Researcher in Dance: Antinomy or Pleonasm?
To Cite this Article
Leroy, C. (2014). Researcher in Dance: Antinomy or Pleonasm? p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org, 1.
In this article we will attempt to provide a definition, in the sense of “looking for limits,” i.e. to circumscribe, for the contours of “dance research.” First we will observe that it is possible to understand such research in two ways, which are neither exclusive nor inclusive. The first way of understanding “research in dance” uses a methodological pattern called “dance” through which the researcher studies his objects; the second one means “any research using dance as a topic of research.” In the second part, I will share my own experience as a researcher in dance, since I place myself in both of the interpretations of “dance research” but mainly the first one. It has been a phenomenological experience, so that it is possible to assume that this kind of “dance research” shares with phenomenology a common attitude towards the world and supposes that an intersubjective experience of the flesh is possible. Finally, I will question our ability to put into words such a singular kinesthetic experience based on the dancer’s own physical memory trace. I will share my doubts with respect to my choice to intertwine theory and practice, and also my inability to separate phenomenology and dance into two distinct categories.
Phenomenology, Motion, Theory/Practice, Merleau-Ponty, Methodological pattern.
Is There Such a Thing As Dance Research?
To me, the major problem of “dance research” seems to lie in the very nature of the word. Traditionally, a researcher works as part of a disciplinary field whose methodological tools he uses to study a research topic. Thus a researcher in philosophy studying “life” and a biology researcher also studying “life” will use completely different methodological and disciplinary tools. Therefore, to speak of a researcher in the field of “dance” is to assume that dance is a theoretical methodological tool, a pattern through which it is possible to study a subject—for example, “movement,” “the human being,” the lived-body,” “gender.” This can come across as absurd, especially for those who aren’t familiar with research, and even more so for the mere dance practitioner: indeed, dancing is anything but a theoretical tool, and, while it remains a tool or a means for exploring human potential, one cannot, in the strict sense of the term, speak of “research” in the scientific sense.
What Is a Dance Researcher in Dance?
And so we must first define the specificity of the “researcher in dance:” given that dance is not a theoretical field but a practical field, and, what’s more, a highly diversified one, the “researcher in dance” is an altogether different kind of researcher the field of research. In fact, perhaps one can only be called a “researcher in dance” at the end of a theoretical journey in which one has observed one’s own difficulty of “categorizing” oneself in a small theoretical field. And yet, starting with the distinction established above and the apparent contradiction between “research” and “dance,” it is possible to think of “dance research” in two ways.
First Acceptation: Dance As a Research Method
The first approach is to follow the antinomy all the way, and to accept the challenge of viewing dance as a theoretical methodology. In other words, “dance research” could be an exploration of a specific concept or object, such as the concept of “freedom,” for example, or the object of “American society,” through the methodological pattern of dance. The researcher could not abstain from a “dancing” exploration of these research fields. Therefore, his work would use the prism of the danced practice to study objects common to many disciplines. It seems to me that many “researchers in dance” today are taking on the need to go through the practice of dance to conduct their work and draw conclusions. The difficulty of this approach is that of the researcher-dancer’s subjectivity, for while philosophy or economics or even mathematics are based on theories shared by all—from which the researcher often tries to get away in order to offer up a “thesis” of his own—the researcher-dancer only goes through his own experience, and one can call into question the scientific nature of that which cannot under any circumstance be shared physically, and at most rationally. But this type of criticism, which many researcher in dance face—and which subjects them to a bit of condescension from the scientific community— does not take into account the fact that all theory is guided by personal experience, and that even physicists themselves inject their own subjectivity into the way they observed phenomena.
The second legitimate criticism concerns the theoretical basis for such “dance research:” if this research presupposes a command of methodological patterns in dance, then should a “researcher in dance” not be a dancer first and foremost, and, what’s more, have a perfect command of his own technique? For the question inherent in the methodological pattern of “dance” is of course that of a definition of “dance” in the universal sense. Yet all researchers have already faced this difficult issue, from which nothing universal ever emerges. The most that can be expected from the dancer-researcher, therefore, is for him to at least possess a dance “technique” that he uses as a methodological pattern.
Second Acceptation: Dance As Object-medium Of Research
From there, a second meaning of “research in dance” emerges, one that is more common and yet extremely problematic: it concerns any and all research, regardless of the disciplinary field, whose object of study is “dance” or one of its techniques. This could be the history, the sociology, the literature, or the philosophy of dance, but also the economics, life sciences, science of motor skills, etc. A researcher in dance is always at least part of that acceptation of “dance research,” but without always belonging to the first acceptation we wagered on. A dance historian can very well never have actually practiced dance, especially the techniques he is studying. It is common, in order to avoid being seen as too “subjective” and discredited from any scientific claim, to take an interest in fields from which one is distant through time or geography. The condescending attitude of the scientific community towards the “minor” art of dance—given that it ultimately refers only to the “body”—is such that one does not call oneself a “researcher in dance” unless the object of “dance” has emerged as capital for the scientific exploration one is proposing to carry out. That paintings studied by art historians showcase a few dancers from a larger whole will not make that researcher an esthetician in the field of dance, but a “researcher in art history.” The very association between “researcher” and “art” requires the introduction of a methodological field, such as the “history” of art, the “philosophy” of art, or the “economics” of art, for example. Dance researchers often come from a discipline they use as a shield to legitimize their research topic.
So why then does the “researcher in dance” nevertheless feel the need to make certain claims and why does he derives genuine pleasure out of confronting his challenges with researchers from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds? It goes without saying that a researcher in philosophy studying “freedom” will feel a certain degree of curiosity for the work of an economist studying prisons, for example, but such curiosity will perhaps not go beyond the boundaries of a different methodology and vocabulary.
“In dance,” on the other hand, one can—often—observe an appetence for the object of “dance” that justifies the intersection of different works and allows for mutual understanding despite very different methodological patterns. This “permeability” extends between researchers “in the field of dance” designed as an object of study, as much as it does between this type of researcher and those who have used “dance” as the pattern of a separate research object. In philosophy, the field I come from and work in, the researcher is certainly likely to feel curiosity and satisfaction by reading works on authors other than those he is studying—a different object—but that satisfaction is only derived from the similarity of the theoretical pattern from which a different object is studied. “Researchers in dance,” on the other hand, enjoy recognizing in another’s research an interest in dance that goes beyond the mere object. It seems to me that this problem that everyone encounters, across disciplines, can be expressed in an interrogative sentence: why dance? In other words, what moves men and drives them to dance, why is there dancing rather than nothing?
So that beyond the diversity and heterogeneous multiplicity of acceptations for “researcher in dance” as much as for the various disciplinary fields, it seems possible to me to group together “researchers in dance” via a non-explicit motivation that is nevertheless implicit with any research.
Phenomenology and “Researcher In Dance”
Personally, I do not often called myself a “researcher in dance,” insofar as my previous training and my methodological pattern were those of philosophy. However, I have chosen to investigate dance through phenomenology, or phenomenology through dance, because of the extent to which they both seem to merge into a single issue.
Inspired by Descartes, phenomenology as conceived by Husserl in the early twentieth century starts out with the observation that through our senses, we never access the things in themselves, but only their appearance for us, meaning their “phenomenon.” And thus the world, such as we “perceive” it and conceive of it, is ultimately only a subjective construction, which does not deny the possible real existence of said world, but which on the other hand refutes any claim to objectivity. As a correlate, Husserl states that “consciousness,” that internal reason asserted by Descartes as a “thinking thing” and the sole basis for reality, is indeed the foundation of the world of which I only perceive the phenomenon, but it is, in and of itself, nothing more than a movement. Consciousness, according to Husserl, is always aware “of” something, which it projects as exteriority and towards which it projects itself. Husserl then uses the term “intentionality” to signify consciousness’s tension towards, which is not a container but a movement.
Thus, phenomenology such as initiated by Husserl in the larger field of philosophy involves questioning the “phenomena” of the world from subjective experience, as it denies objectivity. Furthermore, it is the subjective experience of the movement of consciousness, which is not without suggesting a common measure with the first acceptation we gave of the notion of “researcher in dance.” Since the point is indeed to study objects and concepts from the “driving” experience of consciousness, perhaps it is possible to see a node of congruence there between “dance research” and phenomenology.
Yet if we left it at that, it would be necessary to note that this is only a metaphor of movement: to reflect on “the movement of consciousness,” or even its “dance,” is to abstract the movement from its necessary incarnation. Fortunately, “phenomenology” has evolved under the influence of Husserl’s students and, in my case, I found more matching items still between phenomenology and dance through the work of Merleau-Ponty: indeed, he notes that while all consciousness is certainly conscious “of” something, it is primarily because consciousness arises from the body’s physical immersion in the world and from the dynamic incarnation of this tension. For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness appears “carnal” above all, so that Merleau-Ponty phenomenology presupposes an “in the flesh” approach to the objects of study and the expression of this lived experience. There is no need, if subscribing to Merleau-Ponty’s view, for there to be distance between the object of study and the perceiving subject, since the object of the study is tied to and intertwined with the subject. Merleau-Ponty mainly studies, through the pattern of this phenomenology he initiates, pictorial works, namely paintings by Cézanne; but his main focus is on the emotion transmitted from the lived-body—or “flesh”—of the painter to the body of the person viewing the painting. If Merleau-Ponty does not call himself a “researcher in painting,” it is certainly because his theoretical pattern requires him to see himself as a “researcher in the philosophy of painting” with respect to his texts that deal with the art of painting; but on a more general level, I feel I can state that Merleau-Ponty could tentatively have viewed himself as a “researcher in dance” in the first sense we have given the term, namely the one in which one listens to the moment in one’s carnal lived-body to articulate a theory about it.
I have chosen to use the Merleau-Ponty impulse towards painting, to use his methodology and to study emotion in the field of “dance-theater.” This has already been the source of doubt for me regarding my subject, which was not exclusively “dance”—and which I would actually be hard press to define. My focus was to explore how emotion is transmitted from the body of the performer to the body of the viewer; but the reservation I just mentioned with regard to my object of study led me to commit myself firmly to the first type of “dance research,” the one that involves immersing the dancer in theoretical patterns he views as “dance.” Thus my first object, rather than being “dance-theater,” has proved to be emotion, and my second “the genre” of stage emotion. I gradually realized during my research that I was leaning away from the dance, a distance that was compensated by aesthetic references and detailed studies of performances, certainly, but the stakes seemed to be elsewhere to me: in a phenomenology of movements “inside of me,” a description of “dance” achieved through my own flesh and which my words were trying to echo. This is phenomenology, without a doubt; but this focus that Merleau-Ponty phenomenology places on the “lived-body” or “flesh” intertwined with the world—whose consciousness results only from the intentionality of the subject—convinced me that by relating the movement of a thought rooted in the emotions of my body, I was doing “research in dance.” The emotion itself is motion / movement, just as intentionality or tension have the same etymological origin as the word dance—the Indo-European root ten that is more clearly perceived best in the English pronunciation of the word “dance.” Studying emotion through the intentionality of a consciousness rooted in my lived-body, I was at the very least a “researcher in movement.”
I naturally tried to read what had been written before me on the phenomenology of dance, since the articulation of subjectivity to the movement danced seemed obvious to me. I found some quality books, mostly in English, related to some (the term is not to be taken in the pejorative sense) vision of phenomenology, but often these books were written not by philosophers but rather by dancers or people specializing in movement. When it came to phenomenology, it was the opposite: I found works that evoked dancing from the outside perspective, from the aesthetic aspect, thus from the receiving standpoint, whereas I was mainly focusing on that which has been experienced, or lived—with the exception of the excellent work by Michel Bernard, Le Corps, of the article by Hubert Godard and thesis of Michael Parmenter’s dissertation. Finally, in philosophy, there are texts written by prominent authors about dance, dance that has been experienced, or lived, and about the dancer, but both deal with a fictional dance experience rather than a real experience. When Erwin Straus brings up dance, it is always from the point of view of someone who does not actually practice it. I must also admit that I mostly became interested in the sensuality of the lived-body in motion, whereas all the texts articulating subjectivity and dance from the perspective of the lived-body seemed to me to be detaching the body from any emotional relationship to the world, an affect I associate with sensuality as opposed to sensitivity. And so I have not found, in the existing work in philosophy or dance evoking phenomenology, that which I mean by phenomenology of dance—and which, I suppose, is my own unique perspective. In this respect, therefore, I do not claim to have used the only possible phenomenology of dance, and perhaps—it is very likely—many quality texts have escaped me. In particular, it seems to me that one field, which I barely glimpsed during my research, is positioned from the point of view of research in sports and motor skills.
I wondered whether or not I, in turn, was usurping a status: the status of researcher in dance. Convinced as I was of continuing in the tradition of phenomenologists and, therefore, philosophers, I hesitated to think that I was working in the tradition of research in dance. Ultimately, where was “dance” for me, as an art and not just body in motion? Was I creating?
Regarding the problematic of my research and, in particular, the assumption of an innate kinesthetic empathy in the viewer, I also experienced a slight theoretical weakening: I realized that my finely tuned kinesthetic empathy for the movement of others, subjective though I knew it to be, was probably mostly rooted in the mnestic traces of the advanced personal practice I had in classical dance. For while I had not really practiced contemporary dance during the last year of my thesis, I had the experience of being a classical dancer at the pre-professional level. In this regard, it seems to me that in order to adequately reproduce an unnatural gesture, such as those found in classical dance, the beginner in dance develops a kinesthetic empathy through a mimetic imperative, empathy and mnestic traces that are necessarily reinforced by the—recently discovered—mirror neurons present in each person. The practice of contemporary dance, in which I have less experience and which, above all, is more recent than my experience in classical dance, seems, in my opinion, to develop faculties that are similar although not analogous, in that the apprentice dancer must draw from deep in himself gestures that will leave mnestic traces, but also, at times, like classical dance, reproduce and “feel” in himself the path of the movements of others. Of course, as always this is nothing more than an analogy and not the true communication of the experience that has been lived, but this capacity for the sensory analogy of movement that I call “kinesthetic empathy” is probably particularly developed in dancers. This being the case, was I right to think that that with which I was endowed, as an individual being, was also developed in everybody? Finally, if I experience a carnal and kinesthetic sensation when watching the film Blush by Wim Vandekeybus, if I feel “alive” after seeing In the Middle Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe, am I nevertheless right in thinking that this feeling of kinesthetic empathy is shared by all members of the audience? Had I not based my research on a point of my own reception of dance?
To date, I feel it is possible to consider the fact that every individual is endowed with kinesthetic empathy. I saw proof of that in front of a classroom of primarily male teenagers in a senior year science class: a text by Bergson on politeness describes the state of “grace” of the person watching a ballet performance. In his text, Bergson develops the idea of what I call “kinesthetic empathy” and for which he uses the term “sympathy for the lightness and fluidity of the dancer’s movements.” Instead of choosing the analogy of an Olympic athlete such as a high jumper or a sprinter, students opted to keep the image of classical dance because of the extent to which that image seemed to speak to them in terms of kinesthetic empathy. Each student brought up the fact that a dancer performing a “grand jetée” gives off the impression of flying and that the “spins” of a ballerina make them dizzy. That last experience is the one on which I settled: my hesitation with respect to the possibility of kinesthetic empathy in everyone was shattered to pieces with that reassurance from my students.
The narration of that last example taken from my experience as a teacher functions as follows here: it signifies the extent to which it is impossible for me, as a person endowed with a living and lived body, to separate the theoretical field from experience. That, in my mind, is the specificity of a phenomenological methodology and, so to speak, perhaps an “occupational hazard.” The specificity of my “dance research,” since I have to qualify it as personal to avoid claiming that it is the only one, seems to me to be that it is constantly interchanging methodological pattern with object of study. If the methodological pattern, i.e. my way of approaching dance, is indeed phenomenology as experimental philosophy of the lived-body, and the object of my study dance itself, then conversely it is by the movement of life and of everyday that I test theoretical hypotheses. Ultimately, it is through my body that I look for the theory, and as such it is no longer possible for me to dance without questioning my “lived-body;” with respect to philosophy, I always bring everything back to movement and body, to political or sociological reflection, by way of morality or law. The two fields: the dancing lived-body and phenomenology strike me as indissociable.
I am thus tempted to say that, caught in the interlacing inherent in a certain “dance research,” I ‘”perform” research in dance by theorizing the interference between my body objectivity and the subjectivity of my kinesthetic experience. This “performance” takes the form of texts that have been written or remain to be written, which is to say the form of a “claim” that leads me in turn to other paths of fleshly reflection.
In this article, I began by questioning two potential meanings of the term “dance research:” one views dance as a scientific research method, the other views it as an object-medium in scientific research.
I’ve formulated phenomenology, in that it bases philosophical reflection on subjective experience, as a personal methodology for exploring movement, at the juncture between theory and practice.
Ultimately, I believe that on a day-to-day basis, I am classically inspired phenomenologist, in that I base any and all reflection on my lived-body experience, but I still cannot say whether or not it is possible to separate the art from the artist, or scientific research from existential research. And so it is almost impossible for me to label myself an “artist-researcher,” as my “scientific” and “artistic” research seem to me to blend with my inner essence rather than with a “professional” category.
 For France, among others we could mention the work of Claire Buisson, at the juncture between theory and practice, or the project by Claudia Triozzi entitled “Pour une thèse vivante” (For a Living Thesis).
 In particular, see Husserl E., Méditations cartésiennes, Paris, PUF, 1994.
 Namely Merleau-Ponty M., Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 2001 and Merleau-Ponty M., L’Œil et l’Esprit, Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 1998.
 A few examples: Bainbridge Cohen B., Sentir, ressentir et agir: l’Anatomie expérimentale du Body-Mind Centering (1980-1992), translation from the American English by Madie Boucon, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2003; Fraleigh S. H., Dance and the Lived Body: a Descriptive Aesthetics, Pittsburg, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996; Fraleigh S. H., Dancing Identity: Metaphysics in Motion, Pittsburg, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004; Body and Flesh: a Philosophical Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishers, 1998; Sheets M., The Phenomenology of Dance, Madison, University of Wiconsin Press, 1966.
For works in French: Louppe L., Poétique de la danse contemporaine, Vol. I, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2000; Vol. II, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2007; Bois D., Le Sensible et le Mouvement: Essai philosophique (2001), two volumes, Paris, Éditions Point d’appui, 2002; Godard H., “Le geste et sa perception” in La Danse au XXe siècle (1995), by Isabelle Ginot and Marcèle Michel, Paris, Éditions Larousse-Bordas, 2008; Bernard M., De la création chorégraphique, Pantin, Éditions du Centre National de la danse, 2001.
 Barbaras R., Introduction à une phénoménologie de la vie, Paris, Éditions Vrin, 2008; Nilsson P., Empathy and Emotion: on the Notion of Empathy as Emotional Sharing, Umea, university publication from the Institution of Philosophy and Linguistics of Umea, 2003; Straus E., Du sens des sens: Contribution à l’étude des fondements de la psychologie (1935), translated from the German by Georges Thines and Jean-Pierre Legrand, Paris, Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2000; Straus E., article “Le Mouvement Vécu,” Recherches philosophiques review n°5, 1936.
 Bernard M., Le Corps (1972), Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1995.
 Parmenter M., Intentionality in Phenomenology and Contemporary Dance, doctoral thesis, University of Auckland, 2008.
 Straus E., Du sens des sens: Contribution à l’étude des fondements de la psychologie (1935), translated from the German by Georges Thines and Jean-Pierre Legrand, Paris, Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2000; Straus E., article “Le Mouvement Vécu,” Recherches philosophiques review n°5, 1936.
 On this topic, see in particular Rizzolatti G., Sinigaglia C., Les Neurones miroirs, Paris, Éd. Odile Jacob, 2008.
 Bergson H., La Politesse et Autres Textes, Paris, Éd. Payot, coll. Rivages Poche/Petite Bibliothèque, 2008.
 “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to analyze the feeling that the sight of a graceful dance performance, for example, produces in the soul. First of all it is admiration for those who are executing the moves with such flexibility, and, as if in play, movements that are varied and fast, devoid of shock or jolts, seamless, each attitude being indicated in the ones that came before and announcing those to come next. But there is something more: along with our sense of grace, and sympathy towards the artists’ lightness, we are filled with the notion that we ourselves are being rid of our heaviness and our materiality. Wrapped in the rhythm of his dance, we adopt the subtlety of his movements without assuming our share of his effort, and we thus experience the exquisite sensation of those dreams in which our body seems to have abandoned its weight, the expanse its resistance, and form its material.” Bergson H., La Politesse et Autres Textes, Paris, Éd. Payot, coll. Rivages Poche/Petite Bibliothèque, 2008.
Bainbridge Cohen Bonnie, Sentir, ressentir et agir: l’Anatomie expérimentale du Body-Mind Centering (1980-1992), translated from the American English by Madie Boucon, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2003.
Barbaras Renaud, Introduction à une phénoménologie de la vie, Paris, Éditions Vrin, 2008.
Bernard Michel, Le Corps (1972), Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1995.
Bois Danis, Le Sensible et le Mouvement: Essai philosophique (2001), two volumes, Paris, Éditions Point d’appui, 2002.
Fraleigh HORTON Sondra, Dance and the Lived Body: a Descriptive Aesthetics, Pittsburg, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
Fraleigh HORTON Sondra, Dancing Identity: Metaphysics in Motion, Pittsburg, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.
Gil José, “La danse, le corps, l’inconscient,” Terrain review, n°35, 2000, pp. 57-74.
Godard Hubert, “Le geste et sa perception” in La Danse au XXe siècle (1995), by Isabelle Ginot eand Marcèle Michel, Paris, Éditions Larousse-Bordas, 2008.
Louppe Laurence, Poétique de la danse contemporaine, Vol. I, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2000; Vol. II, Brussels, Éditions Contredanse, 2007.
Merleau-Ponty Maurice, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 2001.
Merleau-Ponty Maurice, L’Œil et l’Esprit, Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 1998.
Nilsson Peter, Empathy and Emotion: on the Notion of Empathy as Emotional Sharing, Umea, university publication from the Institution of Philosophy and Linguistics of Umea, 2003.
Parmenter Michael, Intentionality in Phenomenology and Contemporary Dance, doctoral thesis, the University of Auckland, 2008.
Rizzolatti Giacomo, Sinigaglia Corrado, Les Neurones miroirs, Paris, Éd. Odile Jacob, 2008.
Sheets Maxime, The Phenomenology of Dance, Madison, University of Wiconsin Press, 1966.
Shusterman Richard, Conscience du corps: Pour une soma-esthétique, Paris/Tel Aviv, Éditions de l’éclat, 2007;
Straus Erwin, Du sens des sens: Contribution à l’étude des fondements de la psychologie (1935), translated from the German by Georges Thines and Jean-Pierre Legrand, Paris, Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2000.
Straus Erwin, article “Le Mouvement Vécu,” Recherches philosophiques review n°5, 1936.
Body and Flesh: a Philosophical Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishers, 1998.