This article was originally published on Dance Archives.
In order to understand dance as an artistic practice, we need to understand that this practice involves an understanding of how the aesthetic functions.
An experience is said to be aesthetic when the object of attention is perceived as valuable for its own sake, and that perception is accompanied by aesthetic emotion. A beautiful sunset, a leaf falling from a tree can be the object of aesthetic emotion and experience.
When you intend to have one or to make an ‘object’ for aesthetic appreciation, you adopt an aesthetic attitude. (But you can also intend to have an aesthetic experience or expect to have one, by going to a dance theatre performance, visiting an art gallery or reading a poem.)
Aesthetic emotion is the knowledge that confirms the attached value to the object and confirms that the aesthetic experience has been had. Unlike the concrete and complete painting or sculpture in a gallery, dance as a work of art is always in-the-making.
It is only while it is being danced that it can become an object of attention to which value is attached. It is only while it is being danced that it can be perceived. This is because the medium of dance is the body and its movement, and the body and its movement, is the artist dancing.
For the dancer, making an aesthetic choice means that the actual execution of steps is not the focus, but that the concern lies with the movements as a means by which a meaningful “whole” is created. The interaction of the movement structures and inter-relationships of the components of the dance medium are inseparable ingredients of that “whole”.
The dancer might do a particular step but beyond that the manner in which he does it, what precedes and follows it, whether he does it towards, away, or passed his partner, the accompanying music rhythm sound, the color, line, texture of his outfit, his focus etc all “create” that moment in a particular way creating the intangible virtual form. The dancer’s knowledge of these inseparable ingredients which work together to form the whole is essential if he/she is to be aware of their control over the dance as it is being made in performance.
What is done is actual movement but what is created, is an intangible virtual form.
Providing the dancer sustains the “living-through experience” of the dance in its full concreteness, the dance can be enjoyed aesthetically by the audience.
One of the dangers is to link the notion of aesthetic emotion with other emotional experiences. When dancers or members of the audience are “moved” by the music or overcome with emotion due to their personal relationships with one another, this experience is not to be confused with aesthetic experience. Are you struck by the dancer’s costume, are you excited about winning, and are your tears of joy an aesthetic experience? These are all examples of functional emotional experiences, emotional personal responses outside the realm of the aesthetic.
To feel and sense for the dancer, to perceive for the audience is not to merely receive a message but to participate in an immediate way. This participation is part and parcel of the aesthetic experience and that experience is one that in its uniqueness stands out from the ordinary stream of things.
It is a common misapprehension, not only in our Dance institution, that “aesthetic” is a nice word for something that is “beautiful”.
The term “beautiful” and how different people use it is problematic. In the competitive Dance world, is beautiful something we are used to seeing, something we expect to see and accept as beautiful? Do we find a stretched leg and high-heeled shoes more “beautiful” than a bent leg and a bare foot? If so is this a silent acceptance of other people’s concept of “beautiful”? Why are clear shapes in space and erect postures related to classicism seen as more beautiful than African or South-American dance where pure physicality and indulgence in weight, rhythmicality, and dynamics take over from pre-occupation with forms? Is this strictly true?
The whole question of what is beautiful is related to sociocultural issues and values, a vast era requires an in-depth study.
In order to develop aesthetic awareness dancer’s sensitivity toward perceptual, intellectual and emotional experiences needs to deepen and become integrated into their being before it can become an integral part of their dance.
Ruud Vermeij is the first dance instructor in the world to hold a doctoral degree in ballroom dancing. He is a dance educationist and psychotherapist and a co-founder of the Dutch Dance Lab. In 1996 he published "Thinking, Sensing, and Doing in Latina American Dancing". His writings are timeless and a powerful resource for both professional dancers and teachers. You can find him on www.dutchdancelab.com