Dance is a complex visual form that communicates through movement in time and space, often in conjunction with music and poetry. Dances convey meaning through culturally understood conventions within social contexts.
Dances are produced as a result of creative processes that move human bodies through time and in spatial layouts. They are transient in performance, visual manifestations of socio-political relations, and may be the subject of an elaborate aesthetic system. Often the process of performing is as important as the cultural form produced. Dances and dancing are surface manifestations of the deep structure or underlying philosophy of a society. That is, as presentations for an audience, dances may be admired as art or work; they may be participatory and enjoyed as entertainment, they may make political or social statements, they may bring religious ecstasy or trance, or they may be performed as a social duty.
It is misleading to assume that dance is a universal language, as many have done in the past. Except on a most superficial level, dance cannot be understood or communicated cross-culturally without an understanding of the individual dance traditions within a culture. However, some dance types, such as ballet and Hawaiian hula, have been imported across cultural boundaries and can be considered discourses on globalization. The places of origin, cultural traditions, and “communicative competence” of these now globalized performances have become nearly irrelevant as particular dance forms have attained a status of “international languages,” variously understood, admired, or viewed simply as spectacle.
Dances consist of grammatically structured movements that in performance are usually part of some larger activity or activity system. The grammar of a dance idiom, like the grammar of any language, involves structure, style, and meaning; one must learn the movements, how they can be stylistically varied, their syntax (rules about how they can and cannot be put together to form motifs and whole dances), and what meanings are ascribed to them. Movements may have been given originally by the gods, ancestors, or historic figures, but are retained and perpetuated in contemporary life as cultural artifacts and aesthetic performances. These movements are important, even if their meanings have been changed or forgotten, as a reference point for ethnic or cultural identity.
Meaning is not inherent in movement but is ascribed to dances by groups of people at specific points in time, and these visual dimensions of performance need to be decoded. In order to communicate as a cultural and aesthetic artifact, performers and observers must have communicative competence in an evolved Chomskyan sense. Competence or knowledge about a specific movement tradition is acquired in much the same way as competence in a spoken language is acquired. Competence relates to the cognitive learning of the shared rules of specific movement traditions, as langue is acquired in a Saussurian mode. Competence enables the viewer to understand a grammatical movement sequence that he or she has never seen before. Performance refers to an actual rendering of a movement sequence, parole of Saussure, which assumes that the performer has a certain level of competence and the skill to carry it out. Only after one has competence in this enlarged sense is it possible to compose, dance, or view performances in a culturally appropriate manner.
Dance, like all symbolic systems, creates new meanings by combining old forms in new ways. The product and process interact dialogically, relying on shared understandings among composers, performers, and viewers. As in spoken language, understanding the meaning of movement requires understanding structure and style, which are learned by watching and participating. Such knowledge is passed from generation to generation in a more or less formal manner, and absorbed by experiencing how the meanings of motifs, choreography, and style are communicated in context. Most important is knowledge about the culture in which a dance tradition is embedded, such as male and female roles in movement, social status, social structure, and especially socio-political discourse. Methods and theories currently in use for analyzing dance include “form analysis,” which originated in eastern Europe (Giurchescu and Kroschlova 2007; “emic analysis,” which uses linguistic analogies (Kaeppler 2007); and “semasiology,” which is concerned with the semantics of body languages (Williams 2004).
- Giurchescu, A., & Kroschlova, E. (2007). Theory and method of dance form analysis. In A. L. Kaeppler (ed.), Dance structures: Perspectives on the analysis of human movement. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, pp. 17– 48.
- Kaeppler, A. L. (1993). Dance in Tonga: The communication of social values through an artistic medium. In Poetry in motion: Studies of Tongan dance. Nuku’alofa: Vava’u Press, pp. 48 –59.
- Kaeppler, A. L. (2007). Structured movement systems in Tonga. In A. L. Kaeppler (ed.), Dance structures: Perspectives on the analysis of human movement. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, pp. 49 – 98.
- Williams, D. (2004). Anthropology and the dance: Ten lectures, 2nd edn. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.