The Physics of Dance

The reduction of dance to a science ignores the aesthetic dimension and the essence of communication with an audience.

As philosopher Suzanne Langer put it: “In watching a dance, you do not see what is physically before you — people running around or twisting their bodies; what you see is a display of interacting forces… But these  forces… are not the physical forces of the dancer’s muscles… The forces we seem to perceive most directly and convincingly are created for our perception; and they exist only for it.”

There’s also a feeling that science doesn’t really apply to aesthetic art forms. Bart Cook, a member of the New York City Ballet, was quoted a few years ago in a Dame Magazine interview as saying, “It’s that vision of freedom you create when you’re defying- physical law…” And Lisa de Ribere, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, who has submitted her talents to scientific scrutiny, has said that an understanding of physical principles is useful to a dancer in developing technique, but the last thing she would want to think about when on stage in front of an audience is controlling her moment of inertia or maximizing an angular momentum in a turn! Artistic sensitivities must occupy one’s full attention at that time.

Since a focus exclusively on physical analysis may detract from performance or appreciation of dance as an art form, what is the value of such analysis? Dancers, dance teachers, and people in the medical professions are now recognizing the importance of a knowledge of anatomy for allowing dancers to use their bodies most effectively and safely. A knowledge of anatomical limitations and constraints on human body movement can help prevent the kinds of injuries that interrupt many promising dance careers. And understanding how the muscles work in dance movement, what constraints are imposed by muscles and bones, and how a young dance student can expand the range of motion permitted by these constraints is clearly a valuable tool for a dance teacher.

But analyzing dance can contribute still more fundamentally to the skill a dancer uses in creating this art. Although dancers cannot see themselves totally in physical terms, as massive bodies moving through space under the influence of well-known forces and obeying physical laws, neither can they afford to ignore these aspects of movement.

According to Allegra Fuller Snyder, former head of the Dance Department at UCLA:

“Dance is more than an art. It is one of the most powerful tools for fusing the split between the two functions of the brain — the fusing of the logical with the intuitive, the fusing of the analytical perceptions with the sensorial perceptions, the fusing of holistic understanding with step by step thinking.

It is a discipline which within itself deals with basic understanding of human experience, and conceptualization.

The science of physics deals with the motion and interaction of material bodies. Its development over the centuries has given rise to laws of motion that are always observed to be valid with a high degree of accuracy. With careful analyses these laws can be applied to dance movement with results that are intriguing, instructive, useful, and at times surprising. The resulting understanding, if used with a proper perspective, can contribute to an appreciation of the art form, not detract from it.

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