Although all the elements of movement (body, space, time, and force) operate simultaneously in dance, one of the elements may come more to the fore when the choreographer pays more attention to it. However, this does not mean that the audience will also focus their attention on the same element. In fact, in the movement, in the choreography, or in the environment in which the dance takes place, a completely different aspect may also catch their attention. This is fine, because today we understand creation as an open communication, in which the creators give the audience enough freedom to shape what they see. In this blog I focus on the body and different perspectives on it that can be inspiring for choreographers.

It is remarkable that the relationship of dancers to their own bodies is often much more complicated than it would seem at first sight. We consider the body to be an essential “instrument” of dance, so we might expect dancers to approach it with the same sensitivity as musicians approach their musical instrument. However, the body is a far more complex phenomenon, and I personally do not find the idea of the body as a tool for dancers to be entirely descriptive. For it places the body in the position of a passive, sometimes even mechanical tool, which in turn evokes the necessity to control it.


(In)visible body

Why is the relationship of dancers to their own bodies often complicated? Dance as a virtuoso physical activity relatively quickly shows everyone the limits of their own body (and the mind). Dance training, in its own way of conveying information through a demonstration of dance, also presents dance models. The first ones are often the dance teachers themselves, they are also dancers who are successful in a particular dance style or technique, but the role model can also be an ideal (i.e. non-existent) dance body.

Having a role model is an important motivating element in the process of developing skills, but it is not the ultimate goal. Bridging the gap between the model and one’s own body requires long-term training, demanding precision, and endurance. Choreographer Jonathan Burrows comments humorously, “…the nature of dance classes sets up in us a constant belief in our ability to improve. I personally felt a bit sad when I realised that I was going to be old before I´d finally improved.” (Jonathan Burrows: Choreographer’s Handbook, p. 66) Such detachment helps dancers accept the paradox of the imperfection of their own bodies, which is very liberating.

In fact, a great effort to achieve a model often leads to too much control and painful manipulation of the body. Physical effort is an integral part of dance, but dance as an art form is far more than a laborious physical performance. Too much focus on the external model leads the dancer’s attention away from his or her own body. The dancer separates from her/his body, and at the same time moves away from the possibility of feeling what dance could actually be – an expression of her/his own uniqueness.

In addition to all this, one has to consider one stranger phenomenon related to the body: for most of the day it is almost invisible to us – it recedes into the background of our perception to fulfil the role of a servant. It enables us to live our lives to the full, to fulfil our desires, but in reality we have no clear awareness of how it carries out all its activities. We look but do not perceive our eyes, we hear but do not perceive our ears, we move but have only a faint sense of how our body moves – even dancers. The body is so obvious to us that when we begin to work with it in dance, we are surprised at how complex it is and how much attention it requires. Strange, isn’t it?


The living body

When we talk about the body in dance, we mean a complex identity that consists of an invisible part of our being in addition to the physical body (appearance, structure, and body systems) – I will call it the inner self for simplicity’s sake. It includes the mind, soul, and spirit as the bodily experienced characteristics of a person. Dance can express this complex body-self-identity excellently. If the choreographer perceives the dancer not only as a body, but holistically as a personality, she/he necessarily respects the individuality of her/his expression. Movements are not formal (external) but animated and uniquely shaped from within.

(Question: What type of choreographer are you? Do you imprint your idea into the dancers’ bodies, or do you let them grasp your idea through their own perception and embodiment?)

For dancing, the concept of the living body is very interesting, which explains phenomenology – a significant philosophical movement of the 20th century. Phenomenology attempted to deal with the idea that the body and mind are two separate substances, which was introduced into philosophy by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). Starting from the notion of the body as a pre-set machine, Descartes accorded the body a more inferior status and linked the existential experience of human existence exclusively to thought. This is summed up in his famous statement “I think, therefore I am.”

The mechanistic view of the body has persisted for centuries and is still not completely overcome in general perception. Phenomenological philosophers have begun to seek new solutions to the relationship between body, mind, and spirit that offer dance both stimulating inspirations and key concepts to name the bodily experience of being. Two in particular are of interest: body-object and body-subject, which refer to two distinct attitudes towards the body and have greatly influenced the development of thinking about the body in contemporary dance.

Body-object is a concept that expresses an objective attitude towards the body. When the dancer turns her/his full attention to her/his body and becomes an observer of it, she/he observes its actions as if “from the outside”. Of course, this can only be done partially, but it is an important ability. Dancers use it, for example, to develop an understanding of complex body actions in order to fine-tune body coordination, or when they are learning new dance material and watching in detail every movement of their body in order to memorize steps and movements, or to refine them. This attitude involves full attention to the way we perform body movements. One could say that it is a kind of “technical” or analytical view of the body and movement. Similarly, an “objective distance” is taken by scientists when studying the body. However, the body cannot be fully understood as an object. When I observe any part of my body in motion, I cannot completely separate myself from it. However, the importance of such an attitude towards the body is that we can learn from ongoing experience through it. And this is invaluable for dance.

“The body-object can be known in the sense that the body itself can become the object of our attention, but the body-subject can only be lived.” (Sondra Horton Fraleigh: Dance and the Lived Body, p. 15). The term body-subject refers to the state when the dancer is fully immersed in his/her dance. Movement becomes part of a complexly lived experience – body and self become one; the dancer does not observe the movement or its qualities, but lives them. This phenomenon is fascinating because it is beyond our full knowledge – it transcends us. We arrive at this state (which the American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named the state of flow) not by will but spontaneously. It is a fully conscious but pre-reflective (pre-observational) state where our conscious being flows without the intention to observe what is happening to us. In dance, these are amazing moments experienced as freedom, when I experience my body in the present moment, not dwelling on it or imagining it in the next moment. This state refers to my fully experienced wholeness of body-self.

Shaping the body

Embodiment as the conscious experience of the body in movement was practically addressed during the 20th century by movement scholars who developed the so-called somatic approach to movement, which was a response to the mechanistic view of the body from the previous centuries. The concept of the living body was introduced into physical training by the American philosopher and theorist Thomas Hanna, who drew attention to the fact that the living body has two fundamental, closely interrelated capacities: self-awareness and self-regulation.  The capacity for self-awareness allows it to listen to the processes of self-regulation that are taking place within it without the need to control them. In this approach to body movement, awareness – or the ability to focus attention – is directed towards perceiving, attuning, and sensitively using these internal processes. It is thus a perspective of attention to movement directed from the inside-out, not just at its external form.


Intelligent body

When we talk about the body in dance, we can’t leave out a crucial topic – its training. It is an everyday integral part of a dancer’s profession, so it is crucial what approach to the body it prefers. Contemporary dance understands training practice as a creative process of acquiring functional movement habits through the development of sensory perception and the use of imagery and cognitive processes drawing on knowledge from anatomy, psychology, neuroscience, and other scientific fields. It aims to develop the ability to live dance through the experience of the intelligent body.

Interestingly, the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who called his way of working via negativa, preferred a similar approach to training the body as contemporary dance. He understood it as a profound process of freeing the actor from the layers of limiting beliefs, fears and other psychological blocks that restrict his vocal and physical expression. He was convinced that the tendency to study many different techniques was not helpful, but rather detrimental to the actor, as it only created more habits that often obscured rather than revealed the true authenticity of his expression.

In contemporary dance, the term release or let go has become common. Its aim is not only the release of excessive muscular tension, but also the awareness and release of various superfluous (non-functional) ornaments of movement, which dancers have often unconsciously acquired through previous study of various dance techniques. By releasing them, dancers create a new, freer body based on an inner (kinesthetic) sensation, the precision of which is fine-tuned by sensitive sensory perception.

The attitude expressed as let movement happen actually means respecting the body’s own intelligence (understood as a highly complex self-regulating ability) – relying on it and not interfering with it by controlling movement too much. We get to know the body’s inner intelligence by becoming more sensitive to it – by listening. In fact, dance training should be about increasing the dancer’s sensitivity to his or her body.


Freedom to create your body-self

Listening opens the door to a mutually nourishing exchange – I create my body in the dance and my body creates me in the dance. Contemporary dance embraces this paradigm because it has abandoned the notion of the perfect body. It does not try to arrive at an ideal body but respects each body and discovers the potential of the individual body. It is interested in the lived experience of each dancer’s body-self and in revealing the ways in which this experience communicates with the audience.

Artistic practice (both training and presentation) is a creative process in which the body-self is perceived as an ever-forming living identity. Key in this process is the dancers’ intention to develop their potential. It often works with basic body habits (walking, running, sitting, standing up but also other more complex coordination) and their relationship to emotional and mental habits. These can be limiting in various ways and dancers often only become aware of them after they have released them in the creative process.

The process of creating the body-self develops in synergy with the free will of the dancers. It is a self-reflexive and responsible attitude towards freedom. If I admit that I create my body, I can also change it. However, only I can figure out in what way I can do that.

Freedom in dance cannot fully manifest without understanding my relationship of my body-self to space and time. Only I give myself freedom in the extent to which I can use them. It is not just a question of my bodily sensation, but of the whole experience of my body-self.


Functional & expressive body

Laban movement analysis uses as one of its key themes, the relationship between two perspectives on movement – function and expressivity. Understanding this relationship can provide choreographers with an inexhaustible resource for creating material for choreography.

Both views of the body and its movement are closely intertwined. Attention to the functioning of the body (to function) opens the way to the individual expressiveness of the dancers. The aforementioned principle of let go allows to fine-tune primarily the functionality of movement, but at the same time leads to a specific aesthetic quality of movement. The close interconnectedness of the two aspects of movement allows the freedom gained on one side to spill over into the other and positively influence it. It is a process by which the body – understood holistically – becomes alive and expressive.

The Möbius strip is an example of the particular relationship between the functionality and expressiveness of the body. It is formed by joining two ends of a tape so that one end is previously flipped over. The strip thus represents one side – when you run your finger over it without interruption you connect the inner and outer sides of the loop.

Training aimed at fine-tuning the functionality of movement works with the body as the object of exploration (body-object). This process involves two phases: first, learning about how the human body functions as a complex organism (universal body functioning), and then developing an understanding of how my own body functions with its unique features.

The functionality of movement (as well as its expressiveness) is influenced by the dancer’s ability to perceive and use other elements of movement – space, time, and force – in interplay. (I’ve written about the elements of movement in a previous blog.) Tuning the functionality of movement leads to achieving ease, which is a manifestation of the dancer’s ability to use a wide range of force, which she/he can distribute precisely throughout the movement to ensure fine-tuned whole-body coordination.

Tuning movement coordination is related to understanding the application of the time-force component of movement, which is manifested in the rhythm of the movement. Here, understanding the degree of force that a particular movement requires is key. The more functionally attuned the body is, the richer the range of dynamic qualities the dancer can display, and thus becomes more expressive.

Expressiveness is the aspect of dance that affects the viewers and stimulates their artistic experience. It is also the aspect of movement through which the personality of each dancer is revealed – temperament, intellectual and psychological dispositions color the expressiveness of movement with a unique vibrancy. Through liveliness as a conscious and free experience of oneself in dance (body-subject) each dancer expresses his/her view, his/her opinion, his/her interest

Expressiveness touches on the ability to release the flow of one’s own feelings, moods, thoughts, or ideas in dance. This process turns body movement into a dance “speech” that communicates through two channels: visual and energetic (see more in my previous blog). The visual expressiveness of movement develops an understanding of how a feeling or mood shapes the body, and also how the body behaves in space when that feeling occurs. The energetic expressiveness of movement develops an understanding of how the temporal quality of a feeling or mood manifests, and also what quality of tension it manifests.

Expressivity of movement does not mean learning some expressive clichés (unchanging movement patterns-automatisms); it is a deeply experienced body-self connection that manifests spontaneously and unpredictably, yet appropriately in a given context. One of the most important tools in this creative process is imagination, which for me is the bridge connecting the inner world of the dancer with the body. He/she can only make this world visible to the viewer through the expressiveness of his/her body.

Interesting concepts of body expressiveness

Body expressivity can be understood from different perspectives. The body can be strong (capable), graceful (well-tuned), beautiful (proportional), organic (intuitive) or mechanical (machine-like). Each body tends to certain characteristics, and at the same time, no body is able to fulfill all perspectives simultaneously. Certain tendencies (common features) in the expressiveness of movement, however, become apparent at first glance.

The different characteristics of singers’ voices inspired movement theorist Rudolf Laban to similar distinction of the expressiveness of the movement of dancers, whom he divided into three groups: high, medium, and low, where height of the body obviously played a key role but was not the only determining factor.

Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung defined the feminine and masculine sides of a person with the concepts of Anima and Animus, with each characteristic manifested in the opposite sex (Anima in a man and Animus in a woman). It is interesting to examine this concept in the context of the expressiveness of movement of dancers.

Personally, the concept of the two principles of Apollonian and Dionysian, which the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche derived from nature, but also understood as artistic principles, is very inspiring to me. The Apollonian principle manifests itself in qualities such as beauty, wisdom, light/radiance, harmony, order (solid form), permanence and stability. It embodies the dream/illusion and represents the creative process of individuation, i.e., separating from unity and becoming an individual. The Dionysian principle is older than the Apollonian principle. It is expressed by chaos and darkness as the primordial essence of unity. On the one hand it manifests as health, energy, joy, liveliness, playfulness, happiness, on the other hand as intoxication, obscurity, instability, destruction.

Nietzsche stressed the importance of the balanced action of both principles, which manifests itself in art as a distinctive authentic force. It is perhaps not surprising that the tendency towards the predominance of the Apollonian principle is especially evident in classical dance, and the tendency towards the Dionysian principle in modern and contemporary dance.

(Question: The works of which choreographers would you assign to one or the other principle according to the characteristics of their movement and expressive vocabulary?)

Do you think more awareness of these concepts of expressiveness would help dancers embrace and appreciate their qualities with greater self-confidence?


Choreographic sketch – video

What animates the body? How can dancers get the experience of the living body? The body is always alive, but unless we experience its aliveness – that is, live its aliveness – it often becomes automatic, perhaps even mechanical, which makes it appear rigid (lifeless). Even the non-professional viewer then sees that something essential to the dance is missing.

What can help develop a more sensitive perception of the body in motion?

  • Perceiving the shape of the body from the inside – a more sensitive awareness of the interrelationships of body parts and structures, how they change as the body changes shape.
  • Perceiving the breath helps to enliven the body – breathing is always happening in the present moment and anchors our experience in the present (HERE and NOW).
  • Small & large shapes – to understand the shrinking and expanding of the body shape as a living action, to sensitively distinguish the bodily sensations when the body expands (opens) outwards from the center during peripheral extension and when it contracts (closes) towards its center during flexion.
  • Perception of body weight shift – even a very subtle shift of weight will trigger a reaction throughout the body to provide balance, changing the shape of the body as the parts change their relationship to each other. This aspect is often overlooked but has rich possibilities for use in choreography.
  • Relationship: external architecture & internal body architecture – using space to shape the body. The architecture of space offers opportunities to support the weight of the body, creating new possibilities for movement.

In the video you can watch how the expression of the body and movement changes for you as the dancer changes the direction of her attention to different aspects. Notice what is interesting to you in the body expression.

Dear readers, if you would like to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic with me, I would be delighted if you would do so. Thank you for your comments J.


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