A Blythe Coach

Falling for Momentum, Swinging for the Stars

“How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again, 
Up in the air and down!” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“There are swings that are released down into gravity and swings that are released outward into centripetal and centrifugal trajectories. Gravity is a natural force, as is one of its outcomes: momentum. Gravity is in constant operation. The dancer must practice restraint rather than effort when he deals with this principle. In swings he sends the effort downward by releasing it. Gravity creates the downward pull. The resulting energy is the momentum derived from the release. One releases into gravity and one rides the momentum.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.144)

Imagery, Physical Forces, and Dance Movement Techniques of SWINGING, that’s what I’m writing about today and discussing on Episode 66 of the podcast:

Podcast Episode 066: Falling for Gravity, Gaining Momentum, Swinging to the Stars

Safety Warning

As Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis caution in their book The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique, “These can be powerful forces, and if one is inept or careless in complying with the natural laws of these centrifugal and centripetal powers, injuries can result. In executing centrifugal and centripetal movements, one must take care to realize the location of the pivot point. The careful study of where the legs begin in the hip sockets and where the arms begin in the shoulder joints is basic and essential.” (p.149 emphasis mine)

As always, before attempting any new movement technique or practice, consult with your physician or healthcare professional. Then, listen to your body’s signals, go slowly and mindfully.

Poetic Imagery for Swinging

In the book Dance and Grow, Betty Rowen describes imagery that can help inspire swinging movements: “There are many dramatic images that come to mind involving swinging. Some of them are elephants’ trunks, bears, the man on the flying trapeze, pendulums, and swings. Of course, the obvious image is of a swing on the playground.
Various parts of the body can swing, as the teacher suggests, Make your arms swing…make your whole body swing. And finally, Swing any way you want to–make up your own kind of swing. Some lovely movements may result from these improvisations. The teacher may select one or two swinging patterns demonstrated and the class may try different ones.” (p.18)

Poetry and imagery resonate for students young and old to accompany improvisation and dance technique exercises. Educators, families and caregivers of children can learn many different creative dance activities in the book Dance and Grow by Betty Rowen. This is where I first learned how to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” poem to inspire movement.

Rowen explains how to integrate movement explorations to the poem into dance class: “The rhythm of the poem follows exactly the swinging rhythm of the movements. A simple structure can be given to group improvisations by setting different types of swings to different parts of the poem.” (Dance and Grow p.18-9)

Swinging in Dance Technique

Swinging movements and imagery are important to dance technique, performance, and improvisation. Dance educators Betty Rowen and Mary Joyce write about using swinging movements in children’s dance classes, and choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis apply the concepts to working with adults.

Rowen explains the importance of swinging to mastering dance movements and suggests music to help produce different movement qualities: “Coordinating body parts in a swinging movement calls forth a sense of balance when the weight shifts, as in a side-to-side swing. Swinging movements can change in quality, creating dances that are soft and lyrical (perhaps to Chopin waltzes) or vigorous and percussive (as in fighting movements). It would be hard to find a piece of choreography that does not use swinging movements in some parts of the composition.” (Dance and Grow p.19)

Joyce describes several foundational swinging exercises in the book Dance Technique for Children, including Parallel Swings (p.82), Side Swings and Slides (p.85), used in Perception of Rhythm (p.101), Leg Swings (p.121), and Swings and Extensions (p.142). (Dance Technique for Children)

As a dance technique class exercise, Nikolais-Louis explain that “Swings can be introduced in the post-plié series, as a forward and back, side and side series with arms or legs:
Releasing of weight to gravity.
The swing outcome.
Arrival.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.146)

One way to play with arm swings is my “Wonderful Whirligig Walks” video
Gravity Swings (Arms, Torso)

Nikolais-Louis teach that the most basic type of swinging action to practice is a high-to low vertical gravity swing: “The simplest swings are made with the arms and legs because they are attached at one end, while the outer tip is released into peripheral action. High-to-low vertical swings are basic. The arm held in high suspension without any flexion can swing into gravity. If left completely free to do so, it will pass the gravity point, and its momentum will carry it to the end of its path of weight release and then return in the direction from which it came, repeating the swing until the energy is expended.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.149)

Joyce’s Parallel Swings involve swinging the arms and upper body from a standing position and can be elaborated into hip-lifting (rising in the lower body) and jumping versions, as well as later double-bounces and upper body articulations:

“1. Arm swings, knee bends: In parallel position, feet under hips, back long, arms high, swing the arms down and back, then forward and up. As the arms swing, the knees bend. Pattern: down two three and up two three.

What do you know about the alignment of the legs and feet? Knees must be over toes. The knees are your signposts. Watch them carefully. Your toes are apart. Where then should your knees be as they bend and straighten? Apart. Think about it, especially as they bend. They will want to get close together.’ Repeat swing until all have it.

2. Torso: Bend torso forward, sweep floor with hands on the backward swing, and straighten legs. Sweeping the floor again on the forward swing, come up. ‘Bend the whole torso, and sweep the floor with your hands, both back and forward.’ Knees bend deeply, but heels stay on the floor.

Combine the arm swings and the torso swings:
Swing backward and forward (arm swings)
Sweep down and up (torso swings)

The count will be
Swing down & swing up &
a 1 & a 2 &
Sweep down & sweep up &
a 3 & a 4 &

swing down two three up two three
sweep down two three up two three” (Dance Technique for Children p.82-4)

As with stability in both the legs when swinging the arms and torso, in teaching Leg Swings, Joyce also emphasizes the importance of developing stability in the standing leg (using turnout as support and the hip girdle muscles active) to support the action. This is critical for all dancers and the delicate balance we strike in swings of this sort between standing strong and going with the forces created.

Sizzling Standing Leg Swings Dance Technique video on YouTube
Leg Swings

Nikolais-Louis discuss the importance of mastering both freedom and control in movement and suggest developing swinging skills through both improvisation and class exercises. We need many experiences of swinging and momentum to understand how to create and manipulate the forces involved for choreographic purposes: “What distinguishes the artist from the commonplace dancer is his ability to choose from among the multiple possible variations the most effective sentient designs to control momentum.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.148)

One exercise for practicing legs swings in the Nikolais-Louis Technique which I’ve also seen variations of in many other modern and jazz classes:
“Swing free leg, forward-back-forward, step-step-step. Change legs.
Swings are in three-quarter time. Make the three parts of the swing visibly clear.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.145)

Joyce’s exploration of Leg Swings looks like this:
1. Leg swings: Review wrap-around (page 117) and broom handle (page 119). First position, girdle muscles supporting the lift, torso stretching upward, weight forward. Repeat, balancing first on one leg and then on the other.
Your right hip joint is now going to be firm as a rock. When the wind blows, does a rock move? No! Hold firmly in your right hip, no movement is allowed. Let your left leg swing easily in the breeze backward and forward. Keep the right hip vertical and lifted‘…
2. Pattern (Have the children start as far back as possible, as the pattern moves forward): ‘Standing on the right leg, begin swinging the left leg forward and continue for seven counts. Step forward on the left on count eight and hold your balance. As you step, find your lift and placement on your left side.’ The children stand on the right leg; the left leg swings:
forward back forward back forward back forward step on the left
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Repeat, standing on the left leg and swinging the right leg.
Next put these two phrases together, sixteen counts in all.
Then, shorten each phrase to four counts, stepping on count four: ‘Swing forward, back, forward, and step.’
Shorten it again, this time to two counts, stepping on count two. Here the count will be
swing & step & swing & step & swing & step & swing & step
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Swing only as hard as you can without moving the rock.’
Next, have them do the whole sequence: two 8’s, two 4’s, and four 2’s.
Repeat, adding a hop after each step. Later you can add arms in opposition to this pattern.
3. Across the floor: Have the children do the same pattern across the floor, using the step-hop to propel the body forward. To stretch the supporting leg and foot in the hop, have them think of pressing the leg forward, splitting the legs.” (p.121-2)

Improvising to get chummy with Momentum

In addition to formal exercises, Nikolais-Louis recommend experimentation through improvisation: “To experience momentum, my suggestion is to propel the body randomly, to get a better sense of momentum on its own terms, rather than using it as a device to achieve a specific end. From a standing position, propel the body percussively into random directions to feel what actually happens during momentum. Practice percussive propelling in different parts of the body so that you can realize the great variety of possibilities and feel the experience of being thrust from one body shape to another.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.148)

Strategic practice and mindful improvisation both play important roles in mastery of movement.

Swings in Laban Movement Analysis

A movement description and analysis standpoint is useful for choreographers, dancers, dance notators, and critics. In describing and analyzing swing movement, both shaping and directional movement are present. Directional movements could include rising/sinking, advancing/retreating, spreading & enclosing gestures (related to gathering and scattering) and qualities. In a swing context, each of these are initiations and resolutions of momentum, using gravity, centripetal and/or centrifugal forces.

According to Cecily Dell, “Spreading and enclosing occur in the horizontal cycle, where shaping that is mainly sideward across or out away from the body also has a forward-backward component, as in an embrace. Advancing and retreating occur in the sagittal cycle where shaping that is mainly forward and backward also has an upward-downward component. Although Lamb stresses the use of the torso in shaping, these symbols may also be used to describe limb movement. In a pirouette, for example, where torso movement is minimal, one arm spreads and the other encloses during the turn.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.57-8)

I find effort action concepts such as “flick,” “punch,” and “slash” inspire different, helpful qualities in swings and use of momentum in dance choreography. Dell explains: “Gathering and Scattering – When a movement can be said to be shaping, but emphasizes either coming toward the body or going away from the body, rather than any particular directions in space, the terms gathering (shaping towards the body) and scattering (shaping away from the body) may be used to describe the movement. Gathering and scattering are terms as traditionally; associated with Laban theory as are basic effort actions such as ‘punch’ and ‘float.’ They can be very helpful, evocative terms for directors and movement teachers, who may be looking for general terms for orienting actors and dancers. They are perhaps less useful in detailed notation and research, since gathering and scattering can be broken down into more basic concepts.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.56)

I have previously written about shape and shaping in the blog Shapeshifting Dancers: Forms & How We Get There. For more on spatial ideas in movement description and analysis, you can view my video on Planes of Space & the Body.  

Physical Forces in Dance


According to Peggy Hackney, in the excellent book on Movement Fundamentals Making Connections, “Our ability to sense our weighted mass which makes possible our assertion of strength and lightness is possible only because of earth’s gravity.” (p.41)

One example of a Movement Fundamentals exercise that teaches the use of gravity, momentum, and sequencing through deep muscle groups is the “Diagonal Knee Reach (Irmgard’s Exercise No. 5A “Knee Drop”), a version of which I incorporated into my “Sweet Leg Swings” video. (Making Connections p.182)

Practice Knee-Drop movements, use of gravity and momentum with reclining leg swings

Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais argue that to dance is to manipulate momentum: “Momentum is the consequence of the force caused by the act of propulsion. It is the going, the movement itself. Therefore, it is the basic substance of dance because it defines the kinetic condition occurring between the beginning propulsion and the ending outcome.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.148)

Swinging involves creating and controlling momentum. Nikolais-Louis define the physical act of swinging in dance: “A swing is a three-part action: A beginning force that is released into space. A path of going. A suspension at arrival point. […] During the second part, through the force of momentum, variations of the swing occur: turns, air work, and so on, which use the resultant force to operate. The dancer must determine the necessary force during the first step to allow the second, complexity of the outcome, to complete itself. He must accomplish the third, the suspension at the arrival stage, to start the upbeat of force for a new swing. (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.144)

Further, Nikolias-Louis distinguish swings from another familiar dance movement, undercurves: “Although swings resemble the undercurve, their definition and execution have different purposes. The technique involved in the undercurve is to define and depict specifically the undercurve of a circle, whereas the swing defines a release of weight to the forces of momentum and gravity.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.144)

For more about undercurves, consult my blog on undercurves and overcurves or “amazing undercurves” dance warmup video.

Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces

When throwing or swinging limbs and body into space, there are two more forces to define, “Centripetal: inward throw. Centrifugal: outward throw.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.146) Nikolais-Louis elaborate:

Here’s how these types of swings work, from Nikolais-Louis: “With centrifugal and centripetal swings [compared to basic gravity swings which release into earth’s pull from suspension], the force is now the body, which throws the attached body part into space like a weight attached to a string. This creates the momentum to the point of arrival.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.144)

Factors Affecting of Physical Forces

It’s clear that generating and manipulating the physical forces of gravity and momentum are important to dance expression: “One of the fine points of aesthetic technical control that must be mastered is the judgment of how much energy is needed to bring the impulse to a point of termination.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.148) However, gravity, momentum, centripetal and centrifugal forces are not the only influences acting on or created by the body in motion.

Nikolais-Louis remind us: “There are other causes of change in velocity; for example, the friction of the floor can slow momentum, whereas the slipperiness of a polished floor surface may increase its velocity.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.148) Indeed, human movement is extremely complex.

In fact, harnessing these powers is a never-ending pursuit: “The sensitivity and control of momentum should occupy the dancer’s technical exercises for as long as he continues to study dance. In further study, you will realize that the velocity of momentum is not constant, that motion starts at a high speed and diminishes as it proceeds, either until it is brought to the destined outcome or until, en route, it is recharged by additional forces.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.148)

The arms, legs, and torso can all swing, and these movements in concert with the coordination of the whole body allow dancers to accomplish their choreographic and expressive objectives. Nikolais-Louis tell how the arms contribute: “Dancers often use additional thrusts to increase the height of elevation. The arms make a considerable number of peripheral paths of action possible.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.149)

With a combination of natural physical forces as well as propulsion from coordinated muscular action of the limbs and body, endless movement possibilities result: “When the dancer adds the motional abilities of the legs, movement variations are multiplied. Then, too, he can add torso peripheries. The weight of the torso swinging in the air can lift the body into extraordinary acrobatic feats.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique  p.149)

For more on using physical forces to produce Locomotor Movements and Types of Jumps in dance, follow the links provided here. To learn about swings and movements that use momentum in ballet, I recommend my videos on “Tantalizing Tendu, Pas de Cheval, & Undercurves,” “Delectable Dégagé, Pas de Cheval, & Overcurves,” “Ebullient Battement & Passé,” “Embracing Ballet Balance” and “Tourner – Basic Ballet Turning Technique

Rhythm & Musicality

Music can also take a swinging quality, such as in the waltz that Betty Rowen mentioned, Swing Music (and we didn’t even talk about the style of social dancing called “Swing!”). Finding the downbeat and getting a feel for the rhythm of music and movement are related skills. Check out my blog on Developing Rhythm and Musicality for Dance for some more ideas on this topic.


I just had to include one more quote from Nikolais-Louis that made me laugh: “The indulgent dancer delights in centrifugal and centripetal forces. It’s the ‘Viennese Waltz Syndrome.’ Yet these are two of the most significant natural forces to be controlled and used with disciplined discretion. Both are by-products of momentum when it involves circular action and within them rests all forms of swings, turns, circles, and some elevations. Both relate to a central point of anchorage and to the forces that pull both powers toward and away from this central point.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.148)

This provides a good summary of the technical aspects we’ve discussed today, which in my own practice sometimes takes a discretely disciplined form, but admittedly goes in the direction of indulgence from time to time! I say move how you want to, delight in the physical forces that you create and respond to, and dance your way! I’m here to help you play and understand some of the ideas behind dance expression, not to inhibit your exploration and enjoyment 🙂

  • Do you like to go up in a swing and play with momentum?
  • What is your favorite variation of leg, arm, or torso swings?
  • What dancing or movement technique skills are you currently working to improve?

Let me know on social media @ablythecoach or by email, I love hearing from you! 

Blythe Stephens, MFA & Bliss Catalyst
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach
move through life with balance, grace, & power

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