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dance phenomenology

Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology

The use of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology has been established for a while in the field of dance studies, to overcome the dualism between the body and mind in the process of dance making and to bring to the fore the lived experience of dancers and audiences alike (Horton Fraleigh, 1995, 2004; Sheets-Johnstone, 2015).

Cartesian Dualism of Mind and Body

Merleau-Ponty wrote Phenomenology of Perception in 1945, when Western thought was dominated by the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. Merleau-Ponty argued instead that mind and body are a unity.

He drew this conclusion by observing war veterans injured during the war, analysing phenomena that showed an interaction of mind and body.

One such phenomenon was the phantom limb, whereby a veteran could feel his missing limb that had been amputated, as though it was still present and attached to him.

Observing these phenomena, led Merleau-Ponty to deduce that mind and body are not two separate entities, but they are one thing and they act like one in every moment of our lives.

He postulated that ‘the union of soul and body is not an amalgamation between two mutually external terms, subject and object . . . it is enacted at every instant in the movement of existence’ ([1945] 1992, p. 102).

Habit and Corporeal Schema

People learn and act in the world through habit. Habit is the physical manifestation of culture, as the body is the physical manifestation of consciousness.

According to Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 1992, p. 158), ‘consciousness projects itself into a physical world and has a body, as it projects itself into a cultural world and has its habits’.

Hence, the body is the link between the physical and the cultural world, because it assimilates habits, which are culturally influenced. People acquire habit, Merleau-Ponty argues, through ‘corporeal schema’ and the acquisition of habit is nothing more ([1945] 1992, pp. 164–165) than the:

Rearrangement and renewal of the corporeal schema . . . it is the body which “catches” (kapiert) and “comprehends” the movement.

The acquisition of habit is indeed the grasping of a significance, but it is the motor grasping of a motor significance.

Merleau-Ponty (1945)

Emotions are central to dance.
Emotions are central to dance.

Body Scheme

A body schema is, Bullington (2013, p. 31) explains, ‘a description of the intuitive understanding of one’s own [sic] the body and its position in space’.

To clarify this concept, Merleau-Ponty gives various examples, one of these being learning to type.

Once we have learnt how to type we do not need to think about where our fingers are but the movement is ‘knowledge in the hands’ ([1945] 1992, p. 166).

So, for Merleau-Ponty, habit is the way in which the body learns in a cultural world through movement, since our movements are culturally influenced.

The keyboard is a good example because there are different types of keyboard layouts, depending on the countries and the languages, thus these are cultural artifacts and we learn to type according to the keyboards we use.

Acquisition of a Habit

Similarly, learning how to dance is the acquisition of a habit. The dancer’s body comprehends the movements, to the point where s/he does not need to think about them when performing, they become knowledge in the body.

These dance vocabulary movements belong to culturally influenced traditions.

Hence, cultures become embodied in dancers. As Butterworth argues (2012), a dancing body can transmit to others: where the dancer comes from, his/her attitudes and what kind of previous training they have experienced.

According to Sklar (2001, p. 92), ‘movement systems are . . . ways of thinking that embody different structures (and habits) for thinking’.

Perception in Phenomenology

In phenomenology, perception is the unifying element, the post-dualist link between body and mind, tangible and intangible. As Kearney (2008, p. 211) posits regarding cultural heritage, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology:

Renders distinctions of tangible and intangible almost redundant as the only imperative status of tangible is held by the human actor and agent, as physical embodiment of culture and heritage.

Kearney (2008)

Through this ‘being’, human heritage is always and at once tangible and intangible.

As Lo Iacono and Brown (2016, p. 92) argue, ‘the mind corresponds to the intangible elements, the body to the tangible elements.

As body and mind are a unity, they are constituted of a holistic amalgam of tangible and intangible elements of being’.

Indeed, in dance, Preston-Dunlop (2010, p. 7) contends, ‘embodying . . . fuses the ideas with the movement and with the performer of the movement . . . embodying a dance work fuses all the participants in the event in a multilayered tangible process’.

Myself on the far right, trying to learn the drums on a workshop in Morocco.

Feeling and Emotions

The realm of the mind includes feelings and emotions, which are inseparable from individuals and from culture.

Hence, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology helps to connect emotions to the holistic picture of dance/heritage.

Emotions were mentioned in 2.2 (Unesco definitions), as one of the elements connected to heritage by Smith (2006).

They are also important for dance and audiences’ connection with performances (Hanna, 1983, 1999; Reason and Reynolds, 2010).

Phenomenological Holism

Phenomenological holism shows how heritage, dance and emotions are deeply connected.

An example can be found in Egyptian dance. When a dancer performs to traditional music, according to Bordelon (2013, p. 39):

Arabic customers see movement they know and understand, recognize it as part of their cultural heritage, and echo that movement in their own bodies . . . Some people get up and dance on stage, there is . . . a physical empathy in the room.

Bordelon (2010)

When the dancer performs to traditional music, s/he feels the emotions transmitted by the music and translates them into the body, creating a shared sense of tarab, which in Arabic means ecstasy, transcendence, enchantment:

The dancer evokes feelings and emotions from the music and lyrics and invokes images and memories from the past. The feelings produced by those memories, are, in turn, transferred to the current performance environment inching the dancer, the musicians, and the audience, towards a state of tarab.

Bordelon, 2013, p. 42)

Tarab and Embodying the Music

Through tarab, the dancer connects with the audience, sharing feelings and memories with them, embodying the music, so that ‘the audience members can identify with the dancer and thereby access the music in an entirely unique, physical fashion’ (Bordelon, 2013, p. 45).

Indeed, as Horton Fraleigh (1995, p. 61) states, ‘A good dance moves the dancer and the audience toward each other’.

In 3.3, I mentioned that the unity of body and mind is supported by the work of the neuroscientist Damasio (2012, p. 21), who posits that ‘body and brain bond’.

Moreover, Barsalou at al. (2003, p. 44) highlight how the body can re-enact memories:

When an event is experienced originally, the underlying sensory, motor and introspective states are partially stored. Later, when knowledge of the event becomes relevant in memory, language or thought, these original states are partially simulated.

Barsalou (2003)

This explains why, as Reason and Reynolds state (2010, p. 62), ‘with trained dancers the responses are more heightened and precise in their imagination of details and movements’ when they watch somebody else dancing.

Sedlmeier, Weigelt and Walther (2011) uncover the connection between body movement, emotions and musical taste, stating that:

When . . . music is listened to in situations in which “positive” body movements and muscle inner actions are frequent, this positive affect could become strongly associated with the music . . . dancing might increase the liking for the music one is dancing to. (p. 303)

Sedlmeier, Weigelt and Walther (2011)

Kinesthetically and Emotionally Empathetic Responses

At the same time, Reason and Reynolds’ (2010) study showed that, among the audiences who watch dance performances, ‘a positive response to the music appeared to facilitate a kinesthetically and/or emotionally empathetic response to the dance’ (p. 63).

The connection of music with embodiment introduces aural elements, light, space and time in the holistic picture of heritage.

Indeed, Adshead (1988) includes in her model of dance analysis: aural elements (sound); light and spatial elements (such as location and natural and built environment).

This connection is aided by Merleu-Ponty’s phenomenology, who posits that ‘by considering the body in movement, we can see better how it inhabits space (and, moreover, time) because movement is not limited to submitting passively to space and time, it actively assumes them’ ([1945] 1992, 117).

Space, Time and the Body

Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, space and time are interwoven with the body. Dance illustrates this; as Lo Iacono and Brown (2016, p. 93) state, ‘the dancer, through movement, interacts actively with time . . . space . . . and light (such as “mood” lighting in performances) each occurring through the body-mind as a perceptual unity’.

Horton Fraleigh (1995, p. 183) goes even further, by stating that in dance ‘we actually embody time and space in our movement’.

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is a useful conceptual tool to integrate body, mind, space, time and aural and visual elements into dance/heritage.

Indeed, Horton Fraleigh (1995, p. 13) posits that Merleau-Ponty phenomenology gives rise to a lived-body theory that ‘provides a means toward overcoming dualistic concepts of dance, which regard the body as an instrument, movement as the medium, and mind or soul as the mover or motivational source for dance’.

Denying the body-mind dualism is the first step towards moving from a dualism of tangible/intangible in heritage, to a duality, as all the elements analysed so far cannot be disentangled.

However, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology does not allow for a deep enough analysis and integration of culture into the holistic heritage model. Bourdieu’s theory of practice provides the next conceptual tool to fill this gap.

Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty

Although Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty come from different disciplinary positions (Merleau-Ponty from phenomenology and Bourdieu from philosophy/sociology/anthropology), their theories have been used before as complementary tools for a better understanding of the body in culture.

Csordas (1993, p. 137) comments that:

Merleau-Ponty . . . recognized that perception was always embedded in a cultural world . . . at the same time, he acknowledged that his own work did not elaborate the steps between perception and explicit cultural and historical analysis . . . at this point where Merleau-Ponty left off, it is valuable to reintroduce Bourdieu’s emphasis on the socially informed body as the ground of collective life.

Csordas (1993)

Next Page >> Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and heritage.

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Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.