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Art to Heart

Dance Basics and Terms

Dance is the art of human movement—using movement to convey ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

Another term you will hear in the Art to Heart series is creative movement (sometimes called creative dance). It refers to movement activities and strategies to help children develop their physical skills, explore different types of movements, express ideas using body movements, and promote creative thinking.

Two general categories of movement are used in dance and creative movement. Locomotor movements are movements in which the body travels from one location to another. Examples include walking, running, hopping, jumping, skipping, leaping, galloping, and sliding. Non-locomotor movements are movements performed around the axis of the body while the person stays in one place. Examples include bending, pushing or pulling, rising or sinking, shaking, stretching, swinging, swaying, twisting, and turning.

The building blocks, or elements, of dance are space, time, and force.


Space is the element of dance that has to do with

  • shape (either the shapes dancers make with their bodies or the shapes that groups of dancers form, such as lines or circles)
  • direction (whether movement is forward, backward, or sideways)
  • pathways (whether movement is straight, curvy, or zigzag)
  • levels (whether the dancer reaches high, stays at a medium level, or is low and close to the floor)


Time is the element of dance that has to do with

  • beat (the underlying pulse of the dance)
  • tempo (whether the movement is slow, medium, or fast)


Force is the element of dance that has to do with the energy of the movement—whether it is sharp or smooth, heavy or light, stiff or free-flowing.

Exploring the Elements of Dance

  • As you talk to your baby or toddler, point to and name body points. Describe your movements and your child’s.
  • With toddlers and preschoolers, dance and sing songs with movements, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “I’m a Little Teapot.”
  • Encourage toddlers and older children to develop body and movement awareness. Make a game of it: Ask, “How many ways can you move your arms (legs, etc.)?” Practice both locomotor and non-locomotor movements. Be sure to include cross-lateral movements—movements that require crossing the midline of the body (such as patting a knee with an opposite hand). They’re important because they stimulate communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
  • Play games like “Copy Cat,” in which you and your child take turns mimicking each other’s movements. In a group, children can play in a circle, with everyone mimicking the movement chosen by a child in the center.
  • Play a variety of music to move to. Let preschoolers and elementary students move using scarves, crepe streamers, or hoops. Encourage them to vary the shapes, directions, tempos, and forces of their movements.
  • With older preschoolers, play “Move Like ...” games. Ask the children to “move like a lion” (a bird, a motorboat, a princess, etc.) or to move like they’re trying to run through mud (a snowstorm, water, etc.). Use characters in stories to inspire movement. Again, encourage trying a variety of levels, shapes, directions, and tempos.

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