News & Blogs

25 April 2019
Author: Suzanne Frost

Active verbs and juicy adjectives - the tricks and trials of writing about dance

The Place’s Press Manager Suzanne Frost joined Springback Academy at Aerowaves Spring Forward Festival to learn the tricks of the trade of being a dance writer.

Writing and dancing are two very counterintuitive things. After all, the old saying goes “When words fail, dance speaks.” But there are those of us whose job it is to translate movement into words. Being a dance writer comes in many forms as Graham Watts, Chairman of Critics' Circle Dance Section in UK, taught aspiring writers in a seminar during Resolution this spring. Being a critic or journalist is probably the most obvious way, but there are many other people – copy writers, programme note writers, press release writers, funding application writers – who have to put dance into a written form.

During Springback Academy, many of our conversations were about the works we experienced together but probably just as many were about writing as an art form all in itself. Sanjoy Roy, editor of Springback Magazine and dance critic of The Guardian, compared the possibilities and responsibilities of the empty black stage to the empty white sheet. While on stage the artist is the storyteller and the audience witnesses, roles switch on paper, as the author now becomes the artist with similar responsibilities towards his readership.

A way to take readers on a journey and allow them a glimpse into a performance is first of all to describe and describe well. Donald Hutera, who writes for The Times, gets passionate about verbs, as they are activity words that can carry and convert movement. Active verbs automatically have clarity and vigor, they give momentum to a sentence and push it forward. He also loves “lots of juicy adjectives” but one learning I took away from the writing programme was to reign myself in – word count is tight for all dance writers. In all our brochures, newsletters and programme notes, layout as well as reader’s patience commands us to be concise and finding the right word, that one strong adjective, can be more effective than three weaker ones. I am addicted to a tryptic and sometimes the rhythms and cadences of numerous adjectives are irresistible but interestingly, editing and shortening my work always made it stronger.

Effective adjectives are those that convey mood or emotion and set off the association chain in your reader’s mind. So rather than “exploring ideas of” or “delving into concepts” or “questioning themes”, a piece might be “dark” or “moody”, movement might be “animalistic” or “aggressive”, music “explosive” or “ethereal”. Readers are just people after all – they are not looking for an academic level of research into a piece, they just want to know what to expect, what it will look like or sound like or feel like - something all dance writers as well as artists need to constantly remind themselves of.

One of the wonderful things about dance is it isn’t as precise or limiting as words. Audiences can - and want to - fill the images with their own imagination and interpretation. That’s why description should come first before any interpretation. Again and again, as we discussed the Aerowaves works in groups, our wild, sometimes confused interpretative ramblings were reigned in – what did you see, what did they do, what happened next? Slowly, through repeating our experience and describing it to each other, did we arrive at the right words that would translate the feeling we took away or the meaning we think we created from a performance.  

Instinctively, I have used this technique before when I had to write about a work I haven’t seen or that hasn’t been made yet. I sat down with the artists and asked those simple questions: What will it look like? What will it sound like? What colours, what moods do you want to convey? That way you circumvent the “exploring of themes” and “questioning of concepts” and arrive at a piece of text that talks to people like they are human and maybe even do your bit to fight those preconceptions about dance being elitist.


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