Dance is an art form capable of expressing an individual’s feelings and emotional states, as well as depicting situations from which behavior and interpersonal relationships can be discerned. Contemporary dance also explores ways to express various ideological concepts. In conveying these ideas, dance utilizes its own unique language. In this blog, I will discuss the main elements that constitute this language and the ways in which dance communicates with its audience.

At first glance, discussing language in the context of dance might seem paradoxical, since the ways in which the body and words communicate are fundamentally different. However, applying insights from semantics – a scientific discipline that deals with systems of signs – enables choreographers to better understand dance’s communicative potential and optimize its use in their work. This approach also fosters a dialogue with other artistic media’s distinctive languages, enriching dance with additional layers of meaning.


Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

Verbal communication utilizes spoken or written language to convey and exchange information, feelings, and intentions. It is a system of sound or written signs – words, that allows for communication based on established rules. These rules are represented by vocabulary (all words and their meanings), grammar (rules for combining words into sentences), semantics (meaning construction in context), phonetics (speech sounds), prosody (speech rhythm, emphasis, and intonation), etc.

Words in any language are symbols (both sound and written) used to denote or represent concepts (ideas). Verbal communication involves encoding and decoding meanings – the speaker encodes ideas into sound symbols (words), and the listener decodes these words to comprehend the message. This process requires both parties to have a shared understanding of the language. The meaning in verbal communication often depends on the context, including the immediate physical and social environment, cultural norms, and the relationships between communicators.

Part of live verbal communication is the non-verbal communication that accompanies speech. Scientific studies suggest that non-verbal communication can be both more effective and more truthful than verbal communication, as it is often subconscious and cannot be fully controlled by the individual. Gestures, facial expressions, and body postures are also significant signs, the meanings of which we have learned to interpret through experience.

Dance primarily uses non-verbal body communication. Although most movements in its extensive “vocabulary” are not signs with designated meanings, they can create meanings contextually. Choreographers may find it beneficial to understand dance’s communicative possibilities based on well-known Jakobson communication model. This model, applicable to both verbal and non-verbal communication, identifies key components for successful communication:

  • the message (the idea expressed),
  • the sender (who transmits the message),
  • the addressee (who receives the message),
  • the context (the situation in which the message is transmitted),
  • the medium (how the message is conveyed),
  • the code (the message’s form).
Jacobson Model of Communication

Applying Jakobson’s model to dance, we see that the sender is the dancer or choreographer, the message is the dance’s idea, the medium is the body, and the code is the language of dance. The interaction between the sender – the dancer, and the receiver – the spectator, is also crucial. The dancer must effectively convey the message, and the viewer must be receptive.

Various “noises” can interfere with message transmission, hindering comprehension. These can occur on the dancers’ part if the choreographer or dancers cannot clearly articulate the choreographic idea. They can also arise from the audience if they lack experience in decoding dance language or are not attuned to artistic expression.

The challenge in decoding dance primarily stems from its message being conveyed through the body, which is often abstract rather than literal. Unlike verbal language, body language (dance or movement) doesn’t operate with literal meanings.

Dance can directly express feelings and emotional states (a person’s relationship with oneself) and relationships with one’s surroundings (other people, objects, and the environment). It does so by abstracting (generalizing) individual experiences into universal ones similarly experienced by humans.

On one hand, dance can be a highly abstract language using stylized and virtuosic expression. On the other hand, its primary medium is the body, with which everyone (not just dancers) has a profound and everyday experience. This aspect was emphasized in the second half of the 20th century by American postmodern dancers who sought to bring art closer to everyday life. They aimed to create dance based on natural movement to make it more accessible to a broader audience.

However, this goal wasn’t achieved automatically. Artistic expression evolved towards increasingly sophisticated expression, involving complex perceptual processes (ambiguity, discontinuity, openness of the work), making it more challenging to decode and understand.

Another key factor in movement communication is that we unconsciously interpret movement behavior and have never learned to consciously decode its language. Our education has primarily focused on verbal language and cognitive development (left brain hemisphere functions), not on sensory perception and imagery/associative processes (right brain hemisphere functions). Thus, not everyone is naturally proficient in reading body language.


The Importance of Movement at the Beginning of Life

Our early experiences in this world were fundamentally centered around movement. As babies, we relied on movement as our sole means of communication until we learned our mother tongue. Toddlers, for instance, demonstrate their extraordinary sensitivity to communication through body and movement, often being able to interact with animals in their vicinity more effectively than adults.

Our bodies and sensory perceptions formed the foundation for the development of brain activity in the early stages of our lives. It was through education that we began to view our bodies primarily as instruments for executing our will.

Rudolf Laban, a prominent figure in dance, argued that dance develops its unique expressive language based on these primarily acquired meanings. He believed that dance integrates the movement of each human body as a meaningful activity in the world, leveraging our innate understanding and experience of movement.

In The Language of Movement, Barbara Mettler writes about the need to return to our lived bodily experiences when watching dance:

“The art of body movement, like all art, is primarily something to do and only secondarily something to watch others do. Although movement can be seen, it is not a visual art. It can sometimes be heard, but it is not the art of sound. Dance is a motor art. Unless sensed in the muscles, it is not dance, for either the participants or the spectators.” 

Available at the link:


The Language of Dance

The recognition of dance as an artistic language, characterized by increasingly well-articulated terminology, is owed to numerous dance scholars and practitioners of the 20th century who introduced key concepts and categorizations.

Isadora Duncan pioneered a new movement language, but it was the subsequent generation of modern dance artists who developed it further through a more precise theoretical understanding.

Rudolf Laban’s The Language of Movement, written in the late 1930s and published in 1966, provided a comprehensive exploration of movement language, particularly in its interaction with space.

Mary Wigman, in her work Die Sprache des Tanzes (The Language of Dance), published in 1963, attempted to theorize her choreographic practice. Available here:

In 1933, American critic John Martin, in his publication The Modern Dance theorized new ways modern dance communicated. He focused on understanding how dance transforms inner experiences into body movement, a concept he termed metakinesis, to highlight the distinct artistic expression and movement language of modern dance compared to ballet. Martin argued for modern dance’s ability to develop a new movement vocabulary that not only presents aesthetic form but also stimulates empathetic responses in viewers through dancers’ authentic expressions. His theoretical considerations were highly influenced by the artistic vision of choreographer Martha Graham, whose work he actively promoted.

In more contemporary scholarly discourse, British academic Henrietta Bannerman posited that dance is a specific language as meaningful as verbal language. In her article Is Dance a Language? Movement, Meaning and Communication, she writes:

“I contend that although like language dance communicates through cultural codes, it does not convey literal messages, but then neither is dance dominated by a requirement for factual specificity.” Available here:

Other interesting text on the language of dance:

Judith Hanna: The Language of Dance, available here:


Subjectivity of Interpretation in Dance Decoding

Different dance forms and styles utilize non-verbal communication in choreography to express feelings, emotions, or characters’ traits. Non-verbal communication is integral to dance, especially when employing narrative representation to depict a plot.

Contemporary dance tends towards conceptual expression, often exploring new ways to express the body. Choreographers in this genre use non-verbal communication more subtly, frequently focusing on internal communication involving self-reflection and detachment from aspects of one’s existence.

Dance’s inherent tendency towards abstraction enables it to present a broad range of interpretive possibilities. Each viewer may interpret a dance performance in a highly subjective manner, depending on their ability and skill in deciphering the visuals. This creation of meaning is often based on their personal experiences.

Non-verbal body signals in dance language assist audiences in interpretation. The more dance language resembles familiar non-verbal communication, the more confident viewers are in interpreting the meanings of dance actions. Facial expressions, gestures, spatial relationships, body tensions, and specific dynamic changes in movement provide a basis for interpretation. Viewers continuously construct a meaningful narrative from these cues.

The more abstract the dancers’ body language, and the more neutral their facial expressions, the less information the audience receives for constructing meanings. Modern and contemporary dance do not emphasize facial expressivity as much as theatrical acting, due to their primarily abstract content. This tendency can challenge ordinary viewers in decoding dance language.

Despite its high level of abstraction, contemporary choreographers can convey sophisticated messages through dance, impacting audiences powerfully without necessitating unequivocal meanings.


Expressive Means of Dance

The expressive tools of dance are crucial in determining the communicative potential of choreography and its impact on the audience. Developing the ability to sophisticatedly utilize these expressive tools is a key aspect of every choreographer’s maturation process.

In choreography, the body, being the primary medium of communication in dance, naturally commands the most attention. During the communication process, the body interacts with other elements of movement, shaping them through its own activity. I find it fascinating that the body not only shapes itself but also other elements to express the meanings the choreographer intends to communicate.

From this perspective, it seems to me that the main task of choreographers is to understand the type of bodywork that allows them to convey their visions and ideas as a complex and comprehensible message. What distinguishes the body as a medium of communication? What are its expressive means through which it can communicate different meanings?

Hands – the most expressive part of the body

The main expressive means of dance can be categorized as follows:

  • Body expression,
  • Use of space,
  • Ways of working with energy in movement,
  • Personal projection – the individual interpretation of the dancer.

Body Expression includes:

  • Facial expression, particularly eye and mouth movement,
  • Head movements in relation to the body and surrounding objects/persons,
  • Gestures, primarily as movements of the upper limbs where hands and fingers play a special role. These are involved in a) conveying symbolic meanings, b) the aesthetic effect of the dance; however, foot movements can also be considered gestures in a broader sense,
  • Posture of the body as a whole, focusing on the position of specific parts (e.g., spine erect or bent, relationship between upper and lower body), and the distribution of body weight,
  • The trunk and breath – breathing significantly contributes to the expressive liveliness of the trunk and plays a key role in harmonizing the body’s rhythmic and dynamic phrasing of movement,
  • Movements and positions of the lower limbs – fundamental in the body’s relationship to its support, the ground. The way body weight is transferred is crucial to all dance “steps” and their rhythm. The lower limbs’ potential to also communicate with space through articulation and range of movement is heavily exploited in dance,
  • The overall shape of the body (its closedness or openness, angularity, or roundness of its curves).

Use of Space

The spatial qualities of movement are not only key visual elements of dance but also contribute to the meaning-making aspect of movement. Spatial relationships and interactions between dancers are important indicators of their communication. The positioning of dancers in space carries meaningful meanings, revealed in the context of the dancers’ actions and interactions. (You can read more about the expressive qualities of spatial movement in a blog post here.)

The Flow of Energy

The flow of energy in movement is central to dance’s expressiveness. Rudolf Laban’s concept of flow navigates the aspect of movement control (Laban distinguishes between Free Flow and Bound Flow), shaping many qualitative details of movement, including the perception of stillness as a distinctive phenomenon in dance. Here, visible body movement is arrested, but motion continuity is manifested through varying levels of body tension. (I discuss this phenomenon more in a blog post here.)

The way energy flows in motion is also the foundation for the different dynamic qualities of movement and the phrasing of force in motion. (I discuss this aspect more in a blog post here.) Certain dynamic qualities of movement evoke connections to a person’s particular emotional experiences.

Personality Projection of the Dancer

How individual dancers express themselves through dance is closely linked to their capacity for authentic movement expression and revealing their inner world to the audience. This self-revelation makes dancers inherently vulnerable, making this aspect of performance crucial in dancers’ ability to communicate abstractly and personally. Dance interpretation quality is thus related not only to the dancers’ technical skills but also to their personal maturity.

An additional layer of meaning in communication is brought by non-dance means of expression such as costumes and props, which also relate to the cultural and historical context.

Each body part can create interesting movement material as the basis for choreography (more on movement material in the blog here). The interaction of multiple parts (of the same body or of two or more bodies) creates a movement dialogue that, like two voices or two instruments in music, can create consonance or dissonance. Let’s explore how movement dialogue can be choreographed.


Movement Dialogue

The foundation of movement dialogue between two (or more) dancers is based on two distinct abilities: the capacity to express one’s intentions through movement and the ability to interpret the movements of one’s partner(s). While some communication principles mirror those of verbal dialogue, they manifest in understandably different ways in dance.

In movement dialogue, manipulation is used similarly to verbal dialogue. It is particularly effective as it provides feedback to the dancer as long as he/she is willing to be guided by the leader. Thus, manipulation in movement dialogue assigns different roles to the partners – one leads the movement (the leader’s role) and the other follows (the follower’s role).

The movement dialogue remains creative as long as both (or all) partners clearly understand their roles, and the leader does not misuse their position. Instead, the leader should sensitively anticipate the situations they guide their partner(s) into, avoiding physically or psychologically uncomfortable scenarios. If the leader becomes domineering, the dialogue becomes dysfunctional, as the essence of dialogue lies in the free acceptance of both roles.

Adopting the follower role is crucial for dancers. It develops the ability to visually and kinesthetically (if touch is involved in the dialogue) interpret the stimuli and respond bodily.

Visual interpretation of a partner’s movement involves quickly analyzing (observing and categorizing) the partner’s movement and responding based on one’s own kinesthetic experience. The movement response is an amalgamation of visual, cognitive, associative, and kinesthetic processes occurring rapidly and synchronously in the dancer’s body and mind.

Movement dialogue, characterized by alternating leader and follower roles, is about creating a harmonious exchange where both (or all) partners balance their attention towards a mutual conversation. This dialogue relies on a willingness to give and receive inspiration and support, both psychologically and physically.

Quickly analyzing a partner’s movement allows dancers to respond more articulately with their own movement, enhancing the clarity of the communicated message. In other words, the more accurately I understand what I am responding to, the clearer my movement response will be.

In movement dialogue, a dancer observes their partner’s movement, noting:

  • The shapes formed by the partner’s body,
  • Dominant body parts in the movement,
  • Movement locations within the kinesphere,
  • Trajectories created in the kinesphere,
  • Spatial levels of the partner’s movement,
  • Directions of movement in space,
  • Speed of the partner’s body or body parts,
  • Rhythmic patterns created by the body or body parts,
  • Muscular tension in the partner’s body,
  • Dynamic quality of the partner’s movement,
  • The partner’s internal state (is their attention directed inwards or outwards).

The brain perceives all these elements and prioritizes from a wealth of information. These priorities can become habitual, so it’s important for dancers to develop the ability to respond unexpectedly, a skill often honed in improvisation.

Choreographed movement dialogue can be less spontaneous and intriguing than improvised dialogue, where interactions are often quite rapid. Spontaneous reactions in improvisation tend to be fresh, particularly for skilled improvisers, but can also become stereotypical.

In improvised movement dialogue, reaction time should not be rushed. Instead, dancers should aim to fully engage all senses and achieve a state of flow. This approach enables dancers to not only analyze their partner’s movement but also to perceive their interpretation of the movement and the associations it evokes. This leads to full communication between the dancers’ personalities, not just their bodies.


Video – choreographic sketch

Hands are among the most expressive parts of the human body. In this choreographic sketch, I have concentrated on exploring the potential for creating a movement dialogue between the hands of two dancers. Through improvisation and the use of specific expressive means of dance, the dancers crafted an interactive dialogue.



Dear readers, if you share your thoughts and experiences on this topic with me, it will greatly encourage me to write more blogs. Thank you for your comments :).

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