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A practical introduction to the tools used in composing dances

This is an excerpt from Dance Composition Basics by Pamela Anderson Sofras.


Dance uses the body as an instrument of expression in time and space. Behind every movement lies an intention that is revealed by conscious control of energy. It is the choreographer's job to design dance compositions that manipulate body shape and movement patterns creatively in space and in time with a determined energy. This manipulation makes the choreographer's emotions and aesthetic inventions concrete, and draws in the emotional participation of the performers and the viewers of the choreographer's creation.

This chapter explores the ways we move our bodies in choreography by looking at the range of movement; the coordination of movement from the inside out; locomotion using action words; and the choreographic use of personal space, nonlocomotor movement, gestures, and shapes. The goal is to facilitate the development of movement phrases or motifs that can be expanded into solo studies. Each movement concept is introduced with a structured improvisation, followed by a larger creative problem to solve. Video recordings in the rehearsal studio document the creative processes of choreographers Dwight Rhoden and Alonzo King, providing models and clarifications of the concepts explored here.

Introductory Statement

Movement is a neuromuscular event. In the body, the brain provides impulses to stimulate the nerves leading to muscles. The nerves elicit the desired muscular contractions that produce shapes and actions. Motivation (impulse) to move (action) usually comes from within. Dance is the interplay between impulse and action.

The concept of an impulse to move that begins as an idea in our minds and leads us into action is the main idea of the contemporary dance work Verge by Dwight Rhoden. He created a main character that he called the Impulse to personify the movement idea, or the catalyst for motion.

Warm-Up and Impulse Discovery

  • Explore movement successions through the spine, in the arms and legs, and from one body part to another.
  • Example 1: Begin lowering the head, followed by curving the chest forward, connecting to the waist while bending the knees so that you finish in a low curve, arms touching the floor. Reverse the succession to arrive standing upright.

  • Example 2: Starting with the arms resting at the sides of the body, rotate the right shoulder inward as you raise the arm upward, allow the elbow to point toward the ceiling, then lead the wrist upward, and finally the fingers, until the succession finishes with the fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Reverse this succession until the arm is once again at the side of the body. Try the other arm. Can you do a succession in both arms at the same time?

  • Example 3: Lift or point the leg to the front, rotate it inward and bend the knee, then bend the knee of the supporting leg until the two knees touch. Rotate the knee and leg outward and straighten the supporting leg until you undo the succession inward, and finish with the leg once again to the front.

  • Create a series of body-part isolations focusing on just one joint and explore the movement potential and range of motion within this joint (for example, bend, stretch, rotate).
  • Begin by thinking about natural body operations such as breathing, hiccupping, or sneezing. Make a list of natural body actions and explore how they make your body move. Locate the center of the body weight (2 inches or 5 centimeters below the navel) and move from the center of the body so that the movement originates from the inside and escapes out to the extremities. Select eight different natural movements and give them a specific timing bookmarked by beginning and ending shapes. Simply do the natural motions.
  • Make the natural actions into a new sequence and perform them one after the other. This time, alter each natural action in timing, shape, and size so it is no longer literal but starts to become a dance gesture. In dance, gestures are abstracted. The quality of the gesture rather than the literal gesture becomes important. Give each chosen action a new timing and order. Also use more than just the arms. Can some of the gestures be performed by the legs or head? Bookmark this new sequence with a beginning and ending neutral shape. Sample sequence: Sneeze, hiccup, sigh, yawn, burp, breathe, sob, shudder.

Sometimes, the reaction to a stimulus originating outside the body produces an unplanned action within the body. The affected body part sends a sensation back to the brain, making the body respond unintentionally with movement to an outside stimulus rather than responding to the intent of the mind.

  • React to imaginary stimuli from outside the body. The motivation to move comes from outside the body. Give the movements timing and beginning and ending shapes, and make them into a sequence. Sample sequence: Bump into something, shoo away a fly, trip on your shoelace, dodge a punch, pet an animal, or react to a loud noise.

Structured Improvisations

Example: Chapter 1, Lesson 1A: Defining an Impulse

In this excerpt from a teaching workshop, Alonzo King defines the concept of the impulse.

Example: Chapter 1, Lesson 1B: Defining "Impulse"

In these four short excerpts, Dwight Rhoden is working with Uri Sands, the dancer personifying Impulse. Rhoden is helping Sands to understand the choreographer's concept for the central character and how he feels the dancer's movement should reflect this concept.

Improvisation 1: Points in Space

  • Find four spots in four different locations in the room. Make sure these spots or focal points are clear and memorize the locations. The teacher will provide simple drum cues to stimulate the action, beating the drum and calling out the numbers "1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4," a number for each spot. First, simply turn your head toward each spot, focusing on the spot with the eyes at the drum cues. The teacher may call the spots out of order and in slow or fast time. Dancers may even call out the spots at random themselves. Next, point to each spot with the right index finger at the drum cues. Proceed to pointing with an elbow, then a knee, and finally with the whole body. Reorder the points at any time and change tempo to add interest. The sound of the drum and the chosen point in space are impulses motivating movement. The action defines the focal points in space while there is a reaction to sound cues.
  • Turn and look at each spot because of an internal motivation such as looking for something, calling to someone, or waving hello. Develop a personal sequence of four spots that you have chosen because of specific motivations. Through movement, show the different reasons for focusing on each spot. There is no sound accompaniment. Note how the timing of the movement changes as your intent changes.

Improvisation 2: Isolating an Impulse

In this structured improvisation, an external action provides the motivation to move, or a reaction. Working in pairs, one partner closes the eyes and moves only when directed by the touch of the other partner. The active partner should touch a body part and the passive partner should move only the part touched. The passive partner should respond to the quality of the touch. If the quality of the touch is soft, the responding movement should be light; if the touch is forceful, the response should be strong. The active partner can also explore fast and slow touches. The passive partner is simply reacting to the impulse experienced and trying to isolate movement in the area touched.

Improvisation 3: Body Parts Take Control

Explore walking across the floor using a variety of levels. For example, take 4 steps with the knees bent, a low level; 4 steps on tiptoe, a high level; 4 steps in a natural walk; and finish with 4 natural steps, turning. Return across the floor dancing the same combination, but now lead the movement with your right elbow. The selected body part (the elbow) becomes the impulse that is motivating the rest of your body to move. Each time you start to move or change level or direction, the elbow must lead. Next try leading with your head, and then lead your movement with whatever body part you wish. Be sure to clearly emphasize the chosen body part that is working as the impulse for the movement.

Problem Solving

Example: Chapter 1, Lesson 1C: "Impulse" Solo From Verge

The solo is danced by Uri Sands. Watch how the choreographer uses natural gestures that have been given new timing and spatial configuration to make them into dance movement. There are arm, leg, and whole body gestures, some gestures literal and some abstract.

Impulse Dance

  • Create an original Impulse dance that includes successions, focal points, isolations, action and reaction, and body-part leads. Begin with selected movements from the warm-up (successions, breathing, center-of-the-body impetus), and then work on focal points in space. Move on to movement motivated by imaginary outside touches, and finish with a sequence requiring a body part to lead the movement. There should be four sections to your dance. Determine an order, an appropriate movement for each section, and an amount of time (counts or phrases) for each section. The study should be 1 to 3 minutes long. See figure 1.1 for a sample Impulse dance.
  • Perform your Impulse dances for each other. Audience members should watch to see how the impulses change and where they are coming from. Where does the movement start? Select music to accompany the finished study, or have a dance accompanist create a sound score. The teacher or accompanist may bring in music to assist the process.

Discussion Questions

  1. Define the word impulse as you perceive it.
  2. Discuss the impulses in movement you observed in the solo from Verge.
  3. Were movements clearly emanating from the center of the dancer's body?
  4. Did you see any reactionary movement? If so, what was the character reacting to?
  5. How did your own impulse solo show some of the same movement sources and action and reaction as seen in the Verge solo?
  6. How did your intent and movement choices differ from those chosen by Rhoden?

This is an excerpt from Dance Composition Basics.

More Excerpts From Dance Composition Basics