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What Is Lyrical Dance?
Lyrical dance is a style of dance that combines elements of ballet and jazz. Lyrical dancers generally perform to music with lyrics. They use ballet and jazz gestures to express strong emotion that often lines up with the song’s lyrics. Lyrical dance also features a group of dancers dancing in unison.
Examples of Lyrical Dances
While lyrical dance performances are everywhere, here are four great examples of the genre.
Bonnie Su Choreography
In this video, you can see several classic elements of lyrical dance. The choreography is emotionally expressive, and even though there are strong influences from jazz and ballet, physical precision is not really at the helm.
Bonnie Su is a choreographer and performer based in Melbourne, Australia. Most of her work would be considered lyrical, as her large ensemble of dancers performs songs with lyrics. The choreography focuses on expressing the emotional quality or social concept of the song.
The Dream Dance Company
In this video, a dance academy in Pennsylvania showcases a group lyrical dance to the song Take Me to Church by Hozier. In addition to ballet postures and poses, this choreography highlights the lyrics of the song. When Hozier sings “amen,” the dancers strike a prayer pose.
So You Think You Can Dance: Britain
In this clip from the British So You Think You Can Dance competition, you can see ballet’s clear influence on lyrical choreography. In addition to some of the dancers’ hyperextensions, some of the partner work is reminiscent of ballet work.
However, this is a clear lyrical piece because the song is emotional, expressive, and full of lyrics that are physicalized in the dancers’ bodies. The televised nature of the performance platform is also highly lyrical: the dancers are competing in a commercial media presentation, where we often see lyrical dance.
Cynthia Erivo with the Georgia School for Dance and Theater
This performance by Cynthia Erivo was produced by the Georgia School for Dance and Theater. Like classic lyrical dance, Cynthia Erivo and her backup dancers physicalize the lyrics. When the singer sings “while the clouds roll back in the sky,” the dancers roll backward, with their faces tipped up to the sky.
This song and performance also highlight (likely on purpose) the strong foundation of jazz and African dance that contributes to lyrical dance choreography. The concept of the song invites echoes of African dancing into the performance, as the lyrics sing of freedom and emancipation for Black Americans.
Where You See Lyrical Dance
Lyrical dancers commonly perform in competitions or commercial spaces. So You Think You Can Dance features lyrical dance as one of their categories, though they changed it to contemporary shortly after the show started.
Today, lyrical dancers have new opportunities to broadcast their talent and creativity through the internet. Several prominent lyrical dance choreographers use YouTube channels and other social media to share their expressive pieces.
It is important to note that the primary reason the dance echelon prefers to use the term contemporary over lyrical dance is that lyrical dance reaches a broad, commercial audience. This reach is not necessarily a bad thing.
Lyrical dance may be so popular because it is accessible: it favors emotional expression in the choreography rather than athletic or physical perfection. Similar to dance music, lyrical dance aims to entertain and invite people into a shared dance experience.
The History of Lyrical Dance
Because lyrical dance is a relatively recent dance movement, there are some questions and inconsistencies about its origins. In general, dance scholars believe that lyrical dance developed in the media and entertainment world. For this reason, some dance schools prefer to use the term “contemporary” to legitimize the form.
Jazz dance has a strong influence on lyrical dance. Jazz dancing developed in parallel to the jazz music movement. A foundation of African slave rhythms, dance, and music inform jazz dancing, and you can also see this lineage in lyrical dancing.
The primary component of traditional jazz dance was body isolation; only moving one part of your body at a time. You can see this in old jazz dances like the Charleston or the Jitterbug. African slave dances directly contributed to body isolation choreography such as stomping feet and clapping hands to the jazz dance form.
Today, lyrical dance blends jazz dance's body isolation and uniform choreography.
Ballet originated in Italy in the 15th century but soon moved to France. Today, Europe – and especially Russia – is a massive generator of contemporary ballet performers and dancers. Despite recent scrutiny of the form for being physically destructive and often racially prejudiced, ballet is still one of the most widely recognized forms of dance.
The primary purpose of ballet is to demonstrate that physical precision itself can become a work of art. Classical ballet illustrates the dancers’ ability to dance on pointe (on their tiptoes), extend their limbs, and perform complicated physical choreography with relative ease.
For example, the tutu emerged from ballet as a way of showcasing the dancers' legs. With better access to the dancers' full bodies, audiences could see and appreciate the physical prowess of ballet dancers.
Though lyrical dance has a reputation for being more expressive than physically precise, ballet maintains a strong influence on lyrical dance choreography. Some choreographic techniques and physical vocabulary blend with other dance forms to create lyrical dance.
There is political tension between lyrical dance and contemporary dance, though they share many similarities. Like lyrical dancing, contemporary dance is interpretive, which means that choreography uses dance expression to translate or convey emotional meaning.
Some dance schools use contemporary dance as a catch-all that includes modern, interpretive, or dance theater forms. Lyrical dance certainly falls within that category. However, because lyrical dancers usually perform in competitions or high-profile commercial venues, many in the traditional dance world see it as a mass appeal form of contemporary dance.
What Is Lyrical Dance? Final Thoughts
Lyrical dance is an amalgamation of several dance forms and styles. Though it carries a reputation for being commercialized, this is likely because it is about emotional expression over peak physical performance. It is highly entertaining to watch, and for an audience filled with non-dancers, it feels accessible and grounded.
The lyrical dance draws from jazz dance and ballet and is part of the larger contemporary dance umbrella. Signature lyrical dance moves include unison choreography, expressing emotional qualities or concepts, and dancing to a song with lyrics. It is most frequently performed at dance competitions.