Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Thoughts on the Philosophy of Dance


What follows is a guest post by Aili Bresnahan

In this entry I am going to claim a rare privilege: I’m going to say in an open way what I think about the challenges, difficulties and limits of writing philosophy of dance that “captures” dance in some essential way.

To begin: Philosophy of dance is not and can never be limited to just one thing because dance itself is not limited to just one thing. The set of what the term “dance” refers to currently includes all of these things and more:

  • Dance as a fine art, pace Hegel (complex “high art” on a stage under a proscenium arch)
  • Theater dance not limited to dance as a fine art (dance in some sort of concert space to be appreciated as art — this includes musical theater dance, dance in operas, vaudeville and comic dance, and performance art dance performed in art galleries)
  • Dance as therapy (dance as part of spiritual or somatic practice or as in belly dancing, to prepare one’s body for childbirth
  • Dance as exercise (as part of a physical education class, for example) Social dance (dance done at bars, at weddings, in barns, in clubs, in the street, in ballrooms)
  • Dance as way to celebrate and preserve cultural history (formal Indian, Chinese dance, stepping)
  • Competition dance (Irish dance, break dancing)
  • Political dance (dance in political demonstrations or to draw attention to a political situation)
  • War dance (Haka Maori, Native American, African) Rain and harvest dance (Native American, African) Erotic dance (burlesque, pole and lap dances for purposes of sexual titillation)
  • Dance as religious ritual (Ancient Greek dance)
  • Dance as entertainment (MTV, halftime shows)
  • Improvisational dance (this crosses many of the categories above)
  • Digital dance (via digital and other technologies)
  • Mating dances (honeybees)
  • Dance of the cosmos (movement of the planets construed as “dance”)

To understand dance is not to have someone describe it and then try to understand it through that description but is better accessed through either 1) dancing (radical thought, that), or 2) watching live dance. Dance is fundamentally and thoroughly ineffable, even though its practical, socio-historical, cultural, biological, psychological, metaphysical and other implications can be described. To explain dance to the uninitiated is similar to describing to a person who has been blind from birth what it is to see. Or describing what “love” is to someone who has never been in love. Or describing what it’s like to parent a newborn baby to someone who has not had that experience. There are some things for which the full import and meaning cannot be adequately described – no, not even in poetry. It’s even more difficult if one’s aim is explanation and not just description.

When I first started writing dance philosophy I made the mistake of thinking that I had some sort of “leg up” (forgive the pun) on writing about dance because I had had spent my childhood and teen years training to be a professional ballet dancer in New York City. The problem there was that my experience was heaviest in the perspective of a ballet dancer and not just a ballet dancer but a Balanchine-style, neo-classical ballet dancer. A “trina” of the worst kind, according to the primarily Martha Graham and Alvin Ailiey-trained dancers who comprised my high school’s Modern dance majors (“trina” is short for “balletrina” – a ballet dancer who can only do ballet). I had very little in the way of dance history. I knew very little about the aesthetics of forms of dance other than ballet. And while I read Dance Magazine and the odd dance criticism piece in The New York Times or The New Yorker I focused on the kinds of dance I was learning – ballet, ballet and more ballet.

What’s more, when I watch dance, any kind of dance, I see fine points of the dance and feel sensations in my body that non-trained dancers do not. I know not just what a triple pirouette that stops on a dime looks like, I know what it feels like, cognitively, emotionally, qualitatively and physiologically, to perform that movement. Both of these things show up for me in my appreciative experience.

So what is the best way to describe the feeling of the doing, the practice, the composing, the improvisation, the performing in a way that is accessible to the non-dancer? How can one describe the appreciative experience of dance from the perspective of one who has danced, practiced, composed, improvised and performed? Doing this requires some form of philosophic method that allows phenomenology, or lived experience, to be relevant in the account. If a dance philosopher wants to go the phenomenological route his or her best bet is (arguably) to consider Continental or Pragmatic philosophy, both of which credit lived experience as a valid form of evidence for the “truth” of a philosophical claim.

Some philosophers, however, do not credit phenomenological description as adequate to “explain” dance because the worry is that this privileges some experiences over others and makes it difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced dance to understand it. I recall my frustration when I attended a session on “the body and the phenomenological experience of dance” at a dance conference that consisted in large part of an audience watching the presenters experience dance themselves (with no audience participation) through their own bodies. That was one of the more salient moments where I experienced myself as the philosopher in the room. “What the heck?” I thought angrily. “That’s all very nice for you. But tell us what’s going on in terms that do more than say what you are feeling! Where’s the scholarly analysis of Maurice Merleau-Ponty? Where’s the philosophy?”

Some dance-trained philosophers have tried to make sense of their lived experience of dance by using research from psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience in order to bolster the claims of “what it feels like” with explanations of causal chains that can be demonstrated or measured via scientific method. Here there is never a perfect correlation between the “what it feels like” and scientific evidence, and evidence of this sort say nothing about the “meaning” or value of the experience of dance. But it seems that the hope is to legitimate what seems to some like the subjective or privileged nature of lived experience with some sort of plausible correlative account from fields that are typically considered more value-neutral and demonstratively reliable than phenomenological accounts that rely on an acknowledgement from the reader that “yes, that’s what it’s like.”

At a philosophy conference someone often says something like this to me: “It’s not so hard to write analytic philosophy of dance. Just isolate what makes dance as art what it and nothing else is and survey the literature and come up with a theory.” That’s when I feel like a dancer rather than a philosopher. I have interpreted this kind of direction as requiring a 5-step process:

  1. Figure out how to construe dance as art. (This will involve distinguishing dance from non-art similar practices like sports or other bodily activities like yoga and you will need to provide some kind of legitimate definition of art.)
  2. Figure out which art is closest to dance. (Try music since theater has the problem/difficulty of “text” and although dance is “visual” it is temporal in a way that is closer to music than to literature, painting or sculpture.)
  3. Figure out what features dance shares with music. (They both have primary instances that do not involve words, performances usually involve live performers who are in many cases distinguishable from the composers.)
  4. Figure out which features distinguish it from music. (Music practice relies far more heavily on a notated score, the “instrument” in music is in many more cases separable from the body of the performer.)
  5. From these try to isolate the “essence” or “definition” of dance as art – what isolates dance as art that no other art has precisely – that is what (ostensibly) makes dance what it is.

Problem: Once I’ve done all this what do I have? I’ve got some sort of definition of dance as art, which I may tweak in order to make it an “open” or a “cluster” concept of some sort or some sort of list of “family resemblances” of features of dance as art if I want to go the later Wittgenstein route. Now do I understand dance? Have I reached the essence of dance itself? Is Susanne Langer right that each art has a primary “essence” and that the “essence” of dance can be encapsulated by using a method such as this?

I submit that one does not reach the essence of dance in this way, by which I mean that one has not reached dance qua dance in a way that imparts a deep or full understanding of what is important to understand and “get” about dance so that one can say, with confidence, that one “knows” or (more colloquially) “feels” dance. This is not to bash philosophy. Philosophy often excites me, intrigues me and motivates me to read and think in a deep way. I’ve never been in a bar fight (about philosophy or about anything else) but I have been heated enough after a philosophical debate to have trouble sleeping that night. So what’s at stake? What are we “getting to” when we try to get to a philosophical understanding of dance?

I suggest that what we “get” when we write and read dance philosophy is a special kind of understanding of dance, a kind of dance interpreted or understood through the lens of philosophy. What we get when we do that is not dance itself. What we get is a better understanding of philosophy – what it can help to elucidate, what it cannot, and how limited it truly is when dealing with something as experiential and bodily and live as dance. What we have is a philosophic work of art (on a concept of “art” that conceives of “art” broadly as a sort of constructive, creative practice) that has dance as its focal subject or content. Yes. That’s what I said. That’s the best philosophy can do. But if one loves philosophy, and the kinds of constructions it makes, this might be enough for a lifetime of interesting work. It just doesn’t give us dance. It’s not even close to giving us dance. And this is why (I conjecture) dance studies, dance education, dancers and dance choreographers often view dance philosophers with suspicion if not outright hostility. And this is why Francis Sparshott can say without irony, as he does in the introduction to his dance philosophy book, A Measured Pace, that one need not have experience of dance to write dance philosophy.

To conclude I will just point you to 13 examples of my favorite publicly accessible dance video clips to give you a sense of some of what there is to love and to understand about dance that can never be given to us in philosophy. Of course this is all on the appreciative side and it cannot take the place of either dancing or attending a live dance performance. But it should provide a small taste of why I claim that most of what there is to “get” about dance goes far beyond philosophical description or explanation. A philosopher might call this hand-waving in the direction of dance. Guilty as charged.

Japanese Butoh performed by Imre Thormann

African elementary school students dancing

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Nutcracker

Pina Bausch’s “Vollmond” (“Full Moon”)

Lars Lubovitch’s “Duet from Concerto Six Twenty-Two”

Savion Glover tap dancing exhibition

Martha Graham in “Lamentation”

Natalia Markarova and Ivan Nagy in “Swan Lake”

Lil Buck dancing to “Swan Lake” accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma

Axis Dance Company “Light Shelter”, choreographed by David Dorfmann

Fred Astaire Hat Rack Dance in Royal Wedding

Alvin Ailey’s “Sinnerman” from Revelations

Molissa Fenley in State of Darkness

Notes on the Contributor

Aili Bresnahan teaches philosophy, including an interdisciplinary philosophy of dance class that includes a dance movement and choreography component, at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She grew up in New York City, where she was a ballet major at the F.H. LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts. Bresnahan then earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University in New York, a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, and a PhD in philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia, where her advisor was Joseph Margolis. She is also the founder and moderator of the DancePhilosophers Google group, an informal and interdisciplinary discussion and networking group for researchers in the philosophy of dance broadly construed. Her website:


  1. Dear Dr. Bresnahan:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I get the sense that you might be suggesting a more general thesis about (1) the ineffability of all social practices – not just dance – and (2) the inability of Platonist metaphysics to make sense of cultural domains. While it seems unlikely that anyone will ever succeed in describing an essence that all dance has in common, it is much easier to put together an adequate interpretation of the norms that define a particular life form. This is where the categorial intuition comes in handy – the universal (of a particular dance form) shows up in its embodied instantiations. If generalizations are restricted to one's own existential world (e.g. ballet), then the particularity of one's own being becomes a way of accessing truth rather than an epistemic obstacle.

  2. Dear Tsung-Yun:
    Thank you for your thoughts here. I apologize for not replying earlier. I do think there is much to be said for seeking universals of dance forms in embodied instantiations and that this may be possible for highly formal and codified forms of dance, such as classical ballet. My thought, though, is a slightly different one than the problem of finding philosophical universals based on practice and experience for dance. Instead I am suggesting that these universals identify something more about philosophy as a methodology that yields certain results when analyzing phenomena than it it yields any truth about dance that gets to a particular governing core or essence of what dance is in its meaning for human beings. In terms of one's own existential world I don't think this can be limited to the outlook within any one art form or form of dance either — we are varied, complex and ever-changing selves.
    Best regards,

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