Sharing the Dance Through The Lived Body

Go to content

Sharing the Dance Through The Lived Body

Debbie Lee-Anthony
Published by Debbie Lee-Anthony in Dancing as you get older · 16 December 2021
Tags: dancethroughthelivedbody
This paper addresses notions of ‘the lived body’ and ‘performing presence, from my perspective as a mature performer.  This is the third in a series of writings on dance and ageing, this paper paying particular reference to the connection and communication that a mature dancer can bring to their audience. Adopting a phenomenological approach, drawing from my own work and examples in professional practice as well as writings on the subject of ageing and performance, the paper seeks to identify ideas of intentionality and discusses aspects of what constitutes ‘performing presence’ and ‘bodily lived sensitivity’.

In recent years my practice has centered around real experience, but always starting with the body, developing dance material to give shape and form to  content.  I have become increasingly fascinated with the ‘expressive material’ of movement and the notion of performing presence - and how this might be imparted to others. A pertinent quote made by veteran dancer Deborah Bull springs to mind, in her opening words of the 1993 BBC documentary ‘The Dancer’s Body’, ‘If I could say it, why would I dance it?’  Concurring with this, New York Times critic John Martin suggests that the art of dance lies in ‘the expression and transference through the medium of bodily movement of mental and emotional experiences that the individual cannot express by rational or intellectual means.’ (Martin, cited in Copeland and Cohen 1983).  In other words, the dancer’s movements are intentional.

This notion of intentionality, whereby the transference of bodily action and bodily sensitivity, containing thought-conveying qualities, Martin calls ‘metakinesis’ and, whilst clearly not ALL dance works purport to contain specific meaning or intention, this is something which as an older dancer I have become increasingly interested in.  The lived body, arguably to a lesser or greater degree, inevitably brings about a changing aesthetic.  This aesthetic is something with which, at times, I have had some difficulty in accepting (this has been discussed in a previous article published in Animated and will not be addressed in this paper).
As Sandra Horton Fraleigh (1987) argues in ‘Dance and the Lived Body’, dance, as a performed art, is a form of expression, whereby it exists for and is intended to be received by another. She goes on to say that the dancer dances for others in context of community, in the form of communal expression.  In recent years, I have become more concerned with the body itself as an expressive medium, the notion of the body as a thinking, feeling, acting, expressive whole, but, at all times, as outlined by Fraleigh, concerned with the dancing body on ‘an experiential and kinesthetic level which precedes words’ (Fraleigh, 1987 p 53).  I am interested in movement as an aesthetic mode of expression, which seeks to ‘reach’ others, albeit the manner of this may of course vary according to ‘intention’ and ‘performing presence.’  So what do we mean by intention and performing presence?  What is it that makes one dancer more compelling to watch than another?  Perhaps it is an intensity of focus and particular quality injected into every gesture or bodily movement that enables the most imaginative and articulate rendition.  Perhaps it could be said that with ‘older’ performers, it is the act of performance as opposed to the object of performance that is favourable and attainable.
It is also about ‘embracing the audience as fellow performers’ and ‘attention eliciting attention’ as ex Judson dancer Deborah Hay argues in Anne Daly’s (2002) discussion. In her chapter exploring Hay’s extraordinary ‘performing presence’ within ‘Critical Gestures’ (2002) Daly expounds ‘Hay’s dancing is not about the body’s surface and trajectory; nor is it about mastery; it is about depth and focus: the inner impulse made manifest only through practiced surrender.’ (Daly, 2002, p 40).  So we can see from this that notions of presence are crucial; an intimacy in presence, creating intentions which are ‘felt’ and desire to be fulfilled.  In Contemporary Choreography:  A Critical reader (2009) Soili Hamalainen, discussing notions of the lived body, says this:  ‘It emphasizes the significance of a dancer’s bodily knowledge, experience and memory, as well as a dancer’s responsibility for her own body and its messages.’  (Hamalainen, cited in Butterworth & Wildschut, 2009, p 108). She goes on to say how the body memory brings into one’s mind images of what the body ‘felt’ at certain moments and situations.
Preston-Dunlop (1998) reflects on aspects of ‘feeling’ inherent in dance and refers to this as ‘feeling-states’, a technical term for feelings which arise through the complete absorption and immersion of artists in their medium.  In her discussion Preston-Dunlop suggests that dancers have an aesthetic preoccupation with the ‘impact of the movement on themselves and the impact of themselves on the movement’ (Preston-Dunlop, 1998, p 50).  This is something I have been able to identify with very strongly in the creative process when structuring my solo ‘On Middle Ground’ – becoming fully  immersed in the movement’s form and content in order to express a personal ‘bodily lived sensitivity.  Whilst my work is often driven by real experience, the ‘emotion’ intended becomes a ‘feeling-state’, which is a development of expressionism. This is succinctly put forward by Preston-Dunlop here ‘Emotions….have to be given form in movement, form which is dynamic and spatial….the intention is then felt, diffused into the entire body and lived.’ (Preston-Dunlop, 1998, p51).  She adds that ‘’feelings give rise to movement, movement gives rise to feelings and this in and out of duality is the daily experience of dancers.’ (Ibid p 49).
So what is it about these feelings or intentions of the performer that constitutes performing presence?  Anne Daly (2002) on examining the extraordinary performance qualities of Deborah Hay, had this to say ‘…her absolute focus on what she is doing at the moment allows the audience to receive the smallest shifts in her attention. Hay appears to be actively “listening” as it were, with her entire body, to both the space around her and the space inside her.’ (Daly, 2002, p 35).  She continued ‘Hay’s performance has a radiance that is without a content beyond itself – it is the performance of becoming. ‘ (Ibid).
Susan Leigh Foster (1986) agrees with the extraordinary performance qualities of Hay, she states ‘Hay infrequently invokes the idea of a ‘cellular consciousness’.  She asserts that every cell in the body must participate in each moment of the dance…..this presence makes Hay’s concerts both special and specialised….she and her dancers have developed the ability to concentrate so fully on the movement that each image seems to permeate their bodies completely.’ (Foster, 1986, p 9).  It is this heightened awareness which interests me and is something I am striving to attain in my own work.  On how the viewer receives the dance, I particularly like Fraleigh’s postulation ‘Even though the material of dance is fleeting and does not stop for our inspection like a painting does, when it is convincing, it is remembered.’  (Fraleigh, 1987, P 65).
Reflecting on this reminds me of when, in 1978 and in my first year in full-time dance training, I went to see London Contemporary Dance Theatre perform Robert Cohan’s ‘Stabat Mater’ (1975).  I have never forgotten Kate Harrison’s opening solo downstage, where she was quite still in a high release with upward focus for some minutes, very slowly contracting in the body. She didn’t even have to ‘move’ in the space. Her level of intention, engagement with the posture, focus and control was mesmerising to behold. It has always stood apart as one of my most memorable experiences at the theatre. Richard Shusterman’s theory (1992) that not all understanding and meaningful experience is linguistic springs to mind here.  When interpreting a dance work, there lies a case for the ‘felt’ interpretation, or response to, a particular movement. The following quote from Shusterman sums this up most succinctly: ‘As dancer, we understand the sense and rightness of a movement or posture pro-prioceptively, by feeling it in our spine and muscles, without translating it into conceptual linguistic terms.  We can neither learn nor properly understand the movement simply by being talked through it.’ (Shusterman, cited in Lavender,1995, p 26).  Preston-Dunlop (1998) agrees with his contention that more focus should be on what is ‘felt’ rather than seen, and this by both author and viewer.  In ‘Looking at Dances’ (1998) she discusses how dancers experience what they are doing - in terms of how they feel.  This is where emotions and variants of emotional feelings come into play and fundamentally what dancers engage with when they dance. So, perhaps similar to life experiences that can stand out in our memory, it is the ‘felt response’ that enables an extraordinary connection between performer and audience.
Thinking about movement intention, arguably, is a variable phenomenon, whereby employing increasing levels of complexity and aesthetic differentiation can bring about a range of responses for the viewer.  I agree however with Fraleigh’s sentiments that ‘A dance can only be of value when the dancer clearly manifests her intentions in her movement; then she becomes what she signifies, what she marks for us - be that the truth of our common humanity,  or the play and work of life seen in movement itself’.  Fraleigh goes on to say how ‘the dancing body is highly intelligent and expresses intentional motion, not vague wanderings’… (Fraleigh, 1987, p 71).  

Relating this to my solo work ‘On Middle Ground’ (2010) I am interested in creating movement that has within it a sense of intention and aesthetic purpose, this aesthetic being intrinsic - or felt yet also inherent, with particular movement qualities being embedded in the material. Having had knee surgery four years ago and undergoing hip surgery later this month, an integral  part the choreography explores a particular focus to my hip, performed with a controlled and careful reflection.  Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1979) argues ‘There is an experience, and the experience must be had, in order to be described.’ (Sheets-Johnstone, 1979, p 11).  Laban calls this use of intention ‘feeling-thought-motion’ where he insists that the gesture presented derives from actual ‘feeling’.  
John Hodgson (2001) in Mastering Movement, discusses the holistic nature of Laban’s work:
‘The well-tuned instrument is crucial, but with it, the dancer learns how to be more fully expressive ……which helps to extend the movement thinking and creativity….the motivating power for the dance movement comes from within, is life-demanding and employs the whole being.’
Hodgson, 2001, p 222                                                                        
Eminent American dance critic Anne Daly (in Critical Gestures, 2002) reflects on bodily sensitivity and intention of the body within the performance work of Isadora Duncan. She refers to Duncan’s  powerful performance as a sheer ‘genius for choreographing the drama of the kinaesthetic….the sense of intentionality communicated through activated weight….spatial sensitivity and the impression of decisiveness or indecisiveness gained through the manipulation of time’ (p 315).  Daly goes on to say how her powers of focus and concentration and her extraordinary ability to stay fully alive inside each moment, produced a compelling sense of presence.  It is this sense of compelling performing presence that perhaps the old -er dancer has the ability to project through his or her performance.  I rather like this critique on Duncan’s work, by the poet Shaemus O’Sheel ‘….it is a questioning, an inspiration, a thrill with hopes and fears, desires and joys and melancholies, and ever with wonder.’ (O’Sheel, cited in Daly, 2002 p 316)
Thinking about the notion of dance being ‘a communal activity’ I particularly like Fraleigh’s view that dance is a vital movement sensibility and within this, that there is a strong desire for dance to have a full engagement with it’s community. Fraleigh states ‘The dance itself, made visible by the dancer, passes between the dancer and the audience and binds them together.’  (Fraleigh, 1987,p 61).  She goes on to say how a ‘good dance moves the dancer and the audience toward each other’.  So it is this desire for ‘communion’ - a communion that is ’tacitly undertaken and lived through the body’ (Ibid).

On the notion of dance being perceived as a ‘communal activity’, it was interesting to note some pertinent questions raised by Simon Dove. In an article published in Animated (Autumn 2010), Dove discusses the separation of professional and community dance practice and asks why the dance field appears ‘to define professional practice as separate from communal activity.’ Dove had this to say ‘If institutions are training dance artists so that their work can only be seen in expensive buildings with high specification floors, controlled temperatures, advanced technical facilities and broad sightlines, then Western society is simply consolidating that separation.’  (Dove, 2010, Animated, Autumn issue).  It is profoundly important, Dove continues,   that we must not forget the critical importance of us knowing why we are dancing, for whom and to what end.  This is something that I can identify with, having worked in the community as a professional dancer and facilitator for 18 years prior to my post as a full-time lecturer in Higher Education.  I agree with Simon Dove, that it is about developing a profound sense of purpose for our work, and questioning the many assumptions about what dance is and where it happens. Identifying context is something that is a constant sense of intrigue for me, at this time within my current practice as a dance artist.

Drawing on examples from professional practice, Sharon E Friedler and Susan B Glazer in Dancing Female (1997) suggest that emotional maturity and technical competence can converge in extraordinary ways.  During American Ballet Theatre’s 50th year celebration gala, Alicia Alonso at 70, was highlighted for her extraordinary depth of presence, musicality and phrasing – and her performance was on pointe!  Freidler and Glazer go on to say how the mature dancer knows her body so well, that she can use exactly the right amount of energy for each movement, wasting not a breath.  It is about having a deep understanding of every tiny gesture in order that any intended meaning is absolutely clear and precise. This is something I witnessed whilst dancing with Martha Witman during an intensive training course with American choreographer Liz Lerman.  Martha, who danced with Anna Sokolow, and is now in her mid -70’s, made one’s spine tingle with the depth of expression she was able to communicate with the smallest gesture.    

Thinking about my own practice, in terms of form and content, my work is concerned with ‘conveying physical and mental tensions within a framework of free symbolic form’ as outlined by Suzanne K Langer in What is Dance? (1983). However, Langer talks about their being ‘imagined feeling’ governing the dance, not real emotional conditions, which is something in her argument I disagree with.   She goes on to discuss the inherent features which control the actual performance of movement, a type of ‘body-feeling’ - likening this to that which controls the tones in musical performance.  Langer describes this as the ‘final articulation of imagined feeling in its appropriate physical form.’ (Langer, cited in Copeland & Cohen 1983 p 33).  She continues ‘the conception of a feeling disposes the dancer’s body to symbolise it’.  George Jackson, dance critic from the Washington DanceView, looking at form and expression (in Critical Gestures, 2002) states ‘Form means significant change.  An organic structure that makes emotional sense.  Emotion not as expression of a literal,  realistic feeling but a formal implementation or diminution.’  However, choreographer Reinhild Hoffmann, in conversation with Anne Daly (2002), brings an alternative perspective on this: ‘I am not able to separate a personal feeling or a personal movement from a form.  It always comes together – that’s the impulse’. (Reinhild, cited in Daly 2002, page 10).  This would suggest that the feeling is not always ‘imagined’ and I tend to agree with Reinhild’s sentiments on this point, in that it is precisely my current emotional condition and real, not imagined, experience that has directly informed the movement material within my solo On Middle Ground.  I do not believe for one minute it is ‘imagined’ or indeed that I could have made this solo five years ago, or even last year.  
Bearing this in mind, I was struck by something Fergus Early, Director of Green Candle Dance Company, said at a Dance and Ageing seminar I attended as part of Dance Umbrella in 2008:  ‘I see my body as a kind of ‘encyclopedia of dance’, layers of accumulated experience that I hope the audience will read in my performance’. (Early, 2008, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London).  Reflecting on this, last year I created a ‘retrospective’ solo Ritornare (2009) where I recalled moments from works I had either danced in or choreographed over a period of 30 years.  What struck me was that my body ‘remembered’ movement from my early training and works with considerable ease. Surprisingly, my body was able to recall movement from many years passed, and yet my body has difficulty recalling a phrase created for my students only last week!  Perhaps there is a sense that the body doesn’t forget what it wants or needs to remember.  

Canadian dancer Paul Andre Fortier, also speaking at the Dance & Ageing seminar,  (2008) had this to say ‘the older dancing body has things to offer that are quite extraordinary….there is poetry  in it’. American dancer Scott Smith agreed with these sentiments ‘there is something about the accumulation of experience that emerges in performing that has very little to do with dance technique….as time goes on, dance becomes more about the uniqueness of the individual body….’(Scott Smith, 2008, Dance & Ageing seminar). I have observed Scott in performance dancing alongside dancers half his age, and there is a certain poetry, physical articulation and presence that is stunning to observe.
Thinking about the value and notion of bodily lived experience from the perspective   of teaching, is also an important aspect to consider for ‘sharing the dance.’  As a teacher one is able to impart wisdom and truths in dance that I believe only longevity in dance can successfully bring.  One never forgets a good teacher.  At the London Contemporary  Dance School training in the late 1970’s, I recall extraordinary teachers who, in retrospect, contributed significantly to the dancer I am today.  Bill Louther, Jane Dudley, Naomi Lapsezon to name a few, all had extensive experience as performers and teachers, accompanied by the ability to command an intense and electrifying atmosphere in the studio with their knowledge and passion, written in the body.  Billie Kirpich , in Dancing Female (1997), discusses a number of older choreographers and teachers who are an inspiration to younger dancers.  Jean Erdman, in her seventies and beyond, continued mounting and reconstructing solos on young dancers, drawing from her very early repertory. Other teachers from the Graham tradition such as the late Sophie Maslow and Ethel Winter (now in her mid- eighties) continued to inspire their pupils to a phenomenal degree. Ethel Winter shared in a letter to Susan Glazer how she relished the opportunity to impart her knowledge:
‘….thankfully my limited schedule allows me to stay fresh, enthusiastic and caring for even the slowest of learners.  In my early career, trying to balance teaching class, taking class, performance and family became a bit overwhelming.  Teaching was more of a job - now it is pure joy.’
Ethel Winter 1994
She continued to talk about the power of dance and its communication in performance and the need to cultivate the spirit as well as the physical. ‘ It is in these areas where I feel I, as an experienced dancer, can and should contribute.’ (Winter, cited in Friedler & Glazer 1997, p 213).  So it is clear from this that older dancers can bring an understanding and depth of feeling due to their life experiences which are valuable both in performance and in teaching dance to others.
Dancing through maturity has also been a constant source of encouragement in terms of my emotional well being.  In terms of matters of health, recently in performance I have been able to communicate, albeit in a humorous and subversive way, the impact on my body brought about by the unpleasant symptoms of the menopause.  Expressing how I felt and researching ideas through the body, has encouraged a greater understanding and acceptance of this unwelcome yet inevitable part of a woman’s life.  Continuing to dance into our senior years brings tremendous benefits in terms of health and well being (and also, importantly, contributes to a regeneration of muscle issue and bone density).  However, an important and relevant challenge arguably facing the first generation of dance artists who trained in the 1960’s and 70’s, who are ‘still dancing’, is the ability to strike a balance between what the body wants to ‘say’ and what the body can ‘do.’   Awaiting hip surgery, my biggest concerns and questions are all centred around my post operative condition; Will I still be able to dance to the same degree as before? What will my range of movement be? What limitations/restrictions will my body have? Will I lose my confidence?  Will there be any side effects?  How long will my hip last?  These are pertinent questions.  For example, in terms of teaching and demonstrating movement in class, as well as pursuing my own creative practice, there are certain physical limitations which I make allowances for. For example, I cannot do a full plie without pain as this puts too much strain on the hips and knees.  Movement involving hip flexion can cause discomfort; needless to say it is about making the necessary adjustments to enable me to perform to my strengths and personal artistic capacities.  It is about searching and finding an appropriate movement vocabulary to support what it is I wish to say;  imagination and economy are two words which spring to mind.
To conclude, it is clear to say that the mature dancer brings with them a heightened articulation and increased imaginative and expressive performing presence, through their ‘bodily lived’ experience.  Dance, being a communal activity, requires an audience and, through the inherent movement qualities, dancer’s intention, aesthetic properties and poetry of the body, performer and audience are drawn together in a harmonious communion.  I will finish with this quote from Fraleigh, which best sums up the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience:
The dance is the content that passes between them.  It is the creation, the accomplished work – expressed, received and returned.  What the dancer gains back from a work inevitably contains what the audience sees in it.  This indirect dialogue, by means of the dance, returns something of value to the dancer, who expresses it, and to the other, who experiences and assigns its worth.
(Fraleigh, 1987, p 70)
Debbie Lee-Anthony MA   2010
Bull, Deborah (1999) ‘The Dancer’s Body’  BBC 2 Documentary
Butterworth, J and Wildschut, L (eds) (2009) Contemporary Choreography:  A Critical Reader, Routledge: Oxon
Copeland Roger & Cohen Marshall (1983) What is Dance? Oxford University Press
Daly, Anne (2002) Critical Gestures, Wesleyan University Press
Dove, Simon (2010) Start Making Sense in Animated – community dance magazine (Autumn 2010)
Early, Fergus (2008) Dance & Ageing seminar, Interview panel, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London
Foster, Susan Leigh (1986) Reading Dancing – Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance. University  of California Press
Fortier, Paul-Andre (2008) Dance & Ageing seminar, Interview Panel, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London
Fraleigh, Sondra Horton (1987) Dance and the Lived Body – A Descriptive Aesthetics, University  of Pittsburgh Press
Friedler Sharon E & Glazer Susan B (1997) Dancing Female Harwood Academic Publishers
Lavender Larry (1995) Dance Research Journal Understanding Interpretation Vol 27 (2) p 26
Lerman, Liz (2005) Dance Exchange training course workshop, Wesleyan   University, Connecticut
Preston-Dunlop, V (1998) Looking at Dances, Dance Book: London
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine (1979) The Phenomenolgy of Dance.  Dance Books Ltd: London (2nd edition)
Smith Scott (2008) Dance & Ageing seminar, Interview Panel, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London

Back to content