Storytelling in Dance

Storytelling in Dance

...dance is a storyteller. Movement becomes the language while body is the medium for story to emerge -- Rev. B. Kaufmann

What is storytelling in dance?

Storytelling in dance is, for the dancer, exploring ways in which our bodies can convey meaning, intent and interpretation so as to perform a narrative or a journey. For the audience, it’s about finding ways of understanding the body more thoroughly in order to explore a story through visual means, utilising our own interpretations as viewers.

What can students learn from watching storytelling in dance?

Watching a narrative dance piece introduces to children what it means to communicate with their bodies, faces and gestures. It demonstrates how ‘dialogues’ can be shared without any spoken word, and how that itself may bring about whole new dynamics to ‘conversation’.

Storytelling in dance also often bears a strong link to music. Classical ballets, being a very obvious form of storytelling in dance, are of course set to classical music. A dramatic scene in the plot is sure to be linked with a thick-textured, climactic section of music. Romance is almost directly linked to string instruments with long, velvety sounds of violins accompanying a smooth and seductive duet.

This link of music to movement can encourage a new appreciation of different genres of music, that children might not otherwise be exposed to. I know that’s how it worked for me!

What can students learn from trying and performing storytelling in dance?

One of West End in Schools' most popular workshops is Bringing Books to Life, which uses dance to explore popular children's books.

Students learn a level of self awareness in terms of what they’re doing but also in what and how they’re feeling. In dance, showing an audience what you’re doing (at primary school level) is relatively easy in comparison to the how or why you’re doing something. Students learn to apply emotion to activity, expressing themselves outwardly without speaking - which requires some thought, focus and practice.

This can be hugely helpful for students with behavioural needs as well as slower learners who might not be able to express things easily verbally or on paper - but they can certainly show you!

These skills, alongside all the benefits of dancing itself, work towards creating individual, creative and perhaps more empathetic, passionate people (not just students!).

Are there different types of storytelling in dance?

Many would argue that all dance tells a story, and therefore there are countless types if you are to encompass all dance styles. However, there are certainly distinguishable approaches that makes storytelling more evident in certain types of dance.

  • Ballet is known for its movement language ‘Ballet Mime’, using literal gestures to help audiences better understand a plot. E.g. Exaggerated points to the eyes mean “to look” or “to see”. A lovely introduction to it, thanks to The Royal Ballet, can be watched here and perhaps shown (and performed!) in class.

  • The world-famous choreographer Matthew Bourne is renowned for his use of gesture and pedestrian movement. Pedestrian movement being everyday, common movement utilised to create choreography portraying the same intention.

    I remember having a workshop with one of his dancers (many moons ago) who had recently performed in Bourne’s production The Car Man. He demonstrated to us how the simple action of turning a key in a car door could be made bigger, exaggerated and heightened until it became almost an entirely different movement, a dance movement, though still carrying the same intention that an audience would be able to understand in context.

    Bourne’s The Car Man is a piece set to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. In his piece, Bourne creates a whole new story to the same music. Watch clips of the show and Bourne discussing the story, links to musicality and variety of dance techniques combined to create this piece here.

  • Lots of traditional Indian folk dancing originates in storytelling, namely religious stories, that in the beginning were only performed in temples. The Kathak style (recognised heavily in choreographer Akram Khan’s works) began its journey with actual storytellers who enjoyed combining song and drama with their dance, characterised by quick footwork with ankle bells worn.

    Follow this online series with Satya Narayana Charka to learn more:

    Kathak Dance: History of Kathak Dance

    Kathak Dance: Kathak Dance Storytelling

“So, how do I explore this with my students?” I hear you cry! Download this resource for some simple and fun Storytelling in Dance activities.

If you’re intrigued to know more, we’re also running a CPD Masterclass next week on Exploring Children’s Books through dance. More information is right here.

- Sarah