Kinesthetic Understanding and Appreciation in Dance

William Seeley
University of New Hampshire, Manchester
The idea that choreographic movements communicate to audiences by kinetic transfer is a commonplace among choreographers, dancers, and dance educators.1 Moreover, most dance lovers can cite their own favorite examples—the bounciness of the Royal Danish Ballet, the stomping of Bharata Natyam performers, the stag leaps in the thundering Greek chorus in Martha Graham’s Night Journey, or the contagious rhythmic transfer that takes over our feet when we watch classic tap dancers like Buster Brown. The perceptual capacity for kinetic transfer was succinctly identified and theorized by John Martin. He called this capacity metakinesis. Martin was influenced by Theodor Lipps’s earlier theory of empathy. Lipps introduced his notion of empathy as a way to characterize our muscular responses to the perceived internal dynamics of inanimate objects under stress and tension, for example, weight-bearing columns and cantilevered boulders. Martin argued analogously about dance. In what follows, we explore and evaluate three general challenges to the existence and significance of kinetic transfer in dance: challenges to the very possibility of kinesthetic understanding in dance, questions about the relevance of kinetic transfer to explanations of artistic communication in dance, and concerns about the relevance of kinetic transfer to evaluative questions germane to dance appreciation. We do not subscribe to every aspect of Martin’s story. Nevertheless, we think that Martin was exceedingly prescient. His speculations appear to be supported by recent research in neuroscience and psychology.We feel as a result that Martin’s comments are highly suggestive of what might be going on in ordinary dance consumers (or at least moderately informed ones). Critically, however, we do not model these contributions in terms of a discrete, stand-alone kinesthetic sense as Martin did. Rather, we argue that metakinesis and kinetic transfer refer to a general crossmodal sensorimotor perceptual capacity that contributes to our understanding and experience of actions in everyday contexts. Nor do we claim that audiences recognize and understand dance solely on the basis of kinetic transfer. Rather, we argue that this sensorimotor capacity is a contributing factor in our perceptual engagement with dance works, one of a range of tools ready to hand to choreographers and dancers for conveying information critical to the content of their works.
Keywords Philosophy of Art  Cognitive Science  Dance  Attention  Embodiment  Kinesthetic Empathy  Metakinesis  Sesnorimotor
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DOI 10.1111/jaac.2013.71.issue-2
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