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Making Dance

The Choreographer's Toolbox

Elements of Composition

1. Shape

The first element is body shape - not the dancer's figure or proportions, but rather the configuration of his or her torso and limbs into positions that change over time.

Professional dancers train for many years to make their bodies flexible and responsive, able to assume long lines that are straight or curved, or jagged, angular contours. The choreographer designs these shapes and links them with transitional movements.

Here are three shape concepts to explore:

a) Levels

Movements can be performed at different levels. We can describe these as high-middle-low or vertical-horizontal-oblique.


As the level changes, the dancer can support himself or herself on different body parts to create different effects.


b) Symmetry versus Asymmetry

A symmetric position is identical on the right and left sides of the body. It looks and feels stable, balanced and resolved. Think of a pyramid, the Buddha or a mirror image.

A symmetric sequence is one in which movements to the right are mirrored by movements to the left, and vice versa.


By contrast, an asymmetric position is different on the right and left sides of the body. It suggests mobility and potential loss of balance. Think of actions that are unstable, lopsided or unbalanced.

c) Scale

Positions and movements can be performed on a small to large scale. In small-scale actions, the limbs and torso are drawn inward: they contract, flex, fold and bend. In large-scale actions, they extend and stretch out to their fullest length.

Think of contrasting shapes that are angular-curved-straight, shrinking-expanding or contracted-extended.


Classical ballet positions most often use elongated lines and curves, whereas modern dance includes a range of shapes from contracted to extended.

2. Space

The next element of composition is design in space: the paths and patterns the dancer traces in the performance area. The choreographer arranges dancers on the stage and plans their travel around the available space to create visual interest and dramatic effect.

Choreographers are like architects who build dynamic structures with human bodies. Here are three space concepts to explore:

a) Geometric Forms

Basic geometric forms include straight lines or rows that extend from wing to wing or from upstage to downstage. Choreographers may modify these by changing the direction the dancer faces or by adding turns. Other interesting shapes and paths include the zig-zag, square, curve, circle, figure eight, in-out spiral, serpentine and free-form or random pattern. Paths can progress clockwise or counter-clockwise.

In addition to horizontal patterns along the stage floor, choreographers explore vertical space through movements like lifts and jumps. Some, like the Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil, use platforms and scaffolds to extend the vertical range of spatial design.

b) Symmetry versus Asymmetry

Spatial patterns, like body shapes, may display symmetry or asymmetry, suggesting stability and equilibrium versus irregularity and imbalance. Choreographers use these devices to evoke strong or weak dramatic effects.


For example, placing a dancer at the centre of centre stage makes a strong impact, as does moving a dancer along a straight line from upstage centre to downstage centre. The diagonal line from upstage left to downstage right makes the longest line on stage and is also a strong path.

The choreographer experiments with these different spatial forms to underpin the idea or feeling being expressed.

c) Scale

The scale of a dance can be large, making use of the entire performance area, or small, concentrating activity in a few areas only. An expansive design in space uses as much of the stage as possible, whereas a constricted pattern is confined to a limited part of the stage.


3. Timing

With the third element of dance composition, timing, we'll look at:

a) Tempo

Tempo or speed may be described in musical terms like adagio, moderato and allegro, or in phrases like slow motion, medium or moderate speed, and fast or high speed.

Tempo can be either steady or changeable, that is speeding up (accelerando) and/or slowing down (ritardando).

Many ballet movements are categorized by their characteristic tempo. For example, slow, sustained movements are called adage, while quick, light jumps are called allegro.

This excerpt from The Holy Body Tattoo Our brief eternity shows dancers moving at slow, medium and high speed.


Video credit: our brief eternity
The Holy Body Tattoo, 1996 
Choreographers: Noam Gagnon, Dana Gingras
Dancers: Chantal Deeble, Noam Gagnon, Dana Gingras, Video: film elements: William Morrison, Steven R Gilmore, text elements: Chris Halcrow with William Gibson, Music: Jean-Yves Thériault, Lighting: James Proudfoot, Camera: William Morrison, Editor: William Morrison

b) Metre

Metre refers to the organization of beats into bars with strong accents on the downbeat followed by lighter accents. In musical terminology this is called the time signature. Dancers sense metre as a recurring rhythmic underpinning.

In dance we talk of movement phrases, which dancers may or may not count in musical beats corresponding to bars.

Basic time signatures include: 2/4 (" 1, 2 ") ; 3/4 (" 1, 2, 3 ") ; 4/4 (" 1, 2, 3, 4 ") ; and 6/8 (" 1 and a, 2 and a ").

While ballet commonly uses regular time signatures, modern dance often uses irregular ones like 5/4 (" 1, 2, 3, 1, 2 ") ; 7/4 (" 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3 ") ; and also changing metres.

Music for dance can also be polyrhythmic, having two simultaneous tempos and metres.

Time signatures each have a unique feel. For example, 2/4 and 4/4 underscore even, regular, march-like movements whereas 6/8 and 3/4 highlight more uneven, lyrical ones.

Step-hops in 2/4 time. This has an even feel: 1+2+, 1+2.


Step-hops in 6/8 time. This has a lyrical feel, like a skip: 1 and a, 2


Country pas de basque in 2/4 time: 1+2 1+2 1+2 1+2


Balancé waltz in 3/4 time: 123 223 323 423


A phrase in 5/4 time: 1,2,3,4,5; 1,2,3,4,5.


c) Rhythm

Rhythm refers to the pattern and emphasis of beats and sub-beats in a phrase.

The rhythmic accent may be regular, following the strong beat of the musical bar, or syncopated, shifting to the weak beat.

Steps hops done evenly (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+);
Step hops syncopated (1 u2 u3 u 4 u5 u6 u7 u8 u).


This ballet phrase with balancés and grands jetés has its own 3/4 rhythm:
1&u 2&u 3&u 4&u 5&u 6&u 7&u 8&u.
When a dance is performed in silence or to a soundscape, its movements embody their own rhythm.


Waltz music gives this phrase a lyrical feel.


Notice how does this gentle soundscape affects your perception of the movement.


The dancer’s waltz movements take on a different quality with this contemporary soundscape.


A section of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Foi is performed to a sound collage.


Video Credit: Direction/Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, 2003
Dancers: Christine Leboutte, Joanna Dudley, Lisbeth Gruwez, Ulrika Kinn Svensson, Erna Ómarsdóttir, Laura Neyskens, Darryl E. Woods, Damien Jalet, Nicolas Vladyslav, Nam Jin Kim, Marc Wagemans, Coaching: Christine De Smedt, Isnel da Silveira
Music: Capilla Flamenca, Musical Supervision: Dirk Snellings, Set Design: Rufus Didwiszus, Technical Supervision: Koen Bauwens, Sound: Eddy Latine, Lighting Design: Jeroen Wuyts, Stage Manager: Wim Van de Cappelle, Costume Design: Isabelle Lhoas, Photography: Kurt van der Elst, Production Tour Management: Lies Vanborm, Production Assistant: Veerle Gevaert

Percussion accompaniment best emphasizes the rhythmic element in dance.

Choreographers may work with the musical rhythm to accentuate the shape of a dance phrase, or against it to juxtapose aural and visual effects.

They may create movements that correspond with the start and end of a musical or sound phrase, or those that cross phrases.

The upstage dancer’s arms move with two steady drum beats. The downstage dancer moves with the syncopated rhythm of the sticks.


4. Dynamics

The fourth element of dance composition is energy or dynamics. This is the most complex component since it encompasses all the other elements.

Dynamics is hard to put into words - it has to be experienced. We often describe it as the quality of movement, the intangible factor that adds uniqueness, richness and power.

European choreographer and movement theorist Rudolf von Laban was the first to describe a coherent theory of dance, incorporating an analysis of "Antrieb," often translated as energy or effort. Laban defined four basic components of effort:

Credit for all videos in this section on Dynamics: Curious Schools of Theatrical Dancing, Part I
© Danny Grossman Dance
Choreographer/Dancer: Danny Grossman, Debut: New York City, 1977
Lighting design: Peter Anderson, Costume Designer: Mary Kerr, Music: 'Harpsichord: Aimee Van de Wiele,' composed by François Couperin
An excerpt from ‘Danny Grossman’ in The Dancemakers
Produced, directed and written by Moze Mossanen for CBC and TVO, 1987

a) Weight (strong-light)

The weight factor reflects how the dancer actively uses his or her body mass, on a continuum from strong to light. A strong action has the full mass of the body behind it; it's rooted and grounded. A light action has the body moving in a lifted and rarefied way.

Weight-related action words: force, power versus delicacy, finesse.

b) Time (sustained-sudden)

The time factor reveals the dancer's attitude to time on a continuum from sustained to sudden. This is not "clock time" in the sense of seconds versus hours or fast versus slow. It's rather a feeling of having all the time in the world to indulge in a sustained movement, or sensing an urgency to complete a sudden one.

Time-related action words: luxuriating versus rushing.

c) Space (direct-indirect)

The space factor reflects how the dancer moves in space on a continuum from direct to indirect. Direct actions take the shortest path to their destination whereas indirect actions detour and meander en route.

Space-related action words: unswerving, undeviating versus roundabout, circuitous.

d) Flow (bound-free)

The fourth factor describes the flow of movement on a continuum from free to bound. A bound movement is one of careful precision; it's highly controlled and can be stopped at any moment. Think of threading a needle. A free movement proceeds unopposed and unrestrained. Think of a child spinning with abandon. Fluctuations in flow produce oscillating, vibratory motion.

Flow-related action words: constrained, guarded versus uninhibited, unconstrained.


Laban's theory combines the three elements of weight-space-time to produce eight basic effort actions.


Think of action words that capture the essence of each quality:

i. Punch Strong Direct Sudden "striking like a boxer"
ii. Press Strong Direct Sustained "moving a piano"
iii. Dab Light Direct Sudden "catching a butterfly"
iv. Glide Light Direct Sustained "skimming along ice"
v. Slash Strong Indirect Sudden "slicing tall grass with a sickle"
vi. Wring Strong Indirect Sustained "squeezing water from a towel"
vii. Flick Light Indirect Sudden "shooing away a mosquito"
viii. Float Light Indirect Sustained "wafting among the clouds"

If a dance phrase uses any one effort for too long it loses impact and becomes monotonous. Choreographers vary and contrast dynamic qualities to add excitement and retain audience interest.