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Dance as Communication: “Dance to express, not to impress”

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Communication is so important in our everyday lives and the ability to speak, to read and to write is essential. Without such skills I could not pen these posts. Furthermore, our global online community of ballerinas and dance devotees would be unable to discover new information, discuss ideas or share sources of inspiration.

However, the beauty of dance is that we can express so much without uttering a single word or relying on having stationery or a laptop to hand. Our bodies convey the story of us every single day of our lives and, sometimes, there is just no way to completely hide how we feel. The subtleties of body language express the emotions and subconscious thoughts that we may endeavour to keep to ourselves. How often have you told people that you are “fine” only to realise that the tension in your shoulders and the slight lowering of your eyeline suggests otherwise?

Dance allows us to tell our stories in the most primitive, basic and truthful way. Dancing from the heart may result in awe-inspiring routines. However, it may just as easily lead to unrefined and uncontrollable outbursts of movement and emotion as we release pent-up frustrations. Whichever, this form of communication is honest and can touch people in ways that words just cannot.

While dance styles such as contemporary lend themselves to the demonstrative depiction of our innermost thoughts, anxieties and fears, other genres are communicative in different ways. Classical ballet is about line and aesthetics so expressive quality will always be achieved within the constraints of the discipline. However, the storytelling we see onstage shows how much emotion can be conveyed through even the simplest arm movements – a port de bras delivered with meaning and intent has unlimited power to move an audience.

Something that has always fascinated me about classical ballet is the universal language that we become fluent in through our dance training. Wherever in the world you happen to participate in a class, ballet terminology is instantly recognisable. There are a few exceptions that have evolved in relation to different schools’ preferences – we may consider these as the emergence of different dialects. Nonetheless, ballet dancers the world over have a shared understanding of the language used by teachers and choreographers. Codified in French, ballet terminology indicates precisely what we must do with our limbs and offers insight into the sentiment, purpose or direction of the described movement. By linking individual terms together into phrases, we can quickly interpret the meanings of the words and translate them into physical actions. For example, rond de jambe en l’air en dehors translates into ‘circle of the leg; in the air; outward’. As ballet students begin to learn to navigate the maze of terminology, they can find their way from the seemingly incomprehensible grouping of words to the actual sequences of dance components performed in class.

In my opinion, acquisition of the language of ballet helps dance students to become thinking dancers. Copying a teacher perform a routine or a series of steps is one thing but truly understanding each element offers a young dancer the freedom to explore and improve their technique and create their own choreography.

Choreographers use dance to communicate with an audience. They produce work to provoke a response; to connect with people and inspire an emotive reaction. To be truly engaged as dancers, and fully appreciative as audience members, I believe we must never be passive. Dance is about actively communicating - with yourself, with fellow students and teachers, with audiences. As a writer, reviewer, dancer, dance teacher and balletomane, I try to always be observant and curious. We should be aiming to get the most from every single dance experience.

Dance is about so much more than how many pirouettes you can do or how high you can jump.

It is about connecting to the music; expressing what words cannot; appreciating what our bodies can do and recognising how focusing on movement and its communicative powers can free our thoughts.

Always remember: “Dance to express, not to impress.”

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