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  • A Kinesthetic Mode of Attention in Contemporary Dance Practice
  • Shantel Ehrenberg (bio)

The centrality of kinesthesia in contemporary dance discourse is evident in literature about contemporary dance practice, its lineage, and aesthetic (e.g., Albright 2011; Claid 2006; Copeland 1993; Dempster 2010; Foster 2010; Reynolds 2007; Sheets-Johnstone 1966; Sklar 2007; Warburton 2011).1 Existing literature regarding kinesthesia charts an interdisciplinary territory, particularly because kinesthesia is related to both a physical experience—a private and personal feeling of one’s own body—and to a socially constructed concept used within and beyond dance studies, including in cognitive science, philosophy, sociology, and feminist theory (Foster 2011). A growing number of dance studies scholars (e.g., Parvianin 2002; Potter 2008; Ravn 2009; Rouhiainen 2003) describe the type of kinesthesia utilized in contemporary dance practice. This shift can be attributed, in large part, to what Mark Franko (2011) identifies as a resurgence of phenomenology, after the dominance of Michel Foucault’s concept of post-humanism in the late 1960s, and a moment in dance studies “in which the kinesthetic-visual pact of phenomenological description is under considerable pressure from new concepts of the subject, new theories of cognition, and new technologies in the performance field that alter the terms of the observer’s perception of movement” (1).2

Yet, the nuances of kinesthetic awareness that are valued in contemporary dance practice, from the dancer’s perspective, can still be further addressed to represent the breadth of this way of attending in dance, though the above cited literature begins to do this. For instance, Leena Rouhiainen (2003) describes a group of independent Finnish contemporary dancers’ “felt-sense of their bodies” (357) and various ways that they indicate, in their practice, “exploring [the] body through sensing” (331), and “concentrating on or centering upon the lived event of their own motion through differing perspectives” (308).3 Likewise, Susanne Ravn (2009) contrasts the experiences of a group of professional contemporary dancers with those of ballet and Butoh, and as such, identifies the dancers’ different lived experiences in each, indicating that contemporary dancers have a particular kinesthetically oriented way of attending to movement. Caroline Potter (2008) more directly specifies a “heightened sense of kinesthesia” in contemporary dance practice and what it is like, based on her experience with one year of training at a contemporary dance conservatoire in London. She states that “developing a heightened sense of kinesthesia (felt bodily movement) is a means of becoming socialized into the professional [contemporary] dance community” (444). However, the particular aspects of a “heightened sense in kinesthesia” by all accounts valued in contemporary dance, dotted across various texts and discussed in the practice, can still be brought together more explicitly. [End Page 43]

I argue for the centrality of kinesthetic awareness to contemporary dance practice by bringing together existing accounts and original interview material. Through dancer testimony, I offer a more comprehensive theorization of what this particular mode of attention feels like for dancers, in the phenomenological sense, than we have previously seen. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1945) phenomenology is central to my research, because ascertaining how a group of dancers makes meaning of “lived” dancing experiences, in terms of phenomenological concepts in language, is crucial (Creswell 2007; Ravn 2010; Van Manen 1990).

The interviews I have conducted provide a description of this particular mode of attention, which enables us to consider its stylistic function in contemporary dance, in the sociological sense—that is, to consider contemporary dance as a type of culture and the dancer as a participant in that culture (Crossley 2001b). Conceiving of contemporary dance as a type of culture is to adapt Cynthia Novack’s (1990) argument for contact improvisation, conceived as a shared practice with “core movement values” that distinguish it, and in turn impact on those who train, rehearse, teach, and perform in the style (115).

The description of experience is important to both phenomenological and sociological approaches (Kvale and Brinkmann 2009; Manen 1990), and utilizing both means that language is not conceived as divorced from embodied experience in social domains. As Thomas Csordas (1994) argues: “Language gives access to a world of experience in so far as experience comes to, or is brought to...


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