What are the elements of Creative Dance?

I’ve recently been reading Mary Joyce’s seminal work, First Steps in Teaching Creative Dance to Children.  She is so often referenced and quoted in other work and in papers, and I’d never drunk from the source! If you haven’t read her book, first written in 1973 (I’m reading the 3rd edition from 1980) but you are familiar with the work of Anne Green Gilbert  (Creative Dance for All Ages, Brain-Compatible Dance Education) you will recognize the organizing principles.

One of the things  she says really resonates with me, reminds me why I love creative dance so much, and why I am essentially a creative dancer.  She says, “Creative dance leads children to deal with themselves….(it) is a discipline for dealing with the self.”

She also says “dance simultaneously involves the inner being and the physical body. ”

When I first came to dance it was after exploring many other art forms.  I did not start as a baby ballerina, but as a teenager with a strong desire for self-expression.  I was not attracted to the technique of dance, but to choreography and improvisation.  In fact, I had a hard time sticking with the rules, being in such a big hurry to find myself in the medium, rather than imitate the teacher.  I wanted to communicate through dance making and interact with others through improvisation.  I was drawn to the “holistic (engagement) of mind, body and spirit” (again, Joyce’s words).  I had little patience for steps and patterns.

It’s no surprise that I should have eventually become an expressive educator!

This brings me to my main topic: the elements of creative dance.   Among educators and in texts, the language and organizing principles vary.

Rudolph Laban’s dance elements are: space, time, weight and flow.

Space: direct or indirect (focus is part of this sense of space)
Time: sudden or slow (originates in the slow advancing and quick retreating of the sport of Fencing)
Weight: increasing pressure (strong) or decreasing pressure (light)
Flow: bound (ability to stop is present) or free (going!)

Laban’s space, time and weight elements combine into different ‘effort actions.’ For example,  slow speed,  direct space and strong weight = press

Laban Movement Analysis is a fascinating study unto itself.

Anne Green Gilbert, building upon these elements (and the work of Joyce and others) categorizes the elements into: space, time force, body, movement and form.

Space is where we do something. It includes where we begin in space (place) and where we are in space (size, level, direction, pathway).

Place is an element of space because we must begin somewhere. Self space is our place when performing actions. We can move a great deal without traveling.  When I interact with music teachers, I see them directing children in a great deal of action: up and down, fast and slow, big and small.  I see children learning pattern dances, with simple steps and sequences. But seldom do I see structured free movement improvisation that travels.
I think one of the greatest skills an educator can develop is the ability to direct children in traveling through space.  This means one must overcome the fear of chaos and disorder that may result. It takes a lot of skill and patience to become accomplished in striking the right balance between discipline/direction and freedom/fun when guiding children in movement through space.  For this reason, the first lesson I teach to ages 4 and up in the studio is to differentiate between moving in place and traveling from one place to another.

Self space stay in your spot.

General space go from place to place.

Look for empty space for freedom and safety.

However, when I teach ages 3-5 in early childhood sites, we do not travel in free movement. We DO travel… in a moving line, or one by one through an “obstacle course” (what I call ‘beginning, middle and end dances’, with yoga squares or props that indicate ‘travel to this spot, do this kind of movement’). Unlike in the studio setting, where I teach a small, self-selected group of children who have come because of their passion for dancing, here I have a larger group with differing interests, skills and abilities.  These children are used to the big room for riding bikes, and climbing on the equipment, not for creative dance.  I have to redefine the space.  First, we must build  a common vocabulary of in-place movement and the two skills of concentration and  body control (that I teach, and ask for by name).  When eventually we have the ability to work in free space, I still use markers (yoga squares) to help them find a home spot.

Size: Are we using a large or small range of motion, reaching far from our core or drawing in? Gayle Kassing and Danielle Jay, in their book Dance Teaching Methods and Curriculum Design,  use the word Dimensions instead of size. Think height, width and depth; size and direction combined.  I actually teach this in the context of shapes and shape making. (Shapes are also considered a subset of Space by Kassing and Jay, but I teach them as a subset of Body).
Level: What is our relationship to the earth or the sky? How low or high is our movement or shape?

Direction is where we travel —  forward or backward, up, down or sideways — and pathway is how we describe the pattern of our journey in space, whether across the space or through the air.  What parts of the body are we using as we make those pathways in the air or on the floor? Are they straight, curved, or angled into zig zag patterns?

Focus relates to Laban’s directing and indirecting in space. Think of direct intention versus being ‘spacey.’ My college students also talk about internal focus, which reminds us that we are “thinking bodies”.  This is also useful during constructive resting time.


Body is the next element we’ll examine.

Anne Green Gilbert includes parts of the body, body shapes, balance and relationships in this category. Mary Joyce includes body parts and body moves.
Gayle Kassing and Danielle Jay do not list ‘body’ as a separate element, but DO list ‘relationship’ as its own discrete element.

Body Parts needs no explanation.
Body Shapes include combinations of straight, curved, angular and twisted shapes, and symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes.  I like to point out to students that twisted shapes are by their nature asymmetrical, and that by crossing the midline we can easily make twisted shapes. As a point of interest,  shapes are organized as an element of space in Kassing & Jay’s work. Shapes DO express through size and level, can face in different directions and have a focus.
Balance  includes on, off and counter balance.  This is a difficult element to teach young children. With older children and adults, ‘balance’ opens up huge opportunities for paired and group work in shape making AND is a direct link to Contact Improvisation, which is all about weight bearing and sharing combined with balance.  When you teach weight and balance together, you can use Contact Improv as a deep and rich point of departure. 

Relationships means relationships among body parts, people, people and props, self and the space. This is a fantastic vehicle for teaching prepositions.  I recall teaching the concept to young children in the 1980’s, using farm animal toys and having them place them in different relationships to one another. “Put the pig beside the horse”, etc.

There are so many fun ways to interact with one another and the group through relationships.  So many pattern dances and dance games that emphasize relationships. “In and Out the Window” and “Bluebird” are two that come to mind.

The word ‘relationship’ serves many functions in dance. Relationship is a principle of choreography.  It refers to choreographic relationships (solos versus small groups),  spatial relationships in visual design (the spaces between dancers created by formations: lines, circles, etc.) and the relationship of shapes and motions in time.

Time is when you do something. It’s element shared by music. In some forms of African dance, the drum pattern and the dance have the same name; the dance is cued by the drummers and the steps are dedicated to the rhythmic pattern.  No separation of music and dance.

Speed, is the element through which you can teach note values. Speed is slow, medium or fast on its most basic level.Sixteenth notes as ‘very fast’ to whole notes as ‘su-per slo-mo.”  You can also teach ‘felt timing’ (non-metered) as part of speed.

Rhythm includes pulse (tempo, the beat) which relates to speed. Another subset is pattern. Pattern is what people generally think of when they think of dance: steps in a sequence that follows a rhythmic pattern.  Pattern is a great point of departure for dance making, a great link to teaching styles and techniques of dance, and aligns with folk and cultural dance forms, too.  Grouping relates to pattern and is another way of saying ‘meter’ (i.e. different time signatures such as 3/4 or 4/4 time).  Different groupings create pattern. You can also teach ‘felt timing’ (moving from the breath) as part of rhythm.

Duration is how long it takes to do something. (It is not one of Anne Green Gilbert’s subcategories of ‘Time’ but it IS included in other organizational systems.)

Force is how you do something. There are LOTS of ways to name and organize this category. If you want to use the acronym BEST, as in “Dance is B.E.S.T.” then you’ll want to call this category Energy. That will get you to BODY, ENERGY, SPACE, TIME. BEST is a terrific short hand: “Dance is the Body moving with Energy through Space and Time.” (Thanks to my friend Cissy Whipp for that beautiful phrase).  If you can live with the inexactitude, then go for it. You’ll notice that Laban’s terminology of flow and weight appears in this category.

Anne Green Gilbert  breaks this category down into energy (smooth and sharp), weight (strong and light) and flow (bound and free).   Mary Joyce breaks it down into attack (smooth and sharp), weight, strength (tight or loose) and flow. Kassing and Jay combine the subcategories into descriptive words: sustained, percussive, swinging, suspending, collapsing and vibratory.  I used to teach from these descriptive combinations before I discovered Anne’s work.

There are no wrong answers here, just ways of looking at the same thing.  Choose your language, then be consistent. And introduce the other words when developing choreography.  You can ask students to give more attack to the movement, or make it more sustained, if you can demonstrate what you mean.  We need lots of ways of expressing ourselves.

The last two categories, Movement and Form, are not elements I teach separated out from the initial BEST elements. Instead, we look at the menu of possible things we can do with both as we are dancing and dance making.

For example, I have a set of word cards for movements that stay in place (what I call ‘actions’ or self-space, axial, in-place, non-locomotor and stationary movements) and another for movements that travel (‘motions’ or locomotor, traveling and general space movement).  They are color coded, so we can ‘deal a dance.’

Example: Without looking to see what they are, pull two yellow ‘action’ cards and two blue ‘motion’ cards. Use either ‘chance’ procedure and organize them face down, or flip them over and decide on the order you want.

Depending on the focus of the lesson, pull ‘body parts’ cards, ‘relationship’ cards, ‘speed cards’, ‘level’ cards, etc. (again, do this ‘blind’) and pair them up with your action/motion cards (face down, for the surprise of how to problem solve. Did you ever make your fingers skip?) Begin in a shape,  choreograph the middle section and end in another shape.

There’s your form: ABA

For younger children, or when sending students off to choreograph their own duets or small group dances, use fewer cards. Two or three is a good starting point.

Happy Dancing!

July 8, 2013. Elements of Creative Dance, Kate Kuper on Teaching Creative Dance. 3 comments.