Brenda Pugh McCutchen, author
Teaching Dance as Art in Education (Human Kinetics: 2006) 


With “literacy” being imperative in K-12 schools–and “holistic learning” a hallmark of education, why aren’t school principals paying more attention to what’s displayed on the walls of the dance studio (lab)? It’s surprising how many classrooms do not display the elements of dance as a basic reference for all aspects of teaching and learning in dance.


The elements of dance are as basic to dance education as the periodic table is to chemistry or the musculoskeletal charts are to learning body systems in the biology lab.  The basic elements are constant points of reference in education and best kept in plain view.  They need to be where the eye can regularly land on them so that insightful connections are made.


In every dance classroom the most significant vocabulary is the one that exposes the elements of human movement regarding the body, space, time, energy, and relationship (known as BSTER). Every artistic process in dance is based on using them—conceptually and kinetically.  Elements are the tools with which to create, to perform, to respond intelligently to dance, and to connect dance to broader contexts.


Elements are essential if dancers are to ever learn to think in universal, abstract terms about dance or to grasp its depth as art and human expression.


It is essential for students to embody the dance elements to understand the dimensions of movement, since movement is the medium of dance.


=The BSTER dance elements=

=The BSTER dance elements=


The BSTER dance elements=Dance is “the art of human movement,” not “the art of moves andsteps.”  Too many students are only taught moves and steps.  Too many are ignorant about the kinetic body instrument, the broad use of space, about the connections of time and energy in dance, and how the intentional use of relationship transforms common utilitarian movement into refined dance movement.


We must do a better job of teaching dance’s universal movement language.  Unless we take students beyond the limited idea of “moves and steps,” even our showcase performers will be uninformed about their art form.  All they will know are the codified “moves” of particular styles (e.g., plie, chassee, pas de bouree, and ronde de jambe) instead of a broader understanding of the movement medium that is dance.  If a steps vocabulary is their default dance vocabulary, we have undereducated them.


Dance literacy acquisition requires a conceptual understanding
of human movement.

Further, a dance field that teaches “moves” to the exclusion of “BSTER movement concepts” handicaps its students.  Ever wonder why even our brightest dancers are inarticulate about dance?  Could it be that we haven’t taught them the basic language required to be dance literate or worse, have unintentionally set up dance to seems likan an inarticulate art form.  Dancers who can’t speak in terms of body, space, time, energy, and relationship appear to be unintelligent when in fact they are uneducated.  We can’t afford to hold dancers back or to create another generation of illiterate dancers. 


Dance Curriculum

Dance Curriculum

Ever wonder why even bright dancers struggle to choreograph?  If one’s creative palette contains only familiar “moves” to rearrange, no wonder their compositions look alike and seem uninspired. To do this in written composition would be comparable to taking the same set of familiar words and trying to tell different stories with them–instead of learning the ABCs that build an infinite number of words with which to tell different stories.  When dancers explore and embody the dance elements as the ABC’s of movement, they discover infinite ways to combine space, time, and effort to express different ideas in dance. Having a dance elements vocabulary puts the whole of human movement at their fingertips.


The endless movement vocabulary that springs fromthe dance elements gives choreographers the opportunity to create original movement to uniquely express their ideas.

It is up to principals, fine arts coordinators, and dance specialists to ensure that dance elements are in daily use in every dance studio/class so that the dance and movement elements are embedded into the language and conceptual understanding of all students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Principals:  If dance instruction at your school focused on “moves” instead of “movement,” at least suggest posting the dance elements in the studio. Then consider scheduling professional development about the dance elements, dance literacy, and how to explore dance’s essential vocabulary for movement.  School programs will be the better for it.  And dancers in your program will become infinitely more literate, articulate, and aware of the movement-dance relationship.


Without dance’s key elements incorporated into daily instruction, the temptation is to speak about dance in terms of specific “movements”
rather than “movement.” 


The dance elements are essential to learning about the elements of the moving bod  (such as shape, focus, gestures, postures, and basic steps).


There is more to space  than where we are placed. Spatial literacy requires functional use of level and direction, air patterns and floor patterns, and understanding of how “range” differs from “distance” in dance.


Besides counting measures, dancers need skills to modulate elements of time  as tempo, pulse, and accent.  They must manipulate duration, phrasing, and rhythmic structure to create effective dances.


Intentional shiftsin elements of energy –the lifeblood of the dance–keep dances from stagnating.  Effective dances regulate energy’s elements from beginning to end to rise and fall according to the intent of the dance. Dancers must know how to manipulate elements like texture and dynamics, force (as different from strength), flow, attack, movement qualities, and effort actions.


Not only are Body, Space, Time, and Energy universal movement elements, dance adds the elements ofrelationship  because of its importance to transforming human movement into dance movement—a necessity if movement is to be elevated to an art.


When educational dance clarifies the skills to movement and to space in an artful, expressive way, the outcomes are integrative and holistic.



BSTER elements are readily available in creative dance books and dance education textbooks because both emphasize elements as basic building blocks of dance. Display this universal language–which applies to all dance genres and styles–so as to open up the world of dance to all learners. Make your own elements posters.  For elementary, make the kind that name and identify each element.  For upper levels make the kind that not only name and identify each element but explain its use. But whether you make your own or buy them online, place them prominently in the studio to proclaim this message 24/7. 


Set learning outcomes that emphasize BSTERS.  Ensure that:

  • elementary classes explore movement through creative dance to discover how their body instrument moves (a pre-requisite to using it as an instrument of expression)
  • middle school classes apply this broad understanding of movement to technique and improvisation
  • high school classes discuss and critique as an essential part of their education and literacy
  • college dancers know and use this language to increase their literacy. 

Teach Dance


Make dance elements use a priority this year.

  • Do it to improve dance literacy.
  • Do it to increase dance appreciation.
  • Do it for the educational respectability of your program.
  • Do it to advocate for educational dance.
  • Do it to educate your students.


Brenda Pugh McCutchen, M.F.A. Dance, is the author of Teaching Dance as Art in Education (2006: Human Kinetics).  As a retired dance professor and arts administrator, her work in teacher training and curriculum design are sought after world-wide.  Her trademark is quality and substance in the classroom, the kind that transforms children’s lives and understanding of dance as art and human expression.  Her resources are found on the web at