Dance is a form of cultural expression that includes various elements, forms and styles. From ancient and folk dance to ballets, modern contemporary movements or jazz dance, dance emerges from unique social and cultural contexts. Through exploration and analysis, this lesson will address the causal influences and relationships between specific dance expressions and their socio-cultural contexts.

Lesson Objectives

  • Recognize dance as a form of cultural expression and identity
  • List the elements of dance and their relationships
  • Identify the social significance of dance
  • Analyze the cultural components and meanings embedded in dance

Understanding dance begins with the ability to recognize the various elements within dance and their interactions and relationships. By utilizing the elements of dance, people are able to communicate meanings, ideas, and emotions through the movement or a body or bodies.

The Elements of Dance

The elements of dance are foundational concepts and terms used to identify and describe different movements of dance as an artistic practice.

Body: includes the parts of the body, patterns, shapes, and movements. “The body is the conduit between the inner realm of Intentions, ideas, emotions and identity and the outer realm of expression and communication. Whether watching dance or dancing ourselves, we shift back and forth between the inner/outer sense of body, ” (Terry, Walter (1942). Invitation to Dance. New York: Barnes, 16.)

Action: is movement such as steps, facial expressions, partner lifts, gestures, and common movements such as walking. Action can be in streams or pauses,  and moments of relative stillness. Action can be choreographed, traditional (taught by others who know the dances), or improvised (on the spot). Dancers may also revise or embellish the action.

Energy: defines how the movement occurs, and it includes; variations in flow and the use of force, tension, and weight. Energy may be powerful or gentle, tight or loose, heavy or light, and energy can change several times.

Space: is the area of space occupied by the dancer’s body; includes direction (the way a dancer’s body moves; forward, backward, sideways, up or down), size (magnitude of a body shape or movement; from small to large movements), pathways (patterns made as a dancer moves through the air or on the floor; straight, vertical, horizontal, zig zag, locomotor or still, single or combined), and shape (form created by the body’s position in space; open/closed, symmetrical/asymmetrical, angular/curved) .

Time: the relationship between movements; includes pulse (the underlying beat), tempo (speed of the movement), duration (length of movement time), rhythm (flow of sound or movement),  syncopation (accenting of weak beat to emphasize movement), phrasing (grouping and articulation), accent (moving in a way to give emphasis)

This section provides a very rudimentary introduction to the complex systems involved in producing, practicing and studying dance. To learn more about the elements of dance, visit the Using the description of the elements presented here, consider the mechanics of the elements of dance in the fouette in Russian ballet.

Now that we understand the physics (and difficulty!) of the fouettés, what is its significance in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake? The ballet tells a story about a prince named Siegfried, who falls in love with a swan princess, named Odette, who is swan by day and a woman by night. She is under a magic spell which can only be broken by a man who vows to love her forever. Siegfried makes that vow, but he is tricked by the magician who cast the spell. Siegfried vows to love Odile who is disguised as Odette. The ballet ends with the deaths of Siegfried and Odette. During the third act, however, the 32 fouettés are danced at the end of the “Black Swan” by the ballerina playing Odile. Now that you know the story and the elements, watch the dance:

Through dance, people can use movement to tell a story, reflect emotion, impart a feeling, and perform a wide variety of intangible human experiences outside of words by using nonverbal communication. Dance can also serve as a vehicle for social cohesion as a group activity that brings people together to participate in a collective performance such as social dance.

Social Dance
Social dance is a genre of dance forms or styles, where sociability and socializing are the primary focuses of the dancing. This includes partner dances and group dances such as square-dancing, line dancing, circle dancing, polka, waltz, tango, congo, swing dance, ballroom dance, and the internationally popular macarena dance.  The style, form and purpose of social dance changes as social and cultural practices change. Social dance also reflects societal norms and values through expressions such as ‘formal or casual,’ or ‘improvised or choreographed’ and the expectations of the dance performance change according to shifts in ideas about gender, race, class, sexuality, and other socio-cultural ideologies that change over time. The video below presents the role of social dance in African American experiences.

Dance Analysis

Dance is cultural expression through performance art. An ethnographic analysis of dance as a cultural performance can provide the viewer with information about the unique experiences of the people and culture from which the dance emerged.  In her article, ‘The Five Premises for a culturally sensitive approach to dance,’ Deidre Sklar writes that we must analyze movement ethnographically through a list of working premises that allows us to see the cultural contexts that underlie movement or a dance. Following these premises will allow us to widened our perspective when we attempt to conceptualize dance and movement. The five premises include;

  1. Movement knowledge is a kind of cultural knowledge.  This means that in order to know a dance, we must also know the culture from which the dance emerges.  “All movement must be considered as an embodiment of cultural knowledge.”
  2. Movement knowledge is conceptual and emotional as well as kinesthetic. This means that we must look beyond a simple analysis of the elements of movement and investigate the range of emotions, feelings, and concepts embedded within the dance.
  3. Movement knowledge is intertwined with other kinds of cultural knowledge. This means that the cultural meanings behind the intent of each movement are not universal. For example, the purpose and meaning of a jump or pause in one culture can be completely different from the meanings of the same movement in another culture.
  4. One has to look beyond movement to get at its meaning. This means that the meanings communicated by the performance are not limited to the movements in the dance. Meaning can be conveyed by the identity of the dance participants; the location or timing of the dance, etc. “The concepts embodied in movement are not necessarily evident in the movement itself”
  5. Movement is always an immediate corporeal experience. This means that body movement in dance communicates  meanings, emotions, and experiences shared among people differently than words. Dance relies on the observers empathy with and perception of the movement, known as “empathetic kinesthetic perception”

Sklar’s five premises provide a pathway to developing a deeper understanding of dance as cultural performance. The rubric enables the analyst/observer to move beyond a simple translation of movement and to instead situate the dance within its more broad social and historical context.

Endangerment of Dance

Dance is a performative expression of social and cultural values of a community, and this makes it an intangible cultural resource. Tangible culture consists of artifacts such as art and literature that be preserved and archived. Intangible culture refers to ideological, performative, and experiential cultural practices (such as dance) that are difficult or impossible to preserve and archive. A growing number of cultural dances throughout the world are becoming endangered as globalization and development  As a result, UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, Cultural Organization)  has initiated a program to preserve traditional dance, music and theater throughout the world.


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For Discussion: Select any cultural dance and write a 500 description of the social and historical context of the dance; where did it originate? what role did/does it play within the community? what does the dance express? (Be sure to include your sources.  Include or embed a link to a video of the dance, or a portion of it, with your post and describe what is going on in the video.

Expression: Choreograph a dance and perform it (alone or with a friend).  Post a video of the performance. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, go outside the box here – dance with your cat, bust out some finger moves, let your eyebrows carry the rhythm. Whatever works.

When you complete the discussion, review the Analysis I module and prepare to take the quiz.