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On this page, we learn the fundamental elements that are central to all dance, regardless of genre.



As basic to dance as it is to life, form is always present. Everything has a form or a structure, even if it is not readily visible or understood. Form is present throughout the natural world, in the rings of a tree, the veins in a leaf, the formation of a hurricane, as it is in all of life's cycles and stages of development. The universal pattern of day alternating with night, the eruption of a volcano, the life cycle of a caterpillar, the growth of a tree. These are examples of natural forms that demonstrate a beginning, middle, and end. Form does not have to follow this type of progression or even show contrast. It can be about only one thing, such as daydreaming on a dock on a pond. A form can have a single heightened moment, waiting for something to happen, a phone ringing. Form binds a piece of art and makes it cohere with an internal logic. Form can function as both the messenger and the message. When used well, form grows with and supports the dance’s theme, producing an organic structure which the dance, ideas and format all complement. We create forms to create order in our lives, to help us understand things that would otherwise be harder to grasp. Think of a night sky filled with stars. We identify the constellation Cassiopeia, easily seen by the form of its W shape. We like to make patterns. What doesn’t have form?


The most common forms in dance come from musical forms. A form can have an AB format, A representing one idea followed by B, something different. A dance may follow an ABA form, beginning and ending similarly with a contrasting middle section. A rondo further extends the form with other sections, such as ABACADA. Canon is a type of form, which you can learn more about below. Theme and Variation is another type of common form, which our Guide to Making Dance presents in visual detail. In this excerpt from Oracle Daniel narrates the numerous uses of form which are on display.


You can find another example of how form is used in The Carousel Dance, created for a group of elementary school students and four Company dancers during a residency at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard in 2001. The form of the dance mirrors the form of the music. When the music repeats, the dance repeats. The dance’s form, mostly, a circle, supports and suggests the image of the dance’s title, a merry-go-round.


Framework is a dance that was produced with six second grade students and six Company dancers. Commissioned for 2009’s In The Studio series at New York City Center, this ensemble dance was choreographed to highlight the various forms one can find in dance: from circles of varying sizes to intersecting lines to dancing with a partner, the duet form.


The solo form is a common and fundamental one in dance. This extended one below begins the evening-length dance Tribe. Below you can watch and listen to Derek narrate Learning and Rehearsing a Solo, Cary McWilliam narrate her performance from 2005’s season, Chapters, at the Ailey Citigroup Theater; platform guest Tiffany Rea-Fisher narrate Daniel’s signature solo Character; and relish in Christian von Howard’s performance and commentary of Lone from 2002’s New Territory season at Joyce SoHo.



A pattern is a part of form. A checkerboard. Squares alternating in a pattern of red and black. Something repeats enough to suggest there is a pattern. What happens when the pattern is disrupted? The unexpected comes in. Even when there is a snarl and the pattern seems bunched out of place, like a snagged piece of fabric, that may be part of a larger pattern, a larger form. Sometimes it’s hard, or even impossible, to see the pattern. But does this mean it isn’t there? Bullseye, below, demonstrates how pattern can be used in choreography and plays with this. Volcano is highly patterned, regulating how the dancers are placed in and navigate the space, structuring how they interact with each other in the space.


Partnering in dance encompasses the duet form. It is also a more expansive term. It refers to trios, quartets, and larger groups. Partnering can be simple, as is evidenced in the examples of folk dance on the platform, or intricate as seen in the dances below. This footage of the dance Rose Room, shot from the wings, brings us close to the dancers as they demonstrate the connections formed with a partner. 




A quartet of narrated duets, South narrated by Jamie Scott, Embraceable narrated by Derek Crescenti; Museum narrated by Vanessa Martínez de Baños, and Ain’t She Sweet, narrated by Dwayne Brown. More duets on our DANCES page.


Complexity in dance can be demonstrated in the dodging, connecting, and collapsing of bodies in the quartet Affront. These narrated videos highlight the precision dancers can employ in complex ways. Intricate partnering is a hallmark of the repertory. The complex intersections of dancers can suggest the complex interrelationships between people. Watch the original cast and production of Affront in the first video, and view the evolution of the dance as it expanded in length with this excerpted second version. To view the complete twenty-two minute dance, visit the Affront page.


Counterbalancing, or sharing weight, is one way in which partners can work together. The two videos below showcase junior high school students working collaboratively to find this state of equilibrium.

Affront Hand Dance
Form in action



There are many tools used in the construction of dances as there are in the construction of buildings. As hammers and drills and pliers and saws are used to build a house, so too a toolbox of compositional devices is used to manipulate movement, the body, the use of space and time, and the qualities dancers use. The form and theme of a dance are adjusted through the use of these devices. A few key ones include unison and canon. The heart of our platform, the visual guide of these devices in action, can be seen in How To Make A Dance: A Visual Guide.


For an overview of how many of the compositional devices can be employed in a dance, please enjoy Cycles, a signature dance from the repertory which premiered in 2000. Cary McWilliam narrates.


Unison in dance has the same meaning as the word does generally, to do something simultaneously. When the dancers are performing the same movements together at the same time, they are dancing in unison. An extended example of unison can be evidenced in Willow, one of the platform's premieres.​​​






Listen to Company dancer Derek Crescenti refer to the compositional devices used in three classic dances from the repertory: Repetition in the Summertime Suite, Opposition and Mirroring in Olympiad, and Accumulation in Indiana, the finale of Encore. Watch Timebomb and identify which devices you observe are being used. A detailed visual and aural explanation of these devices can be seen and heard in the series of films produced for the platform's How To Make A Dance: A Visual Guide.






Call and response occurs when an action is introduced and then it is copied. It can be a spoken sentence, a phrase from a song, a series of claps, or any movement at all. The caller presents the action and the responders echo. It is a conversation between listening and/or watching and doing.

Comp Devices



Improvisation is part of the choreographic process, it is part of choreography. To make up movement in the moment is to improvise dance. Many choreographers use the structure of improvisation to generate movement and develop ideas. In this favorite section from Encore dancer Lauren Kravitz improvises with the hat when it gets passed to her. Whichever dancer receives it improvises on the spot to music. Daniel improvised for a few seconds on one of the terraces at The Getty Center in Los Angeles, a planned idea, even though what form and shape the movement would take was unknown. In contrast is this rehearsal footage, which captured a spontaneous moment.




To view a more extended passage of improvisation enjoy this film.



The theme of a dance is like the theme of a film or a story. What is the main thing this dance is about? In some choreography the intention of the choreographer may not be immediately clear, however a theme of some kind emerges. What is the overriding story, feeling, mood, idea, relationship, statement, noticeable activity, noteworthy action? What is the dance conveying? To you! It doesn’t matter how someone else receives dance. What is important is how one engages with dance, how one receives it. So one can enjoy it. What themes emerge for you from watching the duet Coupling? Watch both versions, the original in 2002 and a recent production from 2019.




The theme of a dance can be expansive and is limited only by the choreographer’s imagination. Some themes follow an explicit narrative, as in a written story, and others are more abstract. In Coupling, there is not one recognizable story. In this first video you can listen to original cast member Cary McWilliam share some of the thematic ideas that pass through her head as she performs the dance. In the second video, Vanessa Martínez de Baños narrates. Below, the choreographer discusses the dance's themes.

He says, “For me the genesis of Coupling was actually just that, genesis…in the beginning.  I thought, what if Adam had come from Eve’s rib?  The concept for the dance sprung from that initial premise.  In this world, women preceded men, women supported and nurtured men.  I’ve always been interested in representing gender equality through choreography and Coupling was a way to subvert the biblical tale.”

To learn more about theme and how it can be developed and applied to a dance, visit the heart of the Dance With Us platform, How To Make A Dance: A Visual Guide.

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