The Role of Movement & Dance in Theatre

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

Movement and dance are vital parts of many forms of theatre and performance. Explore different types of movement in theatre, the role movement and dance play in a theatrical performance, and famous innovators in theatrical movement and dance. Updated: 01/18/2022


Look at any great silent film. What makes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, or Douglas Fairbanks so expressive? There's no voice, no sound, except perhaps for a musical score dubbed into the movie long after it was originally released. Seeing their body movements and facial expressions, however, communicates everything to us. Perhaps the most important tool of expression in any actor's toolkit is their physicality, the use of their bodies in movement.

Throughout the history of theatre, actors have used different movement types to complete their communication. Sometimes you can tell what a character is thinking without them speaking a word, and sometimes you know that the words a character is speaking are not true by the way they move or hold themselves.

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  • 0:04 Movement
  • 0:52 Mime and Pantomime
  • 2:22 Slapstick
  • 3:04 Physical Theatre
  • 3:42 Movement Innovators
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Mime and Pantomime

The theatrical forms of mime and pantomime are often confused. They actually spring from the same source, a highly gestural form of ancient Roman theatre. Mime, as practiced today, is a completely physical, non-verbal performance style. In mime, actors represent circumstances (such as walking against the wind or being trapped in a box), an activity (such as peeling a banana or trying to hold a rising balloon), or an emotion (such as sadness or joy) using only facial expression and gestural movement.

Mime performances are usually broken up into short, unconnected sketches or scenes. Mimes frequently perform as solo acts.

Pantomime, however, is a theatrical form in which a single dramatic or comic story is performed by a troupe of actors who speak, sing, and use an exaggerated movement style. Contemporary pantomime is primarily performed as family entertainment in England and is most often associated with Christmas pantomime. These are frequently retellings of beloved children's stories such as Puss in Boots or Peter Pan.

Modern mime began as a stationary art form, using the body to imitate statues and other works of art. Étienne Decroux began a form of mime called corporeal mime, in which the body and body movements are considered the primary source of storytelling, rather than just an adjunct to words and speech.


Slapstick is a form of choreographed roughhouse physical comedy. One of the most familiar slapstick actors is The Three Stooges, with all of their hitting, punching, smacking, falling, and tumbling. While it traces its roots back to Italian ''Commedia del' Arte,'' contemporary slapstick came of age in vaudeville. Vaudeville acts needed to hold an audience's attention, and so many comedy acts chose this particularly movement-oriented form of comedy. Historically, slapstick has been accompanied by sound effects. It gets its name from the two hinged pieces of wood that would be smacked together to accentuate the sound of a person slapping another.

Physical Theatre

Physical theatre is a form of performance including spoken or sung text, but the primary means of telling the story is physical. This can take the form of story-driven dance, clowning, and mime. One leading school of physical theatre today is L'École Internationale de Théâtre, founded by Jacques Lecoq in 1956. Most mime is physical theatre, as is dance theatre, in such shows as choreographer Twyla Tharp's Moving Out, a musical with dancing to the songs of Billy Joel that are used to tell the story of the characters, or the ballet, The Nutcracker.

Movement Innovators

Now let's take a look at a few of the most well-known, innovative, movement-based theatre artists. This short list only begins to scratch the surface of this fascinating area of theatrical performance.

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