Dancing participation: Observations of a long-term group dance improvisation practice

In This Article


This article discusses participating in a group dance improvisation practice over time, and the importance of that participation. It describes a regular dance practice undertaken over several years and how although the practice supports me (and the dancers in the group) to take part in other dancing and performance activities, it is the regular dancing over time itself that is the situation in which something is ‘going on’. Through the introduction of various ideas, I will explore how participating or acting in this group dance practice allows ways of thinking, understanding, experiencing, knowing that exist only while or at least because of our participation in this dancing. Used among others, the term ‘action’ as suggested by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition, is used as a concept with which to think through the dancers’ experience in a shared practice. Other ideas including Claire Bishop’s participatory art and Tim Ingold’s discussion of ‘drawing together’ are useful to define participating in dancing in a studio practice, and to articulate what is happening in and how we observe that participation.

My dance practice consists of the participation of a group of individuals, including myself, in a shared dance improvisation practice, using scores. Scores, as I define them are verbal propositions that enable or support, rather than direct, the dancing we do. Conveyed verbally, the scores enable the sharing of a dancing practice in which ‘meaning’ can be found in the present and is ever-changing. Over my years of my practising dance improvisation in this way, I have not questioned whether to use ‘scores’. I have always taken for granted that they are useful and perhaps even essential in the generation of movement material in the present. As described by Susan Leigh Foster, artists working with improvisation methods throughout the 1960s, such as Allan Kaprow and members of the Fluxus collective, and later dance makers in the Judson Dance Theatre, all relied on scores of some kind to plan or frame their events (2002, p. 44). Throughout my research, I have been interested in how scores work within the way we practice as a group. Initially, I had assumed that scores had an easily perceivable effect on dancing, for those dancing and those observing. I soon realised that this was not the case. This has led me to explore the taken-for-grantedness of the utility of the score. I have come to understand that there is not a straightforward, causal relationship between a score, the way we use a score and the dancing we do when we practise with a score (Millard 2015, pp. 55–56).

We practice regularly (once a week) and I have been conducting a form of this practice for several years. None of the current members of the group have been working with me for all of that time but some are in their fourth year 1 . My observations and questions have arisen from practising, from participating in dancing, and it is these observations and questions that form the basis of this article.


Before I proceed with my discussion, it is necessary to define my use of the term participation. I will do so in relation to the ideas of Claire Bishop, who has written extensively about participation in art practices and, particularly, about participatory art. In her book Artificial Hells, she explores art movements sometimes described as participatory art, particularly since the 1990’s while also acknowledging existing precedents. Bishop uses a definition of participation or participatory art in which ‘people constitute the central artistic medium and material’ (2012, p. 2). Arising from a desire to shift from the finite creation of a closed ‘object’ of art, there are many examples of this kind of work, as discussed by Bishop: the outcome-free dèrive (drifting) of artists involved with Situationist International in the 1950s and 60s (2012, p. 77) and the Sonsbeek projects (2012, p. 205) that were named as activities rather than exhibitions, are but two examples.

The participatory art described by Bishop is in some instances based on premises that are not unlike my own dance practice. Being improvisatory, my work is not fixed, I do not aim towards the creation of a closed work. I am also interested in the diffusion of authorship between the members of the group, particularly because of the ongoing nature of our practising, and through the use of scores. Bishop writes: ‘To put it simply: the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end..’ (2012, p. 2).

There are similarities between Bishop’s participation, and my own interest in (re) placing the emphasis of my artistic practice into undertaking long-term projects in which the author is undefined. I suggest, however, that my use of the word participation in this article has less to do with aligning myself with the work of Bishop and is more along the lines of the word in its simplest form defined as ‘the act of participating’ which is ‘to have a share or take part in’ in the Chambers Concise Dictionary (1986, p. 709) . I also tend to use the verb, particularly in its continuous form, more than the noun seeing as I consider the dancing we do to be something that we are involved in an ongoing way and we do not have a planned end point for our practising.

Observing while participating

In his book, Being Alive, anthropologist, Tim Ingold refers to the writing of art historian, Norman Bryson, about the difference between drawing and western oil painting (2011, p. 221). Ingold suggests that according to Bryson, there is a difference in the two practices, in the anticipatory moment before making the first mark on a new surface. A painter and a drawer might feel different to each other when they are about to begin their work because of the difference in the expectations exerted on them by the medium with which they are working. A painter, according to Bryson, will feel the pressure of the anticipation of the eventual complete composition exerted on every stroke of the brush. The artist must hold in her intention, an awareness that each making of a mark will contribute to a final work. She needs to ‘anticipate the totality of the complete picture of which it will eventually form a part’ (2011, p. 220). The drawer, in contrast, has the vast possibility of a surface that does not need to be filled. Instead, ‘it becomes…a ‘reserve’, a kind of insurance against finality and closure’ (2011, p. 220). The drawn line can unfold in response to its immediate present, ‘…having regard for its own continuation rather than for the totality of the composition’ (2011, p. 220). Although I am not a visual artist, it is useful for me to apply Bryson’s idea of the open approach of the drawer to my own improvised dancing. The emphasis of the participation in a practice rather than the generation of an outcome, allows each moment, each movement to have its own time and value. There is no heading towards an anticipated complete work, rather, participation in dancing is complete when it stops at the end of each session; it is also always continuing because of the ongoing nature of the practice.

In continuing with the discussion of the open-ended approach to drawing, Ingold describes a ‘graphic anthropology’ which does not aim to completely describe a situation, nor does it recount what has taken place already. Instead, this graphic anthropology would ‘join together with persons and other things in the movements of their formation’ (2011, p. 223). Through this joining together, a particular kind of observation is possible. It is way of observing that is not distanced or overly analytical but comes about through the relationship of the activity of the observer with the environment. Ingold writes that:

To observe is not so much to see what is out there as to watch what is going on. Its aim is thus not to represent the observed but to participate with it in the same generative movement. (2011, p. 223)

I would suggest that the kind of noticing we are doing while we are dancing and communicating about our dancing is similar to Ingold’s graphic anthropology. We are observing our own dancing while we are in it. We are also (deliberately or non-deliberately) making the observation of that dancing in relation to the environment (space, time, other bodies) in which it is taking place. We do not need to represent what we have observed or even decide that it is something in particular seeing as we are not heading towards a complete work. We do not even need to observe in order to remember what we did so that we may repeat or represent it at a later time. Our observation is purposeful, nevertheless, as a part of the participation with and alongside other members in the group in, if not the same movement, a shared approach to it.

In January 2017, I took part in a workshop taught by New York based performer, teacher and practitioner of Contact Improvisation and Body Mind Centering© K J Holmes as part of a study tour to New York City with dance students from Deakin University (2017). I participated in the workshops even though I was there as a teacher from Deakin University rather than a student, particularly because I felt that the kind of observing that comes from doing, much like Ingold’s graphic anthropology, as described above would enable me to know ‘what was going on’  much better that if I had merely observed the classes from the outside. That way, I could both have a more subjective understanding of what the students were encountering but also, I could allow my own practice and teaching to be enriched. During and following the workshops, I took some notes both about what was said and taught and my experience of them. I deliberately decided, however, not to directly record my impression of any of the specific exercises or tasks that took place in classes. This is mostly because, at this stage in my dancing life, I do not have a desire to directly appropriate the ideas of others or to replicate physical scenarios while dancing/teaching. At one point during the workshop, I found myself working with Holmes herself. I was lying on the floor and Holmes was standing at my feet end facing me, with my ankles in her hands. Holmes walked backwards and using her weight, dragged me along the floor. The experience was pleasant but perhaps not vastly different to movement situations I had been in before.

Back in Melbourne and in my own dancing practice, I found myself holding my dancing partner, Ashlee’s ankles, her legs stretched long at the height of my pelvis, and I gave them a tug to drag her along. In that position, I was immediately reminded of the feeling of Holmes holding my feet and dragging me, a sensation I had not thought about again once in the intervening weeks. While I acknowledge that this physical memory trigger was not an exciting or revelatory experience, particularly given how often memories are triggered by various physical sensations such as smell, taste and touch, I would suggest that there was more to this memory than recollection of the situation and action. I came to know details about my body and that sensation in combination, in relation both to the person with whom I was in contact and the space and time. Had I watched the class in New York rather than participating in it, I would have seen what had happened and would have, quite possibly, at a later stage, remembered the particular sequence of movements suggested by Holmes. What I would not have known, however, was ‘what was going on’  and I would not have had that knowing of the situation to recall. My knowing came from observation during participation.

Acting while participating

Hannah Arendt was a political theorist. (Baehr 2000). My intention, in using her ideas, particularly that of ‘action’, is to open up my questioning about what might be taking place in the creative situation of my improvised dance practice, rather than to suggest that this dancing has political or philosophical applications. In her book The Human Condition, Arendt proposes that vita activa, the active life, consists of three elements: labour, work and action. In discussing a distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa (contemplation), Arendt suggests that there is an age-old assumption that the vita contemplativa is of a higher order than vita activa. She also suggests that even if it were to be accepted that that distinction was true, it is possible to live a life without ever entering into a contemplative state. On the other hand, one cannot spend a whole life in contemplation. ‘Active life’, Arendt writes, is not only what most men are engaged in but even what no man can escape altogether. For it is in the nature of the human condition that contemplation remains dependent on all sorts of activities…’ (Baehr 2000, p.167).

According to Arendt, Labour, along with consumption, corresponds to the cyclical, biological process of life (2000). Work involves the fabrication of durable objects, the production of human artifice. Action, the disclosure of oneself in the world, is not instrumental but rather a non-deliberate yet unavoidable part of the interactions between individuals. Arendt writes that ’Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech has the twofold character of equality and distinction’ (Arendt 1958, p. 175). Each human is distinct from all others, and it is this distinction that creates the need for acting and speech. If each person were the same, they would not need ‘action’ in order to understand one another:

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world… It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose (1958, p. 174).

Action is not the wilful doing which is associated with the deliberate making of ‘work’, but rather the disclosing of the distinctness of an individual, the results of which are open-ended. An individual, according to Arendt, is the agent in her own appearance. That appearance does not have a known result or effect: ‘…the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent but this agent is not an author or producer…nobody is its author’ (1958, p. 184). In acting in our improvisation practice, each dancer discloses herself in the open-ended interactions of our practising.

In a previous research project, (my PhD), I worked with a group of dancers twice a week for three years. While that project is not the subject of this article, it significantly influenced the practice I am currently undertaking. In fact, the current practice follows on from where I left my PhD project. For that reason, I will briefly describe my PhD project: We worked twice a week for the period of the project and, after fairly quickly establishing a way of practising, (probably over a period of a couple of months), we practised in much the same way for the three years. The premise of the project was to question the work of scores in the creation of group dance. We improvised with what we called scores which were verbal suggestions, usually of a physical nature. Rather than standing for something that could be known, remembered and repeated, the scores we used were propositions, the suggestion of a way to notice; a notion to hold on to in order to enter into a state of willingness not to plan or dance in a certain way. The aim of the project was not to create a ‘work’; in fact, part of my questioning in the project was about what a work is or might be. Instead, at the conclusion of the project, we made our practising available to be watched.

In the very last months of the project, things began to change in a way I had not anticipated. The dancers, who had all given a significant amount of their time and energy to the project, began to seem to resent the project or lose interest in dancing in it. I had not felt that it was necessary nor desirable to explicitly direct our warming up or dancing, and was not using scores to have a particular effect on either an individual’s dancing or that of the group. I felt that our way of practising was very well established and I imagined that the dancers did not need additional direction since they had themselves participated in the coming into existence of the way we practised.

By expecting the dancers to behave in a certain way, that is to take agency in the creation of the dance and to be active in their own improvisation and dancing experience, I had undermined my own aim, which was to not expect something specific from the dancers.  At the beginning of the project I had been willing to ‘act’ in Arendt’s terms in the practice: ‘…the human ability to act- to start new unprecedented processes whose outcome remains uncertain and unprecedented….’ (1958, p 231). But as I began to believe that I knew ‘how’ we would dance I began to see our practice as the single solution to the coming into being of that dancing. When I came to believe that the practice we had was an established practice, I stopped acting, that is I stopped participating in the interactions in the group in response to what was actually taking place, and instead conducted the practice sessions according to what I had decided they should be in order for dancing to take place.

My thinking about my creative process had led me to believe I understood what I was doing and the purpose of it. I found it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that doggedly adhering to the practice which I had thought was ‘working’, was actually contradicting the premise on which it was based. I had established a practice of not directing, not teaching, not asserting which, in its rigidity, was just as inflexible a way of working as if I had stipulated every movement a dancer was to make. In order to allow the practice to be itself, I needed to continue to participate, to act as a member of the group. My reading, thinking and writing outside of my participation in the dancing sessions had led me to think I was the ‘historian’. As described by Arendt, it is an historian and not the actor who is able to see and understand the consequences of deeds and actions: ‘… the process [the actor] starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and it’s very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward glance of the historian who himself does not act’ (1958, p. 233). Observing and thinking about my project had led me to believe that I knew what it was and how we were creating the dance and that I had the authority to write about what it was. Because of my choice to be an acting participant in my project, because of my interest in inserting my dancing body into the group, I needed to allow the dancing to become what it would be, to create itself from the conditions from which it arose, just as I needed to allow the dancers to dance their own dancing and ‘appear’ in the interactions of the group. Arendt writes that ‘…he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes ‘guilty’ of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous and unexpected the consequences of his deed he can never undo it…’ (1958, p. 233). While the practice was initiated by me, the dancing/dance did not ‘belong’ to me because there were five other ‘actors’, dancing individuals, who were part of the group. Ingold writes: ‘you can only carry on from where you are now, leaving a trail behind you as evidence of where you have been’ (2011, p. 222). Just as in Arendt’s acting, a participant is not only not deliberately having an effect, but also must continue to go on, accepting that there is, nevertheless a trace or a consequence of that participation.

In the current project, we are using a similar set of practising methods. We warm up by dancing by ourselves, usually starting on the floor and coming to standing over time with the option to go back to the floor. We call this warm-up period the solo warm-up 2 . Following on from the solo warm-up, we work together with a partner or in groups of two or three using touch as a way of sharing physical information. Gradually, the touching person(s) steps away to allow the moving person to dance unencumbered. We then follow on by dancing and watching each other in varying ways, sometimes dancing for short periods and then swapping over and at other times dancing for up to 20 minutes (Millard 2015).

I have aimed in this project to appear in the group through ‘acting’. This aim is contradictory since in ‘acting’ I cannot anticipate what effect my action will have, and therefore to plan to ‘act’ does not really support acting at all. I have been able, however, to allow myself to be content in participating in the practice and the interactions that take place. There feels little need for me to support the development of anything in particular, since we currently have no planned outcome or end point. I do consider, however, that this practice supports each of the participants to pursue other interests. These interests are wide-ranging but include the development of performances (set or improvised), the undertaking of post-graduate study and exploration of ‘cultural’ dance specific to the background of individuals. I have tried to respond to what I perceive to be the desires of the individuals. At times, I am quite particular in the way I suggest what and how a score could exist in our dancing, at other times I find myself participating in a discussion that is lengthy and rambling. Following are descriptions of moments, situations, and interactions that have been of interest in the project so far. I have chosen to describe these moments because at the time of their occurrence, they felt full and interesting and that interest existed, at least in part, because they took place as part of an interaction.

Each dancer touches in a different way. Esperanza seems to have very little need to be noticed through her touching. In experiencing her touch, I came to understand that perhaps for most of us in the group, most of the time, touching is like performing. We have a need to be felt just as we need to be seen or heard. Esperanza too is no doubt ‘appearing’ though her touch, but her disclosure of herself through her touch gives me an understanding of her lack of need to be ‘noticed’ (at least relative to others). It also gives me greater agency to take her touch as I find it, or feel it in that moment, rather than feeling a need to acknowledge the ‘intention’ in it and, perhaps act on that intention.

One session we were using duration as a score. We danced with that score in various ways throughout the session and were finally dancing a solo for each other, for a specified period of time. During my solo, as well as playing with various ideas about how long it took or could take to do something such as fall a bone, change a facing, change my attention from one body part to another, I found myself travelling from one end of the room to the other. Although I had not planned to do this, once I discovered myself doing it, I decided I should use the duration of the solo to complete this task. When the timer sounded and I had not quite arrived at the far end of the space, there were great cries of frustration from the other, (watching) members of the group.

One of the ways that scores work for me is in allowing me, while dancing, to do anything. During this project we have, at times danced with scores that are very open. One score of this kind was continuousness, stillness, pause, stop. Paul described his experience of dancing with a score such as this as to be somewhat difficult particularly because, with such an open score and ‘permission’ to do anything, he could imagine that anything he did was dancing with the score. In that way the score, rather than supporting him to notice, allowed him to not notice.

Natalie became frustrated, while touching and moving my body, because she had to be careful. She felt she shouldn’t hurt or injure me and she was reluctant to touch certain parts of my body, perhaps breast and pubic area. She felt that the restrictions associated with my being alive stifled a full and thorough interaction with my body. Had I not been alive, on the other hand, she suspected by body would have held no interest for her.

Prue said that taking the weight of someone else’s head brings her attention to the delicacy of her own brain in a way that she is never aware of in other situations.

The scores we use take various forms. The following two lists were used in a session early this year (2017):

List A

  • The search for
  • The arrival at
  • The loss of
  • The constancy of
  • The elusiveness of
  • The surprise of
  • The escape of/to
  • The unexpectedness of

List B

  • Equilibrium
  • Home
  • Stillness
  • Knowing
  • Sensation
  • Unbalance
  • Progress
  • Identity
  • Freedom

The proposal in using these lists was that we could choose one or more phrases from the first list and use it with one or more words from the second list. In compiling, reading and thinking through these lists of words, the possibilities seemed almost endless. Yet it was in the dancing itself that the words really provided possibilities and took on meaning. I began dancing with the constancy of sensation. That proposition seemed initially very open to me. I could dance (or not) in any way that I chose and my attention could be on the noticing of the many and various sensations that arose. What soon emerged, however, was an unlooked-for interest in the constancy of home. Through noticing my sensations, including sight, I realised that I was taking in the immediacy of the space in which I was dancing. Having danced in that same space week after week for several years, I was struck by how familiar it was, by how many times I must have seen a wall; travelled in a certain direction; touched or imagined touching the curtain. I was also aware that in apprehending the physical space or home in that present, I could notice its effect on my dancing. From dancing with the constancy of the physical home, I began to notice or at least ask whether I had a movement home and what that could be. I shifted to the search for the dancing home: my comforts; rhythm; favourite shapes and pathways. I worked through all of these states while participating in the solo warm up. Following that, each member of the group described her own experience dancing with the two lists of words. The discussion acted both as an opportunity to verbalise our experience, and what the words had meant in dancing for us. Hearing of each other’s experience also pushed, provoked and opened up the ways in which we could approach the next part of the session.

The possibility to understand, or at least to think about, what our dancing with scores ‘means’, exists in our interactions with each other, ‘… to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act’ (Arendt 1958, p. 188). It is only because of my relationship with the dancers in the practice, and the relationships between all of us, that anything at all takes place. Misunderstandings, interpretations of communication, the way one individual explores an idea or dances with a score in a way which is different to another, could help us to perceive our dancing and the dancing of each other in ways we cannot plan or even be conscious of, in the present, or on reflection. Arendt states that ‘Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position’ (1958, p. 57). In dancing and watching and touching each other and in being watched, we share what our bodies know and what they are experiencing. We are affected by each other’s dancing even though those effects are neither planned or even noticeable.

Observing while dancing

By participating in these interactions, we are doing more than revealing ourselves as individuals. I consider that we are undertaking a kind of corporeal contemplation. Rather than, as Arendt suggests, taking part in the vita activa which may allow us to engage in vita contemplativa, I believe that thinking and contemplation are also part of our dancing experience and are supported by our practising as a group. When Paul describes working through a question of whether he is dancing using a score and even whether that matters, he is describing a kind of thinking which can only take place while participating in dancing, enabled by his interactions in the group. The possibility for him to question what might be taking place exists in his participation of the various aspects of the group practice. I would like to propose a vita participativa which, like the vita contemplativa, is possible because of active lives and because our revealing of ourselves through various means. Rather than existing exclusively of or instead of the vita activa, however, the vita participativa could be described as existing because of the vita activa, alongside it and during it. In this project, as well as taking part in the active life, and disclosing ourselves through acting in interactions, we could describe ourselves as working through various dancing thoughts and ideas, the results of which we cannot anticipate nor fully describe, enabled by that very action. Our participation in the practice, in the dancing and in the interactions, that take place as part of the practice allow us to observe, to experience, to know what is going on, without there being a need to close, to finish or to decide upon what has happened. Instead we place our dancing mark onto the vast possibility of a surface that does not need to be filled.


  • Anon, 1986, Chambers Concise Dictionary, Chambers Ltd and Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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  • Baehr, P 2000, The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin, New York.
  • Beadle, D 2003, Winter Melt, Movement Research, New York
  • Bishop, C 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, Verso, London, New York.
  • Holmes, K J 2017, Contemporary Dance in New York Study Tour, Deakin University, New York.
  • Ingold, T 2011, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Routledge. London, New York.
  • Millard, O 2015, ‘What’s the Score? Using Scores in Dance Improvisation’ Brolga, Number 40, December 2015