“The body says what words cannot.”
This quote is attributed to American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. But what words can we use to talk about dance?
I’ve promised a few people that I’d write a post on vocabulary to describe dance as I’ve met many dancers at parties who weren’t sure how to express in English how they feel about zouk or salsa, or how to describe the way they move.
‘English for Dancing’ is actually a big area, so today let’s just start with the first steps:
Describing A Dance
There are many adjectives you can use to describe a dance, so here’s a small-ish selection below.
- To describe the dance positively:
A dance can be slow and sensual, beautiful, and intimate. Zouk is a good example of this, as the couple are close to each other and they dance beautiful, fluid figures.
A dance can be sexy, wild, emotional, hypnotic, fun, smooth and elegant.
A dance which has lots of detail to it or is complicated can be intricate or complex.
A dance which makes you think more deeply about what it’s trying to communicate is thought-provoking.
Lady Gaga dancing with little clothing in Indonesia is provocative, which can be positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. Overly-provocative makes it negative.
Other words include: artistic, enjoyable, attractive, gorgeous, stylish, sultry, impulsive, spontaneous and passionate.
- To describe a dance negatively:
A dance can be terrible, awful, and boring.
A dance which is not flowing, but instead has short movements that are not connected is called jerky.
Just like a dance can express imagination, it can also be unimaginative.
If a dance doesn’t make you excited or very interested, it is uninspiring.
A synonym for boring is dull.
DANCE (verb) + ADVERB collocations
You can say she danced well or danced badly – but there are other dance + adverb combinations which you can use to describe your friend jumping about to the music at a party or to describe the professional at a serious dance competition.
When you see a sensual dance such as zouk or salsa:
DANCE | sensuously; seductively; sexually
When you want to get the attention of a particular man or women:
DANCE | provocatively; flirtatiously; suggestively; mischievously; teasingly; daringly
When you’re at the pub after a few beers:
DANCE | drunkenly; crazily; wildly; madly
When you see ballet:
DANCE | gracefully; beautifully; delicately; majestically; devinely
When you see someone dance and they seem happy:
DANCE | happily; joyfully; gleefully; merrily
When you see someone dance and they seem sad:
DANCE | solemnly; sadly
However we’d more likely describe these as adjectives: eg a sad dance; a depressing dance; a solemn dance
When you someone who has so much energy:
DANCE | energetically; vibrantly; vigorously
When you don’t have much energy:
DANCE | sleepily; lazily
When you’re shy, maybe because you’re a beginner:
DANCE | self-consciously; clumsily; awkwardly
When someone dances and makes fun of someone else:
DANCE | mockingly
When you want to say someone danced very well:
DANCE | wonderfully; flawlessly; brilliantly; convincingly; magnificently; superbly; skillfully; impressively
When you want to say someone danced badly (ouch):
DANCE | badly; poorly; awfully; terribly; amateurishly
When you dance for a living:
DANCE | professionally
Idioms, Phrases + Binomials With ‘Dance’
Binomials are fixed phrases with two words joined by ‘and’ or ‘or’. For example, we say fish and chips, knife and fork, rock and roll. And it’s rare for the words to be in a different order: eg no one says chips and fish although it does cute 😉
To sing and dance is a binomial:
eg we sang and danced and had so much fun at the party
Note the pronunciation here: we say sing’n’dance, we don’t say the ‘full’ or strong pronunciation of and, we just say ‘n.’
To make a song and dance about something
Interestingly, to make a song and dance about something means to make something sound like it’s more important than it really is:
eg Ok, I’ll get you a Pepsi, not a Coke, but there’s no need to make a song and dance about it.
eg I only asked her to move her bag but she made such a song and dance about it.
A song and dance
In U.S English this is used to say that someone told a story which was long and complicated (and probably not true):
eg She gave me a song and dance about her bus breaking down and not being able to come in to work on time.
We use the preposition TO here:
Let’s dance to the music.
You can also dance to the beat | rhythm | radio
You can dance to your favourite song or indeed your favourite band:
I can’t believe Pippa Middleton was dancing to Karel Gott in that dress!
Do a dance
We say DO with the type of dance:
eg Can you do the waltz?
eg Let’s do the tango.
Have a dance
eg Let’s have one more dance before we go.
Dance the night away
Eg We went out clubbing and danced the night away.
This means that they danced all night.
Dance with someone
eg I can’t believe I danced the whole night with Pitbull!
To dance with death
This means to do or try to do something very risky:
eg You’re dancing with death by climbing up that rock!
Asking Someone To Dance
So you’ve had two whiskeys and you have the courage to ask a girl, or indeed a guy to dance!
The first thing is that if you two get on well, you probably don’t even need to ask. However if you want to ask then the easiest way is simply:
Then reach for her hand and head for the dance floor.
You can also say:
I love this song, let’s go
C’mon, I love this song. And lead her to the floor.
Other Phrases For Asking Someone To Dance
Do you want to dance?
Want to dance?
Would you like to dance?
Shall we dance? (UK) or Will you dance with me?
If you’re over 60 or miss the era of Fred Astaire you can also say*:
May I have this dance?
Can I have this dance?
May I have the pleasure of this dance? (*note that these are old-fashioned)
The Boy Does Nothing
This was a big hit in Prague last year. She sings “if a man can dance, he gets a second chance.” Do you agree?
MacMillan Buzzwords: definitely check out Street Dance
Title Image: Andy Owl, Prague