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A comprehensive introduction to dance as an art form

This is an excerpt from Sense of Dance - 2nd Edition by Constance Schrader.

Chapter 6—Time

Human movement occurs in time, through space, and with some kind of force, effort, or energy. In the next three chapters we will look more closely at each of these elements, but don't be deceived by the exclusivity suggested by the chapter titles. These are not separate camps with fences around them. Think of these elements as aspects of a phenomenon that can be examined or described in different ways. How would you describe yourself? Is there only one description? Of course there isn't. In describing yourself, you would emphasize aspects that are especially relevant to whatever strengths you want to highlight. In describing the ways that you are an intellectual, you are not renouncing your physical or social strengths; you're just not focusing on a particular set of strengths. In thinking about a dance, we might emphasize the effectiveness of rhythmic manipulation or the appeal of a sustained gesture or the importance of using the upstage area-but we can't detach one element from another any more than you can take hydrogen out of water and still have water.

Each element has its own set of concepts. As we explore the aspects that make up time, space, and effort, keep some curiosity active about the kinds of combinations that intrigue you or come easily to you. Are you most likely to manipulate the way time is used in a study? Or perhaps you are more curious about the ways in which you might use the space? Or do you find yourself intrigued with varying tension patterns? After gaining more familiarity with these elements you will begin to discover what drives your own artistic vision.

The Basics of Time

All movement and stillness occur in time. It is remarkable how differently people sense time, either as a very precise monitor or a very loose construct. It should not come as a great surprise, therefore, to discover that in working with time as an element of dance, people have different preferences and strengths. Some are most comfortable working with music that has a very clear rhythm, and others prefer their movements to be independent of a specific beat. Some are stimulated by music that drives them, others by music that allows them to float free of a beat. Dancers have been exploring the use of their own voices onstage in increasing numbers, using text, poetry, or sounds to accompany their movements. In such cases the structure of time is very different than it would be if they were moving to the sounds of popular music. Some dances are meant to be performed in silence; they leave the dancer free to speed up or slow down appropriately. In order to choose the most effective use of music, or let's just say sound, you need to be familiar with the basic terminology that allows you to attend to all aspects of sound in time. By the end of this chapter you'll have a better idea of how to describe sound and music in terms of pulse, beat, tempo, rhythm, and meter.


One consideration of movement in time is how fast or how slow the movement is. The speed of the movement is the tempo. When dancers ask for the tempo of the phrase, they are asking how fast the movement will need to be. Like many other words used to describe the element of time in dance, tempo comes from music vocabulary. There are words to describe different speeds in music but these are not speeds as much as they are moods. A piece marked "vivace," which translates loosely as "lively," is meant to be played fast. Make that very fast, like the speed of beads of water moving on a hot griddle. A piece marked "adagio" would be played slowly. In dance, an adagio is a slow movement phrase, which is often used to build or display strength and control. "Allegro" describes a brisk, lively musical tempo; in dance, the grand allegro is a movement phrase with great leaps and lively movement. See figure 6.1 for additional musical vocabulary in dance.

Some composers will put metronome markings on their sheet music to give the performer a sense of how quick they intend the pace of the piece to be (see figure 6.2). In many cases you will find a composer suggesting the tempo by describing a mood or attitude. "Brightly," "With compassion," "Broadly," "Sustained and melancholic," "With courage." In music as in other time-based arts, the interpretation of time is subjective.

Try This Experiment

Find a piece of music that is performed with a drum machine. A lot of popular music is produced with what's called "sampled" sound-sounds that were originally created by a human musician but were then stored in a computer to be reproduced by a computer, not a live musician. As you listen to the music, pay particular attention to the quality of the tempo. Using the terms of composers, how do you describe the tempo? Keep that experience in mind as you seek out either a live performance or the recording of a live performance. What is different about the tempo in a live performance?


When asked to provide the tempo, the choreographer will respond by producing a beat-a steady, recurring pulse. These words, "beat" and "pulse," are hardly new concepts. Your heart beats and creates a steady, recurring surge of blood through your veins-your pulse. What may be new to you is their application as dance terms. When we think of a beat, we think of something we can hear; for instance, a drumbeat or a sound of a faucet dripping. But we don't merely hear a beat, we sense it with other parts of the body as well. When we hear a series of beats, we organize the sound so it makes sense to us. We find patterns. When we hear several beats, we sense the amount of time between each of the beats, and we can then determine the tempo. Thereafter, we might or might not actually hear a beat to be able to keep in time.

Try This Experiment:

Get a pencil and tap an even rhythm on your table or desk. Start out at a pretty quick tempo. Are the beats even? No accents? Slow down the tempo a hair and add one accent every five counts. Now slow it down just a little more and try this pattern: accent and four more beats, then five beats in your head but no sound, then back in with the pencil, alternating sound and no sound. Where do you "hear" the beat when there's no sound to hear?

Now just play around with random beats keeping no consistent interval between taps. What do you find yourself doing? Do you find yourself wanting to make a repeating pattern? Do you find yourself trying to sense a repeating pattern? Do you prefer this to the 5-count exercise listed previously?

Here are a few other experiments to be sure you understand the difference between a beat you can hear and a beat you can sense:

  • Find your pulse by lightly pressing on the artery in your wrist or neck.
  • Once you have found your pulse, tap that beat on your leg.
  • Keep tapping the same beat, but tap audibly every other beat. You will have to sense the beat without making an actual sound.
  • Keep tapping that same beat, but tap audibly only on every third beat. You will have to sense two even beats between your taps.

If you now got up and did 10 jumping jacks, or some kind of exercise that increased your heart rate, you would find a different, faster pulse in your body. Imagine this faster tempo, and tap a faster beat on your leg, gradually working up to sensing this new beat in groups of four. (You will have to sense three beats between your taps, or TAP, beat, beat, beat, TAP, beat, beat, beat.) Was it easier for you to sense a slow or a fast beat?

When we sense a series of beats, either in active listening or in our subliminal experience, we sense whether the interval between the sounds is regular or irregular. If it's regular we try to find a larger pattern it fits into. If it's irregular we keep casting about mentally and perceptually to try to find a pattern. Pause right now and listen carefully to all the sounds and patterns that are in your environment. Can you hear the ventilation system? Can you hear the fluorescent lights? If you are outside, is there a recurring beat to the sound or din of traffic? Unless we are put in an isolation tank, our brains are constantly processing sounds and translating them into sound patterns. Some fit, some do not.


Were you aware of the pattern you made when tapping only one beat and sensing the others silently? This pattern of accented and unaccented beats is called a rhythm. You first accented every other beat and created a rhythm that recurred every 2 beats. Next, you established a 3-count rhythm. Finally, you established a 4-count rhythm, meaning on every fourth beat you created an accent. Look at this written out another way:

Tap, clap, or walk in the room creating 12 even and equal accents. We will represent these 12 marks in time by making evenly spaced marks on the page, indicating that the sounds occur at regular, equal intervals.

This is an excerpt from A Sense of Dance.

More Excerpts From Sense of Dance 2nd Edition