Exploring ‘Embodiment’:

Some Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives



3.0 Introduction

The previous discussion explored some of the ways in which embodiment might be understood in the context of different approaches to the appreciation of (western) theatre dance. Elements of this discussion may well be illuminated by a consideration of some anthropological and sociological perspectives on the body and embodiment. At the risk of even further generalising some very complex philosophical arguments, I will first attempt to summarise some key points of the previous discussion before introducing some relevant aspects of a range of writings of anthropologists and sociologists and consider their impact on the understanding of what is embodied in dance. In particular, in relation to the intertextual analysis of dance, I will discuss the use of some anthropological and sociological texts to support interpretations that draw on considerations of social factors. Further, I will consider the dualist approaches to body:mind, technique:expression, form:content that I touched on in the previous chapter to be symptomatic of a conceptual framework that, dominating the development of modern Europe, has had an impact on the manner in which embodiment is experienced and the body is understood in dance.



3.1 ‘Embodiment’ and the Aesthetic Appreciation of (Western) Theatre Dance

In early twentieth century western aesthetics there was a marked opposition between expressionist and formalist viewpoints, that is, between those that emphasised what the artwork expressed and those that viewed content as irrelevant to aesthetic concerns that were focussed on ‘formal’ properties. In both ‘traditional’ aesthetic approaches, the aesthetic qualities of a work of art, formal or expressive, were viewed as qualities of the work rather than their being dependent on the point of view of the percipient. Or rather, only the viewer with the appropriate sensitivity could appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a work of art correctly. Discussions of traditional aesthetics predate more contemporary discussion of embodiment. However, in some later developments of these traditions in relation to dance, aesthetic qualities may be viewed as embodied. In particular, some uses of ‘embodiment’ seem to echo an expressionist emphasis, in that expressive qualities may be viewed as embodied properties of a dance. The British philosopher David Best has suggested how a popular form of expressionism in dance, which views physical movement as expressing feeling, reveals a dualist attitude to mind and body. For Best, the use of the term ‘embody’ in the context of expression may only serve to obscure this underlying dualism. Further he posits the importance of interpretation, or ‘seeing as’ in the perception of expression (Best, 1974, 188).


Debates over the importance of form or content were, as the twentieth century reached its later decades, perhaps overshadowed by the development of phenomenological and semiotic approaches to dance, each emanating from academic disciplines that have often been viewed as antithetical. Phenomenological approaches to dance have been developed by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, whose theoretical basis owes much to the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and by Sondra Horton-Fraleigh. The latter draws on the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty that emphasised the ‘lived’, embodied nature of phenomenological experience and challenged the idea that phenomenological method can transcend separate acts of perception to unify the experience of phenomena (Moran, 2000, 208). Emphasising the intersubjective nature of interpretation, Horton-Fraleigh suggests that at the ‘symbolic’ level a dance may be open to different, yet equally valid interpretations. However, she also suggests a sense by which the audience can ‘commune’ pre-reflectively with what is embodied by the dancer as ‘sign’ (Horton-Fraleigh, 1987, 252). To this extent her account may be viewed as problematic in that (as with Maxine Sheets-Johstone) she may appear to continue in the essentialism of traditional aesthetics. However, this sense of communicative connection between dancer and audience seems to be important to dance artists and thus warrants further exploration. 


In contrast to the phenomenological emphasis on the ‘lived’ experience’ of dance, in semiotic approaches to dance as 'read', questions of interpretation and significance are central. In simple (and overly oppositional) terms, semiotic approaches may be viewed as structuralist or poststructuralist. In the former, a dance performance may be viewed as a structural field of signs (here the term is used differently to its use in phenomenology) that are comprehended in relation to specific cultural (or sub cultural) contexts. These may include the choreographic traditions informing dances and the expectations and conventions surrounding any specific performance. In theory, at least, the significance of the dance performance may be elucidated through a synchronic, structural analysis which might refer to cultural norms as embodied in the movement and understood from the perspective of a specific cultural location. Hence in Drid Williams’ (1995) ‘semasiological’ analysis, similar actions of bowing are not only understood as slightly different in terms of whether the legs are turned out or how deeply the body bends: depending on whether they are performed within the ballet Checkmate (1937), the celebration of Mass or in the Chinese exercise regime of Tai Chi Chuan, the actions also differ in relation to their meaning as constructed within different structural systems of signification. In contrast, poststructuralist approaches, and in particular intertextual analysis of dance in which the dance is viewed as a ‘text’, open up the potential for multiple interpretations and the role of the percipient in (co-)creating the work. As interpreted by Janet Adshead, from this perspective different readings of a dance rely on the different ‘intertexts’ brought to the reading of the dance as ‘text’. In this context what is embodied becomes open to the interpretation of the spectator, consideration of which, in the previous discussion of intertextuality, led to the following questions:


Which texts are focussed on and why?


If what is perceived to be embodied in the dance is one ‘text’ alongside others, is it simply a matter of preference how much consideration is given to such ‘texts’?    


In order to explore these questions further it is important to consider what may be perceived to be embodied in a dance from a sociological and anthropological perspective. To this end it is necessary to consider how the physical grounding of human experience has been theorised in these disciplines.


3.2 ‘Embodiment’ in Sociology and Anthropology

The corporeal nature of human existence became a popular topic for sociologists towards the last quarter of the twentieth century. According to the sociologist Bryan Turner, an earlier more abstract approach to people as ‘social agents’ may be in part due to ‘the spectre of social Darwinism, biological reductionism or socio-biology’ (Turner, 1984,1) which made it initially difficult for sociologists in general to embrace specific interests in the body. Turner also points out that early sociologists were ‘concerned with the similarities between industrial capitalist societies rather than the differences between human beings over long evolutionary periods’ (Turner, 1991, 6). However, for Helen Thomas, a sociologist with a specific interest in dance, the body is implicated in earlier sociological texts (Thomas, 2003, 14) and this, in combination with anthropological interest in the body, suggests to her that the body ‘has not been quite as absent as is sometimes supposed’ (Thomas, 2003, 32). In both accounts, early sociological interest in the specific bodily aspects of being human is revealed to be largely the province of those with an anthropological interest.


As the anthropologist and pop culturalist Ted Polhemus observed in the late 1970s, the diverse sociological, semiotic, linguistic and phenomenological approaches found in different anthropological studies of the body made, and still make, it difficult to contemplate a ‘unified anthropology of the body’ (Polhemus, 1978, 27). It is not simply the problem of understanding the different approaches, but rather that in each may be found conflicting attitudes to ontological questions in relation to the nature of body, mind, meaning, self, society and the relationships between them.


Within the field of sociology, a particularly significant conflict in terms of theory, which has implications for the understanding of ‘embodiment’, is the relationship between social structures and individual agency. In both functionalism and structuralism emphasis is placed on systems and structures which tend to constrain individuals who are viewed as fitting into prescribed roles. In contrast humanist and hermeneutic approaches to the social world emphasise the significance of individual actions unfettered by the constraints of structure. Thus what is embodied may be viewed as predominantly either the product of social forces or the result of an individual’s actions. However, in the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens  (as cited in Cassell, 1993, 88-96) and in Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and field (discussed below) can be seen attempts to provide theoretically for an understanding of human agency as dialectically related to society. For Giddens, as cited in Cassell (1993, 89), the study of society focuses on ‘neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of societal totality but social practices ordered across space and time’. Such practices are ‘recursive’ in that while they are not brought into being by ‘social actors’ they are continually recreated by them. Structuration theory may allow for a level of human agency in which norms, while not deterministic, may be embodied. However, it may be felt that the discussion of abstract ‘social actors’ still seems to rely on a less than fully fleshed out view of human agency (Schilling, 1996). Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the ‘habitus’ is more closely related to bodily experience through what he describes as the ‘bodily hexis’ and it is this theory that will be explored more thoroughly in an account of embodiment in later twentieth century sociology.


Since sometimes a writer’s stance in relation to such matters is open to debate (as will be seen in relation to the discussion of Erving Goffman), very different readings of key texts on the body in relation to society may be found resulting in the same work being interpreted as supporting contrasting positions. This makes for some difficulties in presenting an outline of different arguments, since how they are placed in relation to current theoretical positions may be open to dispute. In some cases it is not even clear whether texts should be classed as anthropological or sociological. For this reason the texts are discussed, initially, in a more or less historic order: a summary of key writings on the body or embodiment dating from the early to mid twentieth century will be followed by a more detailed discussion of two texts that have had a far ranging influence on later twentieth century interest in this area.


3.3 Early and Mid Twentieth Century Anthropological and Sociological Approaches to the Body/Embodiment

Marcel Mauss, a student of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, first identified ‘body techniques’ as ‘the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935], 97). For Mauss the body was a ‘technical object, and at the same time a technical means’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935], 104), the ‘habits’ of which were not just a matter of variations between individuals but ‘between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935], 101). While this might well be viewed today as a valid theoretical approach to the body in society, the manner in which Mauss distinguished between ‘so-called primitive societies’ that ‘display more brutal, unreflected, unconscious reactions’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935], 122) and those in which conscious action dominates over emotion and the unconscious, leaves him open to accusations of ethnocentrism. However his ‘triple viewpoint’ of the ‘total man’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935],101), the actions of whom are only clearly understood in terms that are psychological, physiological and sociological, are important to later anthropological accounts of embodiment (Polhemus, 1978, 21). Moreover Mauss introduced the concept of the ‘habitus’ (Mauss, 1979 [1935], 101), or ‘acquired ability’ that has had a significant influence on later developments in sociology including the work of Pierre Bourdieu, whose concepts of ‘habitus’ and ‘social fields’ are discussed below.


Norbert Elias, a sociologist writing in the late 1930s, equated self control with a process of civilisation. Elias offers a rich account of how, as modern Europe emerged out of the medieval period, people became increasingly distanced from their bodily functions. Through accounts of the use of eating utensils, nightwear, and private toilets, Elias relates this process of distancing to the acquisition of self control. The impact of this distancing is not limited to creating physical boundaries: quoting La Salle (1774) on how children must be taught ‘to touch all they see only with their eyes’ Elias suggests the further implications of this in relation to ‘civilised man’ who


...is denied by socially instilled self control from spontaneously touching what he desires, loves or hates. The whole moulding of his gestures - no matter how its pattern may differ among western nations with regard to particulars ­ is decisively influenced by this necessity.


Elias, 1978 [1939], 203


Whilst Elias seems to have had a generally positive view of the civilising process, he does emphasise the relationship between social structure and personality that, it could be argued, prefigures some of the more pessimistic findings of Michel Foucault that will be discussed later. Although others, such as the cultural historian Keith Thomas, have developed his themes to show a rather less linear development of the civilising process (Thomas, 1991, 11), Elias’ premise that psychological norms are intrinsically related to social dynamics is still influential. In relation to (western) theatre dance, the concept of bodily actions being moulded by the social processes that instil self control, together with recognition of the dominance of visual over more physical ways of exploring the world, provide an interesting perspective on ballet. ‘The primacy of sight’ that ‘saturates’ the practices, theatrical context and audience perspectives of ballet has been recently discussed in detail by the sociologist Helen Thomas (2003) drawing on the work of dance anthropologist Cynthia Novack [i] (1997). The concept of distancing has also been explored by Pierre Bourdieu (1979) and, as will be explored further, has implications in relation to the aesthetic value placed on the formal properties of (western) theatre dance.   


Erving Goffman, writing in the late 1950s, highlighted the non verbal, behavioural aspects of social interactions and the element of performance involved in self presentation: individuals in institutional settings are confronted with expectations of a given ‘social front’ to a point at which fulfilling the expectations of performing their perceived role may conflict with the actions necessary to complete relevant tasks. Goffman (1969[1956]) brought into focus not only the social context of behaviour but the expertise with which people learn to read behaviour and attempt to adapt their own, in front of others, to give the right impression. It is open to debate whether Goffman was, as Schilling (1993) suggests, presenting behaviour as socially constructed and revealing of a dualistic approach to body:mind. Alternatively, as Thomas (2003) argues, Goffman can be read as revealing an understanding of the intercorporeal relationships informing social action. In either interpretation, Goffman reveals the extent to which, in an everyday context, skills are developed to read and question behaviour. Unless a purely formalist aesthetic is adhered to, such skills can be understood to inform the perception of dance. For instance, residual awareness of whether actions ‘ring false’ in day to day interactions may inform the judgements that are made about expression and characterisation as appearing ‘truthful’ in dance. It is interesting to note that during the same period that Goffman was considering performance as an every day activity, dance artists presenting work at Judson Church in New York were exploring every day actions in a performance context, in so doing questioning traditional dance aesthetics and, albeit from a very different perspective to Goffman, opening up a debate about the significance of everyday movement.


Mary Douglas, writing at the very end of the 1960s, attempted to unify different anthropological approaches in her discussion of ‘natural systems of symbolizing’ that use the body as a readily available medium of expression (Douglas, 1973 [1970]). Drawing on a structuralist approach to the formulation of symbolic systems, Douglas distinguishes between cross cultural variations in body symbolism and the potential for correlations in the relationships between ‘the character of the symbolic system and that of the social system’ that she argues are a feature of a wide range of human societies (1973 [1970], 12). Although Douglas herself recognised the theoretical difficulties of her approach (1973 [1970], 8), her willingness to relate individual phenomenological experience to a structuralist formulation of a symbolic system makes for findings that have implications for understanding the body (and thus the dancing body) in the social context:


According to the rule of distance from physiological origin (or the purity rule) the more the social situation exerts pressure on persons involved in it, the more the social demand for conformity tends to be expressed by a demand for physical control. Bodily processes are more ignored and more firmly set outside the social discourse, the more the latter is important.


Douglas, 1973 [1970], 12


Douglas contemplates the structural relationship between the demands for bodily control and social pressures exerted on those belonging to a cultural group. In a quite complex analysis of relationships between individuals and how different societies articulate social rules (group) and the levels of pressure exerted on individuals by society (grid), Douglas pursues her hypothesis ‘that bodily control is an expression of social control’ (1973 [1970], 99). She finds that in different kinds of society in relation to ‘grid’ and ‘group’, ‘the image of the body is used in different ways to reflect and enhance each person’s experience of society’ (1973 [1970]), 16). Bodily preoccupations and the accompanying metaphors for how society is viewed will vary according to differences in the aspects of ‘grid’ and ‘group’. For Douglas, prevailing body images reveal ‘unspoken’ shared assumptions that underlie and set limits for discourse. If dance is considered as drawing on these images it follows that the dancing body may be viewed as a metaphor for a social view that, while shared, may not always be articulated at a fully conscious level since it draws on those assumptions that are most deeply ingrained. Here, as in the work of Norbert Elias, issues in relation to bodily control in dance can be seen as significant in relation to the conceptual frameworks informing society.


Whilst the work of those cited above pointed to different aspects of the relationships between psychology, physiology, and society, a number of American anthropologists studied the body in relation to communication, using models adapted from linguistics and communication. For instance, Ray Birdwhistell’s kinesics (1971) offers tools for the analysis of movement looking at how individual action, or ‘kines’, are combined and structured, while Edward Hall’s ‘proxemics’(1959) analyses differences in spatial structuring. Helen Thomas suggests that their theories have perhaps not been more generally adopted due to their being predicated on academic traditions (American structural linguistics, communication theory and behaviourism) that came in for criticism for their positivist bias (Thomas, 2003, 25). However, by studying the cultural differences in both body actions and their interpretation, their works did much to question assumptions about ‘body language’ being universally communicative. This made it more difficult to sustain a point of view in which dance is universally expressive except where the aesthetic realm is viewed as in some way transcending more everyday channels of  communication. 


For other anthropologists, the focus seems to have remained on the interplay of the social and physical. Certainly this was the subject of a conference of anthropologists in the late 1970s. In the preface to the collection of conference papers John Blacking sums up one of the conference’s aims as being ‘to break down the dichotomies of body and mind, emotion and reason, nonverbal and verbal, in our analyses of social and cultural organization’ (Blacking, 1977, viii). Blacking, in his paper, considers human society as a biological phenomenon (Blacking, 1977, 8) and is careful to emphasise the role of human adaptation in relation to social and environmental factors that impact on human evolution. Arguing from what seems to be a largely phenomenological perspective that draws on Merleau-Ponty, Blacking argues for somatic, cognitive and unconscious capacities that are specific to humans as a species but are affected by factors of social and cultural environment. He posits the possibility of ‘shared somatic states’ (Blacking, 1977, 9) although recognising that society or culture may be limiting factors. The human potential to ’transform commonly experienced internal sensations into externally visible and transmissible forms’ seems to offer the possibility of universal communication that is limited by social and cultural differences, and in particular by aspects of culture ’in which excessive importance is attached to verbal communication’ (Blacking, 1977, 10).


In Blacking’s description of potential as becoming atrophied if not given the ‘appropriate social and cultural environment ‘ (Blacking, 1977, 10-11) may be sensed an underlying utopian vision of a world in which the communication between all humans is developed by virtue of their potential being realised through appropriate opportunities. A visionary element to Blacking’s paper is further revealed in his references to human capacity for telepathy that for some may make his position difficult to agree with. Yet as the dance anthropologist Andrée Grau (1999) suggests, ignoring phenomena because they appear ‘irrational’ is to avoid offering a fully adequate or ‘truthful’ account. However this does not mean to say that whatever explanation of the phenomena is given by those experiencing it has to be accepted at face value. Blacking’s account of the potential to share some aspects of somatic experience through visible bodily activity provides a basis for non verbal communication that is grounded in the phenomenological experience of embodiment. Further, as Grau discusses, Blacking opens up the possibility of non verbal communication such as dance transcending some cultural boundaries without claiming that it is a ‘universal language’ (Grau, 1993,25). In this context Blacking’s (11977) inclusion of the work of the psychologist, Paul Ekman is interesting. The latter’s discussion of research into facial expression points to a complex ‘interplay of biological and social factors’ that seems to suggest that some spontaneous facial expression is shared cross culturally, but is subject to social adaptation that can subsume the more spontaneous responses.


Also writing in the late 1970s, Ted Polhemus suggested updating Mauss’ ‘triple framework’ to develop a means of understanding human embodiment that brings together the physical with the psychological and sociological. However, he recognises that an approach drawing on different disciplines is fraught with problems of definition and conflicts between different theoretical frameworks. Nevertheless he suggests a consideration of ‘sign systems’ that explores both verbal and non verbal communication in relation to questions of their relationship to social context. This would include examining whether sign systems are ‘rooted in and generated by certain social situations’ (Polhemus, 1970, 152) and whether types of social situation generate different modes of signification, for instance arbitrary or non arbitrary. In this way, Polhemus argues, the social underpinnings of both language and art might be explored. Polhemus also brings to attention the findings of psychologists about cross cultural variations in body imagery that may relate to the findings of anthropologists in relation to cross cultural variations in bodily expression.


From the above it can be seen that prior to the last quarter of the twentieth century, questions about the significance of the body and its relationship to society and social interaction had been explored from a combination of anthropological, sociological and psychological viewpoints. During the 1970s, discussion of the various interrelationships between body:mind:society suggested in earlier writings, often reveal the influence of the discourse of structuralism. The influence of linguistic models of structuralism focussed attention on the structural relationships between the components of action, while anthropological interest emphasised the structures of the relationship between action and societies. As data revealing the cultural differences in what Mauss had termed ‘body techniques’ was collected, this data could be presented so as to demonstrate structural universals such as the relationship between social pressure and physical self control (Douglas, 1973 [1970], chapter 7).


3.4 Power and Distinction: Perspectives from the works of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu

The 1970s also saw publications by two key French academics that further contributed to interest in the subject of the body and embodiment within a range of academic studies in the latter part of the twentieth century. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the category defying Michel Foucault [ii] , both contributed to an exploration of the body as implicated in the play of powers that form social relations. Discussions of their approaches to the body are often found in contemporary accounts of the body and in much recent writing on dance. These latter are often presented as poststructuralist in the sense that they ‘deconstruct’ established practices and perceptions of dance. This is not to say either Bourdieu or Foucault would necessarily have wanted to be, or can be identified as part of this movement. The latter’s approach, for instance has been criticised as structuralist (Turner,1996 [1984], 231).


In the seminal Discipline and Punish (1979) [published in French as Naissance de La Prison,1975] Michel Foucault charts changes in power relations exemplified in relation to French history spanning from the period of Medieval autocracy to modern democracy. His account is revealing of how the body is implicated in these changes:


The body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.


                                    Foucault, 91 [75], 25


Foucault contrasts different approaches to the exertion of power. For instance the public, medieval events of torture and execution displayed the power invested in the King over his subjects. These are illustrated by first hand written accounts that, for the contemporary reader, reveal the extreme levels of physical violence to which the ‘body of the condemned’ was subjected. As the Medieval gave way to the beginnings of Modernity, the rationalisation of time and space are shown to be important techniques of control. Surveillance as a technique of control in the modern age is revealed through Foucault’s oft cited exploration of the concept of the panoptican prison. From Foucault too comes the understanding of the ever watchful eye controlling behaviour as becoming increasingly internalised. This brings an increase in pressure on members of contemporary western societies to conform to acceptable norms of behaviour.


In the examination of the relationship between physical and social control there are striking similarities here with the work of both Mary Douglas and Norbert Elias. However, both Elias and Douglas framed their arguments from the standpoint of those who believed insightful analysis could improve the lot of those living in twentieth century western societies. Douglas, for instance, retains a sense of the potential for individuals to ‘preserve their vision’ by becoming aware of the lure of ‘natural systems of symbols’ (Douglas, 1973 [1970], 200).


In contrast Foucault, in emphasising the extent of the reach of the techniques of power in contemporary society, is far less optimistic:


It is this whole technology of power over the body that the technology of the ‘soul’ ­ that of the educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists ­ fails either to conceal or compensate, for the simple reason that it is one of its tools.


Foucault, 30, 1997 [1975]


It is perhaps the focus on the inescapable nature of power that impacts on the body through self monitoring that has led to Foucault being viewed as implicitly continuing a dualist approach to mind:body:



Once the body is contained within modern disciplinary systems, it is the mind which takes over as the location for discursive power.                                


Schilling, 1993, 80


Foucault’s arguments are complex and, especially when having to read him in translation, I am wary of categorizing his argument so precisely. While, as Schilling points out, Foucault’s analysis can be used to sustain a sense of a body that becomes the object of discourse, his text, in its virtuosic display of ‘mental’ gymnastics, can seem itself (at least in English translation) to be ‘somewhat disembodied’ (Schilling, 1993, 80). However, reading this work from a dancer’s perspective can bring to the surface a more phenomenological awareness of embodiment. Using examples from approaches to schooling and military training, Foucault reveals how the body in time and space became subjected to increasingly strict controls and precise regulations. His examples resonated very physically for me as they awakened memories of how I felt whilst training to be a ballet dancer. For me they recalled the legacy of rationalism experienced daily at the barre as I struggled to make geometrically clear actions to precise counts. 


How classical ballet is located within the context of the Western European cultural traditions that Foucault examines has been well documented (Kealiinohomoku, 1983 [1970]; Briginshaw, 2001, 199; Helen Thomas, 2003, 95-102). Bringing such physical resonances to a reading of Foucault is admittedly, a rather idiosyncratic approach to his text. However, according to Forrest Williams (1993), who translated much of Foucault’s work into English, in his early work there is evidence of the influence of Husserl and Heidegger that locates Foucault as emerging from a phenomenological tradition whilst recognising what, for him, were the limitations of that movement. For Williams, the early Foucault saw phenomenology as ‘indispensable for recapturing the expressive character of intentionality’ and ‘for understanding the existential significance of dreams and images’, but as ‘insufficient to capture the reality of others’ (Williams, 1993 [1985], 26). Thus bringing phenomenological experience of embodiment to a reading of Foucault may not be inappropriate, although with the author coming from a culture accustomed to military service and writing specifically about military training, it would be more appropriate to bring this experience to the text.  


In Discipline and Punish there is at least one passage where Foucault himself draws attention to the interplay between discourse and physical experience. Quoting from an early account of military training, Foucault reveals how, becoming aware of the shortcomings of an excessively mechanistic approach to disciplining the body, military theorists in the eighteenth century recognised the importance of understanding the workings of the ‘natural body’:


If we studied the intention of nature and the construction of the human body, we would find the position and the bearing that nature clearly prescribes for the soldier.


Guibert, 1772 in Foucault, 977[1975], 155


Dance scholars may find parallels here between Guibert’s complaints about ‘unfortunate soldiers in constricting and forced attitudes’ and the grumbles of his near contemporary,  the ballet master and choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre, against over complicated steps and cumbersome costumes. In his Lettres of 1760, Noverre entreated students of dance ‘to cease to resemble marionettes’ and to ‘gracefully set aside the narrow laws of a school to follow the impressions of nature’ (Noverre, 1966 [1760], 99-108).


From a dance perspective this can be understood as an indication of attitudes to the body in dance reflecting the broader culture. For Foucault, the reference to Guibert is not only to provide evidence of a cultural shift of interest from the body as mechanical object to the body as natural object, but reveals the body as the site of the interplay between power and the individual:


The body required to be docile in its minutest operations, opposes and shows the conditions of functioning proper to an organism. Disciplinary power has as its correlative an individuality that is not only analytical and ‘cellular’, but also natural and organic.


Foucault, 1977 [1975], 156


It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished - and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects...


This real non corporeal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge.


Foucault, 1977 [1975], 29


Terence Turner [iii] , drawing on the work of Bryan Turner, and writing about the whole canon of Foucault’s work, suggests that viewing the body as created by power yet endowed with a capability to resist power, leads Foucault to a self contradictory position. If, as according to Terence Turner, Foucault’s project was to offer an alternative to ‘the individualism and transcendental subjectivism of bourgeois liberal and classical (Cartesian, Kantian) approaches’, Terence Turner argues that Foucault’s arguments return him to a similar philosophical position:


‘’Resistance’’ is thus explained as a sort of natural (i.e. pre social and apolitical) emanation of the body, as ‘’power’’ is conceived as a natural (trans-historical and trans-cultural) emanation of society. Neither has a definable political purpose or specific social or institutional source. In being thus depoliticized and desocialised, Foucault’s resistance thus ironically becomes, in effect, a category of transcendental subjectivity situated in the body.


Terence Turner in Csordas, 1994, 36



In his analyses of the body, I am unsure whether Foucault reveals his own philosophical dualism and/or a lingering bourgeois individualism or reflects how these are interwoven in the relationship between knowledge and power in contemporary western societies. From my own perspective the latter is what I understood in a reading that was situated in my own experience. Foucault offers fascinating insights into how the conscious structuring of the body in time and space and the struggle for self control (that as a dancer I recognise only too well) has as its correlate, in modern western society, the desire to experience the ‘natural’ body as a means of individual expression. This dialectic, appears to me as that age old conflict between technique and expression, which may itself be viewed as being embodied in western dance practices and, as I discussed previously, is interwoven with a dualist approach to body:mind. This tension is illustrated by discussion of the training of dancers in (western) theatre dance from the eighteenth century to the present day:


He should divide his attention between the mechanism of the steps and the movements proper to express the passions…


Noverre, 1966 [1760], 106


Another consequence of dualism is that it encourages the all too common view that the training of a dancer is the training of the body, simply as physical. The body then is viewed mechanistically, as a thing to be honed, and moulded into shape.


Horton-Fraleigh, 1987, 11


Foucault’s discussion of the body and power are more often cited in relation to the idea that the body is shaped by discourse, and in this way is ‘inscribed’ by forms of knowledge saturated by power relations. For instance, the historian of dance and the arts, Ramsay Burt, discusses the problems of conceiving of the body as 'formed within discourse' in relation to 'the extent to which individuals and groups of men are inhibited by the dominant gender ideologies in the process of constructing and realizing their identities' (Burt, 1995, 45-48). In the context of dance appreciation this then brings the discourses that might shape both the body and perceptions of the body into the interpretative arena. What is problematic in relation to understanding dance, is that all too easily the phenomenological experience of physical presence may be lost if too heavy a focus is placed on what is ‘written on the body’.  From a sociological viewpoint there are parallel concerns:


Foucault’s body has no flesh; it is begotten out of discourse by power…    


                        Terence Turner in Csordas, 1994, 36


Such problems have not deterred a fascination with discourse amongst dance theorists: a whole conference at The University of Surrey in 1995 entitled Border Tensions: Dance and Discourse brought together a number of speakers who drew on various discourses such as those of feminism, post modernism, psychoanalysis and semiotics to both illuminate aspects of dance and, to some extent, (see particularly Thomas, 1996, 305-321) to question the significance of such  discourses in  the emergent field of dance studies. As Janet Adshead stated in her opening paper, in contrast with the focus of other academic disciplines in the late twentieth century dance theory was concerned not to ignore the ‘actualities and physicalities’ of dancing (Adshead, 1995, 1). Looking through the different papers it is not completely clear how these are to be understood in relation to discourse. For instance how/how much is the body inscribed by discourse? Adshead herself seems to suggest the body is 'written on', a 'site' that is ‘culturally inscribed' (Adshead, 1995, 1). Alexandra Carter’s paper gives the impression that the meaning of the body in dance is acquired through a variety of mutually reinforcing discourses which include the kinetic alongside the more traditional written, aural and visual (Carter, 1995, 67-76), whereas Andrée Grau, while recognising that ‘the body is shaped and perceived through discourse’, does not view the body as ’reducible solely to discourse’ (Grau, 1995, 141). Elsewhere this ‘reductive’ view is discussed by Bryan Turner in his examination of the perspective by which ‘the body is constructed by discourse and our knowledge of it is only made possible by classificatory procedures’ (Turner, 1996, 229). Turner identifies this as a structuralist perspective in which the body ‘is not part of a given reality, but an effect of our systemization of becoming’ (Turner, 1996, 229). For him, such a perspective is problematic in that ‘human conscious action is reduced to the effects of discourse’ which ‘ignores the phenomenology of embodiment’ and leaves ‘no theoretical space for human resistance to discourse since we are determined by what we are permitted to know’ (Turner, 1996, 229). In relation to the potential for individual agency in the creative acts of both making and appreciating dance, what needs to be clarified is the relationship between discourse and the phenomenological experience of the body in the context of dance.


Before discussing this further it may help to explore some issues raised by Pierre Bourdieu. In the influential Distinction (1984) [1979], Bourdieu offers an analysis of the values and tastes of different sections of French society. Pointing to the ‘social fields’ in which people develop their different cultural competencies, he analyses differences between the cultural preferences of different groups in relation to the economic struggle between social groups:


Because they are acquired in social fields which are also markets in which they receive their price, cultural competencies are dependent on these markets, and all struggles over culture are aimed at creating the market most favourable to the products which are marked, in their manners, by a particular class of conditions of acquisition…


Bourdieu, 1979, 95


Aware from his sociological data of the correlation between class and the capacity to appreciate high culture he determines to ‘bring to light the hidden conditions behind this “miracle”’(Bourdieu, 1979, 28). He is thus concerned with how the dominant groups maintain their ‘mode of acquisition’, particularly in relation to passing their cultural capital on to their descendents. Focussing on those methods that are least visible, Bourdieu develops the concept of ‘habitus’ as a ‘disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning giving perceptions’ (Bourdieu, 1979, 70). The ‘habitus’ is revealed through ‘differences in gesture and posture and behaviour which express a whole relationship to the social world’ (Bourdieu, 1979, 192) and relates to different classificatory systems that are both structured and structuring of behaviour:


The principle of division into logical classes which organises the perception of the social world is itself the product of internalisation of the division into social classes.


Bourdieu, 1979, 170


Bourdieu argues that children are most easily inculcated into cultural practices by their parents and points to how success in an educational institution is reliant on the child’s early induction into the relevant cultural practices, especially where they may not be explicitly taught. Thus perceptual and evaluative schemes are reproduced by the dominant class in relation to legitimate culture. Bourdieu’s study identified the ability to categorise experiences and to maintain that sense of distance necessary for traditional forms of the aesthetic disposition as central attributes of the French elite. In his preface to the English language edition of Distinction, Bourdieu suggests the relevance of his findings to the wider context of western societies (Bourdieu, 1984, xi). For him, as for Mauss and Elias earlier, the process of distancing from instinctive reactions seems to be intertwined with the concept of (western) civilisation. Certainly, the notion of the aesthetic disposition as being one of a distinct form of perception that depends, to some degree, on the suspension of everyday reactions towards art objects lies at the heart of traditional formalist aesthetics discussed in chapter two. That such an aesthetic, or variations of it, may often be promoted as the preferred manner for the appreciation of much of the western classical heritage, and for the high modernist art of the twentieth century, lends support to the idea that it is tied in with the dispositions of the elite of western society who are most likely to demonstrate an interest in classical and high modernist art.


Since Bourdieu’s research in France in the 1970s, changes in western society have led to a situation in which ‘powerful institutions have connected the masses and the elites’ leading to the erosion of the distinction between high and low culture’ (Blau, 1983, 285). However, as will be considered in more depth in chapter five, in relation to dance in Britain ‘high cultural’ forms such as classical ballet and the ‘contemporary’ dance that draws on a modernist legacy, still tend to dominate in terms of Arts Council support, programming in prestigious venues and academic and critical interest.


Competence in relation to appreciating the arts, according to Bourdieu, is ‘an unconscious mastery of the instruments of appropriation’. It is ‘a practical mastery which, like an art of thinking or an art of living, cannot be transmitted solely by precept or prescription’ (Bourdieu, 1979, 66). The habitus and the dispositions to perceptual schemes it engenders may not always be readily available for description. Bourdieu’s interest in how the transmission of cultural capital may be hidden leads him to illustrate the difficulties in taking on the habitus of a social group someone is not born into, in part because the values and attitudes that are embodied are not always made explicit. In this light, different aesthetic approaches may be seen as related to competing interests of different groups that may not be openly acknowledged. This raises the possibility that the manner in which the dancing body is approached could be politically saturated without this being apparent to audience or artist.  


While accounting for why differences in bodily posture and movement may be perceived as embodying the values and attitudes of a specific social group, the concept of habitus supports the sense that just what is embodied is dependent on interactions within a social field and thus liable to change. In focussing on what forms the dispositions of individuals within a social field, Bourdieu brings to the fore the embodied experiences that form the person. The dancing body may be perceived as meaningful in relation to the habitus and as such both structured by and structuring of the social world in which it is presented. Unless dance is thought to exist in its own hermetically sealed social or aesthetic field, it is difficult not to conclude that such meanings have resonance in relation to the wider cultural context. Such meanings emanating from the social field are subject to changes in that field and derived from the practices and perceptions found within a particular social field that may at times be nearly invisible to members of that social group. 


Bringing a reading of Bourdieu into play in the interpretation of dance draws attention to how dance may be seen to embody cultural norms. In discussions of the past this may not reveal anything new or contentious: the significance of Louis XIV taking on the role of the ‘Le Roi Soleil’ is the stuff of first level dance history courses. Similarly, few would argue against the notion that hierarchic structures are embedded in the traditional form of ballet along with the legacy of the tension between rationalism and romanticism that is embodied in the technique as developed in the late nineteenth century. In relation to more recent history, Gay Morris specifically draws on Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to suggest how the choreography of Martha Graham’s Night Journey (1947) reveals the tensions in her position as an avant garde artist seeking financial stability through broader acceptance (Morris, 2001, 52). Yet it is Anne Daly’s discussion of Balanchine ballerinas as ‘co-constituting their own oppression,’ (Daly, 2002 [1987], 286) that, as we saw in the previous chapter, seems to have drawn the fire of those rather less keen to emphasise a feminist viewpoint in relation to the ‘masterworks’ of America’s famous choreographer. As discussed in chapter two, the antagonistic viewpoints of Daly and Copeland in respect to discussion of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (1946) reveal the problems of any singular reading of a complex work. Yet perhaps they also reveal that when dance that is currently valued highly is the subject of such scrutiny, challenges to the basis of its value are seen as a serious matter. Bourdieu’s suggestion that debates over culture are rooted in the struggle for material benefit by one group in conflict with another may suggest a reason for such sensitivities. From the perspective of intertextuality, texts such as those of Bourdieu and Foucault may be drawn on to broaden interpretations of dance and certainly open up some interesting questions regarding significance. What needs to be considered is how much emphasis is placed on such texts and what the reasons are for this.


3.5 Implications for the Intertextual Interpretation of Dance

As the discussion of Anne Daly’s interpretation of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments demonstrates, there can be a tendency in some contemporary accounts of dance to foreground texts that discuss how cultural dominance of a specific group is embodied. However, if one specific interpretation of a work is argued for too persistently, there is a danger of returning to essentialist aesthetics. This parallels the finding of Helen Thomas in her paper 'Do You Want to Join the Dance' (Thomas, 1996). Thomas, referring largely to the manner in which feminist discourses have impacted on dance theory, voices a concern in relation to Cooper Albright’s 1990 discussion of the work of Molissa Fenley:


Cooper Albright’s analysis …implies a dance hierarchy: forms that reflexively disrupt the dominant canons of representation are politically more advanced…..


The problem with this view, however, is that it is somewhat at odds with the postmodernist/ poststructuralist rhetoric that the paper seems to celebrate, in that it assumes it is through the relation of the creator/performer to the spectacle that the single reading the audience is allowed/enabled to see is fixed.


                                                            Thomas, 1996, 81


In interpreting dance within the intertextual framework proposed by Adshead (1999), it is important to reflect on why certain ‘intertexts’ are viewed as being of particular importance. Later chapters will consider aspects of how ethnicity, gender, class, age and ability are perceived as embodied in dance and the impact such perceptions may have on the value placed on dances. In any such discussion it is important to be wary of reducing dances to a singular reading by only focussing attention on how aspects of ethnicity, class or gender are embodied.


Drawing on a range of aesthetic traditions dating back to Kant, but strongly influenced by the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, the aesthetician Paul Crowther considers the potential of intertextuality, or ‘plurality’ to promote ‘greater and more critical discussion’ (Crowther,1993, 199). In offering what he terms an ‘ecological‘ definition of art he argues against reducing ascriptions of aesthetic value to ‘group preferences’ but suggests a multiplicity of viewpoints are drawn on in rational, critical debate in order to ‘establish whether some highly regarded work might owe its privileged status more to the reflection and consolidation of power interests than to its own merits’ (1993, 200). Crowther recognises that his view of consensus in aesthetics would function as an ideal rather than a practical possibility, but is anxious that the ideal serves to open up a space for critical debate of concepts such as artistic excellence and originality to counteract art being reduced to a play of powers between vested interests. Informed by readings of Bourdieu and Foucault it might be argued that the concepts of rational, critical debate, artistic excellence and originality are part of the framework that structures and is structured by the ‘habitus’ of an educated elite in western society and are thus part of this power play of vested interests. However, Crowther’s ecological definition of art is based on the concept of ‘ontological reciprocity’ that for him ‘is the very root condition of human being’ (1993, 200). For Crowther the arts are able to ‘enhance and reflect the interaction of factors necessary to self-consciousness at the level of perception itself’ (1993, 187). Self consciousness is dependent on the fact of human ‘ontological reciprocity’ and thus on the relationship with ‘otherness’, in particular other people. Crowther tends to stray into a universalist approach to the function of art that is beyond the scope of this study. However, read within the context of art in western society it provides a case for the increasing multiplicity of aesthetic viewpoints as potentially illuminating. In this context the function of the artist may be rejuvenating while in contrast, for Bourdieu, the function of the artist in contemporary western society is ‘eschatological’ (Bourdieu, 1984 [1979], 317).


Contrasting the positions of Bourdieu with Crowther, as in the earlier comparison of the stance of Foucault to Douglas, reveals a common difference in the underlying attitudes to the question of agency and the relationship of the individual to society. Bourdieu was critical of structuralist sociology and developed his theory to allow for actions that were both structured by and structuring of society. Yet in both his and Foucault’s work, the individual may seem to be caught up in the web of social relationships in which class and power, embodied in people’s actions are interwoven into the fabric of society so as to seem inescapable. In contrast there seems to be a stronger humanist influence on Crowther and Douglas (although the latter’s approach is structuralist) in whose writings embodied individuals seem to have the capacity to effect change by virtue of their coming to an understanding of the context of their embodied existence. By suggesting how the distribution of privilege and the control of the individual have become increasingly hidden rather than dissipated, Foucault and Bourdieu bring into question assumptions about the historic progression of western civilisation to a society that is more equitable. In relation to Foucault’s pessimism Bryan Turner suggests it arises from Foucault’s lack of acknowledgement of ‘the life affirming instinct’ (Turner, 1996 [1984], 232). For Turner, in the recognition of the phenomenological experience of embodiment the potentiality of human agency is affirmed:


Embodiment is more then conceptual; it is also potentiality and the realization of that potency requires a social critique which recognizes that some societies are more free than others.


Turner, 1996 [1984], 232


Whether the optimistic or pessimistic point of view is taken, or even some combination, this debate raises awareness of the possibility that the choices of ‘texts’ that are emphasised in an intertextual approach to a dance may be loaded with political and ethical concerns.


Reflecting on the above re-emphasises the importance of the relationship between discourse and the phenomenological experience of the body in dance. Following Foucault, concepts of text and discourse have been extended by dance theorists well beyond speech and writing so that dance vocabularies and choreographic works are considered as texts and choreographic practices and structures as discourse. If dance practices are understood and appreciated with reference to the tacitly understood conventions that underpin the ‘habitus’, it suggests that there may be aspects of the phenomenological experience of dance which it may be difficult to reflect upon through language yet which may be important to appreciation. What is consciously recognised as the habitus informing the movement in a dance can become a text which may either be emphasised or ignored in relation to interpretation. However, there is always the possibility, particularly in relation to the individual’s experience of their own culture, that they are blind to the norms that inform the habitus and thus to the significance of those norms embodied in dance.


Rather than trying to fit the notion of habitus into semiotics, it might be simpler to allow for a dialogue between the phenomenological experience of dance and the reflective processes involved in intertextual interpretation. This might be one way in which reflection on the phenomenological experience of embodiment can enhance that interpretation. Within the context of academic disciplines which have separated the study of semiotics and phenomenology this may seem strange. However, as I have already touched on above, beyond dance there is a recognition that the social theory of the body is often ‘narrowly focussed on the representational and cultural dimensions of the body’ (Turner, 2000 [1996], 492). While Bryan Turner recognises that too little attention is paid to the phenomenological experience of the body, in outlining the requirements of the sociology of the body he is careful to point out that purely phenomenological approaches to embodiment often fail to recognize how individual experiences of embodiment are culturally mediated (Turner, 1996, [1984], 230). Thus he emphasises the issue of social reciprocity alongside phenomenological experience (Turner, 2000 [1996], 487). Within the discipline of dance studies there is already a tendency for writers to draw on a range of theoretical approaches to explore how dance is appreciated. For instance Merleau-Ponty features alongside Foucault and Lacan in Valerie Briginshaw’s (2001) account of the relations between bodies and space in dance, while Preston-Dunlop’s (1998) choreological approach to dance draws on a range of both phenomenological and semiotic approaches. Further, as was discussed briefly in the previous chapter (and will be further pursued in the next), dance artists seem to explore their experience of a dance in relation to reflections on how it is perceived. 


It has been suggested by the cultural and psychological anthropologist, Thomas Csordas, that an understanding of embodiment may necessitate investigation of the relationships between a number of perceived dualities. These are listed by him as being pre-objective:objectified, mind:body, representation:being in the world, semiotics:phenomenology, language:experience and textuality:embodiment:

These pairs of terms define a critical moment in theorizing about culture and self.....our purpose is to identify the terrain on which opposed terms meet, whether they are understood to remain in tension or to collapse upon one another. That terrain is marked by the characteristic reflectiveness and the process of objectification that define human consciousness, giving substance to representation and specificity to being-in-the-world.


Csordas, 1994, 20


The exploration of much of this terrain leads to a contemplation of the workings of the subconscious that is outside the province of this study. The contemplation of embodiment would be much easier if it were certain that all experiences of the world were always and completely saturated by the structures of discourse, or conversely, that humans are capable of pre-reflective experience not coloured by the symbolic systems of the culture into which they are born. Yet anthropology suggests a more complex interrelationship of nature:culture. Just how, and to what extent, the human biological organism is implicated in culture seems still ultimately shrouded in the mysteries of consciousness. Rather than resort to hiding behind these mysteries, insights from a number of different disciplines can lead to interrogation of the assumptions that may colour judgements and interpretations and consideration of the complexities of phenomenological experience.


3.6 The Significance of the Kinaesthetic

It may be useful at this point to consider the role of the imagination and the importance of the kinaesthetic sense in the appreciation of movement, particularly that which is new to the audience. In terms of appreciation of a dance after the event, there would be an expectation that some reasons could be given for what was enjoyed and understood. Unless traditional essentialist aesthetics is rigidly enforced, it would be recognised that differences between members of the audience might lead to variations in what is enjoyed and understood as significant. Drawing on a consideration of the ‘habitus’ it might also be considered that, perhaps at a subconscious level, cultural norms are recognised to be embodied, or even repudiated, in the dance. Yet reflecting on the phenomenological experience of the dance may bring to light a sense of empathy or connection with a performer that is difficult to explain in the above terms. By imaginatively engaging with dance the audience can empathise with a way of being different to their own that is difficult to put into words. The kinaesthetic sense, by which physical sensations are associated with movements that are viewed, may facilitate a response to different ways of structuring bodily experience and the world views that inform them. It is possible that imaginative ‘in the moment’ involvement in a dance draws on visual, aural and proprioceptive experiences that have not always been consciously labelled.


Kinaesthetic responses to dance are not restricted to those who have practical experience of the dance form they watch, although it is likely that whether or not a spectator has the experience of actually having performed a grand jeté leads to a different order of kinaesthetic response when watching Baryshnikov leap. To have some kind of kinaesthetic response to movement seems likely to depend on having a memory, whether proprioceptive or visual, of some related movement with the imagination drawing on this and filling in for specific experience.  In relation to leaps or jetés, with or without dance training the audience is likely to attach a name to the experience, but this may not always be the case in responses to subtler movements or differences in postural organisation. Where a dance and/or movement culture is very different to the audience members’ own they may feel unable to appreciate it. Yet there are other instances when it seems possible to appreciate some aspects of dance that are recognised as ‘different’. For instance the dance anthropologist Andrée Grau points to the widespread enjoyment of Flamenco and African Dance as examples of what may be experienced as cross cultural ‘understanding’ of dance, while also pointing to the Tiwi’s negative response to Balinese dance due, she suggests, to their vocabulary being ‘too alien’ (Grau 1993, 24). A sense of ‘understanding’ is not necessarily dependent on the audience member being able to consciously label movements but can be a response to actions that at a subconscious level are recognised as having some relationship to previous experience of movement. That the imagination, by drawing on experience helps to make sense of a different way of being, as it were filling in the blanks, is a rather more prosaic explanation than ‘communing’ or telepathy. Yet such an explanation might provide for that sense of communication that is of great importance to dancers. It is also one that does not necessarily mean that the spectators have insight into the unique and specific significance of the dance, the culture from which it originates, or what the dancer or choreographer felt they were expressing, but they may feel as if they have achieved some understanding. In the phenomenological experience of dance in performance the potentiality for communication may be fully enjoyed even if what is understood is partial.


3.7 Embodiment, Intertextuality and the Role of the Imagination in Appreciation

That consciously and unconsciously people may incorporate ways of being that structure and are structured by their participation in social processes, focuses attention on the significance of the movement range, spatial and dynamic patterning and postural subtleties of dance. In relation to forms of (western) theatre dance, in the very act of dancing on European stages today, dancers may be perceived as negotiating the legacy of rationalism, the power of social controls over individuals or their relationship to cultural groups. Only by disregarding the various discourses of sociology, anthropology, poststructuralism and phenomenology to maintain an essentialist and formalist aesthetic approach to dance can the connections be ignored between the experience of bodily movement and posture in everyday social contexts and the appreciation of dancing bodies. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz writing about the arts in relation to different cultures draws attention to the manner in which a way of being in the world infuses all aspects of a culture:


            For Matisse, as is no surprise, is right: the means of an art and the feeling for life that animates it are inseparable, and one can no more understand aesthetic objects as concantations of pure form than one can understand speech as a parade of syntactic variations or myth as a set of structural transformations.


                                                            Geertz, 1976, 1477


There is the danger of an inherent essentialism in drawing on sociological and anthropological discourses to interpret a dance as the sum of what can be named as being embodied by the dancers. In the reflection on dance, after the event, various ‘texts’ may be drawn on to illuminate interpretations and to inform value judgements made about a dance. In such an intertextual analysis, sociological or anthropological texts may be drawn on to suggest reasons why a dance appears to represent one group of people in a particular way. Illuminating as such reflections can be, there is a danger that in such an analysis the focus becomes too narrowly set on discourse as inscribed on the body. Discussions of different readings of a dance become reduced to choices between discourses and as such are often too easily politicised in terms that, it could be argued, do not do justice to the full creative vision of a choreographer.


To return to the differences between Anne Daly’s and Roger Copeland’s accounts of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, as has been observed by Jordan and Thomas (1998, 244), focussing on the manner in which the male dominates the female would seem to be a recipe for losing sight of the poetic richness of the work. The strength and skill of all the dancers and the ingenious choreographic play with classical convention (arguably including the structuring of male:female relationships) are important elements of the work as a whole. Yet Copeland by preferring to focus on aspects of the work that abstract the human body relies heavily on the notion of the disinterested aesthetic stance proper to ‘high’ art. It has been seen how Bourdieu equates such a stance with the habitus of the privileged classes in western society and how Norbert Elias views the process of distancing as a part of the process of civilisation, arguably within a western context. Perhaps what is most interesting about Copeland’s approach is that it reveals the extent to which, in the ‘high’ culture of western civilisation, through the cultivation of aesthetic enjoyment, perception of dance can be experienced as distanced from everyday preoccupations. Given the historic changes in gender relationships and attitudes to sexuality in twentieth century America (which will be further explored in chapter six), the ability of audiences to set such issues at a distance is a quite remarkable cultural feat. It should be noted, however, that a full account of The Four Temperaments was not what either writer intended. Anne Daly later admitted to a more complex appreciation of Balanchine (Daly, 2002 [2000], 336), and Copeland’s focus is in arguing against reductive interpretations of art. Their readers can only wonder whether if they had both chosen to place more emphasis on their experience of watching this ballet they might find that Copeland and Daly, both being well educated Americans, knowledgeable about and interested in dance, shared more in their experience than their emphasis on specific aspects of the work suggests.


The appreciation of dance may be considered to draw on phenomenological experience interwoven with reflections on that experience. In this manner questions can be asked as to what preconceptions might be colouring both experience of the dance and accounts arising from it. Drawing on anthropological and sociological texts may lead  to the contemplation of the role of intuition in recognising movement that either fits or counteracts the norms of a social group to which the audience member ‘belongs’. This raises the question of how audiences seem to respond ‘in the moment’ to a dance that emanates from a different culture to their own. By engaging imaginatively with the dance phenomenon, insights may be gained into another ‘way of being’. Imaginative engagement with dance that draws on all the senses, including the kinaesthetic, is an important aspect of the audience’s phenomenological experience of dance. Such engagement can contribute to understanding and, in turn, this understanding may inform appreciation. Care needs to be taken to recognise the (inter)subjectivity of this experience and, in relation to appreciation of dance as art, to remember that aesthetic enjoyment does not (and in Kantian terms should not) rely on the binding of understanding to a concept (even if from sociological or anthropological perspectives insights so gained may be useful). However, the potential of a dance to encourage this imaginative engagement does seem to be important to dance artists and it is something that will be explored further in relation to what dance artists have said about dance. Further, the possibility will also be considered that, in a context in which diversity is an issue of both local and global significance, the potential for such imaginative engagement with what might be viewed as ‘other’ becomes of increasing importance. 



Notes to Chapter Three

[i] To whom Thomas refers by her later name, Cynthia Bull

[ii] Employed in university departments of philosophy, Foucault termed himself a ‘genealogist’ referring to his excavations of histories of discourse, while his analysis of discourse and episteme have influence across a whole range of academic fields. 

[iii] Since there are two different Turners writing on similar subjects Terrence Turner is identified by his full name to distinguish him from Bryan Turner.