A Blythe Coach

Shapeshifting Dancers: Forms & How We Get There

What do a carpenter swinging a hammer, an office worker closing a drawer, a police officer directing traffic, and a ballerina’s storytelling have in common?

All of their movements are traveling through space in relationship to other objects (concrete or abstract), taking specific pathways with particular attitudes. The hammer arcs up and then down to meet forcefully with the nail, the drawer is pressed directly forward in a direct “spoking” motion, the police officer’s gestures stab and swoop through space indicating when to stop and when to go, and the dancer intentionally prescribes patterns in space on their way to dynamic shapes.

Today we are exploring some of the basic forms we make with the body in space, how we arrive there, and what the point of all this is in terms of dance technique, expression, and performance.

In my 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, emphasis mine p.30) Here we’ll look more closely at these sorts of pathways and forms. 

In the book Making Connections, Peggy Hackney summarizes the key issues around shape with the following questions: “What forms does the body make? Is the shape changing in relation to self or in relation to the environment? How is the Shape changing–what is the major quality or element which is influencing its process of change?” (p.221)

Hackney also defines shape in terms of its intent as used in choreography: “An intent in Shape might include forming the body to reveal a particular ‘shape’ (for instance, a choreographer might choose an enclosed form, a ball shape, to depict someone who is turning inward); or changing the form of the body to bring about a specific type of relationship to other people or the environment (using spoke-like directional shape change when going toward a goal, for example); or reveal an investment in the process of shape change (rising when happy, retreating in fear, etc.).” (Making Connections p.43)

Basic Forms/Shapes

Speaking of the forms themselves, there are a few basic types of shapes listed below, as well as an infinite variety dependent on dance style and expressive intent. In ballet, there are clearly defined, named shapes that the body passes through and poses in, much too numerous to name here, such as the positions of the feet and arms and shapes with different orientations in space.

For more about use of space and the specific shapes we make in ballet dancing, I’m going to refer you to a few videos on my YouTube Channel:

Planes of Space & the Body
Ballet Orientations of the Body
Architecture of Arabesque

The following categories are helpful when thinking of shapes in general. That is, most shapes, whether inside the context of dance or out, fall under one of these main concepts. According to Hackney, “The most basic forms the body makes when it is not moving. ‘Still forms,” are: 
Linear, Elongated (Pin)
Flat (Wall)
Round, Spherical (Ball)
Twisted, Spiral (Screw)
Tetrahedral (Pyramid)” (Making Connections p.221)

Modes of Shape Change: Shape Flow & Directional Movement

More than just striking poses, the way we arrive there, molding and shifting the body is important in dance. This is where various modes or types of changing from form-to-form come in.

Hackney captures this distinction: “Fundamentals and Laban Movement Analysis stress investing in the changing shape from within as an expressive process. For instance, Spreading is different from simply arriving in a wide shape. Awareness of this sort is particularly important for dancers who seem to get stuck in trying to ‘make the right shape,’ but are not connecting internally to enjoy the forming process itself. These shape qualities or elements are also laden with personal emotional meaning for each individual, as are the Effort Qualities.” (Making Connections p.223)

Hackney goes on to discuss various possible modes of shape change that are possible depending on the mover’s orientation: “Mode of Shape Change reveals an inner attitude about changing the form of the body–whether the shape change is self-oriented or environment-oriented. This inner attitude need not be conscious to be operative.” (Making Connections p.221)

According to Cecily Dell, in A Primer for Movement Description, these modes ultimately breaks down to three basic varieties: “We will distinguish three kinds of change in the form of movement: 1) shape flow – where the form results only from changes within the body parts; 2) directional movement – where the form results from a clear path going in a direction in space; 3) shaping movement – where the form results from the body clearly molding itself in relation to the shape of space, whether in relation to the shape of space, as in it creates the shape of the space, as in dance, or adapts to it, as in many work movements.” (p.44)

This sort of movement analysis is relevant both to choreographic expression as well as interpreting the everyday movement attitudes of people on the street and in work and leisure contexts. I will elaborate on each of these three types and where we see them next.

Shape Flow: Body-Oriented Movement

Over all, and in contrast to directional movement which we will get into next, the concept of shape flow “…applies to movement in which the form is dictated by a concern with the relationship within the parts of the body, i.e., it is body-oriented, and is not concerned primarily with the space around the body.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.46)

Not commonly seen in ballet or other classical dances, but rather more easily observed in everyday, pedestrian movement and in some modern dance techniques, is the body-oriented movements constituting shape flow: “The most basic model for shape flow, when it is seen as growing and shrinking, is the inflation and deflation of the trunk in breathing. A breathing pattern which is full and continuous, without holding, promotes the flow of shape changes in the body.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.45)

In fact, Hackney asserts that “Underlying all shape change is the basic change in the body’s form which happens in the process of breathing. This baseline process of Growing and Shrinking is called Shape Flow Support.” (Making Connections p.221) This is the level to which we are attuned during the meditation and pranayama (breathing) techniques of yoga. We notice the subtle shifts and sensations of the breath and bodily functions in silence, and foster awareness and presence from the “inside” out.

As Hackney goes on to explain, “The other perspective from which one can describe shape flow emphasizes the limbs. In this case, a change in the flow of shape can be described as folding or enclosing toward the center, or unfolding, opening out from the center. The terms in and out or toward and away may be substituted if they are more appropriate.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.46)

Finally with regard to shape flow, Hackney describes how “Shape Flow is shape change which is about the mover and the mover’s changing body part relationships self-to-self. It creates a sensation that the movement is not ‘about’ making something happen in the environment at all, but is about ‘Me sensing my own body as I am within myself or the world–my own responses change my shape.’ An example is adjusting to get comfortable. Shape Flow brings access to self, the ability to be in touch with the ‘inner’ world.” (Making Connections p.222)

Directional Movement

In contrast to the shape flow mode of shape change, according to Dell, “Directional movement appears as the most basic form in which movement establishes a relationship to the surrounding space.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.49) Dell clarifies how we establish directional shape change in relationship to the larger world: “We learn about space by encountering the objects which define it. Things appear at various distances from us; they occupy the space in different directions from the fronts of our bodies; they occupy more or less space than our bodies do.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.49)

Hackney describes the goal-orientation of directional movements: “Directional Movement is location, or goal-oriented shape change. It creates a bridge to the environment, ‘I can change my shape in order to go out to someone else or the world.’ Directional movement can be either spoke-like or arc-like. For example, I can spoke my hand out from my waist to reach to shake someone’s hand or I can let my arm swing from my side to reach in an arc. With Directional Mode of Shape Change I am able to contact the world outside myself and accomplish specific tasks such as picking up a pencil, hammering a nail, or shooting a basketball.” (Making Connections p.222)

But in dance, the “goal” may not be a concrete one, as Dell explains: “In dance, where the motivation for movement becomes even more abstract, directional movement may be seen in which not only is the object invisible, but the direction or goal in space is not so important as the form of the path itself, or the process of moving through a form. What this means for observers in the field of dance is that directional movement in dance often must be thought of much more in terms of a spoke-like, linear path, or an arc-like, flat form, rather than as going toward a place or thing or point in space. The latter is much closer to the everyday, functional appearances of directional movement.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.51)

These basic movements are how we access the space and objects around us as well as how we express ourselves physically, whether intentionally or not. The dancer and choreographer must learn how to use the various forms and modes of shape change, along with Efforts (including TimeSpace, which I have written previous blogs about, and coming soon, Weight and Energy) to convey the mood and message of their work. 

Directional Shape Change & Dance Technique

Just throwing ourselves into shape after shape does not a dance make, however, our transition and links or bridges are also enormously important. This was a major goal of my work with my gymnasts at Island Tumblers Gymnastics on the island of O’ahu, an elite group of athletes looking to improve their competitive edge. Having had years of intensive training, they gymnasts already had outstanding physical strength, flexibility, and control and were able to form themselves into a wide variety of shapes.

Through ballet technique, these gymnasts were able to fine-tune their lines and the appearance of assorted poses (earning them style points) and we strove to finesse HOW they got there, the smoothness and polish of their transitions. Furthermore, they broadened their expressive range and attention to the details of every moment of their routines, not just the flashy and fun tricks.

This is the difference between what a child or beginning dancer does, imitating the external shapes their teacher appears to make, but not yet able to understand the quality or mode of shape flow, and what an experienced or professional dancer does, having full control of every shape and transition. This all sounds really complex and technical, but it begins with simple exercises in the types of movements described below and slowly broadening awareness of all the possibilities, the menu if you will, of the Elements of Dance.

We are greatly aided in this work by observation and description of movement, both pedestrian and dance choreography, as well as personal exploration and experiential training. We all have automatic default patterns and preferences, but I seek to develop versatile dancers with a broad palette of expressive possibilities.

Reaching into Space with Directional Movement to Make Shapes: Spoking, Arcing, Carving

Let’s look at each of these categories, how to recognize them, and some examples from dance movement. 


According to Dell, “If you reach out from yourself toward something around you, or if you reach from one point to another, and you observe the path your body makes in moving, you will find that the path has one of two possible forms. First, the path may have the form of a straight line. Your reaching part may travel along a linear path to get to the point, the part itself may be moving in a spoke-like manner out from your body. Examples of this directional spoke-like movement might appear in someone pushing something forward away from his chest, or in a traffic cop who thrusts his arm out to stop a stream of traffic, or in a catcher who reaches up overhead to catch a ball.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.60)

In ballet, we see spoking movements mostly in the legs, such as in pas de cheval, frappé, and developpé. The arms mostly take an arcing or carving path, giving the upper-body movements fluidity. 


Whereas spoking forms the path of a straight line in space, “The second possible form the path may take is that of a flat arc through space. That is, if you want to reach something to the side of you, and instead of thrusting your arm out in a spoke-like way, you swing it out from its hanging position, you have described the flat arc in space, called directional arc-like movement. Examples of directional arc-like movement could be seen in the jumping jack exercise in calesthenics [sic], or the arm movement of the boxing referee counting for a knockout. Where spoke-like movement often involves the unfolding of many body parts into a direction, arc-like movement is more likely to be active in only one joint, as for instance the whole arm moving as a unit from the shoulder joint.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.50-1)

In ballet for example, we practice arcing movements in steps such as tendu, degagé, & grand battement, among others.


Carving is shape change which is oriented to creating or experiencing volume in interaction with the environment. ‘I mold or contour or accommodate to the environment or other people.’ For example, as I describe a complex project with many parts that interact to create a rounded whole, I am probably molding the space in front of me with my hands. Or, when I hug someone, I contour and accommodate my body to theirs in a voluminous way. Carving provides a quality of movement that leads to integrating the self and the world; ‘I am involved in a co-creative relationship with others or the world.” (Making Connections p.222)

Ballet movements exhibiting this carving movement include Rond de jambe, coupé jeté, & renversé. 

Shape Qualities

Now let’s take a look at the qualities with which we move into shapes, and how that impacts our dancing. According to Hackney: “Shape Qualities give information about the attitudinal process of changing the shape of the body. Every movement is an action of shape change from Closing to Opening, or Opening to Closing, even if the movement is very subtle. Opening/Closing is the most general statement of Shape change. This Opening/Closing can be felt or spoken about more specifically in terms which describe ‘toward where’ the shape is changing–the essential spatial pull which is coloring the expressive quality of the movement. These pulls are related to a Dimensional matrix in space.
Enclosing” (Making Connections p.222)

This language is helpful in learning dance technique and choreography, illuminating the corrections we receive in class and the intention of the dance movements we are asked to perform. Here are some examples in practice:

What are your favorite dancing or yoga shapes? What are their key characteristics in terms of form?

How might a shift in the quality of your movement into and out of shapes affect your dancing?

Blythe Stephens, MFA
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A Blythe Coach
move through life with balance, grace, & power

DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.

2 thoughts on “Shapeshifting Dancers: Forms & How We Get There

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