Jumping the fence from dance to cross-disciplinary research

In This Article

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 observes,

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, 1999:341).

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 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.

Reclaiming metaphor’s links to 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, 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, 1999:359).

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 nonverbal. 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.

Cultivating the site

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 issues.

Where performance presents ideas sequentially, installation sets up zones that viewers select. This layering aspect produces resonance and complexity. For example, the late poems of holocaust survivor Paul Celan reveal how words and images collapse multiple layers of meaning to their most reduced conditions. Editors Washburn and Guillemin observe that each poem unfolds before our very eyes through a succession of metaphors and allows the reader to understand their numerous associations. “Clusters of associations assemble around a word translated nine times, taken thereby to the nth power” (Washburn & Guillemin, 1986: xxvii). It is exactly this multiplicity that makes metaphor transferable across different practices and, is the compelling reason to produce nth degree artistic products.  In this way, outcomes no longer reduce the fields of experience to a single form of presentation.

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 dance.


Farnell, B. 1999. Moving Bodies, Acting Selves. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28: 341–373.
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, 117–143.
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.