You may say I’m a dreamer: The potential of dance as a site of intercorporeal negotiation

‘…the capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the 21st century’.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Stuart Hall 1993, 261

Following on from the late Stuart Hall’s now famous observation, if it ever could have been assumed that dance audiences shared understanding of the significance of movement, in the context of the diversity of many populations both in the UK and in nations around the globe, it would be worrying if people continued to make this assumption. 

It’s worth remembering how in this country such an idea was still prevalent even towards the end of the last century. 

‘The basic movement material of the dance is impregnated with meanings with which the choreographer, performers and audience have come to terms.’ 


   Pauline Hodgens 1988, 65

While the ways in which dance is theorised have radically changed, current events have demonstrated there remains a certain urgency to recognising how our lived worlds are not shared:  we are not ‘all in it together’- the dimensions of ‘race’, and gender, (that were the initial pivot of intersectional theory) along with ability, sexuality -and in this country what might be still understood as ‘class’ -serve to position people in very different ways in whatever it is we are ‘in’. As the topics presented at this symposium explore, intersectional theories have attempted to acknowledge, in ways that are more nuanced than single identity politics, how the varied dimensions of identities have an impact upon how individuals are perceived and treated and the opportunities available to them. 

Yet such theories have been criticised for continuing the reliance on oppositional identifications that depend on fixed boundaries between terms (Jones 2012). This criticism serves as a reminder to be mindful of how our actions that attempt to remedy the effects of marginalisation can, if we are not careful, serve to reinforce the boundaries that work against the goal of inclusion.

Identifying, in linguistic terms, the complex identities that are marginalised is not the aim but a tool in the attempt described recently by Kimberley Crenshaw as being about ‘capturing dynamics and converging patterns of advantage and disadvantage’. As Crenshaw recognises these ‘are going to change from context to context’ (Crenshaw cited by Moffit 2021, para. 9). Or as Stuart Hall also acknowledged:


    There is the ‘difference’ that makes a radical and unbridgeable separation: and there     is a ‘difference’ which is positional, conditional and conjunctural, closer to Derrida’s     notion of differance, although if we are concerned to maintain a politics it cannot be     defined exclusively in terms of an infinite sliding of the signifier. 

Hall 1996/1989, 446-447

In relation to dance, I have long argued for the relevance of Merleau Ponty’s later analysis of a lived world which provides for intersubjective experience as a useful starting point for considering the significance of dance. This has led me to propose the potential of dance as a site for intercorporeal negotiation and perhaps even one within which inequalities can be destabilised. Here I should add it is significant that Merleau Ponty acknowledges language as part of the lived world –We cannot think naively of dance as an escape from languages and the social constructions  they reproduce – We also need to recognise that as a privileged white European male Merleau Ponty’s  (1968)  account of a lived world needs to be  developed to acknowledge how that world is imbued with the power relations described by Michel Foucault (1977) and that can be applied to an understanding of how inequalities affect the world as lived. 

Dance artists  can and do work to shift normative perceptions and my experience also suggests that dance events may draw people together creating, momentarily, a sense of a shared world that might be understood as what Victor Turner(1969)  terms  ‘communitas’.

Or is this an illusion that suits me as a white, middle class, ageing dance academic? There are also certainly times when I have felt like the outsider witnessing a group of others swept up in a shared moment which I cannot participate in due to the inequalities I sense are being reinforced. Do I only notice this on some occasions? Rather than facilitate negotiation across difference, its possible dance events may often serve to reinforce those distinctions that sustain inequalities.  

I worry this is a particular risk in the current arts ecology which positions people as ‘segmented’ consumers: the Audience Agency encourages producers to draw on the Audience Spectrum ‘which segments the whole UK population by their attitudes towards culture, and by what they like to see and do’ (The Audience Agency (n.d.) accessed May 2021)

The aim is for organisations to identify and reach more and different audiences. The audience agency is very careful not to suggest dimensions of ‘race’, ability, gender or class. Nevertheless marginalised audiences are rarely likely to be found at the same events as those attended by the category ‘metrocultural’ elite (audience agency n.d). 

Moreover, what worries me is that unless we are mindful of how we implement strategies to broaden engagement in dance we risk losing a focus on the capacity of the arts to engage people across difference. As someone working in education and the arts, it strikes me that the capacity to engage intersubjectively with people different to ourselves is an important skill that is undervalued. You would think that as a society if we were genuinely committed to inclusion, encouraging people and especially from all parts of society to engage in activities such as dancing together would be at the core of government policies. 

I argue that  what is needed is  more focus on how  dancing  has the potential  to engage people across the intersections of identities in ways that provide for  ‘difference’ to neither be ignored nor to be represented as the site of  impermeable boundaries. 

But how might we recognise and articulate this value in practical terms? 

What would be the implication for those engaged in dancing and making and producing dances?


Carr, J (2021) ‘The negotiation of significance in dance performance: aesthetic value in the context of difference’ in Van Camp, J. (ed.) The Bloomsbury companion of dance and Philosophy, London and New York: Bloomsbury pp.71-81.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. [trans. Sheridan, A] London: Penguin (First published 1975.)

Hall, S. (1992) New ethnicities, in Morley, D. and Chen, K. (eds.) Stuart Hall: critical dialogues in cultural studies, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 442-451. (First published 1989.)

Hall, S. (1993) ‘Culture, community, nation’, Cultural Studies 7, pp. 349–63.

Hodgens, P. (1988) ‘Interpreting the Dance’ in Adshead, J., ed. Dance Analysis, London: Dance Books, pp. 60-81

Jones, A. (2012) Seeing differently, a history and theory of identification and the visual arts, London and New York: Routledge. 

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) ‘The Intertwining-The Chiasm’, in The Visible and The Invisible, trans A. Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press pp-130-155. (First published.1964).

Moffit, K. (2021) ‘What Does Intersectionality Mean in 2021? Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Podcast Is a Must-Listen Way to Learn’, Columbia News, available at URL: What Does Intersectionality Mean in 2021? Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Podcast Is A Must-Listen Way to Learn | Columbia News (accessed 12th November 2021).

The Audience Agency (n.d.) ‘Audience Spectrum’ Internet page available at URL (accessed 1st May 2021).

Turner, V. (1969) ‘Liminality and Communitas,’ in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldline Publishing, pp. 94-113, 125-30.