How many times have you been questioned for not pursuing something "more serious"? Photo by Nadim Merrikh/Unsplash

Don't Get It Twisted: Dance Is An Intellectual Pursuit

People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.

It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?


Perhaps that's because dance only leaves behind traces. The words and decisions that go into making dances have a hard time being accounted for, and choreographic notes and videos cannot fully capture a dance work. Dance depends on the presence of the body. Unfortunately, it's difficult to explain to non-dancers how corporal movement is a means of thinking and engaging with complex ideas. That's why it's so important that dancers can talk or write about their work, translating the corporal knowledge into language.

When we acknowledge that our bodies think, move, translate, react—often in conjunction with linguistic thought or prior to it—we can use dance as a tool.

Dance Can Share Our Stories Across Borders & Generations

Sharing dance shares stories from generation to generation. Photo by Joy Real/Unsplash

As dancers, we know that more than just emotions and physical training go into dancing. Cultural knowledge gets passed on through music and dance, particularly for cultures with strong oral traditions. The gestures, stories and symbolisms, passed from generation to generation, and across borders, help us connect and understand our own and others' histories.

Movement Creates Empathy in The Audience

A change in movement can affect our minds. Photo of a Dance Theatre of Harlem rehearsal by Quinn Wharton

Research has also shown that when we change our posture, we can change our state of mind, and gestures and movements influence our emotions. And that affects not only the dancer. Dance has a unique power to communicate through a process known as kinesthetic empathy. Recent discoveries in neuroscience prove that we can empathize, and even experience (through what have been termed "mirror neurons"), the movements we see someone else doing. Dance oversteps the need for language as a mediator.

Linguistic Intelligence Has Its Place in Dance, Too

Bill T. Jones has long used text to deepen his dance work. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy BTJ/AZDC

That's not to say that language isn't part of dance. Choreographers craft dancers' intentions and movements with words, images and metaphors. Even in improvisation, a director dictates a score, and dancers translate the imagery into corporal form.

When choreographers layer dance and words, it engages the audience in new ways. As Bill T. Jones explains, "You see one thing and you hear another thing, and then the audience puts together what they mean."

Dance Can Help Us Better Understand Our World

Ananya Chatterjea's Shyamali was created as a tribute to women who've stood up to oppression. Photo via ananyadancetheatre.org

Many choreographers use dance to shed light on today's most pressing topics. Some use dance in conjunction with social activism, like Ananya Dance Theatre's Ananya Chatterjea, who recently created Shyamali as a tribute to women across the world who have stood up against oppression. Others explore the nuances of science: Michelle Dorrance's Myelination, for example, translates the biological process of a myelin sheath forming around a nerve into tap dance. Not to mention artists who use their dance practice as research, focusing on the process of dance making to explore a question or subject.

The Mind-Body Connection Is a Powerful Coping Tool

Movement can help us better cope with traumatic experiences. Photo via marylhurst.edu

In dance therapy, movement functions as a critical tool in understanding and coping with traumatic experiences. It relies on the fact that movement communicates, acknowledging the crucial mind-body connection.

Through Dance, We Can Embody a Brighter Future

Théogène Niwenshuti shared the healing powers of dance after the Rwandan genocide. Photo via Facebook.

On a community level, dance has been successfully used in reconciliation processes in previously divided or war-torn countries, such as Rwanda, Australia, South Africa and Colombia. We relate to others not just with language, but with gestures and physical contact.

Through dance, we can imagine new futures or ways of interacting with the world—in performance we can become anyone (or anything), which can be more than an escape, but a way of pushing beyond the status quo and finding new ways of moving through the world.

Dancers Connect Multiple Parts of Ourselves

Dance uses the connections between the cerebral, physical and emotional parts of ourselves to delve into our humanity. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dance intertwines the cerebral, physical and emotional; science tries to unravel the connections between these. Dance uses these inherent connections to delve deeper into our humanity, and create new ways of reflecting on the world. In that way, dance is a crucial tool in intellectual pursuits.

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Paul Liu, Courtesy Pilobolus

Could Augmented Reality Change How We Watch Dance?

Imagine being able to digitally project the world's greatest dancers into your home, and observe them performing virtually, in three dimensions, atop a living room table. Such is the potential of a new class of augmented reality (AR) technologies like the "Magic Leap," a headset that allows users to superimpose digital media atop their seen reality, innovatively combining recorded dance with real space.

Director and founder of the MAP Design Lab Melissa Painter recently collaborated with Pilobolus to produce a bonkers AR choreography called "YouDanceWeDance." This project, which began its life on the Magic Leap, allows viewers to use their smartphones to observe (from any angle, and anywhere) Pilobolus dancers moving according to selectable emotional themes.

What is your dance background?

Creative—not competitive—movement practices have always been where I lived. When I was little (in Northern California, back in the hippie days) my dance classes had provocations like, "Stand tall, like a tree" or, "Imagine that you're a frog, and folk dancing."

Today, my movement practice is yoga, and I feel like I'm still hearing the "stand like a tree" part. I also studied Graham technique, improvisation and Alexander techniques. While I was never a strong performer, I am a strong enthusiast.

Tell us about your collaboration with Pilobolus.

Pilobolus and MAP started playing together, doing motion capture and dreaming up augmented and virtual reality interpretations of their work over a year ago. I love their creative process, the emotional accessibility of their work, and how adventurous the artistic directors Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski are.

Youdancewedance.org (now also available for smartphones) is a good thing for people during this weird moment where everyone is stuck at home. We have a vision that it will foster a different kind of relationship between audiences and theater performance over time.

Next up, it will be part of the "Art Safari" they are staging in their (safely socially distanced) Five Senses Festival this summer (July 31-Aug 2) in Washington Depot, Connecticut. We really made this with kids and families in mind, and I hope people enjoy it. It basically reminds you to move your own body!

How has augmented reality and motion capture changed your view on what choreography is?

For me, augmented and virtual reality have honed my eye, and given me an opportunity to spend additional time with phrases in the context of motion capture. It's similar to how a dancer might live with movement in their body. It provides an opportunity to revisit live movements spatially, instead of through a flat YouTube video or even on a proscenium stage. It's about being able to look at it giant, and then look at it tiny, and from all angles. I adore it. I've always wanted people to view dance with the feeling of exhilaration and joy I've had as a watcher in the rehearsal studio.

Movement, to me, is the most beautiful, direct and instinctual form of human communication. I believe motion capture gets at the essence of who we are in a way that is elegant, accessible and impactful. Especially in this moment when so many people forget that their body is a beautiful, creative tool.

If COVID keeps theaters closed for the foreseeable future, might AR maintain a sense of dancerly liveness in performance?

Currently, live performance spaces being shuttered, it's important to think of ways that spatial computing, three-dimensional capture and immersive presentations can support the work of creators who work with bodies. We can explore potential new audiences and performance opportunities right now.

Once upon a time, there was less of a distinct line between dancers and watchers. I still believe that can be the case, and that it's good for non-experts to have as many chances to be inspired by experts as to move their own bodies.

Are there things that folks can do at home to explore in this new, virtual choreographic horizon?

Dance is one of the most loved, watched and shared forms of social media content that there is. So, share dance! I'm always up for more making and doing and moving, whether it's captured or not. There are emergent forms of dimensional capture and there are also off-the-shelf ways to turn flat videos spatial. They're not perfect, but they're getting better and better.

Who are some other people working in this space that you think Dance Magazine’s readers should know about?

There is a world of immersive makers out there. The media is ripe for it, and as creative technologists, we know that it is dancers and choreographers who are the collaborators we need as we create experiences and technologies of the future that honor embodiment. Some who come to mind are Heidi Bosivert, Michelle Ellsworth, Christine Marie and Gilles Jobin.

How can dancers prepare for this sort of work in the future?

Having inventive improvisational and collaborative skills is a good start. That's part of why Pilobolus translates so beautifully to virtual space. Motion capture can be used in as many ways as there are movers. There's no prescribed form. We have had lots of situations when people are doing complex partnerings, but someone's data for their head ends up attached to someone else's knee. You learn to work through!