What is Spatial Awareness in Dance?

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Spatial awareness is an integral part of dance. This lesson explains this ability we all share and how dancers train intensely to master the skill and apply it to their craft.

How Do They Do That?

Ever watch an outstanding dance performance and wonder how they do that? Perhaps you marveled at how a large dance troupe can fill a stage with whirling and leaping yet never collide, stumble, or kick one another. The answer of how this can be done is spatial awareness, something we all have, but dancers train for years to master it fully. So, what is it?

Ballerinas Performing Swan Lake
Ballerinas Performing Swan Lake

Space

Let's start with space; what is it? Space is everything that surrounds us, the objects and people as well as the emptiness we use to move around. Spatial awareness, also called spatial perception, is the degree to which we comprehend the space around us, the relationship of objects in that space to one another, our understanding of how we can move through those spaces, and our relationship to the empty spaces and the objects around us. This occurs on two fronts, known as exteroceptive awareness, which uses our senses, like sight and hearing, to understand space exterior to our bodies, and interoceptive awareness, which uses our bodily systems to understand our position and movement through space. A perfect example of interoceptive awareness is our sense of balance.

Acrobatic Gymnastics Competition
Two athletes using balance in gymnastics

Part of the Dance

Spatial awareness is important to everyone and is a major concern in child development. We need this skill to understand our relationship to our surroundings, to move around without tripping over our own feet or walking into walls, and it helps us recognize objects even when we see them from different angles. Each day, we use this ability to walk around, get dressed, make meals, drive cars, or any other task involving motion.

Saber Dance
Saber Dancer

Dancers, however, use this ability constantly and in finely-trained ways trained into them from the very beginning of their instruction. Dance itself is an art form created from bodily motion through space, so no one should feel surprised at the advanced degree performers harness spatial awareness skills. They need it to coordinate their movements with one another. Large groups on a small stage can easily become crowded, increasing the risk of collision and injury. Each dancer learns to use their personal space, or kinesphere, the area surrounding one's body through which they move and contort. They know the limits of their limbs' reach and, more impressively, the personal space limits of the dancers around them. Their training is so constant they often use this ability without consciously focusing on it.

Overlapping Kinespheres
Illustrations of personal space

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