directional changes, and unexpected shifts of weight.


Tempo refers to the speed in which movement, the dance, is occurring. A fast tempo of running versus a slow tempo of gently stretching. A tempo can carry psychological associations. For example, moving quickly could suggest being late, afraid, anxious, out of control, or efficient. Or one might simply enjoy the pleasure of moving fast! Conversely, one might move slowly to suggest fatigue, reflection, depression, indulgence, discomfort, or comfort!


A paused moment, a stillness, is another aspect of Time. Stillness works as a contrast within dance, allowing a viewer to pause and take in what is seen, a moment to slow down along with the dancers. An extended use of stillness can be found in this excerpt from Tourist Point of View and in the dance Affront.


Do all dances have counts? What’s a benefit of not having set counts/how does this affect the dancer? These questions often come when discussing dance. This video illuminates how dancers use counting as a structure when performing dance. More about counting can be found on the Volcano page.



All movement has a quality. Even if that quality is non-descriptive, bland, unmemorable, unnoteworthy, monotonous, plain, common, generic, simple, easy, relaxed, chaotic, random, or unpredictable. Learning to describe movement, and then full dances, by discussing their qualities is a way to begin conversing about dance.


Filmed for the launch of Dance With Us in June 2021, watch Company Dancers Vanessa Martínez de Baños and Derek Crescenti share some of the different qualities that dance can demonstrate.

Colin demonstrates the range of qualities on which a dancer might focus. Quality affects the way the dancer’s instrument is seen and heard. The same exact movement, such as stamping one’s foot, could be violent, a strong quality, comic, an exaggerated quality, or gentle, a slow, unaccented quality. While most actions have associations with certain qualities, in dance these relationships between what an action is and how it is executed are often disrupted.



Music seems like such an obvious part of dance that most people cannot imagine dance without it and believe it is a requirement. While most dances are set to music, modern dance as a genre does not have any expectation that music needs to be used. There are dances that do not have music at all, that are in silence. There are dances that use found sounds as a score, such as people arguing as in the dance Affront. When music is used in a dance it can serve to provide an atmosphere, it can provide a structure for the choreography to follow or respond to, or it can be a literal guide, with the movement visualizing the specific phrasing and dynamics of the music. To experience how music can be used in contrasting ways watch Obsession and Cycles.



There are numerous genres of dance: how many can you list? Tap, jazz, modern, hip-hop, ballroom, flamenco, step, clogging, folk, ballet, salsa, tango, disco, merengue, swing, line dances...this would be a very preliminary list. Countries have folk, social, national, popular dances. In this section of the LEARN page we are highlighting only a few from the global world of dance idioms. We focus primarily through the lens of modern dance, a contemporary Westernized construction that is a relatively new art form, having been birthed at the beginning of the 20th Century. There are dances that go back centuries and beyond: dances from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, from South America, Latin America, Native American dances. There are American folk dances that came from England or Scotland, and those that were created here in the United States. Genres such as jazz dance themselves contain numerous different sub-genres, such as Afro-Caribbean, Funk, House, Latin Jazz, West Coast, Broadway, and Musical Theater dance. This is not comprehensive, but a sampler.



Automobile Ride is a dance which straddles genres, living at the intersection of the contemporary musical theater and modern dance, as does the show Encore from which it is excerpted. A brief dance of just over a minute, it is action-packed.


Volcano, a dance which premiered in 1999 for a cast of seven women, represents concert modern dance. There are many modern dance companies and many modern dances that exist in the world’s repositories of dance repertories. They work in many different styles. There is no monolithic modern dance to represent the genre.


Certain immediate associations may come to mind when one hears a certain genre, such as jazz dance. As with modern dance the genre is too deep and wide to be characterized by any one dance or definition. The influence and foundation of jazz music however is central and key. To gain an introduction to the diversity of jazz dance we suggest learning from the book 'Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches'.


Daniel, who has danced folk dances since elementary school, has presented at the National Dance Education Organization’s annual conferences on the subject of folk dancing. In Washington, D.C. in 2016, Daniel presented Stamping and Skipping: The Art and Pedagogy of Folk Dance. In 2020, he presented a movement workshop called  Folk You: Using Folk Dance Forms to Dismantle Hierarchy.


Stephanie Koltiska demonstrates a few seconds of a tap improvisation. How does watching tap make you feel? How does it feel to do it? You can replay the video and follow along, even without tap shoes. Copy her coordination and rhythm. Dancers that are fluent in tap have an incredible virtuosity in their instrument and acute rhythmic skills.


Maksim Al-Names, born in Russia, shared this solo when the Company performed its Welcome to the World of Dance program in Sheridan, Wyoming. Virtuosic is a different way than the jazz dancing in Indiana, or the facile footwork from the tap improvisation, Maksim brings full-bodied flair to the traditional national folk dance.

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