Dance Terminology

ABA FORM: The ABA form is widely used in music and is synonymous with folk form. In contemporary dance it is one of the simplest compositional forms wherein 2 movement themes are presented successively, followed by a repetition of the 1st theme, with or without variations.

ACCELERANDO: An increase in time. Distinguished from crescendo, an increase in force.

ACCENT: A stronger or sharper movement within a series of movements. Accents can be given to 1 or more parts of a movement phrase (or to a number of movement phrases in relation to other movement phrases).

ANNSPANNUNG-ABSPANNUNG (or Tension-Relaxation): A German term, referring to the ebb and flow of muscular impulses. Muscular activity ranges from all to none. Relaxation follows tension. Based on natural rhythms and movements, the technique suggests movement perhaps is constantly 'waning'.During the 1920s and 30s, the theory of Annspannung-Abspannung became a major principle as it was apparent that dance itself and its subdivisions were a continuos fluctuation between total relaxation and tension.

AXIAL MOVEMENT: Swinging, turning and beating movements are examples of axial movement i.e. movement around an axis, for instance arm movements around an individual body (acting as an axis) or the movement of one group of dancers around an other group of dancers (acting as an axis). Hanya Holm divided axial movement into 2 phases, a resting axis and a turning axis. An example of a resting axis would be where the arms move around a still body or several dancers moving around a dancer who is standing still. A turning axis would be when for example, arms swinging around a turning body. Generally, axial movement happens without travelling through space.

BALANCE: Dynamic balance is not a static state as considered generally. For a dancer it is the conscious use of physical and mental energies, a constant redistribution as both impulse and intention of movement needs to be controlled.

BREATH IMPULSE: Gertrude Lippincot saw breath impulse as ‘That impulse toward movement which is determined by the breath rhythm of the body’.

CANON: Canon in dance is used in a similar way to how it is used in music. One dancer begins a phrase (or a movement) which a second dancer begins a phrase (or movement) later, reproducing the movement of the first dancer. This can be repeated by several individual dancers or groups of dancers. Several variations are possible such as a group of dancers repeat a soloists dance phrase or phrases while that dancer moves into an other phrase and so on.

CENTRE of MOVEMENT: It is a central point within the body from which movement springs.

In Ballet this is considered to be at the base of the spine. As the torso is rarely used in classical ballet it was/is considered as a rigid pole with 2 centres at either end. This enables the movement of arms and legs, with the lower centre most used because of the extensive use of the legs.

Isadora Duncan moved the centre to the front of the chest. This meant that arm movements extended where as leg movements decreased. However, it enabled the torso to become more flexible and therefore, began the process of perceiving the breath rhythm as a rhythm that underpinned movement, leading to the exploration of other natural rhythms, rising and falling, folding and unfolding by pioneers in modern dance.

Contemporary Dance made the central point more flexible where it may shift from type and quality of movement desired (as well as type of dance technique). The centre can be in the chest, solar plexus, pelvis or base of the spine.

CHANGE of WEIGHT: Any shift of weight of the body from one body part or point in the body to another e.g. a walking step or swaying from side to side.

CHOREOGRAPHY: Composition of dance; the movements, phrases, rhythms and the construction and ordering of material are the parts that make up choreography.

CHOREUTICS: Laban’s analysis of movement and the dancer’s continuously changing relation to space was codified and given the name choreutics. The purpose of the system was/is to give the dancer an awareness of space as a tangible fluid (like water) as well as give the choreographer a sense of masses flowing through space.

CIRCUMDUCTION: Used in contemporary dance to describe the path of the body or body parts in a curved movement through several planes.

CIRCUMDUCTION: Used in contemporary dance to describe the path of the body or body parts in a curved movement through several planes.

CIRCULAR WAY: Equate this term with ‘Indirect Way’ instead. When a movement or floor pattern go through several planes/levels, changing directions before arriving at a predestined point.

CLOSED MOVEMENT: A term used by Hanya Holm where the movement goes toward the centre, towards the body. The movement takes place in a decreasing spatial area.

CODIFIED MOVEMENT: Ballet technique for instance, is based on very traditional, prescribed movement, not the highly personal, non-prescribed movements of individual dancer’s and choreographer’s that can be found in post-modern dance. Other cultures’ dance forms may be highly codified such as the sacred Cham dances of Tibet, classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam as well as Khabuki theatre traditions of Japan.

COLLECT ONESELF: Another term used by Hanya Holm ‘to relate one’s outer circumstance to an imaginative center; to pull into oneself, usually without visible movement; a magnetic attraction toward the center’.

CONTRACTION: It is the physical process of shortening the distance between 2 ends of a muscle.

CONTRACTION-RELEASE: Based on the breath rhythm, it is one of several expressions of the dynamic principles underlying contemporary dance, particularly Graham technique. ‘The two basic movements are what I call contraction and release. I use the term ‘release’ to express or denote the moment when the body is in breath, has inhaled, and has an aerial quality, and the term ‘contraction’ when the drive has gone down and out, when the breath is out’. ‘ The first principle taught, in floor exercises, is body center. The first movement is based upon the body in two acts of breathing-inhaling and exhaling-developing it from actual breathing experience to the muscular activity independent of the actual act of breathing. These two acts, when performed muscularly only, are called ‘release’, which corresponds to exhalation. The word ‘relaxation’* is not used because it has come to mean a devitalised body’(Martha Graham from F.R. Rogers (Ed.) Dance: A Basic Educational Technique; Macmillan, N.Y. 1949)

*Controlled relaxation is when the body has the least possible tension whilst still under control, ready for a set of movements.

CONTRAPPOSTO: Italian term signifying the twisting and spiral movements of the torso.

COUNTERPOINT: In contemporary dance, it is the combination of 2 movement-themes or phrases.

CRESCENDO: An increase in force rather than time which is called accelerando).

DANCE NOTATION: Methods of transcribing movements by signs and symbols written down on paper for preservation and dissemination. The signs and symbols are known as dance script.

DIRECTION INDICATORS: The name given to Labanotation symbols whose shape indicate the direction of the movement.

EUKINETICS: The systematization of movement began by Delsarte and carried on by Laban. Eukinetics is a continuation of Delsarte’s division of the body into 3 parts, the intellectual, emotional and physical zones and then by Laban into mid, high and low levels, directed at control of dynamics and expression. This was further evolved by Kurt Jooss who divided all movement into either out-going or in-coming. This was similar to Graham’s principle of contraction-release but with a different purpose. Jooss called these divisions, central and peripheral. Laban’s system achieved further artistic importance through Mary Wigman’s absorption and transmutation of it.


EXTENSION: Stretching and lengthening of an arm or leg to its fullest extent where the angle formed by the bones will be 180 degrees.

FALL-RECOVERY: Another of several expressions of the dynamic principles underlying contemporary dance, particularly by Doris Humphrey. Fall-Recovery is the interaction of 2 opposites, a period of unbalance and a period of balance. Humphrey stated that ‘my entire technique consists of the development of the process of falling away from and returning to equilibrium. This is far more than a mere business of ‘keeping your balance’, which is a muscular and structural problem. Falling and recovering is the very stuff of movement, the constant flux which is going on in every living body, in all its tiniest parts, all the time. I recognized these emotional overtones very early and instinctively responded very strongly to the exciting danger of the fall, and the repose and peace of the recovery. ........beginning with simple falls complete to the floor and recoveries to standing, many elements of movements reveal themselves in addition to the falling of the body in space. One of these is rhythm. In a series of falls and recoveries, accents occur which establish a rhythm, even a phrase, as the time-space is varied due to gravitational pull on the mass of the body. Another element is dynamism, that is, changes of intensity. A third element is design. Even the latter, usually considered to be linear, having nothing to do with movement, is a functional result of the body’s compensatory changes. If left to itself the body will make a number of weight adjustments in the course of a fall; and each of these will describe a design in space. These compensatory movements I call oppositions, and they occur in partial falls as well as in complete ones. For example, one foot will step forward to save the body on its way down; and at the same time, the arms will swing out. This is also true in walking, which is a partial fall. Each one of these elementary parts of movement is capable of more or less isolation and almost limitless variation’ (Doris Humphrey from F.R.Rogers (Ed.); Dance: A Basic Educational Technique; Macmillan, N.Y. 1949).

FLOOR-PATTERN: The design a dancer’s feet trace on the floor.

FOLDING-UNFOLDING: It is a variant of contraction-release, fall-recovery and tension-release, the counteraction of 2 opposites.

GESTURE: In its widest sense, it is any expressive movement of the body and in its narrowest sense, it is the expressive movements of arms and head. Gesture is a movement of any body part without a transfer of body weight. Doris Humphrey used the term to indicate the patterns of movement evolved by human beings and passed down as an inherited language which then can be used by dancers.

ICOSAHEDRON: It is a geometric device that Laban used to illustrate his theory of harmony in space. It consists of 20 equilateral triangles meeting at twelve points. ‘Geometrically speaking, the icosahedron is a perfect symmetrical polyhedron: the most perfect geometrical form approaching the sphere and related to the cube’ (Juana de Laban from F.R.Rogers(Ed.)Dance: A Basic Educational Technique; Macmillan, N.Y. 1949).

IMPULSE MOVEMENT / PERCUSSIVE MOVEMENT: Weighted movements that move dynamically from the center of the body.

INDIRECT WAY: The path or round about way the body or body parts take in a curved movement through several planes.

KINESTHESIA: ‘movement perception’. ’Embedded in the tissue of the muscles and in the joints there are sense organs which respond to movement much as the organs of seeing responds to light...However, in conjunction with the semicircular canals in the ears, which tell us a good many useful things about balance, posture and position, these humble organs, that have never been given anything but the generic name of proprioceptors, make it possible for us to know our own movement at first hand without seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling it. We can ascertain quite without effort whether we are upside down or rightside up, and be perfectly aware of the relation of one part of the body to another. Through the agency or kinesthesia we are also made, though not always consciously, to associate experiences of all sorts with the bodily movements which accompany them, and to apply the fruits of this union to such an incalculable number of everyday contacts as to set up whole systems of practice....’ (J.Martin; America Dancing; Dodge, N.Y. 1936) Contemporary dance bases ‘its movement on natural rhythms and has stressed the sequential flow of that movement. Its movement is therefore more naturally referable to the movement-potentialities of the average human being.......Kinesthesia has a subconscious as well as a conscious level; each human being has a motor memory, usually submerged but capable of being brought to the conscious level’ (P.Love; Modern Dance Terminology; Dance Horizons, Princeton Book Co.).

KINESTHETIC PHRASE: ‘The way of moving the body by its physical possibilities.’ (Doris Humphrey)

KINESTHETIC RESPONSE: The response of one person to the movement of another.

LABAN DANCE NOTATION: In 1928, Rudolph von Laban published his dance notation method under the name of Schrifttanz. This method has been modified since then but is still the most important system. Labanotation records movement on a musical staff that is set vertically on the page and is read from the bottom to the top. The main symbols are based on a rectangle and its variations and where the shape of the symbol indicate the direction of the movement. The level that the movement is to be performed in is indicated by its shading, e.g. if black, the movement is to be performed at a low level, if diagonally lined at high level and if white with a centre spot at mid level. The 2 center lines or bands of the staff are for foot positions or steps or wherever the support is, the 2 outer bands are for leg gestures, and directly outside those bands are the areas for the torso and beyond those are the arms. There are also symbols relating to the minor parts of the body; shoulders, fingers, knees, face. The length of the symbols, together with other signs will indicate tempo and dynamics.

LEG GESTURE: Any movement made with the free leg while the weight is carried by the supporting leg.

LEGATO: In dance it is used for successive movements (they flow without a perceptible break) as the successive notes in music

LEVELS/PLANES: For simplification, three levels/planes are considered here although the body does not remain in these 3 alone.

‘The vertical plane is considered to be that which contains the frontal silhouette of the body, as: a movement by each arm from hanging position to direct side, right and left, to directly overhead will cross the vertical plane.

The horizontal plane is that which cuts through the hips and is parallel to the floor, and that which cuts through the shoulders and is parallel to the floor.

The backward-forward plane is that which cuts the body into two equal halves of right side and left side. An arm movement from hanging position to direct forward to directly overhead will cross the forward part of the plane.

The space can further be divided into 3 parallel levels, deep - closest to the floor, high - furthest (highest) from the floor and mid - between high and low. A dancer can be close to the floor (at a deep level) whilst executing a high movement therefore no definitive, precise boundaries can be set’ (Paul Love; Modern Dance Terminology, Dance Horizons, Princeton Book Club).

POSITIONS: In contemporary dance, the 2 most used positions are second and fourth, both sitting on the floor and standing. In ballet, the five positions of the feet were taken over and adapted by some contemporary dancers.

POSTURE: Away of holding one’s body. Graham said, ‘Posture is dynamic, not static. It is a self-portrait of being. It is psychological as well as physiological. I use the word ‘posture’ to mean that instant of seeming stillness when the body is poised for most intense, most subtle action, the body at its moment of greatest potential efficiency. The nearest to the norm, as it has been observed and practiced over centuries, has been the ear in line perpendicularly with the shoulder, the shoulder with the pelvic bone, the pelvic bone in line with the arch of the foot’ (Martha Graham from F.R. Rogers (Ed.) Dance: A Basic Educational Technique; Macmillan, N.Y. 1949)

PULSE: A regular beat or throb. Can refer to the point when a movement is initiated


ISADORA DUNCAN: American dancer whose theories state the emotional qualities of dynamic movement.

MARTHA GRAHAM: American dancer who left the Denishawn Company in 1923 and created her own technique by 1929. The most important terms related to Graham are contraction-release, motor memory and percussive movement as well as movement content drawn from unconscious and conscious levels.

HANYA HOLM: German dancer who studied with Mary Wigman and moved to America, adapting the German Expressionist principles to America. Her theories were directed to wards the analysis of movement.

DORIS HUMPHREY: Also a dancer in the Denishawn Company who left the company in 1928. The most important term related to Humphrey is fall-recovery. She directed her theories on dance mainly towards group compositions.

MARY WIGMAN: German dancer who studied with Laban who expressed the subjective, emotional qualities of dynamic movement through physico-muscular means.