Friday, March 09, 2007

Philosophical Thoughts on Dance

{ Audio this essay @ 1.1MB @ 10min } I remember in grad. school, when I was taking a class on how to be an effective teaching assistant (i.e. a well-behaved slave of the academy), in front of me sat a red-headed girl who was absolutely serious about getting a PhD in dance. On her view, dance was the singularly most important art worthy of study as regards the whole corpus of the humanities. She was of only moderate physical charisma, a bit too short, and way fanatical about dance. I caught myself thinking -- silently, of course, since I didn't want to get my @$$ stomped by a maximally fit, dance-crazed, near-midget -- "It's only dance! It's not a real subject!"

This was all years ago. I was much younger, and of a completely uncultured background; and, as I now understand, dance is a much deeper subject than what passes for said in those pitiful approximations at Junior High school courting rituals, and in those drunken entertainment venues where one finds polished steel poles and platforms dotting the floor area of a too-well carpeted hotel.

Indeed, I still know next to nothing about dance, as a particular fine art, which means I'm in an excellent position to speculate about it with wild abandon.

I was recently in Chicago, and there spent some time picking my way, room by room, through the Chicago Museum of Art. As is well attested: paintings, sculpture, and music all track the philosophical ideas of the era in which they are found. The technology, trends, and fashions of fine arts are an explicit, encarnalized commentary on the thoughts of both the elite and popular-level inhabitants of place and time. All fine art yields a commentary on the status and thinking of the civilization in which it appears; and dance, when performed as fine art, is therefore likewise a commentary on the status and thinking of its owning civilization (or era within a civilization).

On this view, then, in principle one could identify certain commitments and patterns of thought for the sponsoring era via dance. But as a warm up, consider how music yields such commitments. Note, for instance, the Harpsichord with its discrete well-partitioned sound. How convenient that it becomes fully utilized within the Age of Reason,[1] where successful reductionistic patterns of thought yield astounding, even frightening advances in the science of the day. Each discovered fact of the natural world is classified and duly partitioned neatly within the greater order of things, playing its role precisely and identifiably within the grand system of God's great design. The same could be said for each plucked note of the harpsichord within the greater movement of the orchestra, each discrete note playing it's role precisely and identifiably within some masterfully designed Baroque[2] fugue.

Can such a link be found for dance? As a statement of anthropology, dance seems to appear in all cultures and places. As language has been speculated to originate partially with the primate-level grunts, so too dance probably has its cues tied to such a sign vocabulary of physical needs:
Primitive dancers also shared certain gestures and movements, which were drawn from their everyday lives. People planting seeds swing their arms with unvarying regularity. People who are hungry rub a hand on their empty bellies. People who want to show respect or admiration bend down or bow before another individual. These gestures, and others like them, were part of the earliest dances. There is also a large vocabulary of gestures that originated as a means of expressing bodily needs. Caresses are universally taken to signify tender feelings. Clenched fists mean anger. Hopping up and down indicates excitement. Primitive dancers used all of these movements in both their social and religious or magical dances. These dances were not created and performed for entertainment, as many dances are today. One of the major reasons for them was to help tribes survive. Long before the written word could guarantee that traditions would be passed on and respected, it was dance that helped the tribe preserve its continuity.[3]

A step up from basic body motions yields the primitive mindset concerning how the world is taken to operate:
Two sorts of dance evolved as cultures developed: social dances on occasions that celebrated births, commemorated deaths, and marked special events in between; and magical or religious dances to ask the gods to end a famine, to provide rain, or to cure the sick. The medicine men of primitive cultures, whose powers to invoke the assistance of a god were feared and respected, are considered by many to be the first choreographers, or composers of formal dances.[3]

Here I've identified dance as an activity stemming from basic primate/human body motions, but there actually no need to draw the origin even so late. One might very well speak of the stylized pattern of movements performed by any animal, as a bird in courtship display, or an insect, as a honeybee in indicating a source of nectar. If dance capitalizes on the most basic patterns of body motion, then even mammalian patterns of flight, fight, etc. might have their own readily available kinsetic primitives: the wince of retreat at on-coming fast objects; the reflexive-withdrawal at being poked or stung; the coordinate movement of social mammals as a group -- all of these would predate even primate innate motions.

There might even be brain-level morphology structures which would hint at basic motor control and muscle function for movements. Each morphological hint might appear at some discernible layer of the folds within the human brain -- an organ developed from our common biological heritage with other animals. (Anciently formed, more primitive structures would appear in the middle of the brain, with more recent expansions toward the front and top.)[4]

As a statement about the human range of motion and vocabulary of standardized animal movements, one is tempted to posit a "deep grammar" of motion which dance, whether by default or by plan, tacitly acknowledges. The notion of deep grammar comes from the field of linguistics, where the best known theory is that of Noam Chomsky:
Developed to explain the ease with which children learn a language, and adults produce correct sentences, the theory envisages a common underlying structure to all languages, and a complex set of rules to generate individual utterances. [...] [O]ur astonishing creativity with words, and the phenomenal ease with which children learn a language, meant that language users employed and intuitively recognized an underlying structure. Not a structure, moreover, resting on phonemes or individual words ... but a sort of fundamental, proto-syntax[5]

Lessons along this line seem present in an area closely related to dance -- namely, martial arts. As a popular example, consider the view of Bruce Lee, who argued that all martial arts must reckon with the limits and natural physics of the human body. Given such limits, there is really not a single martial arts style that can be named as superior to another, for they all operate under the same parameters: those of the human form. Here, then, one might posit a proto-syntax of human physiology. In Lee's own words,
"There is only one type of body, 2 arms, 2 legs, etc that make up the human body. Therefore, there can only be one style of fighting. If the other guy had 4 arms and 2 legs, there might have to be a different one. Forget the belief that one style is better than the other...."[6]

Recently I ran across a video which got me thinking seriously about the whole notion of dance; or, perhaps I should say it got me re-thinking about the notion, and this time with some seriousness.

What does this dance video tell us about the philosophical ideas of today? The music is some short of hybrid between what (I believe) is called industrial and electronica. The clothing of the "dancers", if that's what they are best called, is distinctly synthetic and accentedly contemporary. It's hard to describe the movements, but computationally reductionistic would be the first phrase that comes to mind. What natural, even movement there is within the video occurs at the very end when the friends enter to recover their compatriot. Again, I know little about dance, and nothing about choreography, but I suspect that since each dancer's actions are compiled individually from a database of dance and sound tracks, someone might very well read the trajectory of how dance is modified by the dominance of standardized information templates. Windows, for example, forces the user to operated within certain pre-defined motifs, and here we see the virtual dance moves also mandated by pre-defined motifs.

Wittgenstein, the most celebrated 20th century philosopher, complained about the classical music of his time that it was dominated by the machine, and so much so that he could not bear to listen to it. As Wittgenstein said to a friend: "Music came to a full stop with Brahms; and even in Brahms I can begin to hear the sound of machinery."[7]

Perhaps aficionados of modern dance would find the wholesale embrace of the computer a likewise disconcerting development. I couldn't really say if such a disconcerted attitude would be justified; since, as my mantra has been throughout this essay, I know very little about dance.


[1] History of the Harpsichord

[2] Baroque Music Defined

[3] The History of Dance

[4] On mammal to human brain development:

4.1. Diagram: Basic plan of the animal brain:

4.2. Diagram: Sketch of human brain compared to other animal brains:

4.3. Diagram: Time scale chart of brain development parallel to other animals:

[5] C. John Holcombe "Chomskian Linguistics"

[6] "Bruce Lee" Wikiquote

[7] Béla Szabados "Wittgenstein the Musical: Notes toward an Appreciation"

[video] UNIQLO MIXPLAY You Tube.


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At 1:13 AM, Anonymous mr. wright said...

I've been to that museum. It's a good one.

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to see you put some dance moves down......



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