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  • Somaesthetics, Education, and the Art of Dance
  • Peter J. Arnold (bio)

This essay has two related purposes. The first is to explicate what dance as an art form should minimally comprise if it is to be taught as a distinctive aspect of education in the school curriculum. The second and main purpose is to argue that dance, if taught in accordance with what is outlined, is not only an efficacious means in the development, understanding and promotion of somaesthetics, a new term in aesthetic theory, but an example of itsvery embodiment. Put differently it will be upheld that the practice of danceis not only an excellent vehicle in the promotion of somaesthetics but a paradigm case of what it is.

But what is somaesthetics? Briefly put, in common with the thinking of some noted philosophers in the past, it can be said that somaesthetics is as much concerned with the idea of being a person and living well as with the development of rational thought and the development of the intellect. It emphasizes, in particular, that the soma in the form of its physical skills, senses and pleasures plays no less a part in the living of a full life than conceptual understanding and the imaginative use of language.1 Richard Shusterman, upholding these sentiments, refers to somaesthetics as

the critical and meliorating study of the experience and use of one's body as a locus of sensory aesthetic appreciation and creative self-fashioning. It is....devoted to the knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or can improve it.2

Although such values and concerns are known to many educationists, they are rarely acted upon or taught in a deliberate or systematic way. Even within the realms of dance and sport more could be done than is done somaesthetically to educate in the interests of what it is to be a whole person. [End Page 48]

Before embarking on the task of exemplifying dance as a form of somaesthetics, it will be helpful first to say a little about education and the idea of dance as a valued human practice; and second, to say something about the aesthetic in relation to art.

Education and the Art of Dance as a Valued Human Practice

What is clear about the idea of dance as an art form is that it is more than the human body making rhythmical and patterned movements in space. It can be more accurately described as a coherent and complex range of actions in which intentions are physically expressed in terms of a meaningful performance that is artistic in nature and not merely aesthetic in appeal.

It is my view that these elements of what constitutes dance best come together and are most readily grasped when it is seen as a valued form of human practice. Following Alistair MacIntyre, I take the term "practice" to mean

any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended.3

The idea of the arts as forms of practice is helpful in at least two important ways. First, it draws attention to the fact that an art, like medicine, the law, or sport, is a distinctive form of life with its own standards, values, and procedures. Second, it recognizes, in keeping with the idea of education, thatthe internal goods of an activity, like the art of dance, will enlighten and enlarge the powers of the participant. MacIntyre undoubtedly recognizes the connection between the idea of a practice and the concept of education when he observes the proper end of education is

to help to discover activities whose ends are not outside themselves — The critical ability which ought to be the fruit of education serves nothing directly except itself, no one except those who exercise it — above all the task of education is to teach the value of activity for its own...


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