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

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

People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we are 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.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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