Dance: a 'perpetual vanishing point?'

A brief introduction to the philosophy of dance

Written by: Gwendoline Choi

What differentiates movement from dance? Is there an object to appreciate in dance that can be evaluated separately from the subjective perspective or experience of dance? Can dance be rationally understood and analysed?

Principally concerned with the last question, analytic philosophers have traditionally appraised dance as structured objects, as works of art with essential features that categorise them as dance. This would suggest that these structured objects could be multiply performed, or instantiated, as the same work of art. Swan Lake would be an example of such a performance. This view is known as the classical paradigm. However, each performance has multiple factors which render each performance unique, such as different casts, répétiteurs, sets and mistakes.

Thus, this paradigm seems to suit works of classical ballet or Highland dances, which have been formalised under balletic conventions, where there are codified steps that are combined to form a dance that is standardly recognised. This structure could helpfully contribute to the numerical identification of dance performances. But can the classical paradigm accommodate various genres like swing dance, which involves improvised elements that are determined by a partner, the emerging commercial genre which is hyperconscious of its marketability, or the ontology of a dance rehearsal or class? Moreover, can such a framework accommodate forms of dance which are not Western theatrical concert dances?

In ontology, there is a metaphysical distinction between a type, a token, and an occurrence of either of the former. A type is a general sort of thing, whereas a token is a concrete instance of a type. For example, in the sentence 'A cat is a cat', there are three words in the sense of 'types' (three unique words), and five words in the sense of 'tokens' (but there are five words). Thus, an analytic philosopher of dance could use this terminology to raise the possibility of a dance work such as Swan Lake being a type that is tokened in its various performances, under the classical paradigm.

However, the assertion of a type raises the problem of a dance work's identity. When Coralli and Perrot choreographed Giselle, they did not eternally fix the dance in that form. Qualitatively, the Giselle of Coralli and Perrot looks very different to production today - in no small part because the received choreography is based off Petipa's 19th century revivals. As well as all the structural and visual differences, the technological advancements have led not only to backstage improvements, but to pointe shoe advancements. During Petipa's revivals, the ballerinas would not have had nails in their shoes. Similarly, if a music video popularises a sequence of dance steps such as in K-Pop music videos, how much variation can exist in fan dance covers before it is no longer understood as a token of the type? How much difference can a type withstand before it is no longer a type?

In dealing with this dilemma, some philosophers claim that dance cannot be understood textually and that it goes beyond concepts that we can articulate using natural language. This is supported by the lack of consistent notation throughout dance history, and the importance of oral and visual recordings. Many features that are considered important to dance historians or notators may not cohere with an analytic understanding of essential elements to a dance work. In particular, non-structuralists stress the lack of premeditation in the creation of dance.

Improvisation and 'feeling the music' are key aspects of dance, even in highly structured dance environments such as professional companies. The contemporary dance genre is highly dependent on improvisation and responding to the emotion of the audience. Even if a song is brought to the studio, that does not determine the dance - it inspires it, such as in the case of lyrical. This understanding lends itself to dance styles that are less formalised. Many dancers would argue in favour of this understanding, as the defining characteristic of dance is its kinaesthetic aspect. Many see the intuition of dance as what must be given primacy - the proprioceptive phenomenology. This accommodates less structured styles and occurrences of dance.

Ontological (in)security: the disappearing nature of dance

If a non-structuralist approach is to be favoured, it could be said that an audience simultaneously experiences multiple works of art when watching a dance performance: the choreography as a work, the production as a work and the interpretation as a work (Meskin 1999). The last feature allows for the unique ephemerality of the dance to be captured in the framework. However, one problem could be the separation of these categories. If I were to watch two performances of Sleeping Beauty on video, how could I distinguish the production from the interpretation from choreography? This framework still cannot account for the instability and ephemerality of a dance work that is accorded by such an approach - it just separates it into different sections.

If the choreography is supposed to be a fixed type but the interpretation is not, that still does not tell me what of the dance movement is choreography and what is an interpretation. Under this understanding, a dance work is still not ontologically stable - there is not a fixed object independent of perception or experience. There is no token, nor no type. A positive understanding would argue that dance's disappearing nature adds to and characterises the enjoyment of dance, and allows for a unique emotional connection between performers and audience, binding the community. It could even be said that aesthetically, there is a value to dance disappearing and never being able to be fully captured. Thus, perhaps what is most important to dance is how it disappears as it comes into existence.

Marcia Siegel espouses such a claim, positing that dance is 'an event that disappears in the very act of materializing' (1972: 1), which prohibits reproduction. This rejects the classical paradigm. A paradigm that accepts the transience of some dance performances (such as street improvisation) but not others (such as Raymonda) would nonetheless have to account for the former's transience.

However, with technological advancements, could the preservation of every dance performance on video influence the ontological security of a work? Could any sort of preservation method be able to capture the performance of a work, or is the subjective experience of the viewer that is harder to distinguish always impede our experience of the work? Could a video or another preservation method capture the subjective experience of a performer - or does it have to? These questions point to a need to develop more multimedia ontologies.

Resisting classification: phenomenological approaches

Many reject the classical paradigm in favour of arguing that dance is the subjective experience of those performing it. The lived experience of dance and the transformation of the self are what characterise dance as art, as something beautiful. This has led to a strong tradition of phenomenological approaches to dance cognition.

Phenomenology argues that perception is a foundational aspect in experiencing the world. Under this lens, some go as far to say that dance can offer a unique perspective on the human experience of the world. Dancing is 'clarifying', 'freeing' or 'transcendent'. A dance class can be ritualistic, dance forms can be religious, dance performances can be political. Historically, dance has been integral to cultural and community formation and continues to be today. This approach could help us understand how we view aesthetics, identities and spectatorship.

A focus on dancers' experiences has also led to greater understanding of the effect of movement on the body, through experiencing highly unnatural movement practices such as going en pointe or hard Irish dance shoes. There is also the psychological argument that dancers have a highly cognitive ability to sense their placement and position through years of practice. Experienced dancers can correct themselves without visual aids, which could point to dance as a sensorimotor skill which is accompanied by a unique neural organisation (Bläsing, Puttke, and Schack 2010). Certain dance forms also stress a meditative experience.

The phenomenological approach gives primacy to the somatic as the site of being. 'The body is our general medium for having a world' (Merleau-Pointy 1962: 146). Perhaps mental activity could even be dependent on the body as well as the brain - embodiment, a movement in cognitive science. Therefore, advocates would argue not only does dance resist classification, it ought not to be understood in such a restricting way.

In the next article in this series, I will explore how dance has been understood phenomenologically as embodied enaction, evaluating whether dance as art can be considered as composed of action or not.


Bläsing, Bettina, Martin Puttke, and Thomas Schack (eds.), 2019, The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills, second edition, Abingdon: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1945, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard. Translated as Phenomenology of Perception, Colin Smith (trans.), New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Meskin, Aaron, 1999, “Productions, Performances and their Evaluation”, in McFee 1999: 45–61.

Siegel, Marcia B., 1972, At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance, New York: Saturday Review Press.