A Contemporary Understanding of Dance

In her latest Sixth Position column, Danielle Georgiou writes about how dance is much more than we have traditionally thought about it.

published Friday, November 23, 2018


Dallas —  Dance is a way to move the body rhythmically, with a sense of aesthetic quality and symbolic value. While this is one way to view dance and is an acceptable approach to begin to appreciate the art form, dance in the 21st Century is more than this simple response. Further, to critique it, we should consider its full-value offerings. It has become a tool for communicating complex societal issues. It is a mirror of society. It is a reflection of the human condition. It is a connection to the animal and spirit world. It is the integration, the construction, and the manipulation of three main elements: time, space, and energy.

As the artist crafting the movement score, the choreographer has a vision of what the dance is going to be. Inside of their creative process, the work can take on a variety of shapes; it could be a highly technical work of classical ballet or an improvisational-based score of contact partnering based on weight-sharing, chance, and trust. Whatever direction the artist chooses to take they are playing with the ideas of time, space, and energy that are commonly considered the three main choreographic elements of dance. Nora Ambrosio, professor of dance at Slippery Rock University, defines these elements in her book, Learning About Dance: Dance as an Art Form and Entertainment (Kendall Hunt, 2018). Space is defined as the “movements [that] mold the spatial aspects of dance and make the stage space come alive as an aesthetic element” (Ambrosio 24). Those movements create a reaction that causes a change to occur resulting in a playing with time. Ambrosio goes on to define energy as “a certain amount of energy used to accomplish a movement” (Ambrosio 33) and consists of two different elements: dynamics and qualities. Time and energy create dynamics: something sharp or sustained, or interesting and elevated. Qualities are those “distinctly observable attributes, or characteristics produced by dynamics and made manifest in movement” (Ambrosio 33) and make the dance attractive.


Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Danielle Georgiou

It is important to note that Ambrosio’s characteristics are subjective, specifically those that are definitive of energy. Why does dance have to be attractive? It does not. It can be grotesque, chaotic, messy; it can be the antithesis of what we perceive to be dance, and that is what makes it even more critical that we move towards a new understanding of dance in the contemporary world.


When approaching this new mode of thinking, it might be useful to consider the definitive elements of contemporary dance theatre—the use of dramatic, comic or surrealist situations, brutality or tenderness, repetition, social dance, nudity, gender, and storytelling. Works of contemporary dance theatre place performers who do not always look like dancers, and actions that do not always look like a dance, into a formal space that raises questions about its merit. When coupled with features of physical theatre, pedestrian engagements, and bizarre props and sculptural elements, the audience (or the critic) might not even realize how much dance is happening, because they are waiting for the spectacle to occur.

In Pina Bausch’s Café Müller, she manipulated and controlled time with her decision to have one performer repeatedly walk into walls. The use of repetitive pedestrian action gives the movement score a sense of weight, of gravity, and a context that places it in a moment of real-world honesty. Trisha Brown took “dance” out of the studio, and put it on sides of buildings and of walls of art galleries, creating a new sense of space as her performers dangled upside and midway in the air. She made us question how we viewed dance as art and reminded us that there is beauty in the mundane, in the simple act of walking.

What we should keep in mind is that dance can happen everywhere and is a fundamental part of our everyday. For example, walking from a car to a building is a dance—the body is rhythmical moving to find a pattern of dodging parking cars, puddles, dog poop, and other people. As Dr. Aili Bresnahan states in her essay, “The Philosophy of Dance” (from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2017), “dance is practiced in many forms and for many reasons,” but dance is not an invention of man.” Birds, lions, monkeys, deer, and whales dance. Their mating rituals and attack responses are the first forms of movement that we understood as having a rhythmic and symbolic sense that embodied an aesthetic feeling. However, we all dance because the origin of the form is a physiological action—an instinctual response to move caused by some inspiration, such as excitement, anger, or fear. The ecstasy of moving enhances the physical strength of the dancer, and we become something close to superhuman or spiritual. Dance becomes more than just a pastime or a series of technical moves in an artistic performance. It becomes something closer to a mystical experience—a transcendence of Being, a conversation with the Natural, a raw, intimate look into the Everyday.

Moreover, there is also the issue that what dance is in practice or for appreciation maybe not be indistinguishable with what dance is for purposes of documentation or historic preservation. Once a dance is composed, that does not mean it will remain in that form for all time. Most dances continuously evolve as casts change or as the choreographer grows and continues to experiment. If the dance is being restaged from video and with no notations, then the next artist will inevitably (though subconsciously) change the choreography in significant and perhaps identity-changing ways. Then, if we consider the case of live performances in alternative spaces (non-traditional stage spaces) with natural elements (water, dirt, wind, ice), the form and structure of the dance might be changed with no real awareness—altered for safety and entertainment reasons. Chance, the most significant partner of a dancer, provides the risk of dance and the beauty of live performance. Allowing for the ability to respond to the audience in-the-moment is one of the greatest gifts a choreographer can grant their performers.

Therefore, despite a broad definition, it is difficult to create a universal identity for dance, and it is even more challenging to critically claim that dance is not dance because it does not fit the viewer’s individual aesthetic. This debate begs the question, “what is the nature of dance?”

Citing Yvonne Rainer’s Room Service as an example, dance researchers Noël Carroll and Sally Banes found that expressiveness, in the sense of either intensity or non-practicality, could be either a necessary or sufficient condition for dance. In their article “Working and Dancing: A Response to Monroe Beardsley’s ‘What Is Going on in a Dance?’” for the Dance Research Journal (Vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 37-41), they state that Rainer’s work demonstrates how dance movements can be indistinguishable from those of ordinary life: “Room Service is not a representation of a working; it is a working. But it is also a dance—partially because through its aesthetic context it transforms an ordinary working (the sort of thing whose kinetic intricacies usually go unnoticed or ignored) into an object for close scrutiny” (Carroll and Banes 38). Add in verbatim text or narrative storytelling and dance can become much more than a passive experience. The movement transforms by the activity of being performed, and becomes a new kind of movement altogether; it becomes art.

It is in that performative space that dance takes on a new narrative. Audiences can find themselves invested in the work in a more personal way, participating on a micro-level. We can encourage this deeper understanding by acknowledging the need for more intimate, immediate connections.

Dance is not just 32 fouettés in a row, a 180-degree jeté, or perfect turn-out. It is an exploration of the power of the human body. It is a journey through Elizabeth Streb’s gravity-defying work. It is a walk through the woods practicing elements of Butoh. It is an understanding of the nine physical Viewpoints elements—spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, shape, gesture, repetition, architecture, tempo, duration, and topography. It is a conversation with the cultural evolution of humanity. Dance might not always look like a romantic ballet anymore, and thankfully so.


» Sixth Position now appears on the fourth Friday of the month on

» Danielle Georgiou, Ph.D., is a dance educator, critic, and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) whose work focuses on ensemble-building, devised work. She is a professional dancer and choreographer working in contemporary dance and theatre. 




(If a month is missing, there was no column)



  • February: Cash Choreography
  • March: Make the Fringe Your Future
  • April: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
  • May: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
  • June: Persevering Through Movement
  • July: Sharing in Success
  • August: To the Barre
  • September: Method Act
  • October: Fear of Flying
  • December: The Editor Dance




  • January: Making and Moving
  • February: Don't Fudge the Truth
  • March: The Collective Unconsciousness of Creating
  • April: Professionally Speaking
  • May: Dancer Depictions
  • July: Where Have all the Critics Gone?
  • August: Rain Dance
  • September: The Theory of Taking Risks
  • October: Get in Line!


  • March: Collaboration and the Poetics of Failing
  • April: Performance Fear
  • June: The 10-Year Dissonance
 Thanks For Reading

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A Contemporary Understanding of Dance
In her latest Sixth Position column, Danielle Georgiou writes about how dance is much more than we have traditionally thought about it.
by Danielle Georgiou

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