Wednesday, March 07, 2012

For the Hindu/Friday review/Stretching beyond Idea

Dance has been broadly defined as movements of the body, a form of expression and social interaction. It is defined in terms of technique. It can be ritualistic and ceremonial.  We dance to express and release emotions, and to explore the body in ways that are different to everyday experience, sometimes by taking the body to extreme limits. Dancers also reinterpret the perception of time and space - time is sometimes determined by music and rhythm, whereas space is defined by the path followed by the dancer and the space the body occupies.

My previous article proposed that dance has a tremendously broad and inclusive definition. In fact, it must have multiple and fluid definitions in order to include new and evolving forms of movement under its umbrella. It is equally important, however, to recognize that what we call dance, although broad and inclusive, is not limitless. Certainly, not everything we do is dance. So, on what basis do we classify something as dance, and something else as not dance? I argue that we can do this on the basis of intention.

Any form of sport also requires stretching the limits of the body to extreme levels. Sportsmen also express themselves freely on the playing field. Yet, it is universally agreed that sports and dance are two distinct categories. I believe the distinguishing factor is intention. In a sport, the emphasis and intention is on the competitive display of skills rather than enjoyment in the movement of the body. This is not to say that dance is not a display of skills, and that watching sports cannot evoke enjoyment in the movement of a sportsman. But I believe that the primary intention of the sportsman and dancer in the above example determine the category of movement to which they belong.

Another example can be a procession or a march. Again, movements here are choreographed and stylized, and powerful emotions of solidarity are expressed. But here again, the primary intention is the mobilization of people, not bodily movement or emotion. Certainly, the focus is not on the enjoyment of movement, or the awareness of how the body moves when marching.

Finally, the leap of a gazelle is sometimes more beautiful and graceful than a dancer’s movement. Here again, intention matters. When a gazelle leaps, it is performing an involuntary genetic movement, and its intention is to escape danger.  The leap is not intended to be an aesthetic self expression through the body.

Thus, one can argue that in order for movement to be considered as dance, the dancer must distinguish it as such and certainly must intend it to be dance. As is the case with the above examples, where a sportsman intends to display his skills to win a match, a person involved in a procession intends to mobilize people for a cause, and a gazelle leaps involuntarily in order to escape death, a dancer must intend to dance.

An American choreographer once choreographed a duet where two men simply stood still on stage or four minutes. It was undoubtedly a form of expression, perhaps even social interaction. It lacked dynamic movement, though. The experimental choreographer, however, intended it to be dance. Therefore, the spectators were aware that it was dance. 

A recent performance by choreographer Jerome Bel involved dialogue, two men sitting across from each other, talking about dance. Some would argue that the performance was theatre, not dance. The performers did dance, though for minimal amounts of time. Mostly, they talked. But the piece was undoubtedly about dance, and the power felt when both dancers depicted death through their respective dance forms was undeniable. This was the intention – to make people think about and experience the different dance forms. This intention allowed the performance to be called ‘dance’. 

To conclude, I contend that in addition to the exploration of the body movement that stretches beyond everyday activity, and the communication and release of emotions and self-expression, one must also consider intention when distinguishing dance from other patterns of movement.


  1. Thanks for throwing this open in a public forum Aranyani.
    This is an interesting idea to discuss in relation to dance (for performers AND spectators). To consider intention in dance is to consider human consciousness in shaping aesthetic form. The comparisons with animal and other organized human movement is very useful to clear the air. That done, I do think a deeper dive into this 'intention' is necessary. If anything to address the 'acceptance' of morphological prescriptions of texts like the Natya Sastra. (I find it far less useful to merely differentiate between music and noise, and more fruitful to explore the process of arriving at such a differentiation).

  2. hi,
    i must say it was very well written but then again i still don't think
    it conveys what dance is all about. dance is an art form that only
    depicts one's emotions but it can take a variety of hues that can
    range from seduction to just "doing the jig". i have a few questions
    for you, i hope you can help figure these out.
    firstly "dancing" in a disco an art and why so when it is performed
    under intoxication?
    then how does one sitting quietly be termed as dance, i thought it
    should involve some sort of physical exercise to say the least.
    which form according to you is the best portrayal of ones emotions and
    does this sort of form even exist?

    i hope you keep writing such articles in the future.

    1. Hi Dhananjay

      First of all, thanks for reading my article and sending me your feedback.

      You raise interesting points. Let me try to clarify your doubts as best as I can.

      First of all, my articles do not attempt to give black and white answers, but rather they aim to make people aware of the many shades of grey colouring the various issues I write about. So my article was not meant to convey what dance was about, but rather attempted to shed light on the various ways to define dance.

      Firstly, I think yes, dancing in a disco is also an art. It's just not the same kind of art that you would see performed n a proscenium stage. Do you discard it as a form of art only because it may involve intoxication? In that case, I must tell you that a lot of art is created under intoxication. Shiva, the god of dance himself is associated with marijuana. Moreover, many legendary writers, actors, musicians, painters and poets created work under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While I don't endorse either, they are not in conflict with the creation of art.

      Secondly, sitting down quietly can be termed as dance because of the less obvious, but very real truth that even as we sit, we're not still. We are still moving, so movement is still involved in such cases. Also, like I said, the intention of the performer or choreographer has to be kept in mind when deciding whether it is dance or not. A man sitting on the sidewalk begging for change is not dance, but a man sitting on stage with the intention to dance is, in my view, dance.

      I don't know which form is the BEST portrayal of ones emotions. I wouldn't look at dance forms in terms of good, better or best. I'm slightly against this kind of compartmentalization of dance because I feel it creates imaginary divisions amongst dance forms. I believe each dance form has the potential to be the best portrayal of one's emotions. What do you think?

      I hope this clarifies some things for you.

      And please do keep reading, and do keep sending me feedback and writing to me. Feedback really helps and questions such as the ones above are thought provoking, always good for a dancer and writer like myself!

      My articles will be in the papers every two weeks in the Friday review. Do follow the column.

      I look forward to hearing from you again.

  3. Hello
    My name is Priyanka, I loved your article on dance in today's Friday Review. I am a contemporary dancer and this expresses exactly what we do at our studio (Studio For Movement Arts and Therapies). Moreover i used to swim for the state when young, so i can totally relate to what is mentioned. Thank you!!!

    1. Hi Priyanka! I'm so sorry its taken this long to reply! I'm glad you liked my article. Do keep reading!