Easy ways to use the Elements of Dance

dance in the primary curriculumMany primary school teachers and even dance specialists have questions about how to make the Elements of dance accessible to their primary students. The concept seems easy enough, but even a quick look on the internet will reveal that there is not a consensus between various Primary dance curricular about what the Elements of dance are.

The Australian Curriculum identifies the elements as being Space, Time, Dynamics and Relationship. However, Action and Body are often included as categories in various curriculum documents throughout the world. It is worthwhile unpacking exactly what these terms encompass, and how and why we should use this vocabulary in our dance classes.

What are the Elements of Dance in the Primary Curriculum?

The Elements of Dance is the vocabulary used to describe the tools that dancers use to make dance. In music, the musicians use instruments, or their voices, to create their art. In visual art, the artist uses a range of mediums to create their work. And in drama, the voice and body are used to communicate stories and ideas.

In dance the body is our primary instrument. How it moves in space is the dance artists way of communicating emotions, ideas and stories.

To analyze this kinetic dance vocabulary students are required to learn the language of movement and how we describe, and in turn, analyze it. In dance we break down movement through the Elements of Dance: Space, Time, Dynamics (Energy) and Relationships (Body, Action).

Most dance curricular around the world use either Laban terms, general dance terms or a combination of these to describe the dancing body.

Understanding the elements of dance helps students to think, plan and discuss dance. Talking about dance encourages writing about dance and, more important to dance in the primary curriculum, describing movement.
Developing a dance vocabulary as a part of dance in the Primary curriculum, supports student dance making by providing the building blocks for choreography.

Understanding the Elements of Dance

If this is the basis of all dance, why the confusion about what the Elements of Dance are called?

Brenda Pugh McCutchen, in her book Teaching Dance as Art in Education, summarizes the Elements of Dance,
“… dance itself requires all elements: body movement and motion in space for a certain time, modulating energy and dynamics and in relationship to something or to someone”.

She stresses the importance of students learning each one and how they influence the meaning and artistry of the choreography. McCutchen explains that in fact these headings are not the elements but rather the categories under which the elements are organized.

The subcategories are the dance elements.

By looking at each element and what the subcategories are we can simplify the process of teaching to young children. The Australian Curriculum: Dance covers many of these subcategories but the additional ones you may find useful when talking to your students about choreographing, performing or responding to dance.

the elements of danceSpace: Where?

This element is about how the dancer uses space in various ways.

It uses the following subcategories to investigate space:
• Levels
• Direction
• Pathways – curved, angular, freeform, indefinite
• Size
• Self space and general space
• Focus – single, multi focus
• Shape – Positive and Negative Space
• Elevation (height going into the air and landing)
• Distance (amount of space covered)

Sample Dance Activity

Group together a level, a pathway and a shape and ask the students to improvise moving through the space. For example, 1. Low/zigzag/curved or curling, then change to
2. Medium/straight/angular,
3. High/curved/freeform,
4. Medium/meandering/stretching.

dance in the curriculumTime: When?

Time is the rhythmic use of the body either to music, sound, no sound or voice.

It uses the following subcategories to investigate time:
• Tempo – fast to slow, accelerate, decelerate, regular, free flowing
• Rhythms – rhythmic patterns, metre, breadth/pulse, felt time
• Accent – single, multiple, on beat, syncopated, predictable, unpredictable
• Stillness
• Duration – brief to long

Sample Dance Activity

Use a drum or a shaker to create beats. Each beat must be a single large movement. Gradually increase the speed of the beat and reduce the size of the movement. Then reverse it.

dance in the australian curriculum

Dynamics: How?

Sometimes referred to as Energy, Dynamics is how the dancer moves in the space.

It uses the following subcategories to investigate dynamics:
• Quality – sustained, percussive, limp, free flowing, sudden etc
• Tension – tight to loose
• Flow – smooth – jagged
• Force – strong to gentle
• Weight – heavy to light

Sample Dance Activity

Brainstorm with your students how different colours change your emotions. For example, red might be associated with danger, embarrassment or anger, yellow with sunshine, happiness or feeling bright, blue with feeling calm, dreamy or floaty. Hold up different coloured cards and the students move through the space using the dynamic they feel for each emotion.

dance in the Australian curriculum

Relationship: Who?

This is how we move by ourselves but also in relation to other dancers, performers and objects. Including how we connect body parts with ourselves and others, or just about proximity to other things or people in the space.

It uses the following subcategories to investigate relationship:
• Groupings – solo, group formations
• Spatial – over, under, through, around, beside, in front of, near, far etc
• Interaction – mirror, meeting, parting, lead, follow
• Connecting – body parts with self or others or objects

Sample Dance Activity

Students travel around the room and on the teacher’s signal greet the nearest person with a body part other than hands. This body part must change with each new greeting. As students move apart, they must move under, over, around or through their partner.

This is a summary of the Elements of Dance. All these elements are the building blocks of dance that are organized by a range of choreographic structures to give dances form and unity.

As students learn more about dance in the primary curriculum, they begin to create their own dances by using a variety of dance elements.