Dance & philosophy: Reflections.

I never wanted to be a dancer. I never had dreams of being in the spotlight, to be idolized, to be watched. However, I enjoyed dancing. I enjoyed moving. I even enjoyed getting better at dance, to have a world of bodily expression opened to me. But I never thought of dancing as a fulfilling career path for me. Being a mover and having my success tied to the way I moved just did not have that mysterious thread of attraction that promised a life I could represent myself through.

Yet dance remained the glue that gave my life continuity from a young age until now. It just did not take the consistent form of being a dancer. In high school I started creating dances. Every year I created one or two pieces, and I decided to pursue dance as a major in college with the purpose of being a choreographer. Creating dance was a way for me to put ideas and feelings into the physical, moving form. Already there was something cerebral about this. It was about solving a puzzle, finding ways of expressing the ineffable that was repeatable and communicable. Little did I know that pull of the intellectual and the cerebral would take full hold with the inclusion of a philosophy major.

Philosophy was a whole new world of dazzling insights. It seemed to be plumping to the deepest cores of human conceptual life. It connected me to what seemed like fascinating, distinct areas of discourse which were all somehow deeply entangled. If you know anything about philosophy, then you know that philosophers have had something to say about pretty much anything. Unsurprisingly then, I stumbled on work on the philosophy of dance. It was a symposium published the year I found it in the Journal for Aesthetics and Art Criticism, entitled, “Dance and Science”. In it, a handful of philosophers debated about a new discovery in neuroscience called mirror neurons. These mirror neurons, one of them claimed, could explain how we can appreciate dance. While watching dance, our brain, and thus our bodies, were supposed to mirror what we were seeing! Immediately though, doubt crept into the next paper, with another philosopher claiming that not only did this ability not exist but even if it did, it would not be relevant to the appreciation of dance. Here was a debate I could dig my teeth into, and dig my teeth into I did. Years of passed and I’m still writing, reading, and digesting this debate until I planned to write my PhD dissertation on it.

Philosophy and dance. Dance and philosophy. Those are the two poles that my life has revolved around. Sometimes they draw close, bound together in an inextricable web of the strongest silk and at other times they float away from one another, an ocean of unfathomable depths separating them. The likelihood of them finding one another again seems almost miraculous. This is where I am at right now. I am toward the end of a PhD in philosophy, one that focuses on the philosophy of dance even, and the world of dance could not seem more alien to me right now. My daily life is spent hunched over books and pounding away at a keyboard, making the best possible arguments I can to my interlocutors. Being in a dance class feels a bit like being on a tiny planet up in space somewhere. Or perhaps I should say that it feels like being on Earth again after spending years up on that tiny planet.

An old dance mentor once quoted to me the artist Barnett Newman, “Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for birds.” This quote points to the fact that aesthetics and the philosophy of art often feels completely useless for the artist. At the time, it made little sense to me. What is dance? Why do we dance? How do we come to know dance? These all seemed to me important, integral questions that I thought every dance artist should think about. If you didn’t know why you were doing something, why do it? To me, philosophy could help me understand why. It could help me make sense of where I am and where I was going as an artist. It could also give me meaning that I don’t think dancing by itself could give me.

I think I have made sense of that quote after several years. It’s not just uttered by artists who would rather not think about and understand what they were doing. It has a little glimmer of insight and wisdom. Philosophy and the concerns of philosophers has this tendency to float us away, float us away from who we are and what we care about. It finds a tiny bit of absurdity in any concrete answer as to the value of dance. It’s a voice that pops up in my head when I hear people talking about how passionate about dance they are. It’s a voice that distances me from what I care about and what others care about.

This troubles me, and not just for personal reasons. It troubles to me that being a philosopher, studying philosophy seriously, requires one to abstract away, to pull oneself into the realm of reason, justification, and argumentation. It troubles me because these two realms should be working together. They should be talking to one another. What is the point of talking about the metaphysics of artworks if metaphysics has no relation to artistic practice? I take it that our interest in philosophy of art stems from our concerns as artists and as art spectators. We have questions. What is dance? Why is dance important? If philosophy cannot even begin to show us how to answer those questions for us, why does such a discipline even exist? When the most plausible definition of art says that art is whatever art institutions say it is, what is the use of that to us, the ones who have a say in what art is?

It wasn’t always like this. One of the reasons people became interested in definitions of art in the first place was that there were competing schools of artists. There were expressionists, impressionists, cubists, futurists, Wagnerites, and Isadorables. One hope that I have as a philosopher of art is to find ways of bringing the lives and motivations of artists back into the picture, to make sure the artist and art appreciators are an important part of the conversation. Ornithology is not for birds because it is made for the purpose of human understanding. It is not there for birds. Similarly, aesthetics is not for artists because it is made for the purpose of philosophers’ understanding. It is not there, at least not anymore, for artists.

This is a problem, and it’s a problem that I’ve encountered at a personal level as the island of philosophy has floated away to its alien planet, far away from my life as a dancer. The first step to solving this is to find the little threads once again, the ones which glimmer ever so faintly, and to slowly weave them together, drawing the islands closer together once again. Hopefully at some point the weave will be strong once more. I hope to transverse this weave one day as if it was a bridge, a bridge which can be used as a model for others to transverse those isolated islands of dance and philosophy.

About the author:


Ian Heckman is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on how bodily experience can give us a better understanding and better appreciation of dance as audience members. His work often transverses disciplinary boundaries moving from philosophy to dance studies to cognitive science. He is also the author of Evoking the Sublime Through Dance: Embodiment, Music, and the Profound.

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