Components of dance

An exploration of the components of dance…

I was chatting with Northern Tango teacher Chris Hart, the other day about the components of tango. Chris explained Argentine tango can be broken down into 4 essential components:

  • step forward
  • step backwards
  • step to the side
  • turning


These simple elements suddenly made so much sense of how I think of the different movements in tango. You know. Light bulb moment.

A few weeks mulling it over, and I’d add 4 more that as a follower I find important. Add them all together and you kind of get a sphere of movement, covering all directions

  • energy down
  • energy down
  • stopping, or containment of movement
  • timing – or momentum through time


Although I totally take Chris’s point of view that you can’t start throwing these concepts at beginners. They make sense of tango retrospectively, rather than show a beginner how to apply these components to create the dance of tango.

Looking at ballet.


Ballet is traditionally broken down into 7 categories of movement:

  • plièr – to bend
  • etendre – to stretch
  • relever – to rise up
  • sauter – to jump/leap
  • elancer – to dart
  • glisser – to glide
  • tourner – to turn


These categories never really helped me much, not in the lightbulb way the components of tango does. However I do like A ballet Education’s * take on the categories of ballet where he breaks it down into 4 components

  • Plié (build): the literal translation of plié is to bend.
  • Tendu (stretch): the translation is to stretch.
  • Relevé (press): to raise/ to rise
  • Coupé (rotation): to cut

This post explains how the 7 traditional elements of ballet can still be broken down into those 4 components. I kind of agree. To dance ballet well, you need to be able to execute these skills well. But more than that you need to understand what these components are and how they apply to things like an actual plie, or an actual grand battement.

But these still don’t seem to me to be the absolute foundation of ballet. Chris’s components of tango make more sense to me because they’re directions of momentum. And I understand dance through my understanding of momentum.

Certainly the 4 ballet components A Ballet Education writes about refer to some movements of the body, not movement at a fundamental level.

The traditional 7 elements of ballet also only sort of address the momentum of the body – gliding, darting, jumping and turning.

But that still doesn’t really explain what I feel in my body when I’m dancing ballet. I think tango might have better answers for that. Chris’s 4 plus my 4 …

  • Momentum forward
  • Momentum backwards
  • Momentum sideways
  • Turning momentum
  • energy up
  • energy down
  • stopping, or containment of movement
  • timing – or momentum through time

Forward, backwards, sideways, turning, energy up and energy down are directions of momentum. Then there’s stopping of momentum, and momentum through time.

Ok yeah but the point of essential components of a dance is to help a dancer understand what they’re doing, right? And I’ve created quite a mess of concepts that probably don’t help much!

If I take the concept of momentum in another activity I know well – archery, it actually illustrates the main physics of motion quite simply. No no don’t freak out, I’m not going to go all boffiny on my readers!

Pulling the drawstring back creates potential for motion of the arrow. Releasing the drawstring changes that potential for motion into the actual motion of the arrow moving through space. The direction of that motion is hopefully towards the target. Hitting the target heh or missing the target and hitting something else ;-P stops that motion energy. Timing is essential to hitting a moving target. This is simplified, other stuff is happening but not relevant to my post.

Translating this to dance, we could say plier is the building up of potential movement, tendu is the actual movement, direction is where the movement is going**, and coupe is the stopping of movement.

Let’s apply this to one of my favourite barre exercises, degage.

degage- pointing of the foot to an open position with an arched instep slightly off the floor (45 degrees):

The potential for movement is both in the way you stand – you’re essentially building a platform on which the motion can be leveraged, your body is akin to the bow. And then in muscles of your legs contracting, akin to the bow-string pulling back. These all create the potential for movement.

The actual movement is the leg through space in the form of the degage.

The stopping of the movement occurs by the muscles in the body, so that it doesn’t wobble around, in the muscles braking the momentum of the leg at the height of degage and again as it ‘closes’ on the ground. Gravity helps too.

Then there’s my 4th component, motion through time. To do that degage nicely, you need to do it in time to the music. You need to apply all the above components at the right speed so the degage is in time with the music.

This satisfies my scientific mind better. These components are also the same fundamental components of tango. Let’s explore an ocho (Another of my favourite steps 🙂


Potential for movement is the muscles of the body contracting. The actual movement is the turning and sideways motion of the body. The stopping of movement is muscles of the body applying a brake so you don’t twist too far (heh, ask me how I know – my body’s so flexible most of my ocho consists of this component!) or go too far sideways, and the friction of the shoe on the floor. And then of course, it all has to be done in the correct timing in relation to the music.

Yes, I’m happy now! This definitely explains my internal experience of dance! And because I’ve danced so many styles of dance through the years, to me ballet is simply another kind of dance. Ballet isn’t dance itself.

I do feel like I’ve distilled what dance – from ballet to bellydancing and everything in between – is to me. Maybe one day I’ll work out what elements define ballet from other dance styles. Another blog post, another time!


Note: My proofreader is an engineer. I wonder what he’ll make of my interpretation of dance through physics 😀

ETA: my proofreader loves it, in a very amused way 😀

*Great blog, if you can get your head around the body-beautiful illustrations and subtle fat-shaming side by side with rhetoric in the actual text of ‘these things shouldn’t matter’. I’m leery of recommending it to adult dancers in case it does their head in. Truly, ballet is a dance, not an image. But all too often people reinforce the idea that ballet is an image, and that you can’t dance it unless you fit that image. That’s just so wrong.

**Maybe I should use a French word for direction of motion.Google reckons it’s direction du mouvement ;-P

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