The recent influx of critical texts focusing on theorizing dance over the past decade have attempted to remedy the medium’s relative state of neglect in the academy compared to other mediums such as literature, art, film, music and theater1. While it would be unthinkable that a university would not have a department of Art History or Literature, very few institutions have a department of Dance, and when they do, the focus is usually on practical dance technique classes, designed to give students a break from the demands of their ‘real’ work. The implicit message is that dance is something you do, not something that you approach with the same amount of rigorous theoretical inquiry as one would approach a painting, or a written text. In the traditional model within media theory of “Image, Sound, and Text”, dance falls into a strangely indeterminate space. It produces a visual image, however, that image is ever changing in space and time, and ultimately disappears altogether. It is sometimes accompanied by the sound of music, and it can be read like a text—but a ‘text’ that is ‘written’ on the body, without words. The dancing body in motion has largely been left out of the linguistic turn and the pictorial turn2 due to the way it belongs at once to both categories and to neither of them. And so the question would remain, what is dance as a medium? And will it ever get its ‘turn’ within the field of media studies and the academy in general?
The OED defines the verb “to dance” as “to leap, skip, hop, or glide with measured steps and rhythmical movements of the body, usually to the accompaniment of music”, and it defines the noun “dance” as “a rhythmical skipping and stepping, with regular turnings and movements of the limbs and body, usually to the accompaniment of music; either as an expression of joy, exultation, and the like, or as an amusement or entertainment”3. Both definitions attest to a variety of issues with defining dance as a medium. First, there is the type of movement itself and the difficulty of describing it, in part due to the sheer proliferation of categories and contexts in which dance emerges—within the context of religious ritualistic dance, folk dance, social dance (from nineteenth-century waltzs to tangos, salsas and contemporary clubbing), to the “theatrical” staged dance in its various forms (ballet, modern dance, post-modern dance to name just a few broad categories). While some of these dance movement patterns might be described as “leaping, skipping, hopping, or gliding”, hardly all will fall into this pattern, and indeed, this selection of adjectives to describe dance movements seems, at best, rather limited and curious, and at worst, symptomatic of the tendency to dismiss and trivialize dance as mere “rhythmical skipping”. Second, the definition of the noun dance imposes a normative, and similarly limited view of dance as always “rhythmical” with “regular” turnings, in which the “limbs” appear oddly disassociated from the “body”, and which is “either an expression of joy and exultation OR an amusement and entertainment”, leaving out the possibility that dance might express a wide spectrum of emotions, including pain, or grief. The shortcomings of this definition still manage to provide several helpful inroads into thinking about dance—that it involves 1) a patterned, rhythmical movement through 2) the medium of the body that 3) attempts to “express” something.
However, almost immediately complications arise around these three constitutive elements. As Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen write in the introduction to their ground-breaking critical anthology “What is Dance?”, “dance is sometimes defined as any patterned, rhythmic movement in space and time”4. However, as they note, on the basis of this definition dance could include the flight patterns and movements of bees. If one is to specify dance as any “patterned, rhythmic movement by a human in space and time”, one could still include a variety of human activities ranging from chopping down a tree, to marching in a parade, to ice skating5. It would thus seem necessary within the scope of this essay, to leave aside some of the broader sociological and anthropological contexts in which dance can be defined, and focus on it as an art form, in terms of its connection to imitation, expression and form6. When viewed within this context, pressure is placed on the idea that dance occurs exclusively through the medium of the body, when one considers the other elements (design, lighting, costumes) of dance performance ranging from Loie Fuller’s voluminous flowing fabric, to the flamenco dancers castanets, to the virtuoso hybridity of the Ballet Russes. Similarly, the notion of expression becomes complicated depending highly on the form of dance in question, and how that dance can be placed in relation to imitation.
In Poetics Aristotle defines dance as a form that “imitates character, emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement.”7 However, even within one dance genre, there are a variety of ways that one could ‘imitate’, and as this definition attests, there are a variety of categories that one could imitate, and then there is also the possibility that dance may not imitate at all. For instance, ballet has both sequences of pantomime in which a series of gestures explicitly imitates a scenario, or character, while also using a more abstract gestural and physical code, (such as a pirouette, an entrechat or a pas de deux) that does not directly imitate a character or situation, but articulates and expresses meaning through a formal pattern of gestures and movements that constitutes a unique ‘language’ of ballet. In order to highlight how the language of ballet departs from modes of imitation, dance critics and choreographers have either emphasized its formal qualities and patterns or its symbolic and expressive capacities. The debate about dance’s ability to imitate or ‘purely’ express, further intensifies over different dance genres, such as ballet and modern dance. The emergence of Modern Dance in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries directly challenged the highly codified and disciplined choreography of ballet. As a key figure to Modern Dance, Isadora Duncan emphasized dance’s expressive capacity, rejecting what she perceived as the artificial, and restrictive movement of ballet, for self-choreographed movements that “naturally” expressed inner impulses and emotions. She believed that dance was “an outward expression of the soul.”8
In both Ballet and Modern Dance, the literal movements and gestures of the body (however different the movements and gestures appear across these two dance genres) have often been interpreted as representing, symbolizing, expressing or signifying an action, character, emotion—or even its own formal elements. Thus, critics have “read” the body dancing as a kind of “text”9 that can be read both literally and figuratively—on the one hand, the body can be ‘read’ as embodying and mediating various cultural constructions and gender formations, on the other hand, the dance can be read abstracted from the body, as a metaphor for signification and metaphorizing itself. The French symbolist poet Mallarme, famously wrote of dance and the dancer as “always a symbol, never a person”10. He believed dance was a pure symbol that served as the perfect metaphor for writing, without being encumbered by written language, and thus, the dancer “suggests things which the written work could express only in several paragraphs of dialogue or descriptive prose. Her poem is written without the writer’s tools.”11 Dance retains a complex relationship to the realm of language. It has alternately been idealized as “speaking” or “writing” in a more “natural” physical code of the body, gesture and movement, then the medium of the words, however, it has also been marginalized for not being as rigorous as the signifying system of language. As dance scholar Ann Daly writes, dance has a history of being conceived as “purely primitive, ‘pre-verbal’, idiosyncratic, infantile, female and uncoded, in opposition to the civilized, social, adult, male reasoned code of language.”12 The idea of construing dance as “uncoded” refers both to the issue of how choreography13 translates into a notated, written form14, as well as to the way dance places pressure against the idea of textuality and discursive structure itself by instead using the movements and gestures of the body to articulate and express. Dance embodies a variety of codes and symbolic inscriptions that do not place it “beyond the symbolic”, but instead work within a different mode, or alternate symbolic order in which it could be said that “dance speaks, yet it speaks otherwise.”15