Why Transitions Are Like Punctuation

Friday, July 29, 2011

Without punctuation reading would be really hard you'd have no way to know when one idea began and ended and the words would all just flow into a big sticky unintelligible mass of letters on the page you'd also have no way to know which statements should be emphasized which should be questions and which are just regular sentences if you've gotten this far you probably have a headache from all the squinting a lack of transitions can also create headaches in your dance


Transitions Are Punctuation For Your Dance

Transitions serve the same purpose in dancing that punctuation does in writing. It separates your dancing into logical "chunks", just like commas, periods, and exclamation points separate your writing into chunks.

Why Do I Need to Separate My Dance Into Chunks?

Ask yourself: why do we break our writing up into paragraphs, sentences, and clauses? We do that because "chunking" helps the reader understand where one idea begins, and the next one ends. That helps them understand what you're trying to say. Similarly, separating your dance into logical chunks helps you communicate your movement ideas to the audience, so they can understand and enjoy your performance.

How Do Transitions Accomplish That?

Transitions break your dance into chunks in the same way that commas, periods, and exclamation points do.

A comma groups things into a single idea. Comma-style transitions are unobtrusive transitions that make it possible to include more than one element in a single movement phrase. You would use them when you want to link different movements into a single, cohesive movement phrase.
Example: "cheating" your foot out to the side to open up your stance before you begin a big hip circle.

A period tells the reader that your current idea is ending. Period-style transitions are noticeable transitions that tell the audience that you're about to change to a new idea. You would use them to close your movement phrase.
Example: Bringing the hands in to the heart before changing to a new arm position.

Exclamation Points:
An exclamation point tells the reader that not only is your idea ending, but that it was important. Exclamation-style transitions are bold, dramatic ways to signal the end of an idea. You would use them when you want to end your movement phrase with a bang.
Example: an unexpected pivot turn, ending in a pose or accent.

Don't Overdo It

It's really tempting to use lots of exclamation points when you dance! They're flashy and fun! But when you overuse them, they lose their power! They're much more effective when used sparingly! So save them for when it really counts.

But I Just Follow the Music - I Don't Think About Punctuation!

You may not think about punctuation when you perform, but musicians do! They just have different names in music theory. (Ever heard of a "crescendo"? It's a musical exclamation point.) If you listen closely, you'll find that the music you're dancing to is full of commas, periods, and exclamation points.

The more you practice punctuating your dance, the more aware you'll become of the punctuation cues the music is giving you. Even better, you'll learn to use it in the moment, so your brain will easily supply the punctuation that you hear in the music.

But you have to fill your idea bank before you can make a withdrawal. For that reason, I recommend practicing punctuation separately, before you try it in concert with the music.


Transitions serve the same purpose in your dancing as punctuation serves in writing. It breaks your dance up into logical chunks that help you communicate your ideas to the audience. Transitions can act as commas, periods, or exclamation points. Choose your transition type that is most appropriate to the idea you're communicating, and resist the temptation to use lots of exclamation points. As you get more comfortable using transitions as punctuation, you'll start to hear the punctuation that naturally occurs in the music, so you can respond to it naturally.

As naturally as adding a period to the end of your sentence.

What You Can Do Right Now

Make a list of the transitions you know, and sort them into commas, periods, and exclamation points. Then pick your favorite transition in each type, and practice the heck out of them.

Photo copyright Horia Varlan, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

How Transitions Work Their Magic

Friday, July 15, 2011

When you're learning to belly dance, transitions are an almost mystical concept: a magical ingredient that transforms a bunch of moves into a polished, professional dance. We collect these talismans as we run across them in class or in choreographies, and if we're lucky, we become proficient with our small repertoire.

But for most of us, how transitions work their magic remains a mystery. And that keeps us from moving from proficiency to mastery. Because the first step to mastery is understanding.

Transitions Work Their Magic In Three Ways

Part of what makes transitions so mysterious is that, even though they are a single tool, they serve three different purposes:

1) They physically prepare your body for the next movement.

2) They help you organize your ideas into logical movement phrases as you improvise

3) They signal to the audience that you're changing to a new movement idea

Why Are These Three Roles Important?

Physical preparation
This one is obvious: if your body isn't in the right position for your next move, you can't do it. So until we master transitions, we stumble over our own feet, freeze up, or miss out on great combos because we couldn't get into the right position in time. Good transitions make our dancing looks polished, professional, and planned – even when it's improvised in the moment.

Organizing your ideas
This is not so obvious, but it makes improvisation a lot easier! When you think of your dance as a string of individual movements, you have to make dozens of decisions in every minute. Under that onslaught, most dancers panic, and then freeze up or start scribbling. But when you master transitions, you start thinking about your dance in terms of phrases instead of individual moves. That leaves you with far fewer decision to make, and gives you the breathing room to stay calm and make better choices.

Signaling a change of idea
This is a hidden gem. As we discussed in Volume 2 of the Improvisation Toolkit, the audience can't enjoy your performance if they can't keep up with your train of thought. Clean, clear transitions are like road signs: they help the audience follow you as you progress from one idea to the next. And when they can understand your show, they enjoy it a lot more.

So How Do I Use These Ideas In My Dancing?

Take Stock
The best place to start is to see how you're already using transitions. Look through your choreography notes and watch any videos you have of your own performances. (If you don't have any, turn on the camera and improvise!)

As you watch, make a note of five or six transitions you used, along with the combinations they appeared in. For each one ask yourself:

  • How did this transition help me prepare for the next move?

  • How did this transition help me keep my ideas organized as I improvised?

  • (Or for choreography, how did it help you organize your ideas as you planned your dance?)
  • How did this transition help the audience see that I was about to start a new idea?

Revisit and Revise
Next, identify the area that you're least comfortable with: physical preparation, organizing your ideas, or communicating changes.

Revisit each combination, and brainstorm some different transitions that would be more effective in that area. Repeat the revised versions of your combination over and over again to get your favorites into muscle memory.

But I Can't Keep Track of All That While I Improvise!

While you're learning to improvise, you already have plenty on your mind: the music, the audience, whether the waiter is getting too close to your veil with his tray of flaming cheese… So it's not practical to add three more concerns to your performances right away.

That's where practice comes in. We usually practice individual movements, or whole combinations or choreography. But if you dedicate some practice time to focusing specifically on transitions, much of it will become habit:

  • Physical transitions become movement habits, and flow naturally out of each move.

  • Organizing your ideas becomes second nature, like pausing between ideas when you speak.

  • Signaling changes to your audience follows naturally from organizing your thoughts.

It does take focused practice to get to that point, but once you've mastered transitions, using them is a lot like walking: your body will automate the process for you, except where you choose to do something unusual. And even the unusual will only take a passing thought.


Transitions seem like magic, but in reality are just multi-function tools. They prepare our bodies for the next move, facilitate improv by helping us organize our thoughts, and help the audience follow our train of thought. To make sure you're using them to their fullest, do a transitions audit of your performance videos and choreography clips. Identify your least comfortable area, and brainstorm some ways to use it more effectively in the same combinations. It may be a lot to keep track of at first, but with time, they'll become second-nature, and no more mysterious than walking.

Next Steps

Gather your video clips and choreography notes, and do your transitions audit. (Or, if you can't do it this minute, schedule a time on your calendar.)

Photo copyright Linus Bohman, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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