Jumping the fence from dance to cross-disciplinary research

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					      Jumping the fence from dance to cross-disciplinary research

                                    Vanessa Mafe-Keane

                           Queensland University of Technology
                                      Brisbane, Australia

Introduction: Reading the signs
Inside the dance ethos, knowledge is rarely articulated other than through the
experience of dance itself.        On the surface, the dancer focuses on practical and
specialist skills. However, a closer look reveals that their knowledge does not merely
trigger an embodied way of thinking; it enables the dancer to map a trail of metaphors
within the body. In effect, dancers acquire a distinct embodied culture with its own
language, dialects, customs and traditions.

In this paper, I shall firstly examine the way metaphors establish a link between
reason and imagination between one set of embodied knowledge and another. It is in
regards to this function, where metaphor welds opposites together or when interior
and exterior information exist in the same moment that it is most useful for jumping
the fence from dance to cross-disciplinary practice. Secondly, I shall discuss how
metaphors can help sustain creative practice. For it is only by stepping outside the
culture of dance that I could first unravel the experiences, processes and knowledges
inscribed through a career in dance and begin to define the quality of my own voice.

Thinking through the body
Susan Leigh Foster, dancer, choreographer and writer, describes a distinct way of
thinking through the dancer’s body. Her focus is not on the sheer physicality of
dance but the impact of language on the body, specifically metaphors. Foster’s
“body-of-ideas” (1997:236) describes the practice of appropriation and assimilation
within metaphors. Metaphors act as containers for ideas and information similar to an
icon or emblem that provoke sensations, emotions, memories and images.            She

Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
     The daily participation of a body in any of these disciplines makes of it a
     body-of-ideas. Each discipline refers to it using select metaphors and other
     tropes that make it over (Foster, 1997:236).

Foster describes a process of naming and re-naming where ideas are in constant
motion. Her observations reveal a conceptual process of repetition, transference,
appropriation, accumulation, association and transformation.

Talking from the body
A dancer’s knowledge and expertise is referred to as possessing such qualities as
maturity, refinement, a strong technique or the ability to exude an intense personal
presence. Within dance, this phenomenon is often encompassed by the general term
of “artistry”. Artistry is greater than the sum of skill and experience; the dancer
directly communicates the embodied or “danced” experience via their movement.
Artistry seems an inaccurate description that undervalues the significance of uniquely
embodied processes. It reinforces views within Western culture suggesting that a lack
of verbal language signals a lack of intelligence. I believe that the body’s knowledge
is undervalued simply because it is intangible and relegated to “talk about the body”
(Farnell, 1999:241).

Brenda Farnell, anthropologist of human movement, pinpoints what is actually
communicated through a body in motion, in her introduction to Moving Bodies,
Acting Selves (1999). According to Farnell,

     Although in the past two decades considerable interdisciplinary attention
     has been given to "talk about the body" as a cultural object, and to "talk of
     the body" as a phenomenological realm of subjective experience, "talk from
     the body" as dynamically embodied action in semantically rich spaces has
     received comparably little attention (Farnell 1994, Varela 1995a) (Farnell,

Whereas typically, it has been necessary to rely on literary models to offer an
explanation of the body in culture, Farnell’s three simple descriptions are significant
precisely because they allow us to differentiate varying degrees of discourse regarding
the body. She locates experience that is accumulated first hand, as being vastly
Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
different to abstract or conceptual notions of the body. If we apply Farnell’s ideas to
dancers, they do not merely engage intellectually and conceptually with sophisticated
ideas of motion or physicality rather, they use their bodily knowledge or metaphorical
experience to communicate via the body.

Having specialised as a dancer, it is clear to me how metaphors bridge the grey area
between the physical and verbal. Consequently Foster’s “body-of-ideas” was an
essential starting point for my research. However, Farnell’s observations steered me
away from the dancer’s experience and towards integrating ideas concerning the body
and language. Therefore, I shall briefly look at the way metaphors act as a sign of
physical presence within language.

“The body” is the most common human experience that connects every aspect of our
lives and a constant point of reference within everyday discourse. American art
theorist, Dave Hickey, clearly demonstrates the commonality and imperceptibility of
metaphors within our everyday lives in the following examples.

     The eye of the storm; the mouth of the river; the face of the clock; the heart
     of the matter; the foot of the page; the body of the text
     (Hickey, 1995:139).

Hickey’s metaphors direct our intention to the anatomical chart of the body where
shared images of the body are transferred into figures of speech.                 Well-known
Linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of the book Metaphors We Live
By (1980), have focussed their work on understanding the connection of metaphor to
meaning within our language and lives. Rather than limiting metaphor within the
context of language, Lakoff describes metaphors as “conceptual structures” which
embody an entire network of interrelated understandings.

     Conceptual structure…involves all the natural dimensions of our
     experience, including aspects of our sense experiences: color, shape,

Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
     texture, sound etc.      These dimensions structure not only mundane
     experience but aesthetic experience as well (Lakoff, 1980:235).

What Lakoff identifies as “aesthetic experience” is particularly interesting in terms of
Foster’s concept of a “body-of-ideas”. Both concepts recognise the way metaphors
imply the body as their initial point of reference through which to generate new
understanding. At the core of both concepts is also the recognition that language, as
the expression of thought when interconnected with the experience of the body,
produces multiple understandings. However, the degrees to which the body and mind
are linked and what “body” is being implied are points where Lakoff (1980) and
Foster (1997) differ.

Farnell provides a way of combining the two bodies that Lakoff and Foster represent.
The body presumed by Lakoff is motionless and indirectly embodies our imaginative
capacity. Foster’s “body-of-ideas” remains concerned with the syntax accumulated
through the training of physical disciplines. According to Farnell,

     Our imaginative capacity is directly embodied because action signs
     themselves can be imaginative tropes, some of which integrate with or are
     taken up in spoken language forms” (Farnell 1996: 312) (Farnell,

Whereas Lakoff and Foster have considered metaphor as the catalyst particular to
their respective viewpoints of language and dance, Farnell takes a broader approach,
focusing on the body in motion, capable of communicating bodily experience via
actions of embodiment. Farnell regards the body as a source from where language is
generated rather than a form of verbal language cultivated via the body.

Farnell does much to fuse the discrimination standing between the verbal and non-
verbal. Frequently these divergent modes of expression are situated in conflict. I
have interpreted Farnell’s observations in my own project, Listening to People Move
(2002), by presenting verbal and non-verbal side-by-side. Rather than describing the
project, I will discuss the underlying shifts in approach as a means of sustaining
artistic practice.

Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
The object of the project Listening to People Move was two-fold; firstly, to shift the
emphasis away from producing performance outcomes that depend upon supportive
frameworks, and secondly, to permit each field of experience to speak for itself and
preserve the research and working process. Therefore, I presented the project as an
installation, where I could simultaneously create specific spatial relationships that
allow information to overlap, be cross-referenced and run parallel.

Specifically, both videos are about researching and producing movement. However,
one video documents movement sequences devised in collaboration with the
participants, where the second video describes their unique experience of movement
communicated through an interview. Historically, the body is widely depicted as
unconscious and non-thinking yet in this case an interesting reversal appears. In
contrast, the movement investigations or conscious movement documents the “body-
of-ideas” whereas the interviews register the unconscious movement that occurs when
speaking through the use of gestures, body carriage and facial expressions. Any
single process would fail to adequately address the subtlety and complexity of bodily

Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
Conclusion: Distinguishing features of a bodily culture
Though the body changes, slows, aches and ages, an intelligent body informed
through dance continues to view the world through its motion.           Dance can be
intolerant of changes to the body and even shuns those of us most passionate and
dedicated. Why does dance insist that I give up my culture? Although I have become
aware of my position along the borderline, the body is still at the heart of my artistic
practice. The intelligent body is a moving body marked by the experiences of a
culture not defined by gender, race, preference or even ability that allows us to travel
the world and communicate across the boundaries of language. The intelligent body
differentiates itself from the static, theoretical body yet is neither vague nor
ambiguous; it is an nth degree body. Regardless of how far I journey into another
field, the dancer’s insight remains my source. It is the nth degree body that allows me
to jump the fence between interdisciplinary practices and distinguish the subtleties
expressed through movement that are not always capable of being expressed within

Farnell, B. 1999. Moving Bodies, Acting Selves. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28:

Foster, S. L. 1997. Dancing Bodies. In Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies in
Dance, ed. J. Desmond., 235-257. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Hickey, D. 1995. In the Shelter of the Word: Ann Hamiltons’s Tropos. Tropos, 117-

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press.

Washburn, K. and Guillemin, M. eds. 1986. Paul Celan Last Poems. San Francisco:
North Point Press.
Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8
Conference Proceedings: Dance Rebooted: Initializing the Grid
Published by Ausdance National, December, 2005
ISBN 1 875255 16 8

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