Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Ballet as an Algorithmic Process

Student Blogger's picture



An algorithm, as defined by Dennett, is “a certain sort of formal process that can be counted on – logically – to yield a certain sort of result whenever it is “run” or instantiated” (Dennet 50).  Although he is referring to the process of natural selection as an algorithmic process, ballet as a dance form can be analyzed in a parallel method.  Ballet is comprised of hundreds of individual steps, that when combined form the performances that one can observe in the theater.  The steps can be joined together in many different ways to form a multitude of combinations that can be repeated if performed again. “Tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade, gran jeté” is a typical phrase that a ballet dancer would hear during a grand allegro, or the portion of class where the dancer performs combinations of big and fast paced jumps.  This combination is frequently integrated in a larger and more complex performance, and is characteristically danced by a principal male or female ballerina.  This phrase is a sequence of simple steps that when pieced together produces an output that can be repeatedly reproduced from dancer to dancer and performance to performance.  Dennett describes an algorithm as an “underlying mindless” process because the steps are “simple enough for a dutiful idiot to perform – or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform” (Dennett 51).  If this aspect of Dennett’s definition of an algorithm is applied to explaining the evolution of ballet, from classical to contemporary, then how can one account for individual expression that is seen from dancer to dancer?


Classical ballet originated as a dance performed by and for royalty.  It arose in the late fifteenth century in the royal courts of Italy and it was further developed in the seventeenth century by King Louis XIV.  During this time, ballet was a very formal affair that was comprised of elaborate costumes, intricate footwork, and a display of serious training.  Since then, many forms of ballet have arisen which have deviated from the original style. One example is a company titled Ballet X, a performance group in Philadelphia which aims to “redefine ballet and bring it into the new century” by “[bringing] a contemporary sensibility to the art form, infusing its work with a new vision of athleticism, emotion and intimacy” (Ballet X).  Although this individual style of work has an algorithmic process that defines the overall movement and performances, it is a variation from the original art form of ballet.  This concept is similar to that of the observed variation among organisms in the world today which have evolved throughout the centuries. 

Although the algorithmic process seems rigid and unflinching the results it produces, there is an aspect that accounts for the deviations from the norm.  Randomness is the driving force of the differences that are seen from organism to organism.  Evolution is the result of a combination of sequences of algorithms that randomness acts upon.  This external force of randomness helps to explain the differences that are seen in similar species.  When applied to the ballet, the randomness that is acting upon the algorithmic process is that of free will of the dancers and choreographers.  The Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 more contemporary forms of ballet have arisen as a result of the free will of individuals who desire to deviate from the widely studied forms of classical ballet.  The creation of new companies and styles of ballet are a result of an individual who has a desire to break away from the constraints of classical ballet movement.  While the dancers participating in these contemporary ballet forms may have classical training, they choose to create movement which is different from what they have been taught.  This addresses the free will of individual dancers.  In the documentary, Portraits of Giselle, the amount of free will a dancer has in a performance is questioned.  One view states that the choreographer gives the dancer a series of steps that should be performed as directed.  If these combinations are executed as told, then the personality of the character that is being portrayed will be understood by the audience.  The opposing view states that the dancer should loosely use the choreography that is given and emit the emotions that the character should be feeling in each specific scene in order for the audience to further understand the character.  In this situation, free will is the determining factor of how successfully the dancer can portray a character.  The first view demonstrates the algorithmic process as described by Dennett, while the second view integrates randomness and an explanation for variation among performances.  Personally, I feel as though a combination of both views is necessary for the audience to fully understand the story line and appreciate the sentiments of the character. 



            There is much more to say about the evolution of ballet and how it has developed into the styles that we can view today.  However, for each form there is an algorithmic Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 process that creates the movement that is characteristic of each deviation.  These deviations arose from randomness that has acted on the process that explains the variation in similar forms.  This randomness is the free will of the individuals who play a role in defining what ballet is today.   





Ballet X- general Information. 2008. Ballet X. 17 March 2009. <>


Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.


The History of Ballet. 2006. Wendy Burke School of Dance.  17 March 2009. <>


Portrait of Giselle. Dir. Joseph Wishy. 1982. Documentary. Wishupon Productions, 1982.





Anne Dalke's picture

the unpredictable dance?


I’m delighted to have you test out Dennett’s troubling use of “algorithm” in a dimension you know so well. I do think, btw, that you should have identified yourself as a dancer. First, this would motivate your project; otherwise, it’s not clear why you want to analyze ballet in a method parallel to the one Dennett uses to describe evolution. And secondly, your coming out as a dancer would let your audience know that they can trust what you say you “personally feel” about the questions you raise, based on what you know experientially.

I myself know nothing of the history of ballet, so it was fascinating for me to learn about its evolution from a formal, royal affair to more contemporary expressions; thanks for the overview! What actually interests me most, in your account, is the emphasis you place on conscious choice: individuals’ “desire to deviate from the widely studied forms,” their choosing “to create movement which is different from what they have been taught.” You use those choices as examples of free will, but I’d add that randomness—real randomness, the unpredictability of the human body, the inability to control all the ways in which it moves—might also play an important part in this process: the unplanned, undirected deviation that opens up new possibilities. Mightn’t that count also as “freedom,” and to the shuffling of the predictable outcomes of the algorithm that is ballet?