Dance Like Nobody is Watching

by Ted Cleaver

What is dance, a performance art or a unique bond between the music and the individual? Obviously it can be both, and it can be both at the same time. The two definitions are stylized, or you might call them ideal types. Definitions like this function to delineate a concept theoretically and provide insight into the phenomenon, while in reality of course there are 42 million shades of grey.

Keeping with this distinction, dance as a performance art represents the external. In this view, the presence of viewers is emphasized to the point that the quality of dance is reflected by its reception. Quality is then highly dependent on context. The taste of the audience is what determines a show’s merit. A modern dancer giving the exact same performance at a children’s party and in a theatre would be judged differently. Performing by definition presupposes spectators, and performing without the onlookers in mind is at worst an exercise in futility, at best self-therapeutic. Don Campellock put it nicely when he said “you gotta be a ham if you want to be a dancer, you gotta make everyone watch you and you gotta make everyone love to watch you.” In this view, a crowd pleaser is an excellent dancer. Again, what pleases a crowd of classical ballet enthusiasts is a world apart from what entertains TV viewers who follow popular dance offs.

Moving on to the second concept, a unique bond between music and dancer is entirely internal. While performance is augmented by routinized and usually choreographed movements, for this concept control of basic movements is more relevant. The individual takes in the music and responds freely to the input. No one is a blank slate. However, being in the music means feeling the music completely. When feeling is developed, the body follows with movement. Basic building blocks and random innovations can be combined to continuously create new expressions. For one part, dance in this view is a direct translation of the music into physical movement. For the other part, it is expression of individuality. It is hard to imagine that two individuals feel music exactly the same way. There is more to it. Everyone has a unique physique and anatomy, distinctive motoric functions, and characteristic movements. Even more importantly, everyone has an entirely personal creative capacity that is nurtured by a wide range of inspirations, nourished by an innate quality, and cultivated by emotions. Putting it like this, the unique bond between music and dancer is the characteristic translation of music into movement. It is characteristic because it reflects something that is specific to the individual.

Dance is both, a performance art and the so vulgarly described spiritual bond. Both elements matter in almost any situation. As someone who loves freestyle and favours eccentrics over uniforms, my general disposition on the contrast between internal and external is simple: “Dance like nobody is watching!” And although this exclamation would be a nice way to finish today’s post, there is more to be said. Every once in a while you see a performance that perfectly connects with the audience, while at the same time the “performer” seems to be completely free and in tune with his expression. Mastery!