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WRITING ABOUT DANCE

On this page, Elizabeth Zimmer shares insight on how to think and write about dance that she has gathered from decades of writing about and reviewing dance. Read more about Elizabeth here.

LOOKING AT DANCE

By Elizabeth Zimmer

“Everybody’s a critic,” popular wisdom has it. Don’t have the name without the game! These guidelines can help you think like a dance critic as you view a performance of new dances.

 

1. Before the show begins, be in the room. Don’t come late. Concentrate. Meditate. Turn off your cell phone; shush your date.

 

2. Focus your attention on the stage. A theater is a machine for concentrating attention, unlike, say, a basketball stadium….

 

3. Listen closely to the music or other sound accompaniment.

 

4. If you’re so inclined, take notes. By writing down what especially grabs you, you free up space in your mind to notice new things. It’s hard to write in the dark, but figure out a way to do it so you don’t write over your previous notes, and so you can read it later. “Later” means “at intermission” or immediately after the concert. Don’t wait too long or you may not be able to decipher your scribblings!

 

5. Unlike theater or a book, dance rarely gives you verbal clues, so you have to pay careful attention. Write down the words that run through your head. Write down what you see. 

 

6. Look for patterns and recurring forms. What are the dancers actually doing? Does there seem to be a narrative, or story?  Are there gender differences, or is the same movement assigned to all performers? 

 

7. Are you bored? Why? Is your attention drifting? Why? Pull it back, make notes. Notice everything. 

 

8. What are they wearing? Why? How do the costumes, lighting, and/or scenery influence your response to the dance?

 

9. What are the dancers doing with their eyes? Where is their focus? What difference does this make?

 

10. What feelings does the dance bring up in you? How is it doing that?

 

11. What ideas are you having about this dance? What ideas do you think the choreographer was having?

 

12. What else is on your mind? Do you like the work? Why or why not?

 
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
BEFORE YOU START TO WRITE ABOUT A PERFORMANCE

Compiled for the Dance Critics Association

By Deborah Jowitt, Marcia Siegel, and Elizabeth Zimmer

1. How much space (how many words or inches) will I have for this review?

 

2. How much time do I have to write it?

 

3. What format demands are made by my publication that will affect the way I structure my review?

 

4. What credits do I have to work into the review?  Do I need an “ID box”? A title? A “kicker”?

 

5. Who is the audience for this performance? Who will be reading this review?

 

6. What facts (as opposed to opinions) about the performance are germane to my readership and to the historical record?

 

7. What is the strongest impression I carry away from the performance? How might I build the review around this impression?

 

8. What idea can I express completely about the performance within the space and time available?

 

9. What helpful information can I extract from my notes?

10. Have I read and interpreted the program notes with intelligence and skepticism?

 

11. What were the performers actually doing? 

 

12. What kind of people do they appear to be, and what does their movement reveal about the organization of their society?

 

13. Where is the choreographer coming from? What’s the cultural attitude or context or framework behind the choreography?  In what movement idiom does it present its ideas?

 

14. What information about the artist’s training and background should my readers know?

 

15. What was the visual environment (space, sets, costumes, lighting) and what was its effect on the work?

 

16. How does the choreographer use the music or other sound accompaniment?

 

17. What kind of atmosphere or environment does the sound suggest?

 

18. Does the work succeed? If so, how? If not, why not?

 

19. How skillful are the dancers? What was the quality of their performance?

 

20. What else do I think or feel about the work that hasn’t been touched on above?

 
NOTES TOWARDS CONCISE WRITING:
SAYING WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY IN RESTRICTED SPACE

By Elizabeth Zimmer

People who write for money—journalists, biographers, anyone who’s writing anything they expect some outside undertaking to publish—know that market forces have changed what they can sell. We deal with audiences (and editors) who are increasingly busy and overburdened, and accustomed to multitasking.  Journalistic writing in the 21st century is a different phenomenon than it was even 20 years ago. Designers have won a lot of battles; capitulating to readers in the habit of viewing video rather than print, they demand more white space and pictures on each page, and less text. Listen to the way kids talk now; we are moving toward a dialect of one-syllable words, and of the abbreviations used in text messages. That doesn’t mean you need to “dumb down” your writing, only that it’s more essential than ever to keep it alive, so your readers will stay with you. 

 

In my long career as an editor and teacher (and in a less conscious way, as a writer) I’ve discovered that nearly all writing muddles boil down to problems with one of the following four points. Pay careful attention to them, and you’ll find it possible to deliver copy that is clear, powerful, and 10 percent shorter, without losing any of the points you want to make.

 

1. Avoid the passive voice, unless you have conscious reason for using it.  It’s boring, requires the use of copulative verb particles, and generally takes up more space than an active construction would. An active sentence: Teach a man to fish, and he can feed his family.  Passive: The family of a man who is taught to fish will be fed.

 

2. Monitor your use of vague, general words like this, that, these, it, the, some, and something, and copulative verbs like am, is, are, was, were. In situations where space is tight, use the space to best advantage by cultivating active verbs and nouns that communicate the flavor and energy of the subject you’re describing.

 

3. Watch carefully your use of “negative” constructions. Tell the reader what something is, rather than what it isn’t.  This doesn’t mean you can’t be “critical.”  I find it economical, in tight situations, to discuss or describe what’s happening rather than what isn’t. 

 

4. When you’re finished writing, read your work aloud, to anyone who will listen or just to yourself.  It’s the best way, even better than spelling and grammar checkers, to notice errors, and you’re immediately aware if your prose is dull. Have you varied the length and design of your sentences? Have you attached an adjective to every noun? (If so, consider losing a few.) Have you labeled every adjective or verb with an adverb? (Trim your text.) Have you been consistent in your use of verb tenses? Take this opportunity to double check the spellings of names and other facts in your material; as editorial staffs shrink, it’s less likely that anyone else will do this for you.