Dance as a Form of Art

Feibleman, James K. 1950. The Art of the Dance. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 8(1): 47-52.
Nevertheless, if art has value, we cannot rid ourself of the conviction that it ought to survive. What, then, are we to think of those arts which are notoriously ephemeral in their material? Canvases and paints are more perishable than clays and stones, quite irrespective of what is or is not done with them in painting and sculpture. And there are, besides these, arts whose very nature precludes survival.
Among the latter there stands out prominently the art of the dance. The material of the dance as an art form consists in human bodies and their movements. (Feibleman 1950: 47)
The fact is that dancing is a universal human activity, and includes relations with practically all other human activities. That would appear to make our problem simpler, and it does in one way, but there is another way in which it does not. For while dancing seems to have a continuity as prolonged as that of any other institution in human culture, this is not true of the dances themselves. The content of the dance, in so far as the dance celeberates other human activities, is irrelevant if not spurious. Dances to bring rain and dances to prepare for war have in common to all sorts of dances sufficient to enable us to recognize that they are dances. We have, then, the problem of discovering what this element is. (Feibleman 1950: 48)
In essence the dance is an art among other arts and yet in some way set apart from them. We shall have to call upon some prior definition of art, and then examine the dance empirically in order to discover how under that definition the particular art of the dance can be singled out from the others.
The universality of dancing among human beings raises another and more serious difficulty in the path of the attempt to understand the nature of the art of dance. Plainly, there can be no such thing as a conscious art-form which is (a) not accomplished by human beings for the most part, and which is (b) devoted exclusively to human beings. So far as (a) is concerned, it is clear that the plastic arts, for instance, are worked by human beings, although with objective materials and for the achievement of a purpose which lies beyond human beings is that the works of art which are made are expected, if they prove to have any value, to survive objectively and independently the lives of the artists who are responsible for them. (Feibleman 1950: 48)
In employing the movement of the human body as its material, the dance adopts a means which is capable of enormous variations. The movements of the human body are limited only by the possibilities of the physiological and anatomical functions, more specifically by the skeletal and neuromuscular systems. These are mechanical limitations; yet the possibilities they prescribe are simply enormous. In a world where there are millions of people, it is still possible to identify individuals by their casual gait in walking, a remarkable enough fact. The variations of human movement in an unstudied way are innumerable; how many more must there be in a planned sequence of movements? The logic of the dance is a selection from the logic of human movement: poses, stretches of muscle, transitions from one movement to another, formal patterns consisting of sets of movements. All the variations, for instance, which are known to music are also possible to the dance. There can be in movement the theme-and-variations pattern, the fugal pattern of imitative movement, even contrapuntal movement. And of course the dance has and can invent patterns of its own. The dance has been said to be geometry in motion, and the art is also related to sculpture and architecture in being a plastic medium. (Feibleman 1950: 50)

Cohen, Selma Jeanne 1953. Dance as an Art of Imitation. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23(2): 232-236.
"Rhythm alone, without harmony, is the means of the dancer's imitations," wrote Aristotle, who then added - a bit grudgingly - "for even he, by the rhythms of his attitudes, may represent men's characters, as well as what they do and suffer." (Poetics: 1447a). This was ascribed considerable power of imitation to dance, claiming that it could show motivation, the emotional springs of action. (Cohen 1953: 232)
When, in the seventeeth century, some little thinking about dance technique had started, theories of the art as imitation began to stir. But they advocated only the lesser part of Aristotle's claim - that the dancer imitates what men do and suffer. Even when given an allegorical significance, the closest the contemporary ballets came to the imitation of character was the depicting of generalized classes of men distinguished by a single trait, such as desire for power or delight in intrigue. (Cohen 1953: 232)
But in the early twentieth century Michel Fokine mourned that the only difference between a dancer doing thirty-two pirouettes and an acrobat who did twice as many was that the acrobat did his with more certainty. The aim of the dancer, he cried, is not to establish a record; it is to express feeling beautifully. (Cohen 1953: 234)
The modern trend follows the line of Fokine but has become far more explicit regarding the origin of expressive movement. Fokine wrote mainly in terms of styles, periods, and national characters. Contemporaries go further by analyzing the movement signs of particular emotional qualities.
The basic premise is not new. But its scientific application to theatrical dance is new. Modern choreographers avow their indeptedndess to Desaltre who developed his own theories of gesture for use with speech or as pure pantomime. The system assigned fixed postures and movements to signify emotional states. These wre not, like gesture language of the old Russian ballet, arbitrarily set meanings. Rather, they were based on the inherently representative qualities of human movement used in non-theatrical life since the first foot was stamped in an instinctive expression of anger. (Cohen 1953: 234)
The moods of expressions of movements have a double source. It will be easily understood that a body and arm stretching high wide has a different expression from that of a body huddled up on a floor. It would be wrong, however, to speak of definite moods expressed by positions, because the dancer can move into any position in very different ways. Suppose he reaches the highly stretched position one time with a soft floating movement and another wime with an energetic thrust. It is obvious that the mood of the movement will be different each time. The expression of movement depends therefore on several factors - space, location, including shape, and dynamic content, including effort (Rudolf von Laban. Modern Educational Dance. London: 1948, p. 44).
(Cohen 1953: 235)

Foregger, Nikolai 1975. Experiments in the Art of the Dance. Translated by David Miller. The Drama Review: TDR 19(1): 74-77.
The dance fulfills certain functions, strenghtens the basics for self-discipline in the masses, provides practice for the learning and mastery of rhythm (mass dances, which is so necessary in all labor processes. (Foregger 1975: 74)
The dance can be summarized as follows:
A. The art of the dance is independent; in relation to the other arts it may utilize Moliére's maxim: "Take what you need where you find it." Music provides a rhythmic support for the dance; painting, a colorful setting - but no more.
B. The dance must not be an illustration of music. The musical melody and the plastic may not coincide. The dancer and the violin form a duet.
C. In the dance, the expressiveness of the whole body is important, and not its parts. A slip or indifference of any one of the parts of the body in the dance is akin to a torn wire in a grand piano.
D. The affected line, pliant softness, slackness, incompleteness in the dance pattern, a passive surrender to the musical melody define the female beginnings in the dance.
Precision, firmness, muscular effort, and aggressiveness in fulfilling the pattern of the musical accompaniment characterize the male beginnings.
E. Eras of decline attribute the central position in the dance for women; the eras of construction - to men. The reverie, romance, and finesse of the nineteenth-century dance was transmitted by the ballerina. The validity, reality, and the strenght of our times must be demonstrated by the male dancer.
F. The male dancer leads the dance. Precision, boldness, strenght define his work. The demand for pre-eminence for the male dancer does not mean the abolition of all female dancers. Male and female elements manifest themselves not through the work records of the performers but in the predominance of various traits of aggressiveness or passivity that are transmitted in the dance.
G. Thematic task of the dance: it is either the manifestation of accents in movement (combat, defeat, passion, victory, etc.) or the reflection of contemporaneity. The images that surround us are celebrated in the rhythmic pattern of the dance. In the dance of savages can be seen stories of the fat gamebird, the slumbering forests, a battle with a favorable outcome. Our life creates dances of the sidewalks and speeding automobiles, and renders homage to the precision of machine functions, the quickness of flowing crowds, and the grandeour of skyscrapers. (Foregger 1975: 74-75)
Recognizing the plastic and the classical exercises needed for the training of today's dancer as a secondary element equivalent to acrobatics and sport, the schools found it necessary to establish their own system: the system of dance and physical training - tafiatrenage (EDITOR'S NOTE: French for "molasses-pulling.")
And so, the pattern of tafiatrenage exercises is constructed along two lines:
  1. Exhaustive training of the dancer's body (musculature).
  2. Training and increasing his psycho/physiological potentials (control, volitional impulses, reflex arousal, etc.).
The two groups are not isolated in the course of the work. They are closely wovened together, creating a chain of tasks ranging from the primitive (lifting the arm, which is mechanical, active, and passive, etc.) to the complex (group constructions). (Foregger 1975: 75)
The task of the school is to bring out and develop the series of qualities that the dancer needs. In ordinary life, a person is not aware of his body; he does not sense the functions of various muscles. Furthermore, Philistine wisdom asserts that only during an illness does one feel one's body. The dancer, however, must always be sensitive to his body's harmony and be aware of every contraction of the muscles. This leads, most importantly, to the development of the following skills:
  1. Control of one's movements. Work on coordinating exercises for the separate parts of the body.
    Further tasks in the construction of the exercises are the same.
  2. Speed of the plastic memory; attention to oneself and to one's partner (coupling). The trainer demonstrates the exercise several times and outlines it once. Exercises in pairs of larger groups.
  3. Emotional coloring of the exercises.
  4. precision and speed of reaction. Boldness. Interrupted movement. Arbitrary alternation of the chain of exercises.
  5. Inventiveness and ingenuity. Development of plastic thought. Completion of the assigned exercise basics. A reciprocal movement in the sequence of construction. The shaping of the musical phrases, etc.
(Foregger 1975: 76)
The worker at the lathe, the soccer player in a game, already harbor within themselves the outlines of the dance. We must learn to recognize these features. (Foregger 1975: 77)

Sparshott, Francis 1983. The Missing Art of Dance. Dance Chronicle 6(2): 164-183.
As I was bringingto completion a long piece of writing in which I tried to make plain the living importance of this way of articulating thought, it began to dawn on me, first, that I had said less about the art or arts of dance than I would have expected; second, that aesthetics in the last two centuries has shared this neglect of dance; and third, that some versions of the eighteenth-century systems of the fine arts did not underemphasize the art of dance, but actually excluded it from consideration. (Sparshott 1983: 164)
The relative neglect of dance by theorists of aesthetics is for at least three reasons. First, the practice of dance is at least as widely diffused as any other practice to which the name of art might be given. Second, no theorist will actually come out and say that dance is not an art, not an important art form, not one of fine arts, or anything like that. And third, more than one important line of thought has in fact assigned to dance a place of key importance in some context of which the philosophy of art should be expected to take note. (Sparshott 1983: 165)
At the other extreme of the philosophical spectrum, Condillac's Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge of 1741, a work that some authorities regard as the most important writing in the development of the theory of language, borrows from William Warburton'sthen recent Essay on the Hieroglyphs an argument that gained some currency in the eighteenth century and assigned to dance an important role in human development. Warburton noted in the Old Testament the frequency with which the prophets used visual imagery to drive their messages home and argued that this "language of action" must have been a survival, kept up in religious and other solemn contexts, of a once-universalsign language of meaningful gesture. This language, Condillac argues, was nothing other than the original form of dance, which with the advance of civilization took on the stylized and regularized forms that we know and split into two genres: the expressive dance of gesture, as in the ancient pantomime, capable of expressing thoughts; and la danse des pas, the dance of steps, capable of expressing such feelings as joy. It is from this language of the body that our language of words develops. And he adds in another context that music and poetry as we know them are offshoots of this more ancient art of gesture, the art of dance: so that, he says, one may conjecture that among all peoples in every age, some form of dance, of music, and of poetry could be found. (Sparshott 1983: 165)
At a time when I thought I knew how Hegel's system worked but had not ransacked his lectures for obiter dicta, I presumed that Hegel's reason for silence might have been that an art of dance in the classical mode would be superfluous, on the ground that the moving human body, being "made in the divine image," is already perfectly expressive without art: any intelligently efficient action simply is the bodily form that mind takes. But it turns out that this is not Hegel's line at all. He does, in fact, recognize a classical art of dance. But he does so as part of what, when we assemble its parts, proves to be a rather subtle argument that has not been much noticed, but that is worth looking at.
Hegel begins by noting, following an argument already a century old, that we can see animal forms as beautiful because of their visible functionality. But, he goes on, we cannot see beauty in the movements of animals because we cannot see them as meaningfully unified. We cannot divine the purposefulness in them because the animal's purposes are not ones we immediately share - we have to try to work out intellectually what the animal is up to. On the other hand, being ourselves human, we can find beauty in human movement-we grasp the thread of its continuity without having to stop and think. And where we find beauty especially is, of course, in those movements where the human unity is inherent in the organizing principle of the movement itself as movement, not imposed by an ulterior end or by a message to be conveyed. So it is that we find beauty in the human movement of music and of dancing, which Hegel describes as "in itself regular, definite, concrete, and measured-even if we abstract altogether from the meaning of which it is the beautiful expression.' In fact, he sees the gestural art of pantomime as beautiful in just this way: "In this plastic music of bodily posture and movement the peaceful and cold work of sculpture is ensouled and animated into a dance, and music and plastic art are in this way unified." Similarly, as I have already intimated, the symbolic dances that portray the heavens are in fact danced for their plastic quality: "We do not dance in order to think about what we are doing, interest is restricted to the dance and the tasteful and charming solemnity of its beautiful movement." (Sparshott 1983: 172-173)
There is, however, a way of putting what is really the same point that is more favorable to Hegel. He discounts all values that are not constructively related to the formation of a human being as a citizen and a member of a rational society. Private enjoyments, special behaviors, all those arts that Aristotle classified as arts pros diagogen, arts "contributing to the course of life," are played down as inconsequential. None of the fine arts, as Hegel sees them, is appropriately judged by properly aesthetic values: the "beauty" of which he speaks is, in fact, always the manifestation of ideas that can be justified in terms of the general good, ultimately the Absolute. The connoisseur is despised because he fastens his attention on those aspects of art that have least relation to the central values of human life, and the virtuoso who caters to his taste is likewise dismissed as a master of irrelevance. It was this totalitarian insistence on public and universal dimensions of value that Kierkegaard claimed made Hegel not only the supreme philosophical genius of his age, but also repulsive and ridiculous. (Sparshott 1983: X)
In the literature of dance in Western civilization we find a recurrent contrast between the dance of athleticism and agility, centered on legs and feet, and the dance of eloquent gesture, centered on arms and hands. The classical dance would be a dance of the unified body, as the sculptor's chisel cuts everywhere with equal care; but our argument would now be that the unity must always be unstable, between mindlessly twinkling toes and abstractly gesturing hands. (Sparshott 1983: 177)

Ruyter, Nancy Chalfa 1973. American Delsartism: Precursor of an American Dance Art. Educational Theatre Journal 25(4): 420-435.
In the American theatrical arts, the movement against formalism and a concurrent development toward respectability received their earliest impetus from the nineteenth-century field of study called "expression." The forerunner of expression had been elocution, a system of voice and speech training that gained increasing importance in American education from the 1820s onward. From the mid-century, instructors in elocution began to emphasize gesture and physical motion more and more. The term "expression" came into use and included physical culture, pantomime, dramatics, and interpersonal communication as well as professional training for public speaking. Training in the narrower field of elocution had originally been an important part of education for men-especially for clergymen, lawyers, public readers, and lecturers. As educational opportunities for women expanded, training in expression came to be considered as useful and appropriate for young ladies and society matrons as for educated men.
Expression was taught by various methods, but the best known and ultimately the broadest in application was associated with the name of Franqois Delsarte (1811-1871). This French music and drama teacher had spent many years studying the movements, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal behavior of people in all kinds of situations to develop what he hoped was a complete, scientifically-based system of dramatic expression. Underlying his technical system was an elaborate and mystical science of aesthetics deriving from his personal interpretation of the Christian Trinity. In America, the original Delsarte System was expanded upon. Emphasis was placed on the aesthetic theory and on physical culture and pantomime techniques that American Delsartians added to, or derived from, Delsarte's work. Because of these emphases, American Delsartism could be a more important influence on the development of an alternative dance art than any of the other schools of expression. (Ruyter 1973: 422)
Fundamental to the whole method were principles of relaxation and naturalness, and these fundamentals remained basic to the system throughout its three phases. In the words of a later Delsartian, the training was designed
to give symmetrical physical development, and to take out the angles and discords, to reduce the body to a natural,passivestate, and from that point to trainit to move in harmonywith nature's laws. The movements are without nervous tension, and all feats and exertions are discouraged.
The Harmonic Gymnastics were designed for the training of actors and public speakers. Yet inherent in such an approach to expressive movement was a potential alternative to the traditional ballet. (Ruyter 1973: 424)
There is no question that, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, expression was a popular and respected field of study in America, and that the Delsarte System, with its emphasis on physical culture, was the best known and the most widely dispersed approach to expression. (Ruyter 1973: 434)

Arnold, Peter J. 1995. Objectivity, Expression, and Communication in Dance as a Performing Art. Journal of Aesthetic Education 29(1): 61-68.
The expression as process theory of art starts out with the assumption that the artist begins in an emotional state that perturbs him and leads him to search for a clearer conception of it. The process ends when he is able to give articulate expression to it. In this theory, it should be noted, the so-called artwork is mental rather than being of and existing in the world. It need not, in other words, necessarily result in an actual painting, poem, or piece of music. It is essentially something that has been borne only in consciousness. The concrete artifact, although useful for communicative purposes, is inessential to the primary task of achieving, as S. Mulhall puts it, "reflexive clarity through the articulate embodiment of feeling." (Arnold 1995: 62)
A second use of the word expression occurs when the onlooker of a work of art, a piece of sculpture perhaps, says that it invokes a feeling of tenderness in her. There is something about it that predisposes her to feel, think, or imagine it this way. Again, a piece of music may evoke or arouse in the listener a feeling of sadness. How this comes about is not our present concern. But it is important to note that although, as has been suggested, some writers acknowledge a derivative connection between real-life sadness and musical sadness (or any type of sadness evoked by an art form), there is also a difference in that the latter is abstracted and depersonalized; it can be appreciated, even enjoyed, because, as John Hospers explains, it is free of the accidents or causal conditions that in real life would accompany it. The telling point against the evocation thesis of expression, however, is that art may not evoke sadness in the way the theory claims at all. As George Dickie explains, "Music expressive of sadness certainly does not always evoke sadness; for example, a person might listen to a piece of music which expresses sadness, agree that it expresses sadness, and simply be too happy at the moment to feel sad." (Arnold 1995: 63)
A further complication is that unlike in such still arts as painting and sculpture, in the performing arts there is not just one defini tive art object to which reference can be made; rather, the work exists in many variants, each of them deriving from a common script, score, or notation. A performative art, in other words, normally admits to the possibility of multiple instances of the "same" work. (Arnold 1995: 65)
The performer can make or mar what the composer or playwright has created. In dance the situation is similar. Whatever the choreographer has created, the performance lies in the hands, or rather the personhood, of the dancer and his or her ability to express what is required by the dance. It falls to the dancer's interpretative and expressive powers to reveal what the dance is about and how best to present its potential emotional content. It should be noted that in fulfilling this task the dancer does not necessarily have to be having an emotion in order to express it. Expression results from her professionalism, her artistic "know-how," rather than the emotional state she may happen to be in. (Arnold 1995: 65)
It was said earlier that the primary task of performers is to present to the audience what is entailed by a particular work. To do this satisfactorily, they must first understand what the work is about. Only when its meaning (or an intelligible meaning of it) is discovered can the task (or process) of how to communicate or express this meaning begin. Here then is the fourth sense of expression: expression as communication. From the point of view of the dancer as a performer/artist, expression as communication consists in the intentional act of presenting to others a dance (or at least her role in it) in an artistic and articulate way so that its meaning is conveyed to them. On this view of expression, the dancer is seen as an expresser of meanings. The dancer tries literally to embody meaning and be discriminatingly expressive in the movements she makes. She knows what she wants to communicate and goes about it in such a way that it is clearly transmitted to others. (Arnold 1995: 66)
To communicate expressively in dance, the dancer must be more than the mere formulator and transmitter of a simple message. She must use her imagination, technique, and style to imbue the dance in a distinct and artistically interesting way with whatever meaning is to be conveyed, with the result that new shades, levels, and subtleties of meaning emerge and become intelligible to the audience. (Arnold 1995: 66)

Arnold, Peter J. 2000. Aspects of the Dancer's Role in the Art of Dance. Journal of Aesthetic Education 34(1): 87-95.
What I am suggesting is that the dance as an art form can exist only insofar as it can be and is performed in an aesthetically interesting way. The dance does not lie in what has been notated but in the dynamic qualities the dance presents through the dancer. (Arnold 2000: 88)
Briefly put, the concept of an agent is prima facie the concept of a being who is, at least for some of the time, free to act in a way that he or she chooses and thinks is appropriate in a given context. What the concept of agency resists is that a dancer is but a body whose movements are like so many sequences of causally related happenings that go on in the world or that they are or should be entirely determined by the choreographer as if the dancer were some sort of puppet or programmed performer.
In order to develop this point it will be suggested that, broadly speaking, there are two types of dancers: those who are passive and those who are active. The passive dancer is one who is or who is perceived to be a willing and compliant vehicle in the hands of the choreographer. The dancer in this case submits herself to the control of the choreographer (or others who wish to determine what is to happen in a particular production) and attempts obediently and as skillfully as possible to carry out that which is dictated. The role of the passive dancer, whether seen from the perspective of the dancer or the choreographer, is essentially one of a tool or an instrument to be manipulated. Individuality and initiative are neither wanted nor encouraged.
The active dancer, on the other hand, is one who sees herself, or is seen by the choreographer and others, as a person who is both interested in and capable of informed collaboration. Neither the dancer nor the choreographer wishes the role of the dancer to be conditioned, subservient, or submissive but rather rational, imaginative, and contributive. The thematic parameters of a dance may be set by the choreographer, but they are open to being discussed, altered, or embellished by the active and encouraged involvement of the dancer. What characterizes the active dancer, unlike the merely technically proficient or obedient one, is that she knows what is required and performs her movements with understanding and purpose. (Arnold 2000: 89)
On such a vast topic little can be said here, but two points at least are worth making. The first is that there should be a systematic initiation into an understanding of such key aesthetic concepts as unity, balance, harmony, rhythm, line, theme and variation, development, and tension, so that they can be applied to the way in which movements and dance sequences can be perceived, analyzed, and evaluated. When such concepts as these have been grasped and are being used appropriately, a good basis has been provided that helps the dancer not only to make a dance but also to perform it with intelligence and insight. What is being argued then is that one important strand in a dancer's aesthetic education is the cultivation of a capacity to regard things, including the dancer's own dances, with a particular kind of informed and imaginative attention so that he or she becomes critically reflective and discriminating in relation to them. (Arnold 2000: 90)
Important as bodily structure and physicality are in the dance, the dance is concerned with more than apposite body types; it is concerned also with the grammar of motion. For this to be acquired, technique of the highest order is necessary, together with such associated qualities as strength, speed, endurance, and suppleness. Only when these have been mastered can the embodied form of the dancer be presented convincingly in the dance. Only when skills have been acquired and an expressive vocabulary built up will the dancer find freedom through discipline. Without technical competency any ability to communicate will remain limited and clumsy, if not be made impossible. (Arnold 2000: 93)


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