What are we seeing, anyway?

Many times I see fellow dancers commenting that they “Loved!” a performance that they saw, or that a performance was “Amazing!” without really qualifying or identifying why. Of course, it’s awesome if someone loves a performance, but if they can’t identify why, then I question whether or not they know what they’re looking at (ending a sentence with a preposition eek).

dance watching laban elements belly dance blog

More Than Just Emotion

Of course, an emotional response to a dance is fine; I love when a performance makes my eyes tear up, or when I want to jump out of my seat in enthusiasm. Humans are emotional creatures. Emotional expression is an integral part of dance, particularly belly dance.

However, I don’t think this can be the only response. If a dancer is only ever reacting emotionally to dances, I believe that they aren’t very educated in watching dances.

And if we want to share with others our experience of watching a specific dance, what value does “I loved it,” without any qualifiers, have for anyone else other than the person speaking? Indeed, what value does, “I didn’t like it,” or worse, “Ugh, I hated it,” have?

What Makes a Dance?

A while back, I read Aaron Copland’s book What to Listen for in Music. In it he outlines not how to listen to music or what music is, but how we can hear different elements of music and, ultimately, gain a greater appreciation for what we’re hearing. He devotes a chapter each to rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.

Dance has elements that we should watch for in a performance, and because dance is (arguably) intentional movement in space and time, there are probably more elements to watch for than there are in music to listen for. Looking at art is subjective, but also requires a great deal of reflection, both on the art itself and our own personal state when we saw that art.

By breaking down what we’re seeing in dance, and what to look for in dance, we can then make individual value judgements about what we saw in a particular dance. When we see a performance that we love, we can qualify why, and, in turn, we can also integrate those specific elements into our own training.

We can also sustain deeper and more substantial conversations about dances we like and don’t like, and even evaluate how the context in which we saw the dance affects our response to it. You also might find that what you loved in one performance might detract from another.

As you read through the following elements, try to remain as objective as possible. You are observing dance, not making a judgment on whether you “liked it.”

Physical Body

Technique/Virtuosity. Does the dancer look like they have physical mastery of their movements? Are there moments of unintentional awkwardness? Speed, muscular control, and balance.

FlexibilityPretty self-explanatory, but basically, what is the range of motion in the spine, hips, and shoulders? Does the dance you’re watching need a certain degree or flexibility? If so, in what parts of the body and why?

Dancer body type. Long/short limbs or torso? Short or tall? Muscular or lithe? How does this affect how the movements look on their body?

Lines/extension. Does energy extend out through the distal ends (fingers, toes, crown of head, tailbone)? Are there areas in the body where the energy falls flat? Does this look intentional or is it lack of kinesthetic awareness? How does this affect how you view the dancer?

Stamina: Can the dancer sustain their energy levels throughout the performance without fatigue?


(Much of this is bastardized Laban Movement and Effort Analysis).

Space, both within the dancer’s own kinesphere and locomotion through the dance space. This also includes shapes, i.e., are there lots of circular/round movements (vice linear and direct)?

Time. Are things fast or slow? Sustained or sudden? Languid or punctuated? How does the use of time change throughout the piece?

Energy. Are movements bound or free-flowing?

Weight. Heavy, earth-bound, or light and anti-gravity?

Levels. High/medium/low.

Style/genre elements. When watching a belly dance performance (when labeled as such), I look for belly dance elements, specifically pelvis and ribcage articulations, as well as a sense of cultural context, i.e., not just putting belly dance movements into Euro-American venues/music. Are there other dance forms (i.e., Hip Hop, Odissi, Balinese Temple Dance, Flamenco, Jazz, Bharatnatyam, West African)? Which ones, and how do they manifest themselves in movement?


Musicality. Conscientious physicalization of the music. Sometimes a dancer chooses not to accent certain musical elements; does this look intentional? Is the music live? 

Costuming/Make-up/Hair. What are the dancers wearing? Does it match or contrast the theme or style of dance? How do make-up and hair contribute or detract from the dancing?

Props. Does they make sense within the context of the performance? Are they used with ease?

Set design. How does the set complement the performance?

Thematic elements. Is there a greater meaning or story? (There doesn’t have to be.)

This fabulous video by our local San Francisco NPR station KQED breaks down dance into: Body, Action, Space, Time, Energy.

Then there’s you, the viewer

Emotional state.  Were you overwhelmed, stressed, or perhaps happy, relaxed, or excited when you saw this dance? 

Physical state. Were you tired or sick? Perhaps you were feeling quite well and just ate a delicious meal. Did you have an injury at the time?

Personal relationship to the performers at the time. Were they friends? People you don’t like? People you don’t know? Has that relationship changed since you saw the performance?

Your knowledge about the performance before seeing it vice afterwards? Have you talked to the choreographers beforehand or after the show to learn more about it? Do you have any behind-the-scenes insight?

Your place. Were you actually there, and if so, where were you in relationship to the performers? Did you watch the video on YouTube/Vimeo? Did you make it fullscreen? Did you listen through your laptop speakers or a hi-fi stereo? Did you find the video yourself or did a friend recommend it? Gods forbid, were you recording it on your phone or tablet, and watching the performance on the screen (as it happened live right in front of you)?

Other factors: Context

These are the threads that tie everything together. Part of that context is the personal, which we just addressed, but also (but not limited to)…

Venue. Proscenium stage? Community Center? Outdoors? Someone’s living room?

Performance Type. Professional touring company? Student recital? Festival with dancers of all levels?

Time. How does this dance relate to what is happening that day, that week, that season, or that year? Are there political, social, or individual factors?

Audience. Who is the audience: age, genders, ethnicities, incomes, class, education? Do the responses of your fellow audience members color how you perceive a show? Does that matter?

I hope that this post illuminates new ways of looking at dance. Ideally, I would love for video comments and audience banter to talk more about these elements of watching dance, rather than just knee-jerk “I liked it/didn’t like it,” or perhaps worse, no discussion at all.

Here’s to more intelligent, reflective, and insightful dance-watching.

Do you want to dig deeper into how to watch dance? Bring me to your city to teach workshops on this topic and many more.


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


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