A Blythe Coach

Rollercoaster of Dance: Traveling Through Undercurve & Overcurve Pathways

Like an exhilarating ride on a rollercoaster, or if you prefer, a wave, dancers ascend and descend, sink, scoop, and rise, following or leaving a pathway in space. It can be quite a thrill even at a low level of risk!

Our clarity about the described pathway in space, whether it be an scooping undercurve or arcing overcurve, affects our accuracy in performing dance steps and the impression given by our choreographic expression.

In my recent blog on Space and Focus, “Approaches to Space: Qualities of Focus in Dance & Life,” we distinguished between the Effort of Focus and the role Shape plays in movement, with help from a quote by Cecily Dell:

“The elements of indirectness and directness are often confused with certain aspects of movement shape, namely directional and shaping movement. While the effort qualities are concerned with the kind of concentration or focus in space, the shape aspects of movement are more related to pathways and forms the body parts create in space.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.30, emphasis mine) In the “Shapeshifting Dancers: Forms & How We Get There” blog I discussed types of forms, and ways we move into and through them in ballet and dance. Here and in Episode 56 of the Podcast we’ll delve into two specific pathways that we often travel in space, so-called undercurves and overcurves.

The audio version of this blog is episode 56, scroll down the blog for more resources

“Undercurve” and “Overcurve” are terms mostly used in movement description (i.e. Laban Movement Analysis) and modern dance, but I also use them in teaching ballet technique because they clarify the path the steps travel through space and you will find the concepts are applicable to all movement forms. 

Whether sliding, stepping, or jumping, every movement that transfers weight, travelling from one place to another, will either remain at the same level or change levels, often following an over-curving or under-curving pathway in space. 

As modern dance innovators Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis distinguish in The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique: “Remember that in the undercurve, the transfer of weight is always in low level. In the overcurve, the transfer is always in high level.” (Location: 3,747) Let’s elaborate on the differences in action, timing, and pathway between the two types of travel.

Undercurves Described

Illustration of a single undercurve and a string of undercurves, like drawing waves

Under-curves start at a high or mid-level, sink, travel (transferring the weight on the ground), and then rise again, forming a “U”-shaped pathway in space. Performed in succession, this creates a scalloping path, like the waves of the sea in a rudimentary drawing. 

According to Nikolais/Louis, “The undercurve is conceived as the lower half of a sphere. It is a continuous half circle. The locomotion of an undercurve involves a triple action of the leg: plié—transfer of weight—lift.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,664) They emphasize skill in flexion and extension of the knee, “The fluidity of the flexing knee is the technical basis of both the undercurve and overcurve forms.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,665)

Try out some under-curves with me with the video that follows:

Amazing Undercurves – dance warmup for contemporary & ballet” YouTube video

Overcurves Described

Illustration of a single overcurve and a string of overcurves, like rolling hills

Over-curves start at a low or mid-level, rise, travel (transferring weight in the air), and then sink again, forming an inverted “U” or “n”-shaped pathway in space, creating a scalloping pathway, like that of rolling hills in a rudimentary drawing. 

Nikolais/Louis elaborate on movement possibilities from overcurves and undercurves: “The overcurve is the basis of the leap, just as the undercurve is the basis of the skip. Consideration is given to the upper curve of a circle. The action involves going up and stepping over.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,726) They break down the overcurve step by step: “overcurve leg action is also in three parts (not three counts): Standing leg rises to high level. The other leg lifts and steps over the curve of the circle. It lowers into pliée [sic] weight is transferred.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,739) 

I particularly enjoy how Nikolais/Louis express the emotional requirements and impact of leaping overvurve movements: “‘Taking the air,’ being confident in the air and conscious of the space and leap action, is the motional fulfillment of the leap movement.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,762)

We can certainly practice over-curve and leaping motions in a controlled, small, incremental way at first, but it is wonderful to keep in mind the ultimate potential intent of soaring through the air as we develop skills and strength.

Timing of Under- and Over-curves

As well as taking different pathways in space, there are rhythmic and timing differences between the two actions as well, as Nikolais/Louis explain: “Undercurves are the basis for the quicker skip action, which has a three-eighth time value. However, the three-quarter undercurve waltz time needs to be carefully controlled so that the movement does not linger and become sentimental. […] dancer also should not confuse it with the step hop, duple time, which beginners will often substitute for the triple time undercurve skip.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,673-4, emphasis mine)

Nikolais/Louis also note the inherent challenge in lingering in the air and the impact that has on the rhythm of overcurves: “It is difficult to sustain the overcurve transfer of weight. The count becomes a duple so that a phrase of undercurve. undercurve, overcurve, overcurve, overcurve would count out as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,729)

Technique notes for Under- and Over-curves

A clear change of level is necessary to describe undercurves and overcurves in space, and beginning dancers may need to exaggerate the level change to make the patterns clear. Nikolais/Louis stress the technical and physical requirements of controlling undercurve and overcurve actions:

“This triple action of the knee and leg must become automatic and smooth. The flexibility of the leg in the descent will help enormously in preparing for descending from air work.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,671)

Additional reminders for performing overcurves include that the “leading front leg lifts immediately to describe the overcurve form by stepping over, lengthening, and reaching downward and out of the hip for its next …” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,731) and, “Lifting the straight back leg while in the air before the descent can sustain the air height longer.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique Location: 3,763) Try these ideas when you’re ready to go for more air time!

Under- & Over-curves in Locomotion

As I elaborated on in my Do the Locomotion OR Walk Like a Dancer: walking, running, & other techniques of travel Blog, Nicolais/Louis use the concepts of undercurves and overcurves as well as approaches to time to describe the basic variations of traveling or locomotor movements in dance:

Walking: transferring weight evenly from leg to leg on a level path.” 
Hopping: locomotion on the same leg, transferring the weight in the air to the same leg. Transferring the weight through an undercurve or overcurve.”
Jumping: locomotion on two legs. Transferring weight to both legs. Full turns in the air, landing and pushing off from both legs.”
Leaping: transferring the weight from leg to leg in the air. Creating a long, horizontally level path as opposed to an overcurve. The different leaps vary in their character of traveling through the air.”
Skipping: as opposed to a ¾ undercurve, skipping can be a duple or a ⅜ rhythm with emphasis on the push off to upward instead of low transfer of weight.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.95, emphasis mine)

Examples of Under- and Over-Curves in Ballet

Under: Temps lié, Balancé, Chassé, Temps levé

Over: Pas de Bourrée, Pique, Soutenu, Soubresaut, Glissade, Pas de Chat, Grand Jeté, Saut de Chat

Chassé – Undercurves
The Chasing Chassé – Sliding transitions in Ballet” YouTube Video is an example of undercurves in ballet technique and a great basic traveling jump

Chassé: “to chase,” as in a cat-and-mouse game between the two feet, one getting away and then the other coming after it. We practice two types in ballet technique, both demonstrated in the video above:

Chassé À Terre: slides along the floor in a “U” or scalloped pathway (down, across, up) to an open shape, then closes again; from a closed 3rd or 5th position, sinking into Plié, transferring the weight into an open 2nd (side) or 4th position (forward or backward), then stretching the legs in the new position or sliding to assemble them in a closed position again.

Chassé with a Sauté or jump: slides along the floor to an open shape, then closes again with a spring; from a closed 3rd or 5th position, sinking into Plié, transferring the weight into an open 2nd or 4th position, then stretching the legs into a jump and assembling them in a closed position in the air, and landing on both feet again.

Pas de Chat – Overcurves
The Pouncing Pas de Chat – Catlike Leaping in Ballet YouTube Video is an example of overcurves in ballet technique and a great basic leap

Pas de Chat has a catlike leaping effect, jumping off from one foot and landing on the other, also like a cat-and-mouse game. As with all jumps, it begins with Plié (low level) and rolls through the feet on take-off and landing. Pas de Chat travels sideways, and can be practiced in parallel before moving on to turned-out or externally-rotated position.

Leading with the leg facing the direction of travel, which is typically in back in 3rd or 5th position when turned out, the foot pushes off to Passé / lift the thigh to Retiré, then springing with the following foot to create a brief diamond shape in the air, landing on other foot in Retiré and then closing to Plié on both feet again.

Further Ballet practice videos:

Blogs + videos on dance theory & practice:

I hope you enjoyed exploring the concepts of undercurves and overcurves in ballet and dance today, as well as practicing the steps of Chassé, Pas de Chat, and more. Let me know whether you prefer an under- or over-curving pathway while dancing or observing dance in performance!

Blythe Stephens, MFA
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A Blythe Coach
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