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The leader introduces the exercise by doing a simple movement and then asks everyone to repeat it, saying something like, Lets make an arm dance, here is count number one. From this beginning, movements are added, one to a count. The leader can continue to demonstrate the next counts, or ask someone to suggest a movement to add, or can begin to solicit ideas from the group based on a question or other prompt. The leader can watch for spontaneous gestures in response to such questions or can turn the responses into small movement assignments (e.g.: Everyone, close your eyes for a moment and make a movement that suggests crossing a bridge.) Using another approach, the leader can give a movement assignment for the entire group to do and choose elements from these to add to the phrase.

As the phrase builds through the accumulation of successive movements, it is important to return to count one and repeat the succeeding counts as often as seems necessary for the group to stay connected to the developing movement. Eight counts is usually plenty for a new group. Once the dance has been created, music can be added.


Build-a-Phrase can be equally effective with large audiences, as in a theater setting, and with small intimate groups of four or five. It can be part of a regular dance class or workshop or it can be a free-standing activity inside a meeting or another purposeful gathering.

Limitless variations are possible depending on the context and the movement source. Here are some examples of different movement inspirations:

  • A dance company performs a section of repertory for a large school group audience. After showing the material, the leader turns to the audience and asks, What movement did you see? An individual is called on and will automatically show an arm shape or might even stand up and demonstrate another movement. The leader then asks everyone to try it. Many more will want to do this and a dance can be made. The exercise allows the audience to connect physically with the experience of watching the dance. The original music can be played for a final reiteration of the phrase. By its completion, everyone will have done a variation on a theme by the choreographer whose work has been performed by the company.

  • In a small-group storytelling workshop people have gathered to explore a particular theme. After each story is told, members of the group are asked for one image that really remains with them. A movement is created to go with the image. These movements are then collected into a dance which participants can take home as a remembrance of the stories.

  • At a school using artwork to support the curriculum, the teacher or visiting artist is focusing on the American history unit in a fifth grade class. Taking one important sentence from the text book, he has students create phrases based on each word. Students divide into groups and continue working from their books.


Sources of movement can be quite varied for Build-a-Phrase, so among its many uses it makes a great introduction to choreographic thinking. The leader may draw spontaneous gesture that people use in telling their stories; she may ask participants to state what they found striking and give a movement assignment based on that; she may ask for a suggestion in abstract or spatial terms (e.g.: All of our movements so far have been arm movements. Can anyone suggest something that could use other body parts?); she can tie together stories expressed by several different participants by suggesting a movement of her invention that encompasses several ideas. When constructed with thought and care, a Build-a-Phrase can demonstrate a range of possibilities, going from large to small, smooth to angular, high to low, etc. As the phrase is built the leader can state why she is making particular choices, providing a potent introduction to the choreographers craft.

This is a powerful tool because of the endless number contexts in which phrase-building can happen, the different ways the movement can be initiated, and ultimately the satisfaction even for those unfamiliar with dance and choreography of participating in a simple but authentic form.