Contemporary Dance Terms

Hi there! This is our own dictionary. Here you´ll find a list of dance terms and a short and practical definition for each one. I’ve written it to help you understand the content of our site.

I expect this to be useful here and for other meanings as well. Just scroll down to find the word or expression you’re looking for.

If you don't find your term or phrase, send it to me by easily filling our form for dance terms. I will post its definition in this page really soon. That way you will find it in your next visit.

Some tips to keep in mind:

1. This is a glossary about contemporary dance terminology. I will only include words that have a specific meaning among dancers or for the field of knowledge of contemporary dance. If you ask for a word or expression that you can also find in a common dictionary, I will not post its definition below. I will avoid terms from other genres of dance as well and the same thing applies if you make typos and I can not understand what you mean to ask. Consider including your e-mail address when filling the form, if you wish to allow me to contact you for any clarification.

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Abstraction: when applied to dance, this word refers to choreography that does not have a narrative character. In other words, an abstract dance does not tell a story, nor is related to symbolic contents or any kind of associations with feelings, ideas or other elements than movement itself. A dance can be considered as abstract if it is seen through the frame of pure movement and/or its components (like space, time, body and so forth).

Accumulation: this is a word introduced by the American choreographer Trisha Brown in the 1970s. It was used by her to name a piece and it described a graduated and repetitive way in which the gestures of the choreography were built-up. As Trisha Brown’s works are so widely known, this word has spread among the dance community and it is used nowadays to talk about her way of creating choreography as a compositional method.

Alignment: placement of bones in such a way that increases physiological effectiveness and health. Depending on the dance genre, the alignment can vary according to its specific aesthetic goals. Read the definitions for 'Correct alignment', 'Body placement' or 'Stance' below to expand.

Arch: position in which the whole or upper body is extended, creating the form of an arch.

Beat: the beat is the basic unity used to measure time in both the choreographic and musical language. It is the pulse that occurs repeatedly with a certain frequency. When dancing, beats are what we count… like five, six, seven, eight! (bet you know this…). Five, six, seven, eight are the last four beats of a choreographic phrase of eight beats. Visit our page for contemporary dance music to listen to some examples and expand your understanding.

Body placement: this is an expression that we use in dance to talk about the way in which we carry our body (our selves), including the positioning and alignment of big bones (like the pelvis or spine), limbs and head as well as the micro organizations of muscles that are responsible for their positioning. Usually, every dance genre or style has its own body placement, which facilitates its technical execution and makes up the particular style.

Canon: dancers use this word with the same meaning as musicians. It defines a compositional structure in which one same choreographic fragment is executed by several dancers who space it out in time (usually with regular intervals). Rudolph Laban identified four main types of canon used in dance: the regular canon (dancers start and end one after another), the starting canon (only the beginning of the fragment is stepped), the ending canon (only the end of the fragment is stepped), the simultaneous canon (dancers start at the same time but each one starts the fragment at a different point).

Choreographer: artist who creates with the movement of humans as material. In dance terms though, a contemporary dance choreographer is usually considered as a general director of scenic art pieces that include several aesthetic languages (music, visual fine arts, architecture…), all under his creative judgment.

Clarity of line: the word ‘line’ is most commonly used among ballet dancers. It refers to an ideal shape that is created with the body while dancing, especially in certain positions like arabesques or between legs and arms. The clarity or quality of the line would be the degree of accuracy with which the shape achieved by a dancer gets close to that ideal.

Contemporary Dance: art whose working material is the movement of humans. It doesn´t have fixed or established movement patterns but it’s rather in a continuous search for new forms and dynamics. Therefore its dancers make use of varied modern and classical dance techniques to train. It produces performances or shows in conventional and non conventional stages (such as theaters or public and private places), having a frequent dialogue with other aesthetic languages such as audiovisual technologies, visual or fine arts, lighting, architecture, music, circus and others.

Contraction: term introduced by the modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham as one of the key elements of her own dance technique. It refers to the forward curving of the spine, starting from the pelvic zone.

Corporeality: (or corporeity) this is a term used by dance researchers mainly. Its introduction is attributed to the French philosopher Michel Bernard. It replaces the word ‘body’, under the justification that it is a broader concept that understands the body as an imaginary and malleable matter, a sensitive net with a constant pulse, inseparable from an individual and collective history.

Correct alignment: placing the body (mainly bones and muscles) in such a way that they are physiologically correct. This means that when moving under such an alignment, the dancer will not hurt her/him self and there will be a more efficient expenditure of energy as a consequence. For example, when falling from a jump, knees should point in the same direction of feet. The better that alignment is, the safer the jump is. Read the definition for 'body placement' above to expand.

Counterpoint: this is a musical term used to talk about dance as well. When referring to music, it expresses the harmonic interdependence or relationship between two melodic lines whose rhythm and contour are different. When referring to dance, it expresses the same but in choreographic terms: two (or more) choreographic fragments with different use of space, time and/or body are executed together and make part of a choreographic unity.

Dance steps: this is an expression that we use to refer to codified movements, which make part of a dancing vocabulary. A dance step is not necessarily a common step (with a leg), but can be any movement of the body that is already recognized as part of a dance type or style. The expression ‘dance moves’ is also used for the same purpose.

Dance Theatre: this expression is used to refer to a stage genre that combines aesthetic features or methods that belong both to dance and to theatre. Choreography, use of voice and text, creation of dramatic situations, dance improvisation or any practice that belongs to those two aesthetic languages are combined and used freely according to each specific artistic project.

Director: the director of a contemporary dance performance is usually its choreographer too, but this is not a rule. It is called the director if he coordinates general production and delegates a part (or all) of the artistic work to other members of his group. She/he is generally the author of the original idea and the person who makes the final decisions over aesthetic and practical matters.

Dynamic (s): when used as a dance term it expresses the way in which shape of movement is executed (see effort qualities too). From the point of view of Rudolph Laban effort’s theory, there would be four main factors that make up the dynamics of movement: space (direct or indirect), time (sustained or sudden), weight (light or strong) and flow (free or bound). The combination of these 8 possible ways of executing any movement would create the variations in its dynamic. Laban gave a name to 8 basic actions that would result from these combinations, to give an example of the difference between dynamics: punching, floating, pressing, flicking, gliding, slashing, dabbing and wringing. Outside Laban’s theory, dynamics would also refer to movement qualities associated with expressive, affective or other physical components.

Effort: effort is a word introduced by Rudolph Laban. According to him, it is a mental impulse from which movement originates. There are four motion factors that constitute it: SPACE (direct or indirect), WEIGHT (strong or light), TIME (sudden or sustained) and FLOW (bound and free). The dynamic of movement is the result of the combination of these factors and its effort qualities.

Effort actions: Rudolph Laban stated that the different combinations of the effort qualities produce eight basic ways of moving, called basic actions: to press, to flick, to wring, to dab, to slash, to glide, to punch and to float.

Effort economy: although effort is a word associated with Rudolph Laban’s movement theory by the dancing community, it is also used with another meaning when talking about ‘effort economy' in technical terms. It refers to a way of moving in which expenditure of energy is optimized by using only the parts of the body needed and relaxing the rest.

Effort qualities: single effort elements or their combinations (direct, indirect, strong, light, sudden, sustained, bound, free).

Flow (free, bound or continuous): one of the four main factors that make up the dynamics of movement, according to the effort’s theory by Rudolph Laban. When flow is free, the dancer would not have big control to stop movement immediately (like the arm of a country worker, when throwing and spreading rice seeds or when a dancer makes a grand jeté). When flow is bound, the dancer would have control to stop moving at any moment (common when moving slowly or when doing movements that require control, like a pirouette). Flow is also usually called as being continuous, which would mean that the stream or momentum of movement doesn’t stop. (Look for the definitions above for DYNAMIC, EFFORT and EFFORT QUALITIES to expand)

Form: this is a word that is most commonly used to refer to movement (dance) from an abstract point of view. The ‘form’ of movement, also called the ‘shape’, would include its occupation of space, timings, body uses and such kind of elements that do not express other contents than movement itself. In this sense, the form could be understood as opposed to the content, the qualities, dynamics or any expressive and communicative feature that makes up movement.

Genre: this word is used to classify and differentiate types of dance in the broader way. For example, contemporary dance, classical western dance (ballet), and folk dances are three genres of dance.

Gesture: in the Laban language (system for analyzing and recording movement), the word gesture is used to talk about movements that do not involve carrying the weight of the whole body throughout space. A gesture would be different to a transfer of weight (for example, raising an arm would be a gesture and stepping forward would be a transfer of weight). Some people also use this word to talk about movements of the body or limbs that express or emphasize ideas, feelings or attitudes, in opposition to what would be a movement, considered only in an abstract way.

Grounded: it is said of a dancer that has a good sense of gravity, i.e. efficient use of her/his body’s weight.

Happening: form of interdisciplinary theatrical intervention, developed by visual artists in the 1960s, mostly in non conventional places (art galleries or outside spaces). It usually demands the audience participation and tends to modify its perception of the environment. Contemporary dance choreographer Merce Cunningham is considered to be the creator of the ‘happening’ prototype in 1952, in collaboration with the composer John Cage.

High level: this is a dance term taken from Rudolph Laban’s division of space. It is used to talk about movements executed in positions like standing, tiptoeing or jumping (see Low Level and Middle Level too).

History of choreography: this expression could be understood as something different from the one that refers to ‘dance history’, which has traditionally and mainly consisted of a listing of dance figures and some of the aesthetical features of their artistic work. Strictly talking, the history of choreography would refer to the choreographies themselves, describing or analyzing movement as the main topic and including basically its shape, dynamics or group configurations. Other complementary aspects like symbolic contents, music, costumes, lighting or stage design could be included, but as a secondary topic.

Improvisation: this is the action of dancing without defining movement previously; the dancer does not know what s/he will execute but moves spontaneously and freely, in opposition to composed dance, where the dancer memorizes choreography. Other than the dance improvisation that is totally free, there are types of improvisation that use guidelines which define some features of the dance (like its structure, genre, length, dynamics, etc.). Examples of dance improvisation guidelines are: following the music, occupying space in specific ways, movement qualities, choreographic phrases that are executed according to chosen rules and so forth.

Inversion: one of the strategies used in the compositional method that makes variations of a leitmotiv. Inverting the leitmotiv would mean to execute it from the end to the beginning of the movement, like rewinding a videotape. For example, if the leitmotiv is a step forward, applying inversion will convert it into a step backwards.

Jeté: this is a word in French that belongs to the vocabulary of ballet. It expresses a dynamic of movement in which the force goes outwards and the flow of movement is mainly free. ‘Battement jeté’, for example, stands for bringing a leg outwards (with the dynamic described), or ‘grand jeté’ stands for a big leap in which one leg is strongly thrown forward. Depending on the use you make of the word, it may construct the name of different codified steps.

Kinesthesia: “the sixth sense”, according to Rudolph Laban, it is the ability to perceive or be aware of one self’s position, movement and body (including muscles, bones, entrails, skin…) in a sensitive way.

Kinsphere: (or kinesphere) imaginary space that surrounds the human body. It has a spherical shape and its size is determined by the maximum space reached by limbs in any possible direction.

Legato: this is a word borrowed from musical language, but it is used in dance with the same meaning. It expresses a quality of movement in which flow doesn’t stop, but the feeling is always continuous and fluent.

Levels: this word is used to refer to one aspect of the division of space introduced by Rudolph Laban. Laban established three main levels, both for the scenic space and for movement within the kinespheric space. For definitions of the high, middle and low level of the scenic space, read the correspondent definitions in this same page. Within the kinesphere, levels are combined with the 9 basic directions and refer to the orientation towards which movement is executed. It is different to the levels in scenic space, which refer to the specific space occupied by the body.

Lighting: this is the art of designing and arranging the lights for a show. Designing the lights is usually done together with the choreographer. Afterwards, there’s the work of putting equipments in place and ordering the electrical system for everything to work. This last task is made by technicians or electrical engineers.

Lyrical (dance): style of contemporary, modern or jazz dance that has emerged from the fusion of one of those three types of dance with ballet and pop music (mainly). It combines simple choreographic vocabulary with technically difficult moves, in an expressive style that follows the lyrics of songs and is often interpreted in the short solo format.

Low level: this is an expression taken from Rudolph Laban’s division of space. It is used to talk about movements executed in positions like lying or movements like cringing and rolling on the floor (see High Level and Middle Level too).

Lunge: this is a word that comes from the language of aerobics and it is used by some dancers to name a movement in which you transfer the weight forward, and put half of it (or more) on one leg that advances and bends; the leg behind may stay extended or may bend too. It is like going to a wide fourth position (as we call it in dance), with legs in parallel or in a turnout position. Some classical dancers name it ‘tombé’.

Middle level: this is an expression taken from Rudolph Laban’s division of space. It is used to talk about movements like crawling on four legs or executed from positions like kneeling or sitting (see High Level and Low Level too).

Minimization: one of the strategies used in the compositional method that makes variations of a leitmotiv. Minimizing the leitmotiv would mean making it smaller, mainly in terms of its occupation of space. For example, if the leitmotiv is a step forward, applying minimization will convert it into different smaller possibilities of that same step.

Mirroring: exercising method that may be used by dancers but that is most commonly used by actors or in the training field for drama. It consists of a bodily activity for two, in which one person moves and the other follows as if s/he was a mirror. This strategy is used to develop concentration, communication, cooperation and creative skills.

Modern Dance: modern dance could be considered as a synonym of contemporary dance as in some cases they share aesthetical or ideological characteristics. Though, this is a dance term commonly used to name a dance trend that was born in the late XIX century and lasted till around the 1950s. Its homes were Germany (and surrounding countries) and the United States. Some of its most renowned figures are Isadora Duncan, Rudolph Laban, Mary Wigman and Martha Graham (see our modern dance history page to expand).

Motif: this is a word that is most commonly used within the dance composition speech. It refers to a small choreographic unit (a gesture, movement or phrase) that is the main reference from which a bigger choreography (or dance piece) is built and composed.

Motif development: is a procedure of a dance composition method that consists of transforming a basic choreographic motif to create a larger or whole piece of dance. Variations of the motif are done through strategies like repetition, inversion, rhythmical modifications, amplification, minimization, ornamentation, deconstruction and all imaginable compositional tools.

Movement image: perception of movement from a mental and kinesthetic perspective (i.e. from the dancer’s imagination and the inner perception of her/his body and movement).

Musicality: ability to perceive music and integrate it to the execution of dance.

New Dance: new dance is a name given to a contemporary dance’s European trend. It is classified by historians between de 1980s and 1990s. Some of its French figures are D. Bagouet, O.Duboc, J.Cl. Gallota, D. Larrieu, M. Marin, A. Preljocaj, K. Saporta… .

Opposition: this is a word that is mainly used during our technical trainings. The opposition of the movement of one part of the body to another serves the dancer in several ways. Opposing facilitates grater extensions, maintaining placement, balance or controlling weight. For example when raising an arm, the shoulder should go down. The direction of their movements creates an opposition (upwards and downwards at the same time) in order to maintain a right placement of the upper trunk (unless another specific placement of the trunk is wanted).

Parasite tension: this is an expression used mainly by dancers who practice techniques with elements from the ‘somatic trend’. It expresses the activity of a muscle or a group of muscles that is not necessary to execute a movement.

Pas de bourrée : French expression that belongs to the vocabulary of ballet. It refers to a combination of three weight transfers over alternate legs (steps). It is performed like this: one leg behind the other, then second leg to the side and then first leg in front of the other leg, usually ending in a demi plié with one or both legs. There are different ways to execute that same basic structure, in order to adequate the combination to the needs of the dance.

Pas de chat: this expression means cat’s step in French and is part of the vocabulary of ballet. To execute a ‘pas de chat’ you usually start from the fifth position of the feet and jump sideways with one leg going first. That leg is bent and the knee guides the jump. Being in the air, you quickly raise the second leg up so both legs form a diamond shape while jumping. Then you land on the same leg you started with and bring the other leg down in front of the first leg to the fifth position again.

Percussive: when referring to movement, the word ‘percussive’ is used to express a broken and attacked quality, which would be opposed to a fluid, or continuous quality. A percussive movement is unconnected or detached from its neighbors by a pause and it usually has a little accent at the end of execution. Sometimes the equivalent musical terms are also applied to dance. A percussive movement would have a ‘staccato’ quality and would be opposed to the ‘legato’ or fluid quality.

Phrase: short choreographic fragment that has an intention and feeling of a beginning and an end. Phrases are commonly constructed by following rhythmic patterns (like for example the popular dancing phrase of eight beats) but they can also be defined just by means of their moves or dynamics.

Piece: a choreographic work.

Pirouette: this word belongs to the vocabulary of ballet, but it is used by contemporary dancers too, with the same meaning. It refers to a full turn on one leg, having the other leg bent, till the point where the foot reaches the knee (in a parallel position or with the classical turnout).

Postmodern Dance: name given to a contemporary dance trend that emerged between the 1960s and 1970s in New York (U.S.A.). 
Created by a group of artists who worked in the Judson Church, it defended the aesthetic value of everybody’s and everyday’s movement.

Projection: when talking about executing a dance, it refers to the skill of bodily expression and communication.

Quality of movement: (movement quality) a particular way of executing the shape of a movement, concerning its dynamic, affective or expressive content. Example: the action of caressing is different in its quality to the action of sliding, even if the shape of the movement might look the same.

Release: name given to a training method developed and used by contemporary dancers since the second half of the XXth century. Its main characteristic is described by its name: the dancer emphasizes on releasing the muscular tension, in order to achieve a most efficient expense of energy. This is complemented with a postural organization composed of ‘proper alignment, placement of breath and carrying of weight’ which intend to give the dancer the ability to use gravity while moving instead of muscular force.

Retiré: this is a term from the vocabulary of western classical dance (ballet). It refers to a position of one leg, which is bent so that the point of the foot is close to the knee of the supporting leg. In ballet, it is executed with an outward rotation of the leg. It is very common in pirouettes or as a transitional position.

Retrograde: Other than the usual meaning of this adjective, this word is used by choreographers or dancers to talk about the action of executing choreography inversely, from the end to the beginning (like a rewinding video).

Rhythm: in dance, this word has the same meaning as in music. Though, it is used to refer to different things. When choreographers say to dancers “stick to the rhythm”, they are usually talking about the tempo, which is the speed at which the beat is counted. The rhythm can also be the particular form of gathering the beat, together with a certain character or dynamic that give name to a type of dance (for example the waltz, the march, etc.). In the widest sense, the rhythm is the way in which the temporal factor of movement is organized, including beat, tempo, measure, accents and dynamics. When talking about movement dramaturgy, rhythm is also used to refer to the effect produced in a choreographic piece by the combination or arrangement of formal elements, as length of scenes, intensity, timing, or recurrent themes, to create movement, tension, emotional value and progression in the development of the dance.

Scattering: (according to Laban's space harmony) general shaping going away from the body, not specific about where in space.

Score: written text that records the movement of one or several dancers. There are currently various systems used for writing dance scores. The following are some of the most popular: Labanotation, Benesh notation or Conté notation. The 'score' may also refer to the series of guidelines created by a choreographer that are followed by the dancers to perform a show. This is a common compositional method used mainly by postmodern or contemporary choreographers.

Gwen Rakotovao Company

Shape: (movement shape) opposed to quality or dynamic, shape is an outside visual aspect of movement which includes the body and it’s way of making use of space and time.

Sickle foot: it is considered an incorrect position of the feet in almost all forms of dance, excepting butoh and some contemporary dance styles. It results from supinating or over supinating the foot, both if extended or flexed.

Somatic trend: term used to gather movement techniques like Release, BMC, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Ideokinesis or Eutony (visit our page about dance techniques to expand).

Space: for contemporary dance, space is one of the main factors that make up the shape of movement (together with time, body and weight). These categories were first introduced in modern dance theoretical foundations by Rudolph Laban at the beginning of the XXth century, and have been spread world wide as working tools, both for creative and technical purposes. Laban established three main different ways to understand space: the kinespheric space, the scenic space and execution of direct or indirect space from the point of view of his effort theory.

Stance: it can be used to refer to the dancer’s posture, positioning or placement. Depending on the technique within which the word is used, it might include bodily, physiological, anatomical, mental or general attitude issues about how the dancer organizes and projects her/him self. Read the definition for 'body placement' above to expand.

Style: this word is used to refer to the specific way in which a dancer, a company or a school executes a dance genre. For example, David Zambrano has a different style of interpreting contemporary dance than Steve Paxton; the Italian ballet school has a different style of executing classical dance than the French ballet school.

Sustained: the use of this word in the dance field usually refers to its meaning inside the frame of Rudolph Laban’s effort-shape theory. ‘Sustained’ is an effort quality that can be applied to the execution of the main factor ‘TIME’ (see the definition of ‘Dynamics’ above to expand). One way of understanding this quality of effort is to think that Laban’s motion factor of time can be executed with an intuitive readiness for decision making, either suddenly or with sustainment.

Technical skills: these are the abilities (in terms of physical and physiological knowledge) to execute dance movements precisely, with their correct dynamics and shapes. For example, having control over the vertical axe of the body, knowing how to turn the head while spotting and correct placement of the trunk are technical skills used for turning.

Technique: this is a word used in dance to talk about specific ways of training, preparing or learning dancing skills. Examples of dance techniques are the release dance technique, ballet (as a training method) or the Martha Graham’s dance technique, among many others. ‘Technique’ is the popular name to talk about the different training types though in the dance research field it is considered to be more appropriate to talk about ‘practices’ or ‘methods’, as the word ‘technique’ seems to presuppose a reduced idea of what the human body is (like if it was just a mechanical entity). Read our specific page for contemporary dance techniques to expand.

Tempo: (or bpm: beats per minute) this is a word borrowed from musical language, but it is used in dance with the same meaning. It expresses the frequency of the beat of any rhythmic pattern, in numbers. For example Tempo= 60 or Tempo = 120. This means that there are 60 or 120 beats in a minute respectively (the higher the number, the fastest the tempo). Tempo is measured by a tool called metronome.

Tilt: starting from a standing position, to lean or incline the upper body (from the hips up) towards any direction. It is usually accompanied by the lifting of one leg really high up.

Time: for contemporary dance, time is one of the main factors that make up the shape of movement (together with space, body and weight). These categories were first introduced in modern dance theoretical foundations by Rudolph Laban at the beginning of the XXth century, and have been spread world wide as working tools, both for creative and technical purposes. Laban established two main different ways to understand time: as a rhythmical component (exactly the same way as it works for music) and as an effort component, in which case it would be sudden or sustained.

Triplet: name given to a way of walking that is executed in three counts: one in demi plié and two and three in relevé (it is sung by the teacher like this: plié, relevé, relevé… and repeat). It can be executed with different rotations of the legs, arm combinations, turns and so forth. The triplet is most common among modern dance techniques like the one of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón or even Lester Horton.

Turnout: a position of the legs in which the feet are pointing outwards. It is an external rotation of the limb that is executed with the whole leg, including the hip. The turnout, also called the ‘en dehors’ in French, has been used and developed within the ballet technique mostly, but is also used by many other dancing genres.

Unison: when a group of dancers perform the same choreography at the same time. It opposes to other forms of group timings like the canon, the counterpoint, the dialogue mode and so forth. The word is also used by musicians with the same meaning.

Variation: this word is mostly used by ballet dancers and refers to a dance excerpt for a soloist, which makes part of a bigger ballet. The word is also used in an informal way to name short dances or choreographies that are part of a dancing class or of a compositional process.

Weight: among the field of dance, weight is one of the main factors that make up the shape of movement (together with space, body and time). These categories were first introduced in modern dance theoretical foundations by Rudolph Laban at the beginning of the XXth century, and have been spread world wide as working tools, both for creative and technical purposes. In Laban’s system, weight can be understood in two different ways: as its usual meaning, but referring to the gravitational relationship of the human body towards earth and as an effort component, in which case it would be light or strong.

"X": (The "X" as in the warm up technique on the floor): this is a position of the body that consists of lying upwards, with arms and legs extended diagonally, creating the shape of an "X". It is also called "the star", because of its outwards pointing shape. It is a stance of maximum extension of the whole body and opposes to the opposite form known as the fetal position. The “X” is one of the basic positions from which many technical exercises from the so called ‘floor technique’ begin.

This dance dictionary is continuously under construction. Just let me know which dance terms you’d like to find here and I’ll do  my best to include them for you. 

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This is a glossary about contemporary dance terminology. I will only include words that have a specific meaning among dancers or for the specific field of knowledge of contemporary dance. If you ask for a word or expression that you can also find in a common dictionary, I will not post its definition below. If you don't find the word you asked for in a lapse of around four days, maybe that's the reason why...

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