The Geometry of Dance
Well, my dance class was postponed this week due to illness, so I don’t have any specifics to write about that as a result. However, I did get talking to my very good friend Michi, and after he requested that I review his most recent videos and give him some feedback (check out his videos on his site, they’re quite well done), we ended up in a pretty long discussion today about the importance of lines and angles in dancing.
All of this comes with a disclaimer, and that is that these are general rules and guidelines. Dancing, along with any form of self-expression, has a set of rules that you need to first learn so that you can follow them, and then so that you can bend and break them when it’s appropriate to do so.
So what are they?
Lines and angles in dancing make up one of the most fundamental aspects of the art form. For the sake of brevity, we’ll consider the two of them as the geometry of dance.
Whenever you adopt a pose, or perform a specific movement in dancing, your body and limbs form a multitude of lines and angles. Much like painting, logo design and even architecture, there are specific lines, angles, and curves that our eyes and brain intuitively find more aesthetically pleasing.
Let’s start by considering some of the natural lines and angles that we see daily. Straight lines (you could also consider this a 180 degree angle if you wanted) are pleasing – they are unbroken, and look clean to our eyes. Parallel lines are also very pleasing – we can see parallel lines everywhere that we look – either side of a tree, or a lamp-post forms a set of two parallel lines that extend up from the ground and travel upwards. If you look at the top of an office building, you’ll notice that the roof forms a parallel line with the ground, and with the horizon. Generally speaking, when we’re popping we want to consider parallel lines first and foremost.
What about angles? The most pleasing angle, visually, is generally 90 degrees. This is a strong angle, and is very common in our daily lives. Whenever you see anything sticking out of the ground, such as a tree or a building, it will generally have its side meet the ground at a 90-degree angle. Doors are in the shape of a rectangle (four 90-degree angles), as are tables. Buildings have right angles wherever walls meet each other, or the floor.
You can get a feel for other angles that might be pleasing by diving a 90-degree angle into increments. If you split the 90-degree angle, you get two 45-degree angles, which are also visually appealing. You can also split 90-degrees three ways, and end up with a set of three 30-degree angles. Anything smaller than this, and we’re starting to get into the realm of something that is too small to visually distinguish for most people.
Okay, so we’ve got a rough idea of what lines and angles are. How do they relate to dancing?
Dancing and Geometry
As I mentioned before, every position and movement that a dancer affects creates a set of lines and angles. Let’s start with the most basic pose – just standing, not doing anything. The most obvious line is a vertical one drawn from the dancer’s feet to their head. The dancer’s arms, resting at their side, form two parallel lines to this first line, drawn from their fingertips up to their shoulders. Lastly, there are some horizontal lines. The most obvious is the line drawn from one shoulder to the other – notice that this line is parallel with the line created by the ground (which is the same line as that created by the dancer’s feet). Slightly less obvious, there is a line drawn from the dancer’s one hand, straight across to his other. This too is parallel with the line’s created by the shoulder and the feet/ground.
At rest, there are not a large number of angles created by the dancer. There are the set of two 90-degree angles created where their legs meet the ground.
Here’s the tricky part. Good angles and lines are a lot like matching a jacket to a pair of pants. You can get away with matching different but complimenting colors (or a 90-degree angle on one side of your body, and a 45-degree angle on the other), but you really get into trouble when you try to match a jacket that is one shade of grey with a pair of pants that is a slightly different shade of grey. I call this the law of proximity – you can get away with something when it is not close to a visually distinct line or angle, but when it is close to that line/angle, you need to make sure you’re matching it. People will find it visually jarring when your dancing is displaying two different lines that are almost parallel, but not quite. Likewise, if you are creating angles that are close to 90-degrees, but not quite (say 80-85 degrees), it will not look as tight as a nice clean 90-degree angle.
Let’s move forward with an example. In locking, one of the main techniques is the point. The idea of the point is that you are pointing out to people in the crowd to get props and cheers. Generally speaking, you want to ham it up pretty good, and bust out points at people to indicate “Check out how awesome I am”. In any case, envision a dancer pointing with their arm outstretched, and one finger extended. There is one line created from their shoulder to their wrist, and a second line created from their wrist to their fingertip. In most cases, you’re going to want to make sure that these two lines are parallel, so that you can draw a line from your shoulder straight to your finger, and that it will pass directly through your wrist and along your finger.
One more example – one thing I noticed Michi doing often was dropping only one of his shoulders for certain poses. What happens when he does this? Trace a line from one shoulder to the other, and you quickly notice that the line created is no longer parallel to the ground, your hips, and your feet. Naturally you’re going to have situations when you specifically want to drop one shoulder lower than the other (such as during an arm wave), however, for the most part, you want to preserve the symmetry of your shoulders.
Symmetry and Balance
Symmetry and balance are the last aspects of the geometry of dance that we need to consider. Whenever a dancer assumes a given stance, our brains will automatically parse that stance and be looking for things like symmetries on either side of the dancer (even if you don’t think you do this, trust me – we do it all the time, even for mundane things like determining if we find someone attractive).
Symmetry is a fairly intuitive concept – look at someone adopting a pose, and determine how much their right side matches the left side. Let’s take an example:
In locking, one of the techniques often used is called pacing. This technique serves as a foundation movement that allows you to do something while you are trying to think of your next big move. Pacing is just holding your hands loosely in fist and moving them up and down to the music. It’s not a complicated action, but it imparts the illusion of movement, and allows you to create a fluid dance that is easy to move in and out
of as you start and finish your more impressive movements. One of the common forms of pacing is to raise both arms up, bent at the elbows, with your fists loosely balled, and then drop them back down. A very simple movement.
Good symmetry in this case has:
- Both arms move up and back down at the same speed
- Both arms reach their apex at the same time, and at the same height
- Both arms are aligned with your body roughly the same angle for each arm
Breaking just one of these points of symmetry will cause a small amount of visual distress to your viewer. Breaking more than one of these points of symmetry will generally look less appealing, and make the dance overall feel sloppier and less tight.
You can see some examples of pacing in Michi’s video here:
Michi’s locking is really good, no doubt about it. However, you can tell at various points throughout the video, if you’re looking for it, that his shoulders lose their symmetry, and at certain points throughout his pacing, his arms lose it as well. Some people will claim that these are very small levels of detail, but that’s what you need to be aware of if you want to work towards perfection and continual progression.
Balance is a similar notion to symmetry. Symmetry requires that the left and right sides of your body be as close to mirror images of each other as possible. Balance is a slightly looser concept. I hesitate to even mention the concept of balance, because of this fact, and you can really get away with breaking balance quite easily. Either way, a rough explanation of the concept can’t hurt:
Think of the vertical line that we initially drew up from your feet to your head. Now think of this as your pivot point – anything that you extend outwards from this line, such as an arm for example, creates a change in the balance around this main vertical line. The farther you extend a body part, the further out of balance the visual you are presenting to your audience becomes. You don’t always want to present a balanced visual, and breaking this rule can achieve a very strong effect – but, you do want to keep it in mind. Good rules of thumb are things like avoiding dancing in such a way that you are always breaking balance on one specific side of your body (many new dancers get better with one side of their body than the other, and as a result, fall victim to this practice).
How do I incorporate this into my dancing?
Some people have a natural, intuitive ability to understand and grasp the concept of geometry when dancing. My friend Graham is fortunate in this respect, and has always just been able to do it. However, I suspect that he doesn’t devote any thought to this concept, as it comes naturally to him. I don’t even know if Graham could articulate the concepts if he wanted to, but hey, that’s fine, because they’re all present when he’s dancing. Michi, on the other hand, has always struggled with creating clean lines and angles when he dances, and it’s a completely foreign concept to him. He could articulate them after he had thought enough about them, but that is the first step for him.
Unfortunately, the best time to start thinking about lines and angles is right when you first start dancing. This is unfortunate, because the concepts themselves are actually quite tricky (and if you’ve attempted to follow with me through this entry, you probably agree) and difficult to understand on a deep level until you’ve spent some time dancing.
However, it is possible, when starting out to practice the fundamental moves that make up the style of dance you are interested in, and looking in the mirror to establish how clean your lines and angles look. If you’ve video taped yourself dancing, review the tape, pause it, and practice visualizing the lines that you are creating. Ask yourself whether these lines are parallel with the appropriate lines, and if your angles are clean.
When I was trying to explain this concept to Michi, he commented that he had forgotten how anal retentive I am. He’s right, I am supremely detail oriented and anal retentive. However, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t aware of this aspect of dance on a more subconcious level, because they are! The more time you spend dancing, the more you learn to differentiate between dancers that are good, and dancers that are great – it’s the subtleties that mark this difference.
What a complicated concept. I wish that I had some formal training in dance theory, or even some ballet classes in my background. Ballet? You bet. Ballet, as a style of dance, is by far one of the most studied and nuanced style out there, and the concept of lines and angles has most certainly arisen from the study of this form of dance.