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The dance language

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Dance as a visual art form cannot be written or painted or depicted in any other form except video or live viewing. So, how do humans reproduce performances or learn steps?


Can the dance language be written?

dancers in long exposure

Technically yes. But also, no.

The capacity of humans to document everything in our path is a primal need for exploration, understanding, and curiosity. Every new thing we encounter, we document it, whether in terms of a photograph, a video, a text, and ultimately, of course, a memory. That's what we are meant to do from the moment we enter this world until we leave it. We continuously learn and document.

Just as in astronomy or biology, so in dance, humans observe other bodies to learn from them and document what dance means for them.

Great ballets and dance performances have been written and passed down from one generation of dancers to the next through documentation and memory. However, although these can be the same named productions from across the world and have the same story and characters, the dance can be slightly different.

Just like any language spoken in multiple places on Earth, dance has its own vocabulary based on its location as well as the people executing it. For example, if you watch a Russian ballet retelling of Cinderella, it will be completely different from watching a Brazilian ballet retelling of Cinderella—just as much as an astrologer will see a different night sky in Russia than in Brazil.

The Dance Vocabulary

barefoot women dancers dancing in a circle

Every dance has its own vocabulary of steps, moves, flips, and sequences which do not always universally have the same name or technique. Dancers learn to understand dance as visual learners, kinesthetic learners, or auditory learners. Reading and writing to learn dance is more challenging.

In a typical classroom, the student gets to see, listen, try, and experience the moves by themselves by interacting with the teacher, learning exactly the names and techniques of the steps as the teacher intends them to be. A person reading a book about the same dance can only understand what those steps might look like according to what the author wrote. Without previous experience and understanding of the dance, the reader will have a hard time understanding the dance properly.

Let's exemplify the box step:

A classroom student knows it as:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or front - right - together - back - left - together

A reader/writer student knows it as:

  1. Step forward with the left foot

  2. Right foot step sideways to the right

  3. Bring your left foot next to your right foot

  4. Step back with the right foot

  5. Step back sideways with the left foot

  6. Bring your right foot next to your left foot

Of course, every person will do each step in their own way, as their body allows them to.

So yes or no?

It's a little bit of both. Each movement is a stroke of a unique brush to paint stories, emotions, and cultural nuances onto the canvas of the stage.

The very essence of dance lies in its ephemeral nature—a moment captured in time and space, alive only when bodies are in motion. Yet, through the art of the written word, dance takes on a different dimension, allowing us to glimpse the unseen threads that weave through the choreography.

While writing about dance can capture the choreographer's intent and the dancer's expressions, it's a delicate endeavor, akin to translating music into words or color into emotion. The challenge lies in conveying the dynamic interplay of rhythm, flow, and sentiment within the confines of sentences and paragraphs.

Just as dancers imbue movements with their individual interpretations, writers paint an evocative tapestry of dance through their choice of language, rhythm, and vivid descriptions. Through this symbiotic relationship between dance and the written word, the intangible becomes tangible, and the ethereal finds its place in the realm of imagination and understanding.

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