How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writetip, #writetips, #WritingCommunity, 2024, Writing and tagged , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone, Story Empire, and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-8 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

28 thoughts on “How To Write a Dance Scene

  1. Not sure this qualifies as a dance scene, but it’s the only one that came to mind. It’s more of a ‘first meet’ scene: Frankie’s a waitress (do we say that anymore?) and she’s noticed Ryan looks like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. She’s accepted a bet from two of her co-workers that she can make the man smile.

    The band segued into the opening strands of Take it to the Limit. She reached for Jack’s hand. “Please. You’ve got to rescue me.”

    His back stiffened. “What?”

    She took his hand. “I’ll explain. Dance with me. Hurry. I won’t bite.” She tugged and he slithered out of the booth. Wriggling into the middle of the crowd, she turned and lifted her right hand.

    Eyebrows raised, Jack assumed the dance stance, his hand at her back a feather touch, with a good six-inch gap between them. “Okay, lady. I’m here. Mind explaining why?”

    He moved with the waltz rhythm.

    “I’m avoiding one of the customers. My feet can’t take another attack of his waltzing. He can handle two-two and four-four all right, but the man can’t seem to count to three.”

    “And you assumed I could?” One corner of his mouth turned up.

    Almost a smile. Another minute and she’d have Belle’s five. “I figured I’d chance it. I’m very good at reading people, you know.”

    He drew her closer and she smelled soap and an underlying outdoors scent above the room’s beer background. No cloying aftershave. Jack’s graceful movements belied the way he’d stumbled into the bar as he led her around the floor. His hand at her back was warm through her thin blouse. The bet forgotten, she caught herself before she rested her cheek on his chest.

    “What?” he said.

    “I didn’t say anything.”

    “You didn’t have to. You’re surprised I can dance. I’m not so bad at reading people myself.”

    Her face grew warm, and she gave thanks for the dim lighting. He couldn’t have read all her thoughts, could he? How, despite her aching feet, she wanted the dance to go on longer? How she wanted to make the pain in his eyes go away?
    “It’s not that—really. I mean, most of the guys can handle a two-step, but they don’t seem to do anything different when it’s a waltz. Thank goodness the band doesn’t play many. But you know what you’re doing, and it’s nice not to have to dodge feet and knees.”

    His eyes crinkled at the edges. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” As if teaching her not to jump to conclusions, he led her in a series of perfectly executed pivot turns.

    When he settled into a basic waltz step, the gap between them was a lot less than six inches. A long-forgotten tingling surprised her. She licked her lips and swallowed. “So, where did you learn to dance?”

    “Part of my job,” he said, and his face clouded. The music stopped. He dropped her hand and disappeared from the dance floor.

    From When Danger Calls

  2. “They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.” That’s great advice for any scene!

    I’ve never written a dance scene but you two have inspired me to.

  3. Very interesting, Sue.

    Sorry. I haven’t written a dance scene, and don’t plan to. I don’t dance. I’m the old bored codger sitting at a table beside the dance floor, rearranging his napkin and wondering when the foolishness will be over.

    Have a great day!

  4. Great timing for this, Sue. I’ve never written a dance scene before but there’s an attempt at one in my WIP.

    The main characters, who are married, are at a billionaire’s fancy-schmancy party with lots of celebrities. Neither wants to be there but it’s obligatory. Tillman’s toxic ex is there so he’s trying to avoid her. He’s also trying to keep wife Tawny from knowing that he’s been approached to run for Montana’s Attorney General. When someone starts to bring that subject up, Tillman sweeps Tawny onto the dance floor to do the Cupid Shuffle with the other party-goers. She knows something’s up but goes along for now.

    While Tillman’s busy trying to distract Tawny by dancing, he loses track of where his ex it. When the song ends, she’s come up behind him, surprising him. Of course, the encounter leads to fireworks.

    Now I’ll go back and incorporate parts of this post to make the dance come to life more. Thanks, Sue!

    • If you’re looking to tweak the scene, I might include a sentence or two that describes what the “Cupid Shuffle” is for readers (like me) who won’t have an automatic visual. Or maybe Tawny doesn’t know the dance, so you can use that as a way to describe some of it without going into step by step descriptions, especially if the scene’s in her POV.

  5. Really helpful advice on both writing a dance scene, and dialing in description during an “action” scene in general, Sue. I haven’t written a dance scene yet, and this will help when I do. In my latest 1980s mystery, I do have a couple’s skate at the local rink and today’s post will be helpful when I revise that scene.

    Hope you have a wonderful week, my friend. I’ve been battling a cold for the past week, nixed several of my plans. Hoping to shake it shortly. Here’s to words for all of this week!

  6. I liked Stephen King’s numerous dance scenes in 11/22/63. Maybe a bit too numerous, but I thought they worked. And important for the plot.

    I included a short Step Dance scene for the Native Americans in my New York 1609 historical novel. It was fun to envision and write.

    • Agreed, Harald. They are fun to write. I probably spend too much time envisioning the scene in my mind, but replaying the dance helps me to see which steps to include and, more importantly, what to leave out.

  7. Thanks for this great advice, Sue. I did write a dance scene in my first novel when a man and woman who had been “dancing” around each other for years because of a misunderstanding share a dance to the old Everly brothers song Let It Be Me. The title of the song plays a part later on in the story.

  8. Interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever written a dance scene (this from an ex dance critic). It strikes me that your examples and advice are good for any description but esp ones involving intimate motion. Like a well-rendered sex scene.

    I found this passage from Oscar Wilde’s only novel, an example of where the motion is used to underscore the emotion:

    Through the crowd of ungainly, shabbily dressed actors, Sibyl Vane moved like a creature from a finer world. Her body swayed, while she danced, as a plant sways in the water. The curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory.

    Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo.

  9. I like this one from PURGATORY:

    …He cat-footed down the granite staircase to a spot two-thirds of the way down where the stairwell wall opened up to the lower floor. He sank to his haunches to survey the ‘moving room.’
    To a completely unexpected view.
    Kary Ashe was dancing.
    He froze. What else of her don’t I know?
    Kary moved to the solid beat. The sunlight streaming through the plate glass wall silhouetted loose black pants and black leotard, ballet slippers. She was not singing with the CD, but appeared to know the music, anticipate its rhythms. She was intent on step, arm placement fluidly melded to turns. She worked the sunlit floor by the windows in improvisational, syncopated movements—not repeated but of a kind and pattern. Whitewater on a river’s boulders. He was an interloper in a private ritual, transfixed on He cat-footed down the granite staircase to a spot two-thirds of the way down where the stairwell wall opened up to the lower floor. He sank to his haunches to survey the ‘moving room.’ To a completely unexpected view. Kary Ashe was dancing. He froze. What else of her don’t I know? Kary moved to the solid beat. The sunlight streaming through the plate glass wall silhouetted loose black pants and black leotard, ballet slippers. She was not singing with the CD, but appeared to know the music, anticipate its rhythms. She was intent on step, arm placement fluidly melded to turns. She worked the sunlit floor by the windows in improvisational, syncopated movements—not repeated but of a kind and pattern. Whitewater on a river’s boulders.
    He was an interloper in a private ritual, transfixed on the dark stairs where he had no right to be.
    He rose quickly, intending to withdraw as silently as he arrived, leaving no disturbance in her field. But his boot snagged the script, kicking it down a step, clattering clip on stone step, at the exact moment she revolved in a graceful arc.
    She halted all of a piece, spun to face the noise, stood shock-still with the music blaring. “Who’s there?” There was fear in her voice. “Who is it?”
    He descended, stooping to retrieve the script with its offending clip, came hesitantly into the room, stopped where she could see him. “I… I forgot Dodgson.” He gestured with the script. “I heard music… Didn’t mean to startle ye.” Lame. “I’m sorry, Kary.”
    For response, she strode to the CD player, shut down the stereo system. “Who’s the singer?”
    “Emmylou Harris.” She wasn’t going to help him. Her cheeks were scarlet. Embarrassment or exertion?…

    …The images would not fade for the rest of the ride. He scarcely noticed the countryside.
    The most erotic thing a woman can do for a man is to dance for him alone.

    —–
    I can’t get the formatting right when I post here – that last line is italicized (internal monologue), his last thought as he rides away after a completely unexpected encounter.

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