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What is Dance?

My journey to explore dance as a means to learn empathy, and learn all the social aspects around dance, starts with the question: What is dance?


Let me tell you, there weren't quick answers.


I have learned from the Meisner Technique (more about that in the “About” page and a future article) that what is true about one art form is true of another. I believe it and see it in my own craft - the way I express myself in one art form spills into other art forms; lessons I learn in dance apply in making music. With that in mind, I decided to focus the scope of my research in this article on dance philosophy specifically.


 

Disclaimers:

1. To ease reading, I won't cite within the text. See resources at the end. A lot of what I write here is borrowed from different sources.

2. I am human, I might make mistakes. Be constructive if you have corrections!

3. I do include my personal views here, as this article is about me sharing my journey.

4. I'd be happy to discuss about any subject in and around this post. Make sure you read all the way through before commenting.


 

Down the rabbit hole (Where did I look?)


As it turns out, dance ontology (=the philosophy of being, becoming and existing), is the official name for "What is dance?".


There are professionals from various scientific fields who discuss what dance is and why it's important (anthropology, ethnography, dance criticism to name a few) but each field uses its own method of analysis, and mostly refers to history and cultural aspects, only adding a layer of philosophy.

Let's call these scientific fields "Dance Studies".


So within dance ontology, we'll get different answers from the "Dance Studies folk" and "regular dance philosophers".

We'll stick with philosophy for now.


Dance philosophy splits (generally) into two approaches:

1. Focusing on performative dance aspects and definitions, i.e finding ways of measuring and appreciating dance (asking questions like "is a triple pirouette an expert action?")

2. Prioritizing the "lived experience" of a dancer, also called the phenomenological aspect[1].


huh?


Phenomenology means studying the human experience from a first person POV. Jackpot!


To conclude, I'm looking into "What is dance", specifically from the point of view of dance philosophers who study dance as a human experience.



Is dance of body or mind?


Even after focusing my scope, there's a lot of debate on where dance happens, even before deciding what it is.

I found Somaesthetics (soma=body), a field aimed at improving our body and understanding it as a hub of perception and creative expression, seeing our body both as an object and also as a subject that experiences the world.


In short, our body is both the wonderful thing that allows us to perceive things (and bodies), and it also provides perceptive limitations.


In the modern western approach, the common conception is to separate body from mind, rejecting the body as part of aesthetics (beautiful art and things), for it belongs to the mind. The mind decides that a thing is pretty, not our eyes and ears.

The Greeks understood we need to take care of the body, at least in order to "fix" those deceptive perceptions that come through our senses, and Eastern cultures practiced a full body-mind harmony through Zen, Yoga and more. [2]


I agree strongly with the Eastern approach.


Dance, Art and Aesthetics


Aesthetics gave value to our senses as a means to enjoy art, but with time it became “the philosophy of pretty things", focused only on the mind appreciating art and not the ways it gets there.


As if our perception is not a crucial part of our experiences!


Kant (a cool guy) says that in the end, we either feel pleasure or pain from experiencing art. Even if we experience art through "thinking" about it, our body is the one that feels it.


Hegel (I don't like him) is said to have founded the tradition of fun as the enemy of true art. Sure, art can be fun, but fun prevents us from getting to a higher place of consciousness through the mind. Fun distracts us from appreciating art thoughtfully.

Makes sense then why in museums everyone is so serious - entertainment is seen as a "lower form" of art. No joy or laughter belong there[2].


He also says that all the spiritual truths around art have been found in the past already - there is nothing new to be found (so bleak!). So, to prevent further deterioration, we need to make aesthetics the science of dance and teach the mind how to enjoy art, rather than let people "fall" to entertainment.


I believe art can be anything, including fun, and that although our senses can be deceptive, they are a part of the human experience.



Dance = Movement + Emotion


One philosopher said something I resonate with: "In a work of art we have the direct presentation of a feeling, not a sign that points to it”[3]. Even Darwin said motion and emotion are intertwined in any living form. He didn’t analyze the meaning of it, but wrote of “expressive movement”.

The point is that movement, in nature, is not necessarily meant to be translated into feeling - it is feeling.


Studies[5] show that emotion is dynamic in nature: that emotions move through us in different ways and move us to move. There's a deep connection between movement and emotion.

We move, and through our movement we feel. As the movement changes, our feelings do too.


Basically, our motion and emotion are connected throughout the course of feeling, from the beginning of that feeling through development and sudden end.


The fact that we can feel emotion and hide it, or present an emotion physically without feeling it (fake it), proves this connection - our body and mind know how emotions manifest inside and outside.

With that said, a movement-emotion connection is not a 100% match - there is no "movement X = emotion Y" equation, they only compliment each other.


I love all of this! A scientific backing to what I've been feeling.


That same article[3] suggests that dance is different, and when a dancer dances, they focus only on the kinesthetic (movement) aspect. They "move" others, but they remain "unmoved" internally. Some call it "aesthetic distance" - to remain emotionally uninvolved in order to fully immerse in the aspect of movement.


I disagree. An observer can point out which dancer is more authentic and uses emotions, even if the more authentic dancer has lower "quality" of movement. The observer might not be able to say why one is "better" than the other, but they will still identify it. Maybe I'll run an experiment like that in the future.


Several theories[4] define dance as imitation (of nature, of human passions), expression and form. By those definitions, sawing down trees can be dance because it has form, and there are many dances that do not imitate anything - are they not dances then?

But!

If we combine those theories, and say that dances must create form that expresses emotions, or that unlike functional movement, dance is movement taken for aesthetic purposes, that hits closer to how I see dance from my studies.


 

Conclusion:

Some scholars see dance technically, or as a tool to experience higher consciousness through the mind.

I believe in the body-mind connection, that dance is movement for expressive purposes, that it can also be fun, and that movement that comes from emotion feels the best both for the performer and the audience.


What is dance to you? Let me know your thoughts!



 

Resources:

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy : The Philosophy of Dance

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dance/

2. Body and the Arts: The Need for Somaesthetics

3. Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2011). From movement to dance https://www.academia.edu/18456898/From_movement_to_dance

4. What is Dance?: Readings in Theory and Criticism by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen

5. Studies regarding the connection between movement and emotion: Jacobson 1929, 1967, 1970; Bull 1951; de Rivera 1977; Sheets-Johnstone 1999b, 2006, 2008a, b, 2009a

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