Dance Composition: A practical guide to creative success in dance making by Jacqueline M. Smith-Autard

Selected quotes from

Jacqueline M. Smith-Autard.
Dance Composition: A practical guide to creative success in dance making.
Methuen Drama, A&C Black Publishers, 2010; ISBN 1-408-11564-6.
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compiled by Tom Verhoeff in July 2012. Bold face emphasis is mine.

Reading this material is no substitute for reading the book. In fact, I hope that it will make you more interested in the material.


p.iv ... this book ... focuses almost exclusively on the content and form of dances rather than on all aspects of choreography including themes, music or sound, design and lighting.


Dancing and composing dances

p.3 ... according to Redfern (1973) ..., an understanding of dance as an art begins:

... when concern is not simply with delight in bodily movement but with a formulated whole, a structured ‘something’ so that the relationship and coherence of the constituent parts becomes of increasing interest and importance. (p.103)

... What we have now is what I would like to call a ‘midway’ model -- one that incorporates aspects of both the educational/Laban model and the professional/product/theatre model ...

p.4 ... concentrate on coming to know dance as an art through composing, performing and appreciating dances. This three stranded approach has become the central organising principle of dance education today.

p.6 ... composition of a successful dance pre-supposes that the composer has knowledge of:

  1. the material elements of a dance
  2. methods of construction which give form to a dance
  3. an understanding of the style within which the composer is working.

... The question as to what constitutes a work of art is far from simple to answer but there is a consistency in the notion that art promotes aesthetic experience. ...
... the term aesthetic will be used in the sense suggested by Reid (2008):

We have an aesthetic situation whenever we apprehend and in some sense enjoy meaning immediately embodied in something... not in the sense that the perceived forms point to something else, their meaning, as ordinary words or other symbols: the forms are in themselves delightful and significant (p.295-6)

p.7 A work of art is the expression or embodiment of something formed from diverse but compatible elements as a whole entity to be enjoyed aesthetically. It has to be created with the composer's intention to say something, to communicate an idea or emotion. ...
How the composition is arranged or shaped produces the form of the whole. The word form is used in all arts to describe the shape and structure of each work of art. The idea or emotion which is to be communicated becomes embodied in the form. The form is the aspect which is aesthetically evaluated by the onlooker who does not see every element but gains an impression of the whole. This is particularly relevant to the temporal arts, such as music and dance.

Section 1

The material content: Movement and meaning

p.17 ... communication can take place through movement. ...

jumped for joy ... shook with excitement

It is this natural movement language which forms the dance composer's vocabulary.

p.18 The dance composer has this movement language as a basis but requires a means of analysing the content so that they may take the symptomatic human behaviour patterns, refine them, add to them, vary them, extract from them, enlarge them, exaggerate parts of them according to the needs in composition. The movement analysis which is most useful and comprehensive is that which Rudolf Laban presents in his books ...

p.19 Table 1
Summary of Laban's analysis of movement

Action of the body
Qualities of movement
Space environment

p.20 ... in use of Laban's analysis to help the choice of movement content and to depict the intention, the dance composer can choose the action and colour it with any qualitative, spatial or relationship content so that the resulting movement expresses the intention in the composer's own unique way.

p.21 In addition to the major concern for the choice of material that clearly identifies meaning, the dance composer has the responsibility of making movement content as original and interesting as possible.

p.22 ... It is difficult to retain a balance between meaning and originality. Care must be taken that the everyday movement origin has not been lost by too much enrichtment, nor should it be presented in the form of cliché which only leads to dull uninteresting work.

p.23 Presentation of literal movement is not dance.

Section 2

Methods of construction 1: The beginnings

Stimuli for dance

p.29 ... Stimuli for dance composition can be auditory, visual, ideational, tactile or kinesthetic.

p.31 The dance composer's concern is, firstly, whether or not the stimulus is suitable to inspire a dance, and, secondly, if it is to accompany the dance, how this could occur.

p.32 ... the dance composer has to decide whether or not successful communication of the idea depends upon knowledge of the stimulus as an origin. ... Often though, the dance title suggests the original stimulus, enough at least to understand the motivation.

Types of dance

... Commonly accepted terms are ... used when describing types of dance composition ... These include pure, study, abstract, lyrical, dramatic, comic and dance-drama.

We say pure dance when ... it has originated from a kinesthetic stimulus and deals exclusively with movement. A study is pure, but a dance can be pure and be more than a study. A study suggests that the composer has concentrated on a limited range of material. ...
The movement content in a pure dance may be simpler for the performer than that in a study. The latter often demands more complex movement and aims to show virtuosity and academic understanding of its chosen content.

p.33 Abstraction is a confusing term. ...
... Often, young dance composers think they are ‘with it’ and very modern if they present a series of unrelated ... movements as an abstract dance. ... A temporal art cannot be abstract in this sense.

p.34 ... Obscurity ... should be avoided. ...
... an abstract dance implies that the composer has abstracted some thought about one thing or several things, and identifies these through movement images which bear fairly close resemblance to them.

p.35 Dramatic dance implies that the idea to be communicated is powerful and exciting, dynamic and tense, and probably involves conflict between people of within the individual.

... Movement material requires a certain kind of handling if it is to be comic. Essentially original or unusual ways of moving and relating to the environment and other people can be comic. ... The composer could also try for the unpredictable in movement ...

Mode of presentation

p.36 It is necessary to discuss how the movement content is to be presented by the dance composer. ... In a dance to depict ... human movements exactly as they are in real life, is to use the movement in a purely representational way. To use these movements, extracting the essence or main characteristics and adding other features in action or dynamic stresses, is to use the movements in a symbolic way.

p.37 ... Most dances are symbolic presentations of movement but if they are to be successful the symbols must be identifiable and meaningful to the audience.


Now is the moment to start composing. The dance composer experiments with movement and tries to realise imagined movement images into real movement expression. This initial exploration is called improvisation.

p.39 Improvisation is spontaneous, transient creation -- is is not fixed, it is not formed. ... In evaluating this matter, the composer may use one or more of the following criteria

  1. the movement has meaning and relevance to the idea for the dance
  2. the movement is interesting and original in action, dynamics and spatial patterning
  3. the movement has potential for development.

p.40 The starting point for movement is the first piece of composition. It has ben selected, evaluated and refined, and is now set as the initial motivating force for the rest of the dance. This movement of movement phrase is called the motif.
The composer continues to employ improvisation in developing, varying and elaborating on the starting motif and finding new ones for the rest of the composition.

Methods of construction 2: Motif into composition

p.41 For the dance to be a meaningful whole it must have recognizable form. A whole is made from a number of components and the dance composer's components include:

  1. each dancer's body as an instrument which has volume, shape and the capacity for action
  2. movement which has physical properties of time, weight, and flow -- the interaction of which determines the form and style of the action
  3. space, which can be shaped by movement
  4. the relationships that the body can make with other things or people


p.42 A dance aims to communicate an idea and, therefore, there is much more to it than the mere arranging of movements. It has a form, an overall shape, system, unity, mould, or mode of being. This outer shell, or constructional frame, is the outstanding feature which supports the inner arrangements of its components. ... the viewer does not remember each and every movement. ... the impression of the whole is remembered...

... the composer has two main tasks. Simultaneously and with artistic awareness he/she should:

  1. select movement content, using the dancer/s
  2. set the movement into a constructional frame which will give the whole its form

What is motif?

p.42 There must be a foundation for logical development or form. The foundation of dance is its initial motif. ... Webster's Dictionary (1966) defines the word motif as

... a theme or subject -- an element in a composition especially a dominant element

p.43 The opening motif starts to communicate the idea and the next few phrases need to go on saying the same thing as further qualification of the statement. Because dance is transient this restatement is very important.

... The motif can be as long as a ‘verse’ or as short as a ‘word’. ... Repetition of the content ... is mostly achieved by means of development and variation of the motif(s).

Repetition as constructional element

p.45 The word repetition means exactly the same thing again. In the art sense ... the word has wider connotations ...

p.47 While the composer is using repetition in the expanded sense, a range of developments and variations of the motifs ... will inevitably emerge. This should ensure that the content is interesting and yet recognisable as repeated material.

Types of motif

p.48 ... Each dance has its own motifs, and each motif has its own characteristics shared by no other. It is possible, however, to generalise to a certain extent [the] description of motifs in terms of length and content emphasis.

Some dances use ‘positional’ motifs. These positions are moved ‘into’ and ‘out’ of, and act as landmarks or foundations around which the rest of the dance movement is formed. The[se] motifs ... are in existence for a short time as momentary positions.

On the other hand, a motif may last for a length of time ...

In the final outcome it is only the composer and the dancers who know exactly the length and structure of the motifs which have been used as constructional elements, foundation to the rest of the dance. They need not necessarily be apparent to the onlooker.

p.49 The nature of a motif may be descriptive in terms of emphasis it has in content. It is possible to note action, quality or space stresses ...

Movement is an interrelation of action, quality and space, and no one aspect can exist without the others in the motifs, but one or two can be more emphasized.

The dance design in time

p.50 The composer must be aware that the dance, which exists through time, uses time in a constructive and interesting way.

... the dance composer should be aware that the total length of the dance is vital to the communication of the idea.

The composer should also be aware of the total time picture in relation to the beginning, middle and end of the dance.

The dance design in space

p.51 The composer must be aware that the dance, which exists in space, uses space in a constructive and interesting way.

First, it should be decided how much space to use, relative to the idea and the space available. Second, a decision should be made about where the front is, if it is not a stage space, or from what angles the dance will be seen to the best advantage. The there are three further considerations:

  1. the dancer's shape in space
  2. the pathways created on the floor
  3. the pathways created in the air

Motif in composition

p.54 When composing for a soloist, the dance composer makes sure that:

... If the motifs are ‘right’ in content and form, the dance stands a good chance of being successful.

Methods of construction 3: Motif into composition for a group

The group as an expressive element

p.55 The composer should give careful consideration to the number of dancers needed because everyone must contribute to the interpretation of the idea. There are certain expressive connotations which can be related to numbers.

The spatial placing and shape of the group has an effect upon the meaning of the movement.

Consider, also, the expressive nature of a close mass of dancers as opposed to scattered individuals...

Motif, development and variation

p.56 Once the composer has established how many dancers to use and how to group and place them, they then have to decide how to orchestrate the movement content of the group. A motif may be established by the whole group in unison which then needs repetition and development so that its meaning becomes clear.

... Also, an important feature of duo or group composition is the possibility of presenting developments and variations of the movement content at the same moment in time.

The time aspect

pp.58-59 In unison means that the dance movement takes place at the same time in the group.

  1. Unison: all performing the same movement at the same time.
  2. Unison with complementary movements
  3. Unison with contrasting movements
  4. Unison with background and foreground: this implies that one part of the group takes on the principal role while the rest of the group moves as a background.

pp.59-60 In canon means that one part is followed by another in time.

  1. Canon with the same movements.
  2. Canon with complementary movements: this is known as question and answer...
  3. Canon with contrasting movements
  4. Canon with background and foreground

The composer should attempt to use as many of these time aspect variations as are relevant to the idea.

The space aspect

p.61 The composer must consider the space aspects to achieve a relatedness of the group throughout the dance. Dance is a visual art: if the movement were stopped the relationship of the dancers should be as apparent as a visual picture.

p.64 The dance composer who is working with a group, or within group, should ensure that:

Methods of construction 4: The dance form

Design in time

p.66 The composer seeking form for the dance should bear in mind that he/she is creating a design in time. This could be called a time picture. Like any picture it is built of parts.

... On viewing a dance ... we can only perceive one piece at a time and we have to put the pieces together in our minds to form a picture of the whole.

The motif is used as structural basis for the form. There will nearly always be more than one motif, ...

p.67 Movements, phrases and sections making patterns in time are some aspects of the rhythm of the dance.

p.68 The time picture created in the dance may be symmetrical with the force or accent appearing at regular intervals. This is known as a metric arrangement ...

An asymmetric measurement of time is sometimes called breath rhythm.

Organization of the form

p.68 The organisation of time and force in relation to each movement ... and the organisation of these movements into phrases and sections determines the nature of the dance form. ... The composer then has to consider the ordering of the sections into a form or design in time.

There are many ways of organising the form, and each dance should have its own unique structure but, because music is often used as accompaniment and dictates the overall form, musical forms have long been recognised frameworks into which dances are classified whether with musical accompaniment or not. These include binary, rondo, them and variations, and fugue arrangements.

p.72 It might be useful to think of a dance as having outer and inner rhythmic forms. The inner rhythmic form consists of the time/force shape that each movement, movement phrase and section create, while the outer rhythmic form consists of the shape brought about by the juxtaposition of each section in the dance.

Methods of construction 5: Elements of construction

p.73 Several elements of construction have already emerged in the discussion on the construction of a dance.

  1. the motif(s) (foundations of construction)
  2. repetition
  3. variation and contrasts
  4. climax or highlights
  5. proportion and balance
  6. transition
  7. logical development
  8. unity

motifs ... these dominant elements of the composition only emerge as dominant in the light of all the other constructional devices used.

p.74 ... repetition must be recognized as a main device in dance composition.

... Variation demands that the content, which has already been established in the dance, is used again in a different way. Contrast demands the introduction of new material ... The new material can be another motif ...

p.75 To make a contrast, the composer should consider a change in content but should not be done for the sake of contrast alone. It must also be relevant to the idea behind the dance.

Contrast is not only achieved through sudden changes in content. It is possible to build gradually towards a contrast.

Many people think that a dance should have only one climax, the rest of the content supporting it. In fact, a dance can have many highlights which may or may not be real climaxes too.

p.77 Proportion refers to the size and magnitude of each part in relation to the whole, and balance refers to the equilibrium of content within each of these proportionate parts and the whole.

p.78 Transition ... link[s] all the parts and effectively creates a whole. Transitions are very important and perhaps the most difficult aspects of the composition.

Transitions can be very short or quite long.

The subtle transitions from one position to another, and the more obvious transitions from one section ... to another, all play an important uniting role.

pp.78-79 ... logical development refer[s] to the natural growth of the dance from its beginning to its end.

... The whole leads perfectly to its end which seems right as an outcome. Not inevitable, but right. In fact the end of a dance is probably the most important part. If the end fails -- the dance fails.

pp.79-80 Unity ... is the overal constructional element.

The dance composer must aim for unity. ... Somehow a good dance is appreciated as an entity which has meaning and significance beyond the scope of its pieces. A dance which has the quality of unity is likely to be successful.

Methods of construction 6: Style

Understanding the term ‘style’

p.81 In dance, the terms style and technique can mean the same thing because the word technique often means the content of the idiom, not merely how it is manipulated/presented.

The word technique is also used in most dance contexts when discussing physical skill and, to a dancer, technique means acquiring skill ...

p.81 Balanchine, as an example of a master classicist, abstracted the pure classical syntax of movement from ballet and developed it into modern-formalism.

p.82 ... Technique was the means by which his dancers achieved the essential grace which, for Balanchine, was the essence of ballet.

Martha Graham's work is a clear example of how technique forms the basis of style and expression in dance ...

p.83 ... This stylised naturalism was typical of the 1930s when Graham first started to choreograph. In a Graham dance people make statements. ... To effect this Grahams's theatre dance style is distinguished by its unnaturalness.

p.84 ... the Graham technique is idiosyncratic and as demanding and unnatural as classical ballet. However, the style and kind of expression most characteristic of Graham's work seem no longer relevant to today's choreographers so the contemporary techniques used in dance works, though frequently derived from Graham's technique, have changed. ... it is common practice to take Graham classes, learning the Graham specified expressive language and perfecting a whole range of unnatural movement content and yet, in the performance of choreographers' works, never to use these movements in their original form.

How to stylize a dance

p.86 ... the complexity of the concept of style demands that a composer understands what is involved in stylising a dance and that it cannot be left to chance if the dance is going to make an impact and to stand the test of time.

p.87 The range and complexity of expression in dance today demands a complex mixing of tried and tested techniques and styles, and a constant search for new ones.

p.88 ... Dance composers ... need to ... watch, study and perform snippets from dance works choreographed by professionals.

Methods of construction 7: Improvisation in the process of composition

Meaning of terms -- improvisation and exploration

p.89 ... exploration ... is defined as a systematic investigation, examination, study, search with a view to making specific discoveries and learning about something. Improvisation ... is defined here as invention without preparation, to execute spontaneously in an impromptu or unforeseen way.

It would seem, however, that the dance community uses the term improvisation to cover a range of activity encapsulated in both these definitions.

p.90 ... improvisation occurs both in the process [of dance composition] and in some products, and it varies from being an open, free, spontaneous response in movement to a more limited, framed, yet individual interpretation within a given structure.

p.91 ... improvisation is an ongoing process throughout the act of composing a dance.

Free and limited improvisation

p.93 ... perhaps there is not so much an either/or about improvisation for dance composition -- either free or limited -- but that ninety-five per cent falls into the category of limited improvisation and that the degrees of limitation vary from very little to a great deal.

p.94 Limited improvisation ... is the more usual approach in dance composition. Here ... creativity can be greater than in a free composition because with boundaries defined, there seems to be more depth to penetrate. This brings to mind the old maxim that total freedom is no freedom at all...

Guiding improvisation visually

p.97 ... structuring improvisation for composition either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the piece, is often employed in group choreography.

In the first instance, the dancers might work collectively. This could possibly be categorised as free, spontaneous and unlimited improvisation in that each individual does not know what the others are going to do and therefor has to react instantaneously.

p.98 Improvisation in a group is generally guided visually by how dancers respond to what they perceive in other's movements.

Sometimes ... the improvisation is guided ... by touch or bodily contact between dancers.

... improvisations may also be guided and inspired by a composer standing ‘outside’ the group.

A great advantage in working from the outside is the fact that relationships between dancers can be seen ...

The role of evaluation in improvisation

p.100 It is difficult ... to find a balance between ‘letting go’ and ‘holding on’ to the rules and guidelines of the discipline of dance composition.

Methods of construction 8: Alternative and experimental approaches in dance composition

pp.102-103 ... this chapter ... concentrates on three defining and distinctive characteristics distilled from the study of a range of professional examples ...

  1. alternative movement contents and eclectic trends
  2. different themes and readings of themes
  3. alternative and experimental approaches to dance composition

Section 3

The creative process in dance composition

Section 4

Resource-base teaching/learning -- dance composition

Section 5

Resource-base teaching/learning -- dance performance

Section 6

Standing back from the process -- evaluations


p.231 This book has taken a close look at objectives, content, methods and evaluation in dance composition, and strongly suggests that theories, though necessary, are meant to be working statements.

Theory is practical in that it provides a guide for action. It clarifies and structures the processes of thought.

... It is impossible to learn to compose dances by reading alone.

... Theory in a book such as this, can provide clear signposts in a journey of discovery towards making dances that have form and clarity of expression.