The Meaning of Mime

Choreography is more than steps–it conveys meaning and emotion. But in many ballets–especially full-length works or those with a plot–mime (most likely borrowed from that used in 16th-century commedia dell’arte) provides more nuanced information that choreography can’t. Context is important; for example, the gesture for “marry” could mean “marry me” or “I’m engaged.” Watch for these common ballet gestures in story ballets such as Swan Lake, CoppéliaGiselle, and Nutcracker.

Frances Chung in Balanchine's Coppélia. (© Erik Tomasson)

Dance: circle the hands around each other above the head.

Love: cup the left hand with the right and hold both over the heart.

Marriage: point to the ring finger.

Vow: raise right arm on a forward diagonal, extending the index and middle fingers together.

Death: with hands in fists, cross the wrists low across the body.

No: shake head and cross, then open, both arms low in front of the body.

Indicate a person or place: gesture toward them/it, palm open and up. If angry, point.