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Peter Lovatt, PhD
Peter Lovatt

23 Feelings in Dance

When we watch dance, what do we "see?"

When we watch dance, what do we "see?" Do we just see moving bodies, shapes, and a constantly changing visual scene? Or do we also interpret these things based on our previous knowledge and our expectations?

Last year, I worked with a well-respected contemporary choreographer who told me that for one of his pieces, he expected the audience to do nothing more than see the constantly changing visual scene. When I suggested that the audience might try to interpret that scene, which was danced by a man and women in constant physical contact, and perhaps create a narrative from it he shook his head and said, "No, why would they do that?"

Two streams of scientific research suggest that both of our expectations were, to varying degrees, correct.

It is certainly the case that we can recognise emotions when they are expressed through the moving body and dance. There has been a great many carefully controlled experimental studies that have sought to find the core elements of movements that communicate different emotions, and more recently, there is a growing number of brain scan studies that show the different areas of the brain that light up when people watch expressions of emotions.

But just because people can recognise emotions in dance doesn't mean that people necessarily seek out emotions in movement if they are not told to look for them. So, we have asked people to watch lots of different dance pieces, in a wide range of dance styles (e.g. contemporary, Indian Classical, ballet, and hip hop) and told them to say out loud what they are thinking as they watch the pieces. This is called a "think-aloud protocol."

What we found was that even when people watched dance pieces that were not choreographed to explicitly express emotions people still tried to make sense of the pieces within a narrative framework and they would often say things like, "Oh yes, he obviously loves her, but she doesn't want to be near him so she's rejecting his advances," or "yeah, these guys are in a gang and they're dancing in an aggressive way to frighten a rival gang." Central to these descriptions is the identification of emotions that are being expressed.

However, people only did this up to a point. If there was not a good fit between the person's narrative and the way the dance piece developed, then people would eventually abandon their hypothetical narrative and they'd start expressing confusion and frustration. We also found that the way people "see" dance is influenced by their cultural background, their experience with a particular dance form, and their gender.

So, what's clear is that people can recognise iconic emotions and feelings expressed through dance and some people try to make sense of abstract dance pieces within an emotion-based narrative framework.

But how good are people at recognising non-iconic clusters of emotions expressed explicitly through dance? I'm addressing this question with a project called "23 Feelings in Dance." I put out a call to choreographers to create dance pieces inspired by a wide range of emotions or feelings. I gave choreographers a list of 194 "feelings" words. The brief was fairly broad: Choreographers could create a 3-minute dance piece inspired on or more of the 194 feeling words using any form of dance and any number of dancers.

The response I received was, literally, overwhelming in terms of the number of submissions and in the diversity of dance styles. Some of the pieces were obvious. Some were shocking and unsettling, others were beautiful, surprising, and complex. The collection of pieces made me question what was and wasn't "dance," and having spoken to some of the choreographers, I found it interesting that people have such different ways of conceptualising and representing emotion. Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised by this diversity, but after years of trying to understand and experimentally control psychological constructs, it was wonderful to once again be immersed in broad artistic expression.

The next step is to get back to science and try to understand what audiences "see" when they watch these dance pieces. I'll be doing this in three stages.

Stage 1

I'm putting on a show this summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest Arts festival in the world, on the Psychology of Dance. One of the sections of the show is about how people recognise emotion from the moving body. As part of this, I'll be showcasing one of the "23 Feelings in Dance" submissions each night and I'll be gauging the audiences' response to the different pieces. The lineup can be seen here. For those of you who might find yourself in Edinburgh this summer look out for Dance Doctor, Dance! at the Bedlam Theatre every night between the 6th and 28th August at 6:50 p.m.

Stage 2

In the Lab, I'll be running a series of experimental studies to understand what people see and feel when they watch the submissions. I want to understand the relationship between what the choreographer intended to communicate in the piece and how the audience "see" the piece.

Stage 3

In the Theatre, I will be putting on a whole evening of dance where the audience will be able to see all 23 Feelings in Dance pieces in one go. I'm obviously interested here in how the pieces work as a collective in a purely artistic context.

So, if you'd like to be involved in "23 Feelings in Dance," either by making a submission or in curating a 23 Feelings in Dance show, please get in touch.

Peter Lovatt runs the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire.

About the Author
Peter Lovatt, PhD

Peter Lovatt is a psychologist and dancer based at the University of Hertfordshire.

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