Written by: Christie Bosworth
The way in which a dancer experiences their body goes much deeper than is usually felt in everyday life. Ways in which they train their bodies; ‘crafting’ them to a particular style, is a process that develops them into a ‘dancer’. The dancer’s body is a powerful tool which enables them to fulfill the athletic requirements of the sport, as well as to illustrate artistic elements of dance. The body is the medium in which all of this is created; different to other artistic mediums in which the experience differs from how they are created. Such as music, which is produced by the body, though experienced aurally. In dance, the body creates as well as simultaneouly experiences; resulting in an intimate connection between the mind, soul and body. This research is going to focus on this experience and explore how a dancer experiences and crafts their body in various ways.
Embodiment, habitus, felt sense and awareness of movement are topics which will be focussed on. The question that arises is whether a dancer’s body is crafted from the inside out, or the outside in.
As I personally am a dancer I will draw from my own felt experiences of the body, as I am currently a competitive ballroom dancer. As I am involved in these felt sensations everyday, at quite high intensity, my own cultural understandings will deepen this research. A key interview with my dance coach, Peter Townsend, discusses these topics in detail and this interview will be drawn on throughout. Study into other similar scholarly studies oF embodiment, dance and experience will then further understandings from this particular research and embed this experience within what has previously been explored. This research and personal experience will then also be connected to the cultural and social world, with comment made upon the social significance of this research.
The personal experiences the ethnographer has when doing social research will no doubt contribute to the outcome of their findings. The accumulated experiences anyone has had in their life; their ‘cultural capital’, become the building blocks for their beliefs and dispositions towards their lived in world. We draw on what has been learnt through previous experiences. My personal experience in ballroom and latin dance began when I was a shy nine year old girl, coming to my first ‘general class’ at my now regular dance studio. I was brought along by my mother who also had a background in dance. While I’m sure she brought me along to class for a range of reasons, a few of them concerned issues I had with my body. I have a natural ‘sway’ back and at the time my posture was terrible; I had an excessive curve in my lower back and rounded shoulders. I also ‘naturally’ walked with my feet turned in; pigeon toeing. I think around this time I was quite a shy girl with low self confidence, evident in my posture and certain bodily habits. My mother brought me to dance class as I’m sure she thought I would enjoy it, though also in an attempt to improve these body habits. From this age I started being taught the ‘right’ way a dancer must stand and hold themselves; to attempt to ‘straighten’ my spine and stand up much taller than I was (many times by standing up against a wall, attempting to flatten my back against it). I was forced to turn my feet out like a ‘real’ latin dancer. Over and over again; by repetition this was taught. Walking up and down the floor, forwards and backwards, until these actions were embedded in my body. Over the years these actions, along with many others, have become naturalised in my body so that not as much mental focus is needed to produce the same outcomes. This process is referred to in biomechanics as the development of ‘muscular memory’.
Now, I have many embodied movements aquired over my fourteen year span learning how to dance. Many of my movements are ‘natural’ to me as they have become habits my body knows how to do without thinking. Although on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, I am still attempting to change these habits. A dancer never stops learning and will never achieve the ‘perfect’ technique as many dream of. This means new patterns or ways of doing things are constantly being tried and tested as we search for new and better ways of performing particular movements. Over the years, I have done this mainly by ‘rote learning’, as in, doing a particular move over and over again in the way that a teacher has said that the movement should be done. To do it repetitedly until the movement becomes embodied and naturalised in the body. This is certainly still one way that I learn new ways of moving now. Although, recently I have been exploring new ways of doing this. Instead of rote learning and forcing my body into doing movements in one particular style, I have been experimenting with how the body ‘naturally’ moves. By working with the body, rather than against it. One way I have experimented with this is by linking movement with breath, a technique commonly used in Yoga. The body moves naturally when we breathe, and certain movements can be assisted by inhaling, similarly with exhaling. I have experienced changes in my movement by doing this and have found that when I work the natural breath of the body into movement, more movement can be produced as there is less stress and tension in the body. This is because the body will move more efficiently when moving as it is intended to, as opposed to placing restrictive forces upon the body when attempting particular techniques.
This topic was explored in depth in an interview with my coach; Peter Townsend. Peter’s history as a dancer himself is extensive and his dance knowledge has accumulated from exploration of dance in many forms.
He competed as a Ballroom and Latin dancer at the highest level, though since then has studied other forms of movement such as ballet, jazz, aerobics, contemporary, theatre, as well as Laban’s theory of movement analysis. His method of ‘teaching’, as I have experienced in his lessons, is more a way of teaching the student how to teach themselves. He focusses on drawing out the dancer’s natural way of moving, specific to them, rather than enforcing style specific technique upon them. When asked what ideas ‘crafting a body’ brought to mind for him, Peter’s response was that he would think more of ‘crafting the body from the inside’;
‘…not only from an ‘intelligent’ level, but also from an intuitive aspect; knowing internally how the body works. The feeling. Very often what I have experienced with dance training is that its all very physical with a big focus on style. Recently now there is a somatic approach; where instead of the body being crafted from the outside in, it is crafted more from the inside out. So what we have within, we then learn to stylise.’
He elaborates on this, comparing how we learn movement as children;
So we know as children how to run, jump, drop, fall. From that play, that’s how as children we learn. So I guess as dancers how to take that route as well. Learning to play rather than just how to stylise the body.
It is this ‘play’ that he encourages us to experience in training. In this play to experience the body and how it organically moves; to run, jump, drop and fall and work with natural gravitational forces on the body. In this way, he suggests we can craft our bodies from the inside out, rather than externally stylising from the outside in.
Peter discusses how we can experience movement as a ‘felt sense’. He emphasises that intuition of movement should be stronger than the intelligence behind stylisation of movement. He also explains that movements can be identified through ‘naming’, Laban analysis being a way in which to do so. Through this naming process dancers understand each other and various movements; as they learn and speak the same ‘language’. When asked if he feels like he can experience something though dance that he could not in everyday life, he agrees; ‘Yes, I think through movement itself, and becoming conscious, becoming aware of movement…. we expand the movement range of the body’. Translating this awareness and consciousness into everyday life, Peter urges dancers when they leave the dance studio not to leave the dance behind;
…Not to leave that thinking and that bodily sensation behind, but for them to become aware of those movements and those sensations in their daily life as well. To take that consciousness and awareness into their daily life, so it becomes more like daily life helps dance and dance helps daily life… So it is interrelated.’
In talking then about the senses and ways in which we experience movement, Peter was asked which particular sense he feels is the most important for a dancer. He suggested that dancers could tune in more to their ‘sixth sense’, ie their ‘intuitive sense’ (rather than one of the general five senses, although he agrees that these senses are still very important, especially touch and sight). By intuitive sense he means our dynamic range- senses of space, of distance, of time; all elements of kinesthesia. He agrees that sight is often overrelied on, especially by the use of mirrors and video feedback. It is suggested that instead of during and post competition using visual feedback, to check in the body instead with the felt sense; ‘how did that feel?’. Also when receiving feedback from coaches during competition, to again ask for feedback from their ‘felt sense’; instead of asking coaches ‘how did that look?’ to ask ‘how did that feel?’. Coaches, as well as the audience, when watching a performance will experience within their own bodies what is happening within the bodies of the dancers. Peter used an example of him watching me at a competition;
‘Watching you and David on the weekend, I said to you after the first round, ‘It feels high’. Because I had the feeling, I was up in my chest. I had a feeling of being high in my chest and not down low in the body.’
I then asked him if this changed in the final, if it ‘felt’ different to him. He said that in the final; ‘It ‘felt’ more confident. I didn’t feel so nervous and so worried.’ We can understand how felt sense within the dancers is able to be transmitted to the bodies of those watching.
Interesting to find through the interview that Peter believes that in everyday life, people have a greater sense of spatial awareness than generally experienced in dance. In speaking of this sense of space, he likened it to a busy city at lunchtime;
‘It is very busy and you sense space. You sense where you will go and your speed. The community speed if you like. The rhythm of it… I think it is a very natural, underrated sense of our selves. That sense of relating to each other. Are you getting closer to someone, is someone getting closer to you, do you need to actually orientate your body in a different way to let them pass.’
He believes that dancers should take this sense of space, of relating to each other, onto the dance floor in a competition. In this way dancers would be able to have greater awareness of their own bodies in relation to the space around them; in relation to other people’s bodies on the dance floor. If another dancer is getting close to me, what do I need to do to change, or will they be able to change? It is this that he feels we intuitively feel in everyday life, which we could tune in to more and assist dance with. Again, everyday life helping dance and dance helping everyday life.
In the conclusion of the interview, Peter was asked to summarise why he dances in one sentence. His response was interesting;
‘One sentence…..Because I’m mad. I think it’s a form of madness, associated with my cultural upbringing. I was brought up in England, where it was the ‘stiff upper lip, don’t show any emotion, don’t move about too much, stand upright’….. a form of being a rebel I guess. We use the terminology, I dance because I’m mad, I dance because I’m different…’
To dance for Peter and to move his body in a way that ‘rebelled’ against his cultural upbringing, is interesting in thinking about the use of bodies across various cultures. In many cultures the use of the body in Latin and Ballroom dance would not traditionally be accepted, whereas in some cultures is more accepted. Peter also spoke of teaching various nationalities, where he has experienced cultural differences. Ranging from Italian dancers (very passionate and open in many of their movements) through to dancers from Asian countries (generally more modest in their movement patterns).
These cultural differences have meant that his teaching had to accommodate this, where he explains that while he does not attempt to ‘bring out’ dancer’s culture (as he may not know specifically their culture), he would not try to ‘block’ their culture. Rather, to initially explore ‘movement’ whilst allowing them to become aware of their bodies, before any form of stylisation is taught.
Habitus, Embodiment, Social World
My own experience already discussed involved the creation of my ‘habitus’ as a dancer. The way in which I walk, talk and in general ‘perform’ in daily life could be perceived as that of a dancer. This is due to my posture and movement patterns which have been embodied in me; they are in my body and are now a part of me; I cannot get rid of them! As Rudolf Nureyev stated, ‘I am a dancer’; the dancers habitus becomes their self-identity. A dancer explains the process of embodiment; ’It is second nature to me…I must have learnt it at some time, in the way that once upon a time I must have learnt to speak..the ability to learn movement, to recognise patterns and memorize sequences, is something I so much take for granted’ (Wainwright and Turner, 2004). Bourdieu describes a dancers ‘habitus’ as an acquired set of preferences that individuals think are natural and taken for granted (Wainwright and Turner, 2004).
A dancers habitus is developed through this process of embodiment of movement, so that it becomes ‘naturalised’; a part of them. This ‘natural’ habitus is constructed due to the social world in which they are embedded. One way of understanding this is that movement patterns do not actually come ‘naturally’ to us, they must be learnt. The way in which a child learns what is ‘right and wrong’ behaviour, must be taught to them and enforced on a daily basis by their parents, resulting in ‘naturalised’ behaviour patterns.
Dancers in general learn movement patterns in the same way and their habitus is constructed socially. Wainwright and Turner study ballet dancers, exploring ballet as a ‘social and cultural practice’; ways in which social worlds shape human bodies. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) describe habitus as the ‘outcome of the sedimentation of past experiences….the world has produced me’. Pylvänäinen (2010) studied the links between movement, embodiment and memory. He discussed ways in which our ‘cultural bodies’ are formed and ways in which taboos, ethics and boundaries are internalised and embodied within us. This links to what Peter discussed; how he has experienced differences in teaching different cultures due to their varying cultural bodily experiences. In these lines of thought, we can understand that the body of a dancer and the personal experiences that they have in their body are developed from a set of historically set social structures. In other words, the social world is embodied in dancers. Through this viewpoint, we can understand that a dancer’s body is crafted from the ‘outside in’, as we embody our social world in which we live.
Play, Experimentation, Somatic Learning
From another viewpoint, more in line with Peter’s way of thinking, is that we learn movement patterns through sensing, play and experimentation. In this way, crafting the body from the ‘inside out’. Sklar (2000) introduced the notion of ‘kinesthesia’ to me; the way in which we learn and carry meaning in a felt, somatic mode. This somatic knowledge is studied through Laban analysis, which explores the sociocultural significance of this qualitative, felt bodily knowledge (Sklar, 2000). Sklar suggests that we can ‘think through kinetic sensations’; movement as thinking. She describes the process of learning as initial kinetic sensations, transformed into somatic understandings. In this line of thought, she believes that imagination is unique to sensation, which must come prior to reason, as reason lacks sensual awareness.
This belief is shared by Peter; intuition must come before intelligence. The intuitive ‘sixth sense’ Peter refers to; kinesthesia, being this sensual awareness that dancers experience in their bodies.
Peter also discussed the transference of bodily sensation from performer to audience. The ‘aesthetic experience’ of a dance is understood as the impressions that are retained by the senses when the dance is complete (Vermey, 1994). Vermey discusses how dancers themselves sense dynamically and how dance is a form of expression. Due to this, the audience receives this expression and experiences ‘kinesthetic empathy’ for the dancers, which is what Peter experienced in his example of watching myself in competition.
Doing, Experiencing, Reflecting
Potter (2008) undertook a research project in which she herself went through the process of ‘becoming a dancer’. Following this, she found that through dance she was able to experience ‘doing whilst being’ with oneself. This simultaneous doing and being is a very intimate connection dancers experience between their mind and body; being ‘in the moment’, in the body. She explored ways in which dancers are able to ‘think through touch’ and the multi-sensorial experiences that dancers undergo when ‘becoming a dancer’. Nurse (2007) also studied competitive ballroom dance for her thesis. She similarly explored the process of ‘doing, experiencing, then reflecting’, how through dance movement the experience of sensation preceeds the self consciousness/self awareness thought process. These ideas of thinking through movement, as well as developing understandings in a felt, somatic mode, allow us to understand how the body can be crafted from the inside out.
Unconscious sensations + Conscious thought
Nurse also discussed how in performance it is the combination of both unconscious sensations as well as conscious thought that can result in a more open, believeable performance, in comparison to one that is bound by the performance of codified steps.
Nurse suggests that movement experiences in dance are ‘individually experienced but socially mediated’ (2007).
This relates to the naming and labelling of sensations and movements; the ‘language’ that all dancers share and understand. Examples of this language are the Laban analysis of movement previously discussed. It is through this means that we as dancers are able to understand each other and make sense of what it is we are experiencing in the body.
This research has investigated the experiences of dancers in their processes of embodiment, sensual awareness, creation of habitus and learning processes. The question originally posed was whether the body of a dancer is crafted from the inside out, or the outside in. There is much, much further research to be done on this topic. In terms of learning processes, it is unclear still as to whether as a dancer we learn initially from our cultural world in which we are embedded, or from a more bodily state of experience and experimentation. In my own experience, one cannot evolve without the other. We can understand that our bodies are socially produced by means of cultural learning; social worlds shaping human bodies (Wainwright and Turner, 2006). At the same time, we can also understand that in dance movement, bodily sensations preceede intellectual thought processes and it is through this felt, somatic learning that dancers can develop movement patterns. It is the question of whether the felt, bodily sensation or the cultural stylisation takes place first. Perhaps this is the choice of the dancer; to be a product of their social world, or to learn instead to feel, sense, experience their bodies for themselves.
Vermey, R. 1994. ‘Latin: Thinking, Sensing and Doing in Latin American Dancing’. München: Kastel Verlag.