International Dance Day

29th April 2018

This moment: musings on dance

by Adesola Akinleye

Every April International Dance Day brings an opportunity to connect with a world that can seem mysterious and distant. Dance institutions and organisations open their doors to live streaming of dance classes, performance and talks. Events are organised to ‘get people dancing’ but what is dance other than something rolled out on special days or for celebratory events? For instance, how does dance contribute to the larger cultural moment of identity in post-EU referendum, UK?

Marcia Siegel writes that dance exists at a perpetual vanishing point. Helen Thomas poetically suggests dance is the study of the history of lost dances. When we talk about dance at any point we are talking about a ‘happening’ that vanishes swiftly into the memory of movement. This is because dance cannot be captured it happens in the moment and is gone. The ephemeral nature of dance is a continual process of aesthetic histories. Dance is ever in the memory: the muscle memory and the visual memory and in that we are all dance historians. We all have a past-history with dance from wedding parties to theatre performances!

A common saying suggests ‘Dance is a universal language’. But if so the dialect of different points in time and of geographic locations shrouds our universal understanding of each other’s dances. There are some cultural concepts, about what the moving/dancing body means, we cannot un know. J H F Meyer and R Land write about threshold concepts; ideas that change the way we perceive something. Once you have encountered a threshold concept you cannot unknow it because it transforms your worldview or perception (for instance the notion of evolution is a threshold concept). In this case, we cannot un-know cultural expectations of what is or can be expressed by the moving/dance body. Therefore, as we engage with the vanishing nature of dance we must be sensitive to how situated we are by time and geographic location. The universality of dance is narrowed by living in UK and USA in 21st century within a predominantly Anglo-American culture.

I recently edited the book Narratives in Black British Dance: Embodied Practices to give a platform to the many meanings for dance and for Britishness the contributors’ narratives reveal. At this time of challenging identities, contributor’s stories sitting side by side in the book confirm the vast landscape of what dance can mean while also reminding us that many narratives for dance are silenced by pre-determined cultural aesthetic values for what dance can be and who can do it. But the joy of exploring dances and peoples is understanding they are not all created from the same perspective or aesthetic. Just because you recognise something does not mean you understand it in the same way as others understand it or those dancing beside you understand it. The complexity of the lived experience is danced out through time but dance remains predestined to responding to the moment and vanishing with it.

As a dancer, I look at the world from the perspective that we are embodied beings. This means there is not separation between mind and body but that they are one – a ‘mind-ful body’ John Dewey would suggest. Dance is both what the dancer is doing and what they are being and what the onlooker is part of.

Despite the (universal) language of dance being open to cultural and historical interpretations, dance has unique qualities of connection and communication of the moment. The human body in dance carries with it meaning as it shares empathic knowledge with the onlooker’s body. That is not to say that dance cannot be objectified but that we vicariously feel within our own body the feeling of what we are watching. Dance is in the ephemeral realm of evaporation. The inter-relational, transactional rhythms of the moving body suggest dance is felt. How we understand the bodies interaction with time, how we are present in ever vanishing moments determines our process of meaning making.

For Descartes meaning happened in the stillness of a cerebral certainty. For the dancer meaning is made in the moving relationship and responses of the body. What the body represents, what beauty looks like, how we refine and express our experiences with movement are all powerful tools in cultural and political arenas. Their presence in dance has been guarded in Western culture. It is noticeable how familiar we are with certain bodies (of meaning) while the voices of ‘other’s’ bodies have hushed. Dances from non-Western places have a sad history of being misinterpreted, diminished or even banned by Western authorities.

Therefore, there is no Grand Narrative (single story) about what dance is. To understand dance requires engaging with many perspectives and layering of histories. Just as there is no Grand Narrative for who we are. And so our own identity mediates our dance experiences. As we are all dance historians (dance has been in your life in one way or another) there is an imperative to challenge the cultural aesthetics that impose limits for what dance can mean to you. At this point in our recent history (post-EU referendum) when discussions of nationality and cultural identity highlight the on-going tensions about whose bodies we want where, dance highlights cultural and political assumptions we have about what we value by remembering, and what we allow to be forgotten. A shift in values therefore means listening to what we have been content to forget. Dance, which resides in the landscape of ‘moment-gone’, is a part of the re-remembering and re-imagining of who we are.

Special thanks to Modupe Guevara

AKINLEYE, A. ed. (2018) Narratives in Black British Dance: Embodied practices, Palgrave Macmillian
DEWEY, J. & BOYDSTON, J. A. (2008) The later works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Southern Illinois University Press
MEYER, J. & LAND, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge [electronic resource]: linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines
SIEGEL, M. B. (1972) At the vanishing point; a critic looks at dance [by] Marcia B. Siegel, Saturday Review Press
THOMAS, H. (2003) The body, dance, and cultural theory, Palgrave Macmillan


Adesola Akinleye is Senior Dance Lecturer at Middlesex University, UK. She is a practice-based scholar and choreographer, living transnationally and writing and creating performance work internationally.  Narratives in Black British Dance is available to buy now.

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