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A Reflection on the Creation and Use of Onomatopoeia in a High School Dance Class

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Christine Mazeppa, Adjunct Professor of Dance at University of Miami. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

Connections between language and movement

As an avid reader and writer who has spent the last eighteen years teaching dance and language arts to high school students, I have long been fascinated by the effects of language and literature on movement. The connection between the two subjects is so present for me that it is often difficult to teach one subject without drawing from the other. My approach to teaching dance is much the same way I would teach my language arts students a creative writing assignment or the assemblage of an essay. It is so natural for me to relate the construction of dance movement to that of sentences and phrases, and the imagery, symbolism, and themes that emerge and evolve so fluidly.

But beyond written language and literary devices, I spend a lot of time engaged in thought about how verbalization techniques affect the creation and acquisition of dance movement. I incorporate many activities in my dance class that include verbalization in the form of “free speak” improvisations that integrate speech throughout the movement exercises. I have dancers use verbal sound as cues for movement, and I have also explored how verbalization is used to process and perform movement differently by gender. And in my practice, as many of us do, I often use different ticks and sounds to create rhythms for the dancers to move to. But it is the use of onomatopoeia as a choreography and dance teaching tool that really intrigues me.

Onomatopoeia as a choreography and dance teaching tool

Many student choreographers seem proficient in the language of onomatopoeia. One student in particular I have observed often using onomatopoeia as a way to generate movement for choreography and teach it to her peers. She takes her place in the front of the room, calls the attention of her classmates, and breaks into the next section of choreography. Picking up where she left off at the previous rehearsal, she lifts her right arm up across her chest, opens her fist and pushes in a sweeping motion across the front of her body. All this accompanied by the vocalization “unk pop swish.” She finishes the sequence with a body roll and an accompanying sound that might be written as “vvshoom.” But it is not just the apparent ease with which these sounds match and articulate the movement, it is also the ease with which her fellow dancers acquire the movements and apply it to their own body. I watch as she works through a new section and continues creating movement, most of which is accompanied by a “fwoom swish bum bum tik.” She laughs with her classmates at the invention of a new sound for a new word – an “ibbityboom” to match a rumble through the entire body with a sharp pose at the end. It is then that I realize that it is not just a teaching methodology but a creative tool as well. A tool that increases in complexity with the movement phrase but is so effortlessly absorbed by the other students.

As a dance teacher and choreographer, the use of onomatopoeia as a teaching tool is a method that I have difficulty incorporating. I tend to teach, review, and clean with numbers. I often use imagery and lyrics, and of course music to help with creation and teaching, but the interpretation of dance movement through a verbalization of sound is something that doesn’t come naturally to me.

However, using onomatopoeia to generate movement seems very natural to my students, so I can’t help but wonder, is it just me? Or is it perhaps a generational? I have had the opportunity to observe many student choreographers throughout the years and most use onomatopoeia as a method of creating and teaching dance movement far more than the forms that I am used to.

My approach is more analytical and symmetrical – I always use numbers when I work and almost never use onomatopoeia as a tool for teaching. The only time I find myself utilizing this method is when the sound and movement that it represents have already been established by the students as part of our classroom vocabulary.

Connections between onomatopoeia and dance movement

Onomatopoeia is defined by Merriam Webster as the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it such as buzz and hiss. But I know that onomatopoeia encompasses so much more than that. Another definition expands on the previous by adding “the communication of mimicry, expression of internal states, expression of social relationship, salient characteristics of objects and activities (movement, shape, etc.) . . .” (Hinton et al., 1995 as cited in Sasamoto, 2020).

As I delve even further into my investigation, I realize what an extensive amount of research has been done on this topic, especially through the Japanese culture, one which is known to be rich in onomatopoeic expression. There are many articles on the construction of Japanese onomatopoeia and the gestures associated with each sound. And much of the research even takes into consideration the effect of sound symbolism on movement choice or impulse. In one Japanese study titled Dance Generation by Sound Symbolism, artificial intelligence is even used to predict and create movement based on onomatopoeia.

Deepening dance learning through onomatopoeia

And this is when I begin to realize that it is not so much its use as a dance teaching tool that intrigues me. As a teaching tool in the dance studio, it does create a visual aid in terms of imagery. And the way in which the mimetic is spoken and used - elongating the sounds, raising and lowering the volume of the voice – it serves as a musical instrument in and of itself. But it seems to me that when I see my students use this device, the transition from auditory to visual to corporal is almost instant, and the speed at which the other students recognize and acquire the movement is almost instantaneous as well. There is an intuitiveness to it that I don’t believe can be replicated by any artificial intelligence. It is as if they have a shared frame of reference for these sounds, as if their experiences have generated a similar data base for audio and visual associations and movement – a complex sensory experience, a shared synesthetic skill.

Is it possible that a phenomenological experience is shared by so many of my dance students? And although this probably isn’t something specific to only younger generations, I can’t help but wonder if there is something about their constant exposure to technology that creates a broader means of visualizing sound and movement. Is the ability to visualize, interpret and embody a movement in this way a result of this stimuli developing a heightened sense of synesthesia in our youth that was not as prevalent in earlier generations? Are our newer generations of dancers immersing themselves in new creative outlets that will broaden their creative reach in ways that I may never be able to access? Maybe, maybe not, but as I continue to stretch my own creative reach, I remain fascinated by their process and how it is innately different from my own. And I will continue to be surprised and impressed by the new and innovative ways that they create and share movement with one another.


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-b). Merriam-Webster. Okamura, M., Kondo, N., Fushimi, T., Sakamoto, M., & Ochiai, Y. (2023, June 6). Dance generation by sound symbolic words.

SASAMOTO, R. (2020). Onomatopoeia and relevance: Communication of Impressions via sound. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.

Heashot of Christine, a white woman with blond hair.  She has her fist under her chin, and is wearing a teal shirt.  The back round is blurred nature.

Christine Mazeppa is a teaching artist based in Miami, Florida. She currently works as an Adjunct Professor of Dance at the University of Miami. She previously taught dance and language arts to high school students for seventeen years with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Christine earned her MS in Educational Leadership in 2011 from Florida International University and her MFA in Choreography from Jacksonville University in 2022. She has been a conference presenter for both the Florida Dance Education Organization and the National Dance Education Organization and is a book reviewer for the Journal of Dance Education. Her choreographic work with her students has been performed in numerous regional showcases throughout South Florida. Christine’s creative energy is currently invested in her work as a teaching artist where she is always striving to find new ways to share her passion for dance with future generations.

Photo Credits; Featured photo courtesy of Nicole Deming (Anne Arundel County Public Schools) by, Headshot by Cassandra Buduen


Thank you for sharing this! I often use sounds to emphasize and teach movement phrases and have recently become very interested in the use of onomatopoeia as a choreographic tool.
11/2/2023 12:36:04 PM |

@Sarah Anderson: Thank you so much for reading and sharing! This is something I have been fascinated with for a while!

12/27/2023 8:36:59 AM |
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