Approaching the Subject


1.0  Introduction

This research developed out of my interest in the relationship between previous experience and the appreciation of dance performances. Initially this was stimulated by my involvement in the field of dance, and in particular by experiences working on the fringes of the dance community. These led to my becoming aware that what I had accepted as established norms in both ballet and ‘contemporary’ dance might strike people external to these fields as problematic. At the same time, I became increasingly conscious of marked differences in people’s responses to different forms of dance: these might be manifested in contrasting audience responses, in disagreement about the significance of aspects of a particular dance or conflicting opinions as to whether certain dance works should be considered as art. Such differences raised questions with regard to the relationship between wider cultural experience and the appreciation of dance. However, my experience of dance being enjoyed across cultural boundaries suggested that this relationship is not one of a straightforward correlation and, further, that understanding of the complexities of this relationship might be developed by exploration of how the significance of dance can be understood as embodied. I was interested in how audiences understand the significance of a dance work and the value judgements they make about it. What a dance is understood to embody may have an impact on both of these (not unrelated) aspects of appreciation. 


As I pursued my topic it became evident that while in the dance sector embodiment was a popular topic, there were variations in the theoretical context in which the term was used. Just what is meant by the terms ‘embodiment’ and ‘appreciation’ thus warranted conceptual clarification as part of the research. It was important to me to consider the conceptual issues that arose, not only in relation the theoretical context or even to my own experiences of dance, but by drawing also on the reflections of dance artists themselves.

1.1 Focus of the Research

The focus of this study is the relationship between what may be understood as embodied and the appreciation of (western) theatre dance. Contemplating ‘embodiment’ in relation to (western) theatre dance, a cultural activity that people do within the context of ‘the arts’, suggested an interdisciplinary approach to the research: discussion of ‘embodiment’ entailed drawing on sociological and anthropological perspectives, exploration of different ways of conceptualising mind:body in philosophy, and, in relation to the appreciation of dance,  consideration of philosophical aesthetics and developments in the field of dance analysis. Further, due to my own experience of how dance theory can become disengaged from practice, and the suspicious attitude to ’theory’ of many dance artists, I was anxious to ground my reflections by reference to accounts of those involved in making and performing dance. It therefore was important to incorporate information arising from elements of ethnographic research. While it may seem unusual in an account of appreciation to consider the artists’ experience, it will be seen that this is important in an approach that will explore the relationship between performer and audience as central to understanding dance as a communicative act in which what is understood as embodied can be an important element. 


Recognising that the chosen research topic would inevitably lead to quite complex issues in consideration of embodiment and appreciation, it seemed prudent to restrict the dance focus of the research. This could have been achieved by focussing on one dance form or genre [i] . However, given that the breakdown between the boundaries of genre has become a feature of much current dance practice, I decided to situate this exploration in relation to dance as a performing art taking place within a specific geographical context. Since what I had already found to be problematic were issues raised by dance within a culturally diverse society, I chose to focus on an area which demonstrated a rich variety of dance and a culturally diverse population. London at the turn of the millennium certainly fulfilled these criteria; moreover, having created work myself within this milieu and having worked within community dance in South East London, I recognised I would be able to draw on these experiences as ‘insider’ to gain access to artists which would facilitate the ethnographic aspect of the research. 


This choice did lead to some difficulties in deciding on the conceptual parameters of this interdisciplinary study. For instance, in terms of an exploration of the social  context in which current dance practices are situated, to ignore issues of cultural diversity would be absurd given the extent concerns linked to these issues (immigration, racism and security for instance) regularly feature in the popular media. The interplay between people from different cultural backgrounds has been an important element of my experience in London and it seemed appropriate to frame the research so as to highlight some of the facets of cultural diversity. Yet to consider all the theoretical perspectives on London’s diverse population, especially in the light of events that occurred after I chose my topic [ii] , would make the study unwieldy or disproportionately concerned with one issue. Similarly, while I situated my understanding of dance appreciation within the traditions of (western) theatre dance, I was aware of a number of artists who drew on ‘non western’ traditions but presented them within the context of western theatre. It seemed important not to discount such artists, but to research all the different dance traditions thoroughly in relation to different cultural traditions in the arts would have been impossible in the time allocated. So I restricted my focus to considering the range of dance presented for performance in London on the basis of what emerged from discussions with artists. This was then reflected upon in relation to a framework of understanding that emanates from the European and North American perspectives that currently dominate the field of dance studies in the UK. For instance this meant that differences in approach to the appreciation of dance that are important to traditions in South Asian and Egyptian dance were only viewed from the perspective of the artists rather than from the perspective of a fuller study of those dance traditions. This had the benefit of highlighting the difficulties for those artists presenting work that drew on ‘non western’ traditions but at the expense of fully understanding the traditions on which they drew.


Consideration of the above led to the following research aims:


1.      To develop a broad overview of some approaches to the concept of ‘embodiment’ in dance studies and in the fields of philosophical aesthetics, anthropology and sociology;


2.      To explore the implications of the above in an investigation of the  appreciation of dance;


3.      To explore ‘embodiment’ further in the context of the acts of making and appreciating dance by ‘non aligned’ dance artists working in contemporary London.



1.2 Initial Development of the Research Method

If defining the conceptual parameters of the research was difficult enough, even more problematic was the question of how to develop a research method. What was required was one that allowed for in depth reflection of the concepts of embodiment and appreciation in relation to dance whilst situating this within a shared framework that drew on the experience of others. If too much focus was placed on my own theoretical reflections there was a risk of losing a sense of wider relevance. Or, conversely, given as wide a field as dance performance in London,  there was a danger of losing sight of the theoretical complexities in an attempt to be as inclusive of as many different perspectives as possible. However, I came to realise that the questions of what artistic and theoretical approaches to include, rather than being thought of as two different issues, could be usefully interrelated: by focussing on the issues that arose from the consideration of the perspectives of dance artists working in London, the theoretical context could be derived, in part, from their concerns. In developing a framework for interdisciplinary research, reflections from one perspective might lead to findings that could be further pursued within a different area drawing on different research methods. As the dance anthropologist, Andrée Grau, has observed in relation to research with Pan Project (Grau,1992,10), the point of interdisciplinary work is not to work from the basis of one subject area, bringing two or three others into it, but to create something new. Recognising that I was pursuing research that was neither based in the field of philosophical aesthetics whilst drawing on anthropology and sociology, nor could be identified as ethnographic research that drew on aesthetics and sociology, I worked to develop a method appropriate to my specific concerns about dance. In recognising that contemplating dance can lead to a crossing of disciplinary boundaries I was in part following in the tradition of choreological studies developed by the dance educator Valerie Preston-Dunlop (1998). This framework draws together insights from as far afield as aesthetics, anthropology, phenomenology, physiology, psychology, and semiotics to inform dance students about their art. Such a breadth of approach has not been achieved without criticism of its lack of ‘parameters’ (Mackenzie,1990) but has been an effective solution to the practical problem of educating artists whose central focus is necessarily bodily being.


The research method I developed drew on some interviewing and observation techniques used in an ethnographic approach. Following Adrienne Kaeppler’s distinction between anthropologists and dance ethnologists, it was clear that in her terms my investigation would draw on the practices of the latter, who ‘study context...primarily to illuminate the dances’ on which they focus (Kaeppler, 1999, 16). In contrast to most dance ethnologists, it was unlikely that I would undertake extensive participant observation as I was not envisaging only considering the work of those whom I could dance alongside. Even if artists could have been found who would let me dance with them, the logistical implications of being trained and knowledgeable enough to undertake this would have restricted the scope of the research to those dance forms I had trained in, or necessitated many years’ study to establish a working knowledge of a wider range of dance. That I was intending to draw on my previous experience in working as a dancer/choreographer within the context I was exploring meant that I would be approaching the research from the perspective of a sometime ‘insider’ in addition to the ‘outsider’ perspective. Within dance research generally there is a developing tradition of ‘dance ethnography at home’ (Koutsouba,1999) while in Britain, the sociologist Helen Thomas and the folklorist and dance ethnographer Theresa Buckland have revealed ethnography to be a valuable method for researching dance nearer to home than the far flung locations associated with the anthropological exploration of ‘other’ cultures. Buckland for instance studied a particular form of folk dance, the Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers of Bacup, Rossendale, in the North West while Thomas, working in London, has used an ethnographic approach to study ‘the meanings of social dance for groups of participants who are entering or have entered what has become known as the “third age”’ (Thomas, 2002, 54). 


In discussion of another of Thomas’ projects, a study of youth and community dance groups in South East London, her ethnographic methods are allied to those of Clifford Geertz. From Thomas’ discussion of Geertz’s concept of ‘thick description’ it is clear that in this approach, ethnography is in itself an interpretative act. Geertz himself stressed the importance of viewing the analysis of culture as being ‘not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning’ (Geertz, 1973, 5). Developing my reflections on appreciation and embodiment in tandem with limited ethnographic research would still mean that whatever conclusions I arrived at could not possibly be considered as all encompassing, or even as an ‘objective’ representation of others’ views. Rather, my analysis would be dependent on interpretation of others’ views. Yet, through careful choice of the artists whose views would be considered, and by allowing for their discussion of my views, it would be possible to ensure that my personal reflections were subject to the rigours of a more reciprocal process: my findings would emanate from a particular point of view, but in relation to the chosen focus they would benefit from the elements of intersubjectivity built into the research, that is as long as the perspectives of the artists involved were sufficiently different to mine. The important question then became how to draw on artists’ perspectives and, given the number of London based dance artists, on whom to focus. 


1.3 Choice of Research Participants

The choice of participants was in part guided by my own experience of working in London and, in addition, informed by other writers’ observations. For instance, in the field of dance studies Gay Morris draws on the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion of how agents develop strategies to further their dance activities in relation to the amount of ‘capital’ (economic, social or cultural) they possess (Morris, 2001, 54), while dance anthropologist Judith Lynn Hanna offers an account of dance in urban environments:


Greater opportunity for a creative element to develop tends to exist in the urban area…..


[but] ‘The less a dance conforms to the norms of urban decision makers or high status groups, the less likely it is to survive unmodified and/or to be widespread in an urban area.


Hanna, 1979, 227


Such considerations combined with reflection on my own observations suggested that those London based artists whom I termed ‘non aligned’ (not creating work for established touring companies) would be most likely to be interested in investigating how their physical presence might be understood and how their work relates to the norms of what they perceived to be the status quo of ‘established’ dance companies. Further, it seemed likely that those who might feel they did not quite match what could be regarded as the generally established norms for dancers would be most likely to be willing to discuss such norms and what assumptions might be thought to sustain them. 


A benefit arising from this approach to the choice of participants was that while within the field of dance studies there is a reasonable amount of literature about how established dance artists have approached, or still are approaching dance, less is available about emerging and less well known artists. If not written by established choreographers themselves, there are many texts that include their ideas through direct quotations. In terms of those working today, information about the choreographic approach of most artists presenting work nationally and internationally can be found quite easily, if not in academic texts then in promotional material. So, for instance, in addition to accounts of or by key artists from the past, we can read Merce Cunningham’s comments about his use of chance methods and what Steve Paxton has to say about contact improvisation. However, perhaps only a few lines in a programme exist for their less well documented counterparts. Moreover, with rare exceptions (such as Cunningham and William Forsythe) dance artists themselves are more likely to talk about how they approached making a specific work than how, in more abstract terms, dance is understood or appreciated. Such a topic is left for critics and aestheticians and the emerging specialist dance theorists. 


In part, my choice of participants was guided by who might be willing, prompted by me, to reflect on their experience of dance in relation to embodiment and appreciation. While initially I had proposed to advertise to find people willing to be interviewed, I eventually decided to discuss issues with people I had met through working in dance. Since what I was asking people to do was to reflect on their own work quite deeply, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of interviewing artists I did not know or towards whose work I had a negative response. I thus chose to talk to people with whom I already had some rapport.


At the beginning stages of the research my main focus was on choosing a range of people in terms of gender, ethnicity and tradition, so that different experiences would be drawn on. This led to my being less aware of the factors that led me to consider why I felt it would be easier to establish the mutual trust needed to explore some of the issues I would be raising. It was only later in the research process that I recognised this related to what the artists have in common and that this would emerge as important, revealing a specific point of view that shapes some of the findings.


Amongst those artists I did know and respect, I chose initially to enter into discussions with six artists who could be expected to present a diverse range of viewpoints. As can be seen from the descriptions below they draw on a range of dance forms and, while all now are British residents living in London, they come from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Although I was reticent in actively searching for information about 'class', there may be a correlation between ethnicity and differences in the economic status of their family background in that the two British African Caribbeans and the American born dancer of 'Hispanic' ethnicity seemed to have been the most affected by financial hardship when young. However the artists share some important features in common. First of all they make work in which they dance themselves which, in relation to the research, served to minimise some of the theoretical difficulties associated with the dancer’s role in interpreting (or these days even co- authoring) the work of a choreographer. If an artist was performing their own work, we could discuss their performance in relation to their own approach to making work and not have to consider the role of an absent third party, the choreographer. They also all have in common that they are quite mature artists who are developing their working practices outside the arena of established dance companies. All of them being well over thirty, places them at odds with a general emphasis in the dance sector on a youthful physicality. In addition, for a variety of reasons none of them quite matches what might be thought of as the idealized dancer’s image. Upon reflection as the research progressed I realised that what I found interesting in all the participants’ work was what I perceived as a tendency not to fit easily into established norms for dance but to create dances that seem to articulate unique visions. Moreover, what began to emerge, although was never overtly stated in formal interviews, was what perhaps could be described as a sense of integrity combined with a vision of their artistic practice as rooted in a holistic attitude to the self, even if that sense of self was fluid. While making them more likely to give as honest (if not always fully revealing) answers to my questions as possible, such a position perhaps makes them, as a group, more inclined to link artistic and ethical considerations than might be generally found.


What might be termed the artists’ ethical approach seemed broadly in line with the performer and feminist scholar Ann Cooper Albright’s (1997) account of ‘contemporary’ dance discussed in chapter four. Although focussing on ‘contemporary’ dance, the work she discusses tends to reflect the outlook of those who may perceive themselves to be in opposition to ‘ the mainstream’, their work drawing, for instance, in part on their identities as gay, black or disabled. Reading Cooper Albright, in preparation for the research, reinforced my curiosity to see the extent to which the artists I interviewed were conscious of their position in relation to the mainstream and the potential significance of their own embodiment.


1.4 Details of Project Participants

Some of the artists wished to stay anonymous: in addition to their individual privacy, it became apparent that what was discussed drew on issues that had wider implications than what might be considered purely personal. The dance community being quite small, some artists felt that those who they have worked with, or for, might (mis)interpret their comments negatively and anonymity permitted a level of candour that otherwise they might have been worried about. For ethical reasons it was important not to publicise someone’s point of view that they only wanted to share confidentially.


In order to distinguish between the different interviewees and to provide some context for their points of view, some information about them is offered below. This is drawn from the artists’ responses to the same questions. Variations in how they are described and the amount of detail or insight offered into their work thus reflect what they wanted to say rather than judgements on my part.


Artist A

A white female choreographer, in the forty to fifty years age range who after early training in ballet studied for four years at Laban. Artist A’s own work is in the field of mixed­media, working with dance and video.


Artist B

A male choreographer, British African Caribbean, aged between thirty and forty who started dancing as a young man in clubs in the north of England where he grew up. He later trained in a dance college in ballet, jazz and ‘contemporary’ dance but continued dancing in clubs and creates work drawing on this background in addition to elements from other dance traditions and what he observes in everyday situations.


Nina Anderson

A female artist of African Caribbean ethnicity born in the UK, aged between thirty and forty years old. Nina Anderson’s early enjoyment of, and interest in, dance led to her seeing a performance of Egyptian dance and then formal training for nine years at the Hilal School and Raqs Sharki society. She expanded her dance training to include, ballet, ‘contemporary’ and jazz dance and theoretical studies which informed the development of her own research into ‘movement performance psychology’ and Egyptian dance, the latter drawing on approaches outside her earlier training. Anderson describes her solo performance work as drawing on different styles within Egyptian dance, trying to keep a link to a traditional source but in a contemporary context. She is also currently developing ideas to bring her writing into a performance context and recognises that her experiences in dance have helped her in this. 


Artist D

A male dancer and choreographer, aged between forty and fifty who describes his ethnicity as 'Hispanic'. He began training in Graham technique aged seventeen, and then moved on to study Limon and Cunningham based techniques. His work is informed by Alexander technique and somatic disciplines which he started studying at the age of 19 and continues to do so. He made the following comment about his work:


I would like to think my work transcends my racial make up but is just an accumulation of 42 years of trying to exist within my condition (Hispanic, gay, male living far from family and roots).



Gaby Agis

A white female dance artist aged between forty and fifty whose initial dance background began with ‘slightly conventional’ ‘contemporary’ dance followed by ‘a lot of improvisational work, releasing, voice, contact and visual art’. This artist described her work as:


Structured with elements of improvisation within performance. Site [is] very important to the placement of the work. Collaborators involved in sound, visuals, though have a big influence on the process and product - including the dancers.


In addition Agis stated:

[I am] Interested in when, how, why work is made-The cycles of creations! The unfolding! Sometimes work can take three to four years to make. [Does it] feel usual in the dance world to take time?



Sushma Mehta

 A female artist aged over sixty who describes her ethnicity as Indian, Sushma Mehta undertook traditional training in the UK from Priya and Pratap Pawar for many years with occasional master classes with Kumudini Lakhia, Saswati Sen and Pandit Birju Maharaj. Mehta enjoys working with contemporary themes. She states that the core of her work is in the movement vocabulary of kathak:


I like to stretch its boundaries to encompass the theme. I often use creative movements from other physical disciplines as appropriate. My aim is to keep a balance between preserving traditional material and making new works by deconstructing and re-structuring the movement vocabulary of kathak, using it as an eloquent means of artistic expression. My teaching involves passing on the traditional repertoire to the students.



1.5 The Initial Research Process and Clarification of Research Questions


In preparation for the initial interviews I worked to clarify my understanding of the conceptual issues surrounding embodiment and the appreciation of dance that are discussed in chapters two and three. In particular this preparation brought to my attention how different writers on embodiment were exploring various, potentially interconnected dualisms. Reflecting on this research and my own experiences of dance training and performance, I was interested in how those creating dances to be performed by themselves approached the interrelationships between the subjective experience of the embodied self and awareness of being the object of another’s gaze. This then became the focus of what, following Hammersely and Atkinson's (1992) [1983] use of Malinowski's terminology, might be termed a 'foreshadowed problem'. The planned discussions however were not intended to ‘prove’ a particular account of embodiment. Rather I planned to explore how some artists viewed this relationship to inform my theoretical approach.


I viewed the participants in the research as fellow dance professionals and potential co-researchers. As I did not want to inhibit the participation of those less well versed in current cultural discourses, the first series of discussions were planned by preparing a framework of initial questions in quite general, everyday language, asking not about ‘culture’ and ‘embodiment’ but about what influenced the artists’ work, how they set about creating, their experiences of creating and performing and of audience’s responses to them. This ran the risk of seeming vague and imprecise (and perhaps precise answers in relation to embodiment were lost) but it was important to signal that it was the participants’ views and experiences that were important, rather than that these were viewed as subordinate to theoretical constructs.


The initial series of discussions all took place between December 2002 and June 2003 and were tape recorded. I had suggested the artists forward video, pictures and articles that they thought would inform me about their work. This was not a popular option. However two women brought video to the interview and all of them knew I had seen them perform in their own work. Each discussion started according to the basic planned format but varied in duration, location and atmosphere.  Although I had a prepared list of questions (see appendix one) and commenced with the first set question, the discussions then took different turns. The planned questions started with an exploration of the artist’s dance background and then moved on to their experience of the relationship between their embodiment and their dance and then to an examination of the significance of their dance. I attempted to cover this in one session which was contrary to the suggestions of Seidman (1991, 11-12) who proposes a three interview structure covering relevant life experiences in the first interview, details of the relevant  experience in the second and reflection on 'the meaning of their experience' in the third. This difference in time structure that does not maintain boundaries between experience and significance may account for why, even with a prepared structure, the discussions took markedly different routes through the subjects suggested. However, what I experienced was that in the process of each discussion, since the subject matter drew on personal issues, there were variations in how much and when people would share their experiences and concerns with me, especially while being recorded. Moreover, I wanted the focus to be on the artists' understanding of the significance of their actions. To this end, rather than follow the planned questions rigidly, it was useful to pick up on words or phrases that the interviewees used, asking them what they meant by them. This would tend to lead towards broaching a subject that had initially been planned for later in the discussion.


Similarly the original plan was changed since while in some situations it was easy to ask direct questions about sensitive issues, in others more time might be needed before raising these issues. For this reason it was sometimes useful to share some of my experiences, or to enter into discussion about other issues that arose. That I had closer personal relationships with some artists than others, together with variations in location, contributed to these differences. Listening to the discussions I noticed that the more ‘different’ and less familiar the participant to me, the more reticent and nervous I was. The most  marked contrast was between a quite chatty, relaxed, over one hour long discussion, that took place at the home of  Artist A, a female of similar age and cultural background with whom I have worked creatively, and a shorter, more tentative questioning of Artist B, a male whom I know less well, who knows me as an administrator rather than as an artist and, as I later learned of his background ‘off the record’, whose early life experiences were very different to my own.


Reflecting on these discussions, I began to appreciate how these artists talk about dance. Rather than a striving for a rather linear, academic clarity there is a tendency to metaphor and the poetic. Sometimes artists answered what they had (correctly) understood as the subtext of my question rather than the question itself. Often they mixed the perspectives of performer and audience member, switching subject positions mid sentence. (Most of these were clarified in the editing process so that they relate to one clear perspective, but I found these initial slippages indicative of a way of thinking rather than of a lack of clarity). In turn I found it was sometimes easier to discuss issues with them as ‘dancer to dancer’, rather than maintaining some sort of ‘distance’ by sticking to my prepared script. This flexibility in relation to my prepared structure led at times to my becoming rather too interested in my own ideas which inhibited the artists’ response and meant I ran the risk of encouraging them to give me the answers they thought I wanted, a risk heightened by our existing relationships within the context of the dynamics of the dance sector. However, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1989) [1983] discuss in relation to ethnographic research, the phenomenon of the effect of audience is always an issue. While undoubtedly my relationship to the artists will have had an effect on what they said, this may not all be negative. While their existing relationships with me and knowledge of my interests may have led to their giving a different emphasis to what they said, if the artists had not known me they might not have been willing to say as much. Whoever they talked to, they would certainly have had some, perhaps imagined, idea about what was expected of them. For their part, the artists seemed to take the discussions very seriously, trying to explain their experiences accurately and correcting themselves if they felt they had not used the most appropriate word, even if it was one I had used previously. Their later attention to the final editing process also offered a chance to address any issues of imbalance in the earlier discussions and to minimise the risk of my misrepresenting their views to serve my own agenda.


Even so, to a greater extent than perhaps is common in research based on interviewing techniques, these factors indicate that my voice was already ‘present’ alongside those of my participants before I reflected further on the findings. It is very much my interpretation of what was communicated that is revealed in the following account of what I perceive to be important themes that emerged. Therefore the rigour of this research methodology cannot be claimed to lie within any objectivity of my interviewing techniques but in the clarity with which I have reflected on a combination of my own and others’ viewpoints to explore the issues I perceived to arise.  In order to reflect my active participation I have thus written about this element of research as based on ‘discussions’ rather than on ’interviews’.


The importance of such reflexivity is recognised in many current ethnographic studies. Charlotte Aull Davies, for instance, argues for an ethnographic approach that 'embraces its intrinsic multi-layered reflexivity without turning inward to complete self-absorption' (Aull Davies, 1999, 25). Her approach recognises the importance of recent (poststructuralist) insights revealing the power/knowledge distortions of underlying metanarratives, and aims to draw attention to multiple perspectives. However Aull Davies is wary of falling prey to an extreme relativism that is ultimately destructive of the attempt to undertake ethnographic research (Aull Davies, 1999, 6-25). Aware of these issues I was attracted to the concept of dialectical anthropology developed by the anthropologist John Blacking. As described by the dance anthropologist Andrée Grau this is,


…a process in which there is an exchange between analysts and informants which brings into play two kinds of technical knowledge and experience, and in which informants share the intellectual process of analysis.


Grau, 1992, 6



While in the limited use of ethnographic research planned within an interdisciplinary context I could not achieve such a process fully, I ensured that the artists involved had the opportunity to feed back to me on what I had written and where possible, in the next stage of the research, this informed some future discussions and at the very least led to the artists reviewing and editing what I had concluded from discussions with them.



Reflection on the initial series of discussions helped to further clarify the focus of the research and it was at this stage of the research that I was able to re-formulate the focus of my project to arrive at the following research questions:


Within the context of dance as a theatre art presented in London -


1.      How might consideration of embodiment contribute to the appreciation of dance performances?


2.      What issues does such consideration bring into focus?



1.6 Refining the Research Method

These questions informed the development of the research. From the first set of discussions I was already aware of some key issues that had emerged in relation to the dance artists’ understanding of the significance of their embodiment. Ranging through cultural diversity, class, age, approaches to gender and sexuality, globalisation and the conditions of late capitalism, embodiment in relation to any of these topics could be a thesis in itself. I was aware of a sense of scratching the surface in order to exemplify the relationship between embodiment and appreciation. Yet it seemed important to try to draw on all these aspects, not least because I came to recognise how they were interrelated with one another. Research into these contextual issues was carried out in preparation for further discussions. This period of the research stretched out over two years (2004-2006) and unlike the previous interviews was less formally organised. 


The choice of the artists with whom I would enter into further discussion drew on my increasing recognition of the fact that discussing issues with artists from different dance and/or cultural backgrounds was beneficial in encouraging me to contemplate issues from a range of viewpoints. The three artists (Nina Anderson and Artists B and D) participating in these further discussions shared some common ground with me, but each was influenced by experiences, both in dance and life more generally, that were very different to my own. In terms of these differences, most obviously two of them were male, one of them drew on a ‘non western’ dance tradition, another on aspects of ‘Black’ dance traditions and all three of them were of a minority ethnicity. In terms of similarities, one had an interest in anthropology, one had studied at ballet school at a similar time to me, and another worked within the field of ‘contemporary’ dance and shared some similar attitudes in terms of the work we both enjoyed.


It took me some time to recognise how my method for pursuing the research was related to my understanding of the subject: in relation to the appreciation of dance I was investigating the interplay between phenomenology and semiotics; in terms of the research method, by 'reflecting backwards' on my own experience of dance, in tandem with my discussions with other artists, I could contemplate what assumptions shaped my understanding and appreciation of what I had experienced; my phenomenological experience of dance was explored with reference not only to the views of others but to writings on subjects as diverse as dance, aesthetics and society. Initially, I had been concerned at how my research methods strayed across seemingly discrete approaches to the relationship of self to world and had been intent on tightening up on the theoretical context that informed them so as to present the outcome of a coherent view of the relationship between self:world. However I began to recognise that the ambiguity of how this relationship was constructed reflected the focus of my study. My interest in how dance artists (and often also their audiences) negotiate between the different ways of approaching dance was in paralell with my approach to the topic. For instance, in the field of ethnography, I came to discover that while Geertz promoted a ‘semiotic’ conception of culture’ (Geertz, 1973, 5) his concept of ‘thick description’, influencing my approach to the research, itself leaned on the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s approach to anthropology which combined phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation (Geertz, 1973,19). Moreover, reading Merleau-Ponty’s  key phenomenological text (1962) [1945] I began to recognise how the traces of phenomenological thinking influence not only the concept of multi perspectival description but also understanding of the sigificance of culturally deliniated bodily habits. 


As in the choreological approach developed by Valerie Preston-Dunlop (1998, and with Sanchez-Colberg, 2002), it was important to draw together different ways of experiencing and theorising about dance. Preston-Dunlop's work also reveals an issue that became another important concern for the research. While allowing theoretically for variations in interpretation depending on ‘past experience and present expectations’ of the spectator (Preston-Dunlop, 1998,11) at times Preston-Dunlop seems to suggest that meanings are fixed in relation to the choreographer’s intention; for instance, on the subject of Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1946), a plotless ballet created for the Royal Ballet, she claims: ‘Its content is Ashton’s belief in classical tradition, the relevance of classical order and beauty’ (Preston-Dunlop, 1998,15). This statement hints at what was to become one of the problems for the research: how could the significance of dance be both the product of the intentional acts of individual artists and of the interpretative acts of audiences enmeshed within signifying systems? This question was to raise a number of methodological and philosophical issues concerned with the ontological status of dance and the manner in which its significance may be dependent on the reciprocal interrelationships between dancer, audience and the cultures within which they are meshed.


This was the theoretical context in which I began to feel more confident about allowing myself to explore how I and the artists experienced dance. Trips to see dance with one or more of the artists, a discussion of dance on video, observations of the artists in rehearsals and/or performing and informal discussions about their own work all informed this stage of the research. Having started to read around the issues to which the previous discussions had referred, I also returned to the earlier transcripts recognising the significance of remarks that previously had not been considered as warranting particular attention. By referring back to previous discussions some of these follow up discussions could be quite short, but to the point. As the research progressed I felt that the formal recording of discussions was inappropriate as discussions would veer off into areas ‘off the record’. Instead I took notes of key points, sometimes checking a particular statement for a ‘quote’ but more often  hoping that the sense I had of what was being communicated to me was not too one sided.


Only mid way through the research, as I reflected on what I understood to be embodied in their work, did I come to recognise how perhaps intuitively, while on the surface choosing participants seeming very different to me, I had selected those with whom I  shared certain viewpoints. In the early stages of planning the research, I had envisaged myself in the later stages as being cast more in the ‘outsider’ role as I identified specific movement and postural organisation in the dance of others and through questioning elicited their possible significances. In fact what these stages of research delved into was shared assumptions about how movement embodied significance and, despite our differences, what we understood about the broader cultural context that shaped our appreciation of dance. The reciprocity of this relationship perhaps is best exemplified by Anderson’s giving me a book on reflexive ethnography which informed my understanding of my research method. It also emphasises that the artists can themselves be considered as researchers in their respective fields, their work culminating in performance rather than a written text [iii] . From what might be called ‘our’ collective perspective, the research thus reflects values that we share in relation to the arts and that ultimately shape the findings presented at the end of the research. The point of view put forward in this research, is thus just that, one approach to issues in dance appreciation shaped by a nexus of complex interactions between personal experience and social conditions. The drawing on seemingly different perspectives does not offer any promise of additional validity but did, as part of my methodology, build in a degree of intersubjectivity and served to deepen my reflection on issues where there was a danger of my inattention to what might be (dis)regarded as ‘given’.


As the research was beginning to draw to a close, a discussion about my interest led to an opportunity to observe some classes in August and December 2006 at Independent Dance (a London based organisation for London based independent dance artists) and to take part in a discussion on practice in December 2006. This provided an invaluable opportunity, not only for further observation of practice, but a chance to test out some of my findings. The December 2006 discussion replaced my original plan to share my findings with artists not involved in the research. Those participating in the Independent Dance workshops and discussion represented one group of ‘non-aligned’ artists, those working in a specific area of ‘contemporary’ dance that draws on techniques such as contact improvisation and somatic body practices that emerged out of alternative dance practices in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since the participants in this group seem to be predominantly white and middle class, this opportunity also served to balance the research in terms of the focus I had given to the artists from minority ethnic groups in the previous stage. 


In part due to adopting, albeit in a limited sense, a dialectic approach to dance anthropology (Blacking, 1977, Grau, 1992), it was important to the research process that the participants had the chance to review and discuss what I had written and edit what I had cited from our discussions. However there were also ethical considerations. As the research progressed, the distinction between what was ‘on’ and ‘off’ record blurred in our discussions. Even the boundary between what was a discussion linked to the research and what was personal communication was not always clear and I was determined that while I might let ‘off the record’ comments inform my interpretation of discussions about the research, I did not want the artists to find I had cited, even anonymously, something they had meant to stay confidential. While this may mean some of my conclusions appear less supported by evidence from artists’ statements than they might have been this, for me, within the framework of this project was not a problem: this research was a means to interrogate my assumptions and draw on others’ perspectives in order to develop my understanding of the relationship between embodiment and appreciation rather than to prove a particular correlation between culture and the significance of a dance.


I found that disseminating what I had written to the participants was useful in that this mitigated my having misrepresented their words. In addition, while admittedly some did not always pay much attention to what I had written, others came back with questions and ideas that furthered the research. While in the interaction between me and the artists there was a possibility that I contributed to ideas that informed their statements, the chance for them to later see what I had written led to chances to review their own words and my interpretation of them. Particularly as the research neared the end, the artists were all very conscientious in trying to ensure I had represented their views correctly and to this end suggested small changes where it was felt I had overemphasised a point or misunderstood the subtleties of what they thought. This reassured me that their input to the process had its own rigour which supported that of the research process as a whole.


As one artist pointed out, in the time between her interview and the chance to participate in the editing process her own thoughts had continued to develop (Agis, 2007) and some changes reflected the artists’ own development of ideas.  For their part, occasionally discussions would affect the artists’ work. This was particularly the case where conversations related to observations of rehearsals where artists were particularly concerned about how others viewed their work and might act in response to comments made.


While the research seemed broad in scope, drawing on aspects of philosophical aesthetics, anthropology and sociology in addition to approaches to dance as an art, in theoretical terms what slowly emerged was a need to develop a focus for my research method that viewed the same problems from the perspective of different disciplines. In as much as elements of the research drew on ethnographic methods I recognised why one ethnographer warns 'any statement about culture is also a statement about anthropology' (Crick, 1982 cited in Davies, 307). As I struggled to understand the relationship between the dancer and the appreciation of dance, I had to contemplate how I understood the relationship between individual and society, self and other, viewer and viewed, subject and world. Ultimately it seemed to me that these questions resulted from the same ontological and epistemological problems, or at least how in a particular time and place it is possible to think about them.


The complexity of the relationship between self and other is important to a discussion of the appreciation of dance, not least because the tradition of (western) aesthetics in relation to art seems to depend on a complex interrelation between a work of art, subjective aesthetic experience and what can be publicly agreed. In his account of the history of aesthetics, Monroe Beardsley, writing in the 1960s, was able to show how aesthetic theories were, in each period up to and including the early twentieth century, intrinsically related to their contemporary philosophical approaches to questions of mind, knowledge and ethics. Hence the influence of Cartesian rationalism can be seen in the late seventeenth century poetics of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (Beardsley 1966, 141). Similarly, the epistemological conflict between rationalism and empiricism provides the context for the concerns in Enlightenment aesthetics with how to respond to a work of art that appeared to follow the established (a priori) rules of art but the experience of which did not provide the expected (aesthetic) enjoyment (Beardsley, 1966,146). While the nineteenth century focus on the felt experience of the individual is hardly out of context within the development of liberalism and modernity.


In a study of the present, it is likely that views about how art is to be appreciated will be bound up with current concerns with mind:body:world and the relationships between them. Without the benefit of hindsight it is hard to catch hold of which particular themes and issues are most influential, but this project has tried to reflect on some of them that currently appear important. The present, however, is not viewed as cut off from history but rather as intertwined with the legacies of the past. From such a framework the ambiguities and complexities of how the relationships between mind:body: self:other:world are viewed in themselves could be understood as embodied in dance.



  Notes to Chapter One

[i] The term ‘genre’ is used by Hodgens (1988, 72-77) to distinguish between ‘different types’ of a particular category of dance that are ‘collectively distinct’. Ballet would thus be a genre within the broader category of ‘theatre dance’ that could be subdivided into different styles of ballet such as pre romantic, romantic and classical. 

[ii] The topic was proposed before 11.09.01 and renewed concerns in the aftermath about ‘multiculturalism’.

[iii] However, this might change as Anderson is interested in pursuing academic research while Artist B has an ethnographic interest in collecting video/film records of jazz dance.