By Hannah Pacholok ’26
Intended Major: Business Administration and Management; Intended Minor: International Business
Brief Description: Many view dance as an art form. Dance is also used as a form of communication. With over 7,000 languages in the world, it can be hard for people who don’t speak the same language to communicate with one another. Dancers are a unique group that are able to convey speech through movement. Whether a dancer speaks German or French, they can with other dancers and their audience through dance.
Contributor Biography: Hannah Pacholok is a freshman from Magnolia, Delaware. She intends on majoring in Business Management and Administration with a minor in International Business. In her free time, Hannah loves to dance and enjoys watching ballet performances.
The following was written for FYS 101: Language is Limitless.
When you think of language, what comes to mind? Is it people speaking French or even Spanish? Perhaps you can recount times when you heard people code switching between multiple languages. Dance, on the other hand, probably doesn’t come to mind, as it is not widely regarded as a language. The Oxford Languages describes language as “the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, or gesture.” Using this definition, it is hard to imagine a series of physical movements counting as a form of communication; many people see language as only including words. Nevertheless, dance provides a way for people of all language backgrounds to communicate and connect with one another through physical movements and set terminology.
A large part of dance is moving to the rhythm and following steps, but it goes much deeper than that. Dance can be defined as “a performing art form, which consists of preplanned (choreographed), or improvised (made up as the dancer is dancing) sequences of movement” (What is Dance?). This performing art is believed to have been invented around 9,000 years ago in India and has been a form of entertainment for people for centuries (What is Dance?). There are a variety of genres of dance that incorporate elements from cultures all over the world. Cultural roots associated with certain languages are incorporated into different styles of dance. This idea is explored by David Doochin in his article “The Linguistic History of Dance Moves Around the World.” In the article, Doochin explains popular dance genres around the world and the history behind famous moves. Dance has changed quite a bit since it was first invented, and it is continuing to evolve, but the most well-known genres of today include Cha-Cha-Chá, Ballet, Disco, Tango, Waltz, Break Dance, Belly Dance, and Twerking (Doochin). What is the common theme between these different styles? They all are internationally recognized and have roots from around the world. Cha-cha- chá and Tango are both of Cuban descent, Waltz is of Austrian descent, Ballet is of French descent, Belly Dance is of Indian descent, and both
Disco and Break Dance are of American descent.
Accompanying some of these global dances are the languages from different cultures and areas. There’s more to dance than just moves. Ballet is still taught in French, Tango in Spanish, and Belly Dance in Hindi. Both Break Dance and Disco rely on English terms that help dancers distinguish what specific move they are doing. Even though we live in a world where it is easy to search up a translation, Ballet, Tango, Break Dancing, Disco and Belly Dance still use terminology in the languages the dances originated in. In this way, dance genres and the terminology they use reflect the spread of a particular culture’s ideas (Doochin). Dances are not just a fun way to get moving. They embody a more meaningful connection: the relationship between people and their culture. Yes, you could translate the Hindi terms from Belly Dancing into English or the French terms from Ballet into Spanish, but these translations won’t encompass the cultural aspects of the dance. Language makes up a large part of dance and the terminology associated with different dance styles helps people communicate with one another no matter where they may be from.
Many people around the world participate in dance. Communicating with someone who does not speak the same language as you is difficult; it may seem like it would be impossible to dance with someone that you cannot communicate with. This was not the case for dancers Rio June and David Vergara, however. June speaks Japanese. Vergara speaks Spanish. In the video “Dancers Overcome Language Barrier to Choreograph Piece,” June and Vergara were brought in by the video company Jubilee to choreograph a dance piece together, despite not being able to speak to one another. Although it may sound like it could not be done, the two were successful in their efforts and choreographed a one-minute routine, despite not being able to understand one another’s language. Vergara went on to say,“It was relatively easy to speak, once we realized the communication was more about the energy between us. I see you; you see me. I feel you; you feel me” (“Dancers Overcome Language Barrier to Choreograph Piece” 03:23-03:30). Although it was difficult, the two proved that you do not need to speak the same language to dance together, since dance is a universal language that people can use to communicate with one another in spite of language barriers. June emphasized this by noting that “not being able to speak a common language was a bit of a challenge but I feel like dance is its own kind of language” (“Dancers Overcome Language Barrier to Choreograph Piece” 4:56-5:02). These two people from very different language and cultural backgrounds are now connected via the universal language of dance.
June and Vergara aren’t the only group that has connected through dance. In her honors theses, “Dance: The Universal Language of Storytellers,” Meagan A. Woodard examines two different groups of people who use dance movements to communicate and express themselves. One of these groups is the Hawaiian people, who use Hula, a native Hawaiian dance that includes a narrative, to express ideas. Hula has expanded beyond religious rituals and now includes non-religious entertainment (Woodard 10). As explained in the article “How do you Hula?” from the website Wonderopolis, “Hula consists of dancing accompanied by either chanting (called oli) or a song (called mele). Hula dramatizes and interprets the words of the oli or mele and gives them meaning in a visual form via movement.” Hawaiian people did not have a written language of their own until the early nineteenth century, so people used Hula to communicate stories and thoughts (Woodard 10). Through different hula movements, people can take words from a poem or other text and give it life in the form of dancing. Keali’I Reichel, a hula master, believes Hula “has everything to do with language…Hula is one of the very few dance forms that requires words. All hula springs from expressing oneselves physically through the poetry of the text…It’s the physical manifestation of the chant” (qtd. in Woodard 11-12). Unlike other dance styles that can be used to connect of people in spite of a language barrier, Hula can only be used to connect those who already understand the chants it involves. Those who don’t understand the chants will not understand the meaning of the story being conveyed. Even though Hula is not a universal connector like Ballet or Hip Hop, the dance still can bring Hawaiian people together. Hawaiians can share stories and honor their culture through Hula.
The Aborigines people in Australia are another cultural group that have been using dance as form of communication for centuries. To enter the Dreaming — the beginning of time when supernatural deities, ancestors, and heroes created the world as Aborigines know it — the Aborigines put on a ceremony where they perform a dance that is a part of a sacred ritual (Woodard 7). Through dance, stories about the land, people, animals, and the Dreamtime are passed from generation to generation. Animals are often imitated to help tell these stories and to bring life to the Dreaming (Woodard 7). Along with dancing, the Aborigines people put on body paint that relates to the characters the dancers are imitating or to the dancer’s family. They also wear costumes and adornments (Woodard 8). The Aborigines people come together to celebrate creation, using dance as a form of storytelling.
People of all cultures and backgrounds dance. No matter what language one speaks, or what languages one cannot speak, it is likely that they would still be able to dance with someone. All you need to dance is energy and movement. Looking at these different examples of cultural dances, it is easy to see that dance connects people across the globe. As a universal language, dance is also able to bring some of the smallest communities together — as the Hawaiian people and the Aboriginal people exemplify.
There are some styles of dance that require the knowledge of certain terminology. This terminology contributes to dance’s ability to serve as a intercultural form of communication. Suzanne Thuecks, a professor at Washington College, noticed the universality of Ballet terminology when she studied abroad in France and took Ballet. Thuecks had never been to France before. She found Ballet class to be a comfort, since as she danced at home in the United States, too. Thuecks was surprised to find that she understood what was being said in her Ballet classes in France and was able to follow right along. She noticed that the Ballet terms used in class were not used outside of Ballet (Thuecks). Plié (meaning to bend) and frappé (meaning to strike) are not a part of French people’s daily vocabulary. Evidently, the French used in Ballet is strictly associated with dance movements. According to Thuecks, this makes French Ballet is universal. Anyone can dance it, whether they speak and understand French or not.
Another language that dancers use to communicate is the Movement Alphabet, created by Ann Hutchinson Guest, a world-renowned expert in dance notation (“Dance Centre”). The Movement Alphabet, also known as labanotation, is where “each movement element is represented by a symbol. Which allows the exploration of movement possibilities and gives the opportunity to choreograph dance sequences using the symbols as a starting point for creativity” (“Dance Centre”). Guest created this form of a language to “identify the list of prime movement actions universal to all movement forms” (“Dance Centre”). The Movement Alphabet allows dancers, instructors, and choreographers to communicate dance in a symbolic way. By providing a means of writing down what movement a dancer is performing, the Movement Alphabet makes dance more communicable.
Being able to speak what’s on your mind is a huge part of communication in our society, but you don’t always need to speak to get your point across. Take dance performances, for instance. They do not use words like plays, but their use of movements and expression can convey a story or message to an audience nevertheless. Just this year the American Ballet Theatre has performed Don Quixote, Of Love and Rage, Swan Lake, and Romeo and Juliet. Each of these story ballets has one mission: to perform a wonderful show for an audience. In order to make the performance meaningful, dancers must make their movements clean and must bring life to these movements through facial expressions and gestures.
Historically, people have used dance to display feelings of agitation and unrest. As an act of rebellion, dancers would dance around maypoles to protest what they saw as social and political injustices. In addition to this, Clown Dancing and Krumping were used as a remedy to gang violence and racial tensions in South Central Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King trial. In the 1970s, dancing Hip Hop became a way to protest injustices, inequalities, and prejudices by interpreting blunt lyrics of Rap music (Rounds 34). When words don’t do your message justice, dance can be used as a way to convey that message.
Even though I have only been at Washington College for three months, I have already had the pleasure of meeting other dancers through dance club and the school’s dance production, Dancescape. I have connected with other students through the language of dance. At Washington College, we don’t all have the same amount of dance experience and some of us prefer one style of dance more than others, but when instructed to perform a sequence of movements together, we collaborate with one another. We are able to communicate with one another through movement. The language of dance is vital in the performing arts because without it, there would be no communication when it comes to choreographing or performing a dance. There are certain cases where one must understand the culture and language behind a dance in order to successfully convey the meaning of a it, like with Hula, but as long as one knows some dance terminology, they can successfully dance with others. As a college with a dance department, the language of dance plays a role at Washington College. It is seen in how students taking a dance class communicate with their professor, in how professors communicates with students, in how choreographers and dancers communicate with one another in rehearsals for a Dancescape piece, and in how dancers and instructors communicate in Dance Club.
Many see language as only being the communication of words, but dance provides a way for people of all language backgrounds to communicate and connect with one another. This connection comes through physical movements and set language terminology. Some may believe that language is only what can be spoken, but in order to get an idea across, you don’t always need to speak. Even so, there are so many languages in the world of dance that not everyone knows. When you can’t use verbal language to communicate your feelings, dance can be an expressive tool that lets movement from the body do the talking for you. As said in the article, “Storytelling Through Dance,” “While the body is the medium for telling the story, the language is the body movements” (Steemit). Throughout history, people have and continue to use dance as a way of connecting through movement and set terminology. Through these movements and terminology, people from a variety of different language backgrounds who may not be able to speak with one another, can dance with one another. Dance is a language that sees no barriers, therefore making it a universal language for people of all backgrounds to engage with.
Animagic. “Storytelling Through Dance” Steemit. 2017. steemit.com/dance/@animagic/storytelling-through-dance
Doochin, David. “The Linguistic History of Dance Moves Around the World” 31, January, 2019.
“How Do You Hula?” Wonderopolis. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.
Jubille. 2017, June 21. Dancers Overcome Language Barrier to Choreograph Piece. YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=O19HV8Yspr0
Language of Dance Centre. Language of Dance Centre. www.lodc.org/old-about-us/what-is-language-of-dance.html. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.
Rounds, Samantha. Dance As Communication: How Humans Communicate Through Dance and Perceive Dance as Communication. 2016. University of Oregon. Undergraduate. Scholarsbank.ureogon,edu scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/20365/Final%20Thesis-Rounds.pdf?sequence=1
Thuecks, Suzanne E. Personal Interview. 31 October 2022.
“What is Dance?” Twinkl. https://www.twinkl.com/teaching-wiki/dance. Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.
Woodard, Meagan A. Dance: The Universal Language of Storytellers. 2020. Ouachita Baptist University, Undergraduate. Scholarlycommons.obu.edu. scholarlycommons.obu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1770&context=honors_theses