Interpretive Dance

Nadia Hava-Robbins, MA
January, 2002

Going back in time, dance has always been a form of expression for speaking visually, of joy, love, fear, pain, anger, despair, death, etc. Dancing is an elemental, eternal form of human expression. To dance at its simplest is to let the body express itself rhythmically. The world of dance is truly an ancient one. The heart beats in rhythm. One can feel the pulse in the veins and the bones. One breathes in rhythm. The body starts to move, swing, turn, dip and rise, rejoice, exhilarate, and collapse. It is this primal beat and rhythm that propels and gives rise to dance. In the beginning the dancers danced for themselves. They were not trained professionals - they were dancers by birthright. Today there are great demands placed on dancers as trained professionals. It takes not only talent, creativity and inspiration, but years of training, perseverence, and gallons of perspiration along with that primal beat and rhythm. Throughout civilization movement has become an instrument for artistic expression, elevating dance to a form of fine art. But in spite of all this, we can still dance for ourselves. Dance offers awareness and control of the body, mind, and soul, natural grace, self-discipline, self- awareness, self expression, and also release from tension and stress. Dance is also a window to history. The truest history of any people is told by its folk/ethnic/sacred dance and music. Dance tells us things about humanity not found in records of conquered countries, generals and wars. Agnes deMille, one of the great dance figures of the twentieth century, said, "No dancing lies. No body lies... These are the footprints, the earth castings [of human experience]."

Interpretive dance translates particular feelings and emotions, human conditions, situations, or fantasies into movement and dramatic expression combined. It can also translate major characteristics of any traditional ethnic movements into more modern expressions through exploration of the origins, cultural influences, rhythms, movements, emotional manifestations, and intonations, as well as the stories inherent in the dances themselves. Movement, our first language, reaches beyond any vocabulary and reason. It communicates from the innermost soul - that which cannot truly be expressed through words. Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, when asked the meaning of one of the dances she performed, replied, "If I could have said it, I shouldn't have had to dance it." Martha Graham, one of the most influential modern dancer-choreographers of the twentieth century, believed that dancing was not entertainment, but a means of exalted communication. "The language of the body is the landscape of man's soul", she said. Poetry, stories, mythologies, paintings, sculptures, and music, may be conveyed through the language of movement. A bird may be revealed in dance by interpreting its characteristics and qualities through movement. Ezra Loomis Pound, one of the great American poets, expressed the interrelation of poetry, music, and dance beautifully: "When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from dance, it atrophies". There is no reason for not combining poetry, music, and dance; or poetry, painting, and dance; or sculpture, music, and dance. All of these art forms are portrayals of human existence, experience, and perception, only expressed in the different languages of the arts. One form inspires the other - they are interrelated. When combining, lets say, poetry, music, and dance, the meaning of the poem becomes an expanded dimension where reality and vision of the spoken word and the lyrics of the poem inspire their translation into movement. The late Mohan Khokar, a leading authority on Indian dance, a writer and photographer, and a dancer in his own right, touches upon this very idea in his book, "Dancing for Themselves": "A lone voice. A medley of voices. Wrenched from the soul. Aiding, abetting, the dance. Wrapped in the dance. And so they Dance."

Although interpretive dance relies on creative movement and improvisation, technique is an integral part of interpretive dance as it is of any dance.

Technique comes from the Greek word meaning skill. For a dancer, technique is the ability to use physical movement effectively, safely, and efficiently. Technique relies upon physical, mental, and emotional conditioning. It becomes the ability to use specific methods to create a dance. Yet while the whole spectrum of rhythmic beats, accents, and steps, can be counted and practiced, the dance cannot be moved through the body until the counting and mechanics is behind the dancer and the pulsation is felt emotionally.

Creative movement uses imagination and invention in self expression to convey inner feelings or a theme. The better the technique (the know-how and why), the more freedom one has in creative movement. Discipline is freedom when one thinks about it. Through the manipulation of movement, keeping also in harmony with the concept to be expressed, the entire being grows increasingly more receptive to the creative process of the dance.

Improvisation is an inner motivated spontaneous creative movement or a movement which stems from a specific stimulus. As one enters into improvisational dancing, one automatically lives in the present, and enters the unknown moment by moment as one creates. One abandons and surrenders oneself to a dance that unfolds from within and enters a "thought-free" state where the body, mind, and soul is a focused instrument of the expression of the dance. Improvisation has been described too many times as moving without thinking. Perhaps not thinking about how to move or what is the next step, but certainly having an idea or an emotion to be communicated is crucial in the final expression of improvisation. Someone has once said, "If there is nothing in the mind/soul, there is nothing in the dance."

Choreography is the creation of a sequence of movements to produce an entire dance. Improvisation is the key to the choreographic process. Improvisation is the ability to explore spontaneously and conceive dance movements that are representative of an idea, a concept, or a dance style. Through the creative process, the choreographer is able to energize a previously empty space and make it come alive.

Movement is a medium for artistic expression. Dance becomes an art, as the beauty of movement communicates the higher ideals. Dance then invites a state of exhilaration that the Mevlevi Sufi call "hadrah" or "the presence", each step moving us upward toward new freedom of the spirit, towards ecstacy. The great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, spoke of this special place or state as "El Duende", the ability to be filled with a spirit that is more than one's own spirit. "The Duende works over the body of the dancer just as a gust of wind hits and blows over the sand." In sacred dance, one is overcome by the soul of nature, the energies of which are perceived rhythmically, as the continuous dance of life and form. Artistic expression is then breathing life into dance. It is transcending technique, creative movement, improvisation and choreography, and becoming a union with the higher and clearer understanding of what and how one wants to communicate and express oneself and the form of expression itself (without any outer or inner interference), the dance. Transcendence can be achieved through so-called suspended movements or the pauses between two beats, between two movements, through the unexpected silence at the end of a phrase. It is actually the extension or the continuation in time of the suspended or delayed movement and/or an idea that becomes hypnotizing and universally understood.

Interpretive dance is not a totally new term in dance vocabulary. It dates to ancient times where dance expressed the very essence of human existence, experience, and perception. Those who danced then were dancers by birthright. Today, not much has really changed, except that the twenty first century is providing the dancer with issues of different personal and social complexities to work through, conceptualize, and translate into an art form of movement. Also the demands on the dancers have grown over the centuries from single steps and rhythms to mastering technique, creating choreography, understanding creative processes, dealing with the world of competition, etc. These dancers have become performers by profession. Martha Graham, in her letter to Agnes deMille about her thoughts and feelings on what it means to be a dancer, said,

"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channels open.... Only keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.... No artist is pleased.... There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine satisfaction, a blessed unrest, that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

It is important to pass on sufficient technique, and to foster creative movement and improvisational skills to students in order that they may gain for themselves a new avenue for self expression - so that while they may ultimately dance for others, they can truly dance for themselves.

And so we continue to dance either as professionals, or among our own group, or simply for ourselves.

  • Visit and especially the meditative dance page for yet another view of a unique interpretive dance

    This article copyright 2002 Nadia Hava-Robbins, MA at Redding, CA
    Contact Nadia at

    "KeyWords"="interpretive dance, modern dance, ethnic dance, choreography, dance technique, Dance, dancing, school, teaching, interpretive, modern, performance"