Arts 101: Dance Lingo

In the world of dance, there’s a backspace but no keyboard. There are space-eaters but no astronauts. And it’s polite — if not required — to shout, “Merde!

Today we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the language of dance.

Carl Flink chairs the department of Theatre Arts & Dance at the University of Minnesota. He’s also the founder of Black Label Movement, a Minneapolis dance company. Flink recently took time out from a two-week residency at the University of Illinois to discuss a few inscrutable terms in his chosen art form.


Flink describes backspace as the vulnerable area immediately behind a dancer. “If you’re dancing behind me, you are responsible to make sure I don’t run into you,” Flink says. “It’s kind of like rear-ending someone in an automobile: No matter what the person does in front of you, if you run into them, you’re kind of at fault.”


Before getting into dance, Flink was a highly competitive soccer player; to this day, his dance style is influenced by the athleticism of the beautiful game. “When a soccer coach tells you to pass the ball into space,” Flink says, “the player going to the ball is aggressively taking that space.”

Flink and other like-minded choreographers insist on the same from their dancers, urging them to not merely move within a performance space, but to project themselves into it, to seize it, to greedily consume it. “You’ll often hear choreographers say, ‘I want you to be space-eaters‘,” Flink says.

Black Label Movement's Stephanie Laager aggressively takes space

Black Label Movement’s Stephanie Laager aggressively moves into space (photo by William Cameron, provided by Carl Flink).


Like the green claymation figure, a gumby is a dancer who is extremely flexible. Flink says calling a dancer “a gumby” is affectionate and positive.


In counterpoint to gumby is brick, a dancer who is more solid, muscular and not as flexible. Being called a brick is a descriptive compliment indicative of a dancer’s style.


If Carl Flink tells you to vop your leg, “It means kick your damn leg as high as you can,” he says.

Vopping is a dance term that simply means to go all out, to spare no effort, to pull out all the stops. “It’s a term I’m sure is used a lot in Broadway settings where it’s really about showing off what you can do,” Flink explains. “To say, ‘I’m going to vop myself here’ is a way to describe going for it in a very showy way.”

Dancer vops her leg

Stephanie Laager and Eddie Oroyan of Black Label Movement. Flink says Laager’s kick is a good example of vopping (photo by William Cameron, courtesy Carl Flink).

Birding / Herding / Flocking

These three words describe subtly different movement concepts. Flink says birding is so named because it’s analogous to the way geese fly. “You dance with the person who’s in the lead,” he says. “You don’t overtake them, you don’t pass their backstream, you just stay in formation.”

That’s different from herding, which is a group follow-the-leader in tight formation. Flocking is similar but is more dispersed across the performance space. “I could flock with someone and be 30 feet away from them,” Flink says.


Actors say “break a leg” as a good-luck wish before a show, but you certainly wouldn’t wish that to a dancer. Opt for a French swear word instead. “In the dance world, we just tell each other ‘Merde!‘,” Flink laughs. “I have no idea where that tradition comes from. My sense is that it means throw everything to the wind, there’s nothing to lose, just go for it.”

Leslie O'Neill and Carl Flink

Black Label Movement’s Leslie O’Neill steps on Carl Flink in a bold choreographed move (photo by William Cameron, courtesy Carl Flink).

A similar superstition involves a German expression meant to banish the devil, “Toi toi toi” (sounds like English “toy”). When Flink danced with the José Limón Company in New York, the company had a pre-show ritual of sitting in a circle, pretending to spit and uttering the Teutonic incantation.

“There are multiple traditions,” Flink chuckles. “You know how in theater, you’re supposed to call Macbeththe Scottish play‘? Well, avoid saying ‘break a leg’ to a dancer.”

Next Tuesday, visit State of the Arts for unusual words from the world of museums and paintings.

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