19. The Rationale of Dance


One or more human beings do the bodily movements they call “dance” to be watched (on the spot or eventually) by one or more human beings. Why?

The answer is obvious and pretty simple: to communicate, to transmit meaning. The fundamentals of semiotics are fully applicable here too. The dancing body constitutes a sign.

Then, why does one want to communicate through movements recognized as “dance” instead of using other means such as speech, writing, gestures? Are we talking about certain types of messages that cannot be communicated in other ways? If so, what are they? When we look at the answers given to such questions, we see that several people have come up with rather speculative (many of them enigmatic and somewhat mystical) answers, mostly with his/her area of interest in mind.

Dance consists of purposeful movements and the purpose is to send visual signals to receivers, who may be viewers or fellow dancers. In the Darwinian assessment of the origins of dance and music, the signal conveyed the physical fitness and competency of the dancer, to be chosen for mating and reproduction. (Miller, 2000)

… the suspicion does not appear improbable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females, or both sexes, before they had acquired the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm. (Darwin, 337)

One can possibly detect the original sexual agitation and selection motive in all forms of dance to a certain degree but, since we have acquired several other means of expression, including “articulate language,” we need to look for broader motives when evaluating the practice. As commonly done, I examine dance under two basic categories:  (1) participatory dance, and (2) presentational dance. This categorization is defined by the response to the signal, fundamentally based on the position and behavior of the audiences.

It is important to note that in smaller and closed societies these categories as well as their subordinates tend to be separated with strict borders and, therefore, are easily differentiable. As a result, categorizations are usually based on studies (ethnochoreology) in such societies. Differentiation becomes more difficult in complex and open cultures where categories often overlap, particularly as a result of the multi-disciplinary practices in the past sixty or so years.

1. Participatory Dance

This category covers a wide range, from waltzing couples at a ball to dancing at a disco, jig dancing at an Irish wedding, ritual dances of Native Americans, line dancing in a Turkish village, etc. The common denominator among them is the physical participation of those present in the event to the mostly repetitive bodily movements, usually synchronizing with the rhythm set by sound. The main point in this type of dancing is the attainment of participation and synchronization, at least at a minimal level.

Spontaneity, that is, the lack of planning and rehearsal, may be the most typical characteristic of this type of dance. Even when learned moves (steps) are performed simultaneously by numerous participants, the focus tends to be on the execution rather than the mechanics of the moves or the identities of the participants. These dances are open to communication among the participants through gaze, touch and speech.

Why is it so common in participatory dances everywhere for two or more people to execute the same moves at the same time? The first answer that I can think of is the confirmation of affiliation with a certain segment of society at a certain setting: everyone there knows, performs and enjoys the steps. This is typical of almost all rituals of popular culture. The second answer may be the feeling of security, invulnerability and relief resulting from synchronization and unification (may be viewed as serenity achieved from ritual). Thirdly, it may serve the purpose of skill display by showing that the person has learned and is capable of performing the particular steps. (The exactitude in the execution of the same moves at the same time by numerous people is often found to be “beautiful,” which I believe is a topic with militaristic connotations that deserves in-depth reflection.) 

I indicated that the primary agitative motive in these dances is the attainment of participation but that does not mean that the participants do not have the desire for bodily exposition or that their moves do not have symbolic dimensions. It is impossible to keep out the elements of skill display and erotic agitation whenever the action is seen by others.

2. Presentational Dance

“Presentational dance” is a term used to indicate dances presented in designated spaces where an audience watches passively (“performance dance,” “concert dance” and “theatrical dance” are the substitutes). Artistic dance forms (ballet and modern/contemporary dance), folk-dance performances and entertainment dances are commonly considered under this category. We should broaden the range and include all forms of dance aimed at display, such as erotic dances and break dancing. 

There is always an “I am different” dimension in presentational dances, justifying the presentation. The act shows that the dancer is able to move in unusual ways, which is often referred to as “skill display.” This is usually the openly frontal aspect submitted for appreciation in entertainment dances but it is maintained to have an insignificant position (behind the choreography) in artistic dances.

While participation dances intend to evoke a physical response from the viewers and/or participants, artistic presentational dances are often said to communicate mentally. In this view “mental” implies that emotional responses are induced through the movements. 

Such views on the perception of dance moves tend to be quite similar to those about the perception of uncoded, nonverbal sounds (triggering emotions or not). Since such sounds do not constitute symbolic signs (like in language), they are perceived through connotations and associations. Yet, sounds follow us around, there are always sounds in our daily lives which we continuously associate with the visuals and actions. This is not true for uncoded, abstract body movements, they basically do not have associative functions outside of the dance milieu.

It has been agreed upon in cognitive studies that a listener tracks the progress (the timeline) in music by developing a series of expectations which are either fulfilled or unfulfilled. Where do those expectations come from? The expectations are generated by the previous musical or general life experiences that have planted information in our memories. 

Then, how does one track a presentational dance performance when it consists of uncoded movements, that is, movements that can be designated as “dance moves” only, without making allusions to coded gestures? Can one develop expectations from one moment to another of a dance performance as in music? 

I think the “method” one uses to watch a dance performance is the same. However, the expectations mostly stem from information one has obtained about forms. In addition to the knowledge about the physical abilities of the human body, formal information learned from assemblages and arrangements of bodies and objects in space that one has witnessed determine the expectations. We can add to these the innate tendencies to perceive forms in particular ways, as were observed by Gestalt researchers. Basically, the audience tracks the formal choices of the planners of the performance – of which total constitutes the composition. In that respect, it is not possible to transmit content with dance moves, narrative or not.

The audiences of presentational dances are usually in the position of consumers. In artistic dances, they are expected to assess the consumption-worthiness of the product according to the choreography. Unless coded and recognizable gestures are incorporated into the work, audiences tend to have a hard time in “reading” and tracking the sequence of formal choices. They almost inevitably assess the value according to the build and physical ability of the performers, complexity and difficulty of the movements, uniformity between the steps performed by two or more dancers, perfection of lines and symmetries, amount of labor put in the production, and, at times, originality of the presented forms. As they get repeated, these experiences give way to definitions, standardization and the formation of rules and conventions.

For example, when folk dances are taken out of their origins and put on stage, their identity changes drastically, they turn into anthropological presentations and/or extravaganzas that exhibit skill and practice. The original process, indexed to participation, turns into a planned, rehearsed and performed product. For instance, uniformity in the movements of multiple dancers, which creates the sense of unity in participation dances, turns into a yardstick to measure the level of quality, skill and attainment on stage.

The “dance theater” (Tanztheater) concept was and is an effort to expand the communicative features of modern dance by incorporating familiar, coded movements and gestures from daily life. I am not talking about the limited use of pantomimic gestures as in ballet to help narrate a story. Dance theater creates the action directly out of the familiar, recognizable movements. Although not expressionistic, experiments by those involved in New York’s Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s also aimed at including all types of body movement in presentational dance as an opposition to form-based approach.