We shall not cease from exploration.

Dr Dana Mills, Oxford Brookes. (D.Mills@brookes.ac.uk)

The narrative of our life is punctuated with memories as well as voids of remembrance. Some events we can easily recall, some sensations lost to the passage of time, casualties to our need to make reason of the bombardment of information we encounter every day. Some hot summer days, playing barefoot outside, are, for some reason, part of our psyche, and some other people and events we cannot bring to consciousness despite constantly trying.

And then, there are moments in which we do not have to constantly make meaning, but the meaning arises from sensation, from visceral shifts we experience in our bodies. We do not have to ‘remember’, because the body never forgets. ‘The body is the inscribed surface of events’, [1]wrote Foucault, only, for the dancer, the body is never a surface. It is always the whole, the entire thing, in itself and for itself.

I do not remember when I took my first dance class. Some photographs in my parents’ photograph albums show my young self as a happy, smiling child in a home-made tutu, more or less at the stage where many enter the studio for the first time. What I do know, though, is that I never stopped taking dance classes. Throughout my life I have tried various movement languages, encountered some really inspired teachers, met some wonderful people in the studio who became friends. I also went to dance classes that did not excite me, had frustrating experiences and left the studio glum. Contrary to what others may think, though, I do not regret taking any of those classes and having any of those encounters. All of those together make for my narrative and understanding of dance.

Karl Marx explores in his monumental work Capital the effects our current economic system has on our bodies and psyche. Perhaps Capital is not a text that immediately comes to mind when exploring the function of dance training in our modern world, and yet, for the purpose of this piece, it shall guide my thinking in understanding the need for practice of training in itself. We become, under capitalism, alienated beings so tells us Marx, and never as in the late teens of the twenty-first century do we need to revisit thinking of alienation more. The bombardment of social media and advertising tells us: buy this product and you will be free! Buy that product and you will be happy! Every inch of our life is commodified to be presented to the world as a must- have narrative. Glamorous drinks at perfect sunsets, smiles and joy and exciting travel occupy our phones as we stand crammed in privatized train journeys to spend endless hours in soulless offices. Twenty first century women and men are more and more connected— to their phones, and become less and less connected to their embodied being and each other. Of course, in every era technological innovations have been blamed for growing separateness from ourselves and others, but truly the conditions of our times under capitalism seem some of the harsher and more dehumanizing of recent times. The return of diseases not prevalent since Victorian times, penetration of ethos of marketization and consumerism into every inch of our lives and pushing the binaries of what may be understood as our time away from work are becoming zenith of our life at this moment.

The most primordial relationship we have to ourselves is through our embodied beings. We are first and foremost minds and bodies, together. Never separate. So, when assaulted by emotional and perceptual information that disengages us from thinking and being in ourselves, understanding our challenges and the ways we best want to meet them, the body is the best place from where one can reflect.

Marx’s understanding of capital and work is a primarily temporal interpretation. At the same time, his method, historical materialism, is first and foremost one based in material. The human body being the first material through which the psyche encounters the world allows for the most material art form, dance, to be efficacious and vital in reflecting on challenging and perhaps at times subverting alienation.

Many reflections on art and politics focus on the professional. The reason for that is of course clear; those people who devote their life to an art form, who make it the center of their lives, should be the focus of analysis which tries to get to the core of an art form- any art form. But I suggest here a different move. To fight the widespread disengagement from ourselves and from the world I seek how dance speaks to those who engage with it in communities, not for the stage. I will not pause on skill as criteria here but will see community engagement as training without an end goal of performance. So that an amateur dancer who still seeks performance opportunities will not be part of this analysis, whereas a graduate of vocational training who decides to continue to dance not for the stage will be. This distinction is vital, as I am seeking the intrinsic, teleological  value of dance in and of itself; not as a means to an end, the end being a performance. I ask: what can dance training, and in its most basic building block, the dance class, do for our alienated selves at this moment in time?

And in order to reflect on the practice itself I reflect on the dance class as a unit of experience, an opportunity for exploration. There are several elements of the dance class that allow it to on the one hand become intertwined with a lifestyle of late- capitalism and at the same time to subvert it. First and foremost it is a constant event, scheduled at a distinct point of time, with its own codes of conduct, repeated ad infinitum. The dance class does not rely on its participants; it has a life of its own. At the same time, it is the participants who allow the dance class to penetrate their lives’ narratives and by so doing give it its meaning. Dance class can be placed as a commodity to consume, and yet the transformation it creates in the body cannot be commodified and standardized. Even the most capitalistic attitude to dance cannot determine the process the dancer experiences within themselves in the dance class. Our lives are a narrative of events which build towards a story we tell ourselves, and our danced experience within our body becomes part of this singular narrative. Repetition, here, is not seen as oppressive. It is actually encompassing of potential for moments of liberation. We never encounter ourselves as exactly the same people, hence repetition of exercises allows us to trace the differences we have experienced and make them into a story or a narrative. In language movements such as classical ballet (of all its various sub-styles,) Graham, Cunningham, Horton etc., in which participants experience a series of known exercises, those exercises allow dancers to trace how their bodies react to different emotional and physical states every day anew. Every dancer knows, to paraphrase from Heraclitus, that one cannot ever encounter the same plie twice. Thus, the dialectic of sameness of context (class) and sameness of exercise (plie) allows us to trace transformation of our embodied psyches. A secular ritual, the dance class gives scope for various temporalities to clash in unexpected— hence forceful— ways.

Dance training is often conducted in front of a mirror, allowing dancers to correct themselves or follow more experienced students. Together with a specific aesthetic which has penetrated the dance world— like many forms of engagement dance training has its own rules of engagement (I recall a conversation about the absolutely correct amount of tears and holes in ones tracksuits in order to feel one fits in a certain contemporary class), dance is anything but an essentially emancipatory world. Dance luminaries are launching collections and creating markets for outfits and accessories promising to make the training process complete. ‘If you buy this leotard, worn by your favorite leading ballerina, you too can fly like her in jumps or swirl into oblivion in turns’, advertising tells us in sub-conscious and often conscious messages. However, it is enough to participate in a dance class for more than once to realize that no product in the world can mould human movement. True, with the ‘right’, trendy accessories one can appear more pleasing to oneself in an hour of encountering oneself in the mirror. But, thus far no outfit can be created that allows for the perfect execution of 32 fouetté turns if one buys it. Thus, in a world of increasing commodification of our lives and life stories, the market cannot efface neither our failures nor our victories in the dance class. Movement in and through the human body cannot be consumed or presented by an external agent. It remains— for better or worse— in the ownership of the dancer themselves. Thus, whereas the world of dance is by no means anti-capitalist, the dance class continues the possibility for subversive, anti-capitalist intervention.

One element that has always been a draw for me in dance training is its communal nature. Most dance classes will be experienced in community. The class is a place to meet others without the requirement of superficial small- talk, niceties, civil politeness or faux pretense. No talking in dance class! And yet dance class is an experience not undertaken on one’s own. In our contemporary life, when work makes us more and more disengaged from each other, disallowed of interaction, whether through precarious part-time contracts forcing the worker to shift positions in the market without a constant community, open air offices or other forms of control that disable community formation elsewhere, the dance class allows for a space in which there will always be more than one dancer. Thus, the dance class can provide a community against which we tell ourselves our embodied stories, in which we are never alone.

Most urgently, hence the focus on the dance class in a process of training as potential for anti-capitalist action, a method for creation of a narrative of the self in a heightened times of alienation, is the promise of the dance class to not deliver a product. The process of training is focused on the movement itself, for joy, reflection, and exploration. There is no end result. Any dance class ends to allow another to begin. A self-enclosed process, which carries its own meaning, it thus becomes an action subverting the capitalist emphasis on productivity in its occurrence. One does not ‘deliver’ a product in the process of training. For some it may be seen as a time-wasting activity; all attendees of the dance class could have delivered a management goal; filed another report; created another spreadsheet; filed another delivery box; made another cup of coffee. Instead, they spent time and money on an action that— for all external interlocutors— has no function, no end goal. Thus, the dance class becomes more and more important in a time in which all areas of our lives are becoming subject to ‘productivity’ as benchmark; in which we seek to make all parts of our lives count as effective towards something bigger than themselves. The process of training is itself the goal. It is un-productive. The improvement experienced in dance class will be experienced by the dancer only, not for anyone’s satisfaction but themselves. That in itself becomes a subversive experience. Any attendant of open dance classes knows the process of explaining to someone else why they invest  time and money into an essence that does not give an end result, a product, a commodity. It is useless, and precisely that is why it is useful. In a world in which everything is commodified, the engagement in an un-productive activity is itself subversion.

In his masterpiece Four Quartets, which is full of dance imagery, TS Eliot writes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. [2]

Each dance class, each moment in the process of training allows to encounter the beginning of movement without an end. The exploration is the goal. The narrative of the self gains another page without any words required. The process of training is of the dancer and for the dancer. It is an exploration of the self, a moment of intimacy with one’s own being that cannot be owned by anyone else, for better or worse. And as long as the human psyche seeks exploration of its potential, human beings will seek a moment of the sublime in their dance classes. As iterated profoundly by the late, great American choreographer Merce Cunningham:

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”


[1] Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

[2] T. S Eliot, Little Gidding, in Four Quartets. American contemporary choreographer Pam Tanowitz has just presented the first- ever choreographic adaptation of the poems to great critical acclaim (premiere: Bard College, July 2018; Barbican, 23-25 May 2019).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.