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

You are here

Dialogue through Dance

Joie Rose's picture

As a dancer, you are constantly walking that ever so slight line between the paradoxical gesture of making yourself at once as small and as big as possible. Our bodies are both our instruments, vessels that we bend and tone and stretch and compress to convey our deepest expressions of human emotion, and our greatest tragedy. The body will never achieve what it sets out to do; you can always bend further, tone more, stretch farther and compress smaller. You can always do more. And because you are always reaching for the unattainable, the dialogue we strive to achieve becomes lost in the inaccessible in-human. The space we place between those who walk the earth as regular people, never knowing what it is to fly, and those who spend their lives trying to break the bonds of gravity, breaks the dialogue we are constantly trying to engage in, even while everything that makes the art inaccessible is the only language we know how to use.

In dance, we are taught to enter into dialogue with our bodies. Not ‘have a dialogue with our bodies’, although that is an everyday process that dancers inhabit, but to use our bodies to pursue, spark, and maintain a dialogue with the audience, with our instructor, with our fellow dancer. And it is this dialogue, this very unique and specific dialect that creates and establishes the dancer. When a dancer can communicate, can hold a dialogue through movement, that is when they have truly begun to learn.

But according to Paulo Freire and his definition of diologue, what its purpose is and the mold that its users must fit, the dialogue that dancers engage in cannot be true dialogue. Paulo Freire asserts that “dialogue cannot exist…in the absence of profound love.” And there is no absence of profound love in dance, for the art, for the work, for the ugliness wrapped up in its beauty. But only a few are granted the opportunity to learn that love, those who are predisposed, “born” to be a dancer. What I mean is, those who are not culled by teachers early on, for being too chubby, too inflexible, too lazy, too clumsy, too this, too that, the list goes on and on. And so while we are engaging in a dialogue of the most profound kind, a dialogue performed with the body, mind and soul that transcends mere wordery, it is an inherently exclusive dialogue. One that rejects the mortal who walks through the world never knowing what it is to want to fly, and the one who knows what it is to burn with that desire, but will never know its taste for they aren’t quite right for the conversation. By entering a dance studio, you are entering into a contract that forces you to acknowledge everything you lack, everything you have in excess, and it is your signature, given willfully, that seals your fate of forever walking that impossible line of at once make yourself as small and as big as possible, just for the opportunity that maybe you will be able to engage in our dialogue.

Freire’s analysis of dialogue also posits that human existence, in this case dance, which for many dancers is the only existence worth participating in, “can only be nourished…by true words…[that] name the world…and that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently no one can say a true word alone-nor can she say it for another.” But as a dancer, that is most often the type of dialogue we engage in. Choreography prescribed on our bodies, with the pretense of ‘making it our own’ while preserving the essence of the choreographers ideal. Choreographers communicate almost exclusively only through others, and dancers, those who can perform the image of the message the choreographer hopes to enter into dialogue around, are merely reframing, re-inhabiting the words the choreographer hopes to convey. Thus we falsify our words, their words, and never truly speak with the honesty Friere touts because not only are we speaking through another, but we are speaking through such a select few whom we deem appropriate for our conversation in a form that is utterly inaccessible in its desire for perfection.

Freire’s dialogue also requires humility as well as faith in others. And there is a trust, a faith in all others with whom you dance and learn from that is absolutely necessary if one is to ever enter into the conversation with elegance. The faith and trust you place in your partner to catch you, to lift you, to move with you and share your energy is a faith that is hard to find outside of the dance studio. And it is learned over many, many grueling hours of exposing yourself to the deepest forms of communication, an intimate sharing of space, energies, and body. And in the classroom, you are so often asked to do things with your body that anyone else would laugh at. But you trust your teacher to know where that line is. You trust your mentor to keep you from getting injured while pushing you just to your limits, perhaps beyond what you thought your limits were, but rarely beyond what is safe. And yet it is so often the humility that is lacking. Perhaps, not a lack of humility but rather, an abundance of arrogance. A dancer needs arrogance, needs an arrogant confidence in their movement and bodies and genius that convinces others of their capacity to enter into the dialogue. Certainly we are always learning from each other, we could not possibly improve if we denied the expertise of others, but so many dancers are so far removed from the reality of ‘mortal’ dialogue, through our learned arrogance, that this art form becomes not only exclusionary, but unyieldingly insular.

I posit that dialogue, at least in dance, does not, and cannot ever truly exist. In order to achieve the dialogue that Freire speak of we must strip away the pretense of beauty, the love that is so exclusionary, the arrogance that is so necessary even in the depths of our paralyzing doubt, and the notion that the unattainable perfection is the only thing worth striving for. But to strip all that away, is to amputate the essence of dance, to turn it inside out of itself and to reject everything that makes dance such an ultimate dialogue. So we continue to believe the fallacy of it. Dialogue that is imposed on our bodies, by our teachers and mentors that have had false dialogue imbued in them. Just as their mentors before them and theirs before them and on and on.

Occasionally there have been divergences along the way, of the bravest of us, acting only in the purest form of love, who have broken free from the constraints of falsified dialogue, rejected the studio enforced mantras that make us both so big and so small, and have created, truly created an new space of learning. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Fred Astaire, Savion Glover, and a few others. But these mothers and fathers of creativity in dance, these pioneers of movement, without meaning to, created something entirely new and innovative that then immediately began to enforce the old paradigm of conformity. One had to conform to enter in the dialogue each of these dancers created, and therein lies the problem. Even in the moment of true innovation, in fact by virtue of true innovation being what it is, the new can only be sustained, can only become old, through others bending to its constrictions in order to enter into its unique form of dialogue that works to break the very conformity it necessitates.

It is the desire for perfection, the inherently exclusionary nature of each new dialogue, each new form the body inhabits, that falsifies our dialogue, but is dialogue not always a pretense for an attempt at perfection? If we take Freire’s analysis of the truth, wordery, and dialogue existing only in the realm of naming the world for change, then isn’t the end goal perfection with the acknowledgment that by virtue of the ever shifting landscape in the pursuit of perfection, perfection is entirely impossible to attain?

Perhaps dance and the way that we learn to dance exacerbates the contradiction of true and beautiful dialogue existing only in the false space that dancers have created. But dialogue on any plane cannot help but create fallacy, even in its effort to preserve truth. Because to think critically about the dialogue we engage in forces us to acknowledge the flawed space in which it was created and allows us to alter it. So by striving always for true dialogue, the way dancers strive always for weightless perfection, we ensure that even though our dialogue is always false, we never lose our attempt and effort for truth or perfection. And that is what makes the dialogue worth it.


jccohen's picture

Joie Rose,

 Your first paragraph – beginning with the move from “you” to “we” and then into the description of what it means to try to be, express, communicate with the body – seems to me to sit itself at exactly that impossible space of striving, the “trying to engage” that perhaps characterizes dialogue more profoundly that the engaging.  This makes me think of Anna Deveare Smith’s description of her taking up another’s words and gestures in terms of the slight yet visible misfit rather than the perfect fit, and the idea that it’s this gap or difference that somehow can snap into being the connection between her, the character, the audience.  This is perhaps what you mean in the next paragraph when you talk about the dancer’s intent to “pursue, spark, and maintain a dialogue with the audience”…

As I understand what you go on to say about dance as a kind of “practice case” that illuminates Freire’s notion of dialogue, true dialogue – like language itself – has no foundational essence, is by its very nature embedded in the human reaching toward that Eve Tuck might describe as part of “desire,” and thereby partakes of past and future, longing and impossibility and stretching…  How might Jones’ work with bodies in the Medea Project illuminate any of this?

I’m compelled by the notion of dance offering us new understandings of dialogue! and have some questions about this: 

Your claim about “naming” as a gesture that is inherently, for the dancer, an expression of another’s “words” is interesting.  One the one hand, yes, this seems distinct from, say, a visual artist’s access to the stuff of expression and entrance into dialogue, and yet on the other, could we understand the relationship between choreographer and dancer as itself a dialogue, one that then includes others as “audience”?  Or perhaps this misconstrues that relationship…  And I’m struggling with this notion that “profound love” is both present (“not absent”) and also impossible…for most, because they are winnowed out, not allowed to participate in this dialogue, and for the few because they must become “exclusionary”?

Finally, I’m excited by your concluding idea that dialogue in dance shows us the impossibility of true dialogue more broadly, and at the same time the worthiness of this seeking, this struggle.  Freire talks about human beings as “unfinished,” which is why our capacity to seek, learn, intervene in the world and never “finish” any of this is the ultimate expression of our humanness.