Why Dance?

Issue #04: Dance Is Massive.

Diary entries by Philipa Rothfield, Kath Papas, Ashley Dyer, Raewyn Hill, Tracie Mitchell and Martin Del Amo.

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Why Dance?


There are as many answers to this question as there are bodies, more perhaps. This is because dancing is not limited to the identity of the body that moves, that is, to the identity of ‘the dancer’. Dancing is the elaboration of difference, chance, change, changing, of transitions and relations. Such a broad notion of dance—of movement as an open and self-differentiating field—is offset by the many ways in which dance practices tend to narrow down that field. Once each narrowing comes into play—through the traces of culture, milieu, convention, technique and (kin) aesthetics—then different kinds of answer present themselves. In other words, the question branches out.

Why dance? Is this a question about the instrumental value of dance? Is dance a means to some other end, something other than itself? If we were to look for answers along these lines, we might ask what interests dance serves: whether national, cultural, social and the like. If dance serves interests other than itself, it becomes a means, a technology towards the creation of values. Following along, we could think of dancing in relation to culture, which would open up a plethora of possibilities: dance as cultural identity, as a mode of representation, as the means to flourishing, health, a form of subculture or youth culture. Or dance could be seen in terms of representation, where dance represents the group, culture or nation state. Similarly, dance can be conceptualised as a mode of social change or cultural survival. These ways of looking at dance address what it is that dance can do, what it can achieve in human terms.

Dancing as a way of life.

Although dancing is not always about art it is often, and especially in the west, associated with art. Beauty is the muse of aesthetics, the ultimate goal of art as an object of contemplation. Such an approach leaves aside the question of art as creation, privileging the observer over the artist. Drawing on Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz poses art as capturing sensation, new sensations not felt before, sensations not belonging to the dancer but to the artwork. If this is so, then the artfulness of dance is the body—those bodies—moving, changing, shifting so as to create new sensations. This way of thinking about dance as art provokes a reconsideration of the body, away from its identity with the self (the dancer) and towards what it is that it can create, in motion: …material transformations and becomings, to remaking the body, intensifying its forces, while investing its milieu in a new configuration of closures and openings.1

Dancing is the elaboration of difference, chance, change, changing, of transitions and relations.

This notion of art leans towards a future, beyond repetition. Its notion of sensation calls upon the body but suggests that the body is alchemical, the subject of changes beyond its own ken.

Why dance? Feeling, sensation, intensity, qualities in motion, movement, alive, life, cultivation, invention, habituation, de- habituation, towards the future, traces, tracings, the eventfulness of dancing, performance, performing, multiplicity of forces, bodies, transforming, singularly and together.


In the National Dance Forum 2013, we are asking the question Why dance? This question arose for us early in the curatorial process. It elicited rich responses for everyone; instantly, it created a territory we circled around in for some time. It morphed, went down tributaries, got longer and less direct (will we scare them off?), and eventually we pruned it back to where we began.

As we make the forum, some of the whys we have been thinking about are: pushing the form; making a statement; telling a story; expressing identity and culture; building community; educating; giving voice to; connecting.

The first forum two years ago focused simply on ‘dance practice’. This time, I am excited we are going further by addressing not only our dancing itself but its impact in the world. I think perhaps the conversations will be both broader and more specific.

Dwelling in this territory has been tremendously satisfying because over the last year or so, the why of what we do has been on my mind a lot. Some of the things I have been thinking about: generosity and urgency (Emily Sexton’s key concepts in last year’s Next Wave festival) dance for our times, dance that is courageous, human, transcendent.

I hope the forum’s conversations ripple out. Here in fact are some of its first ripples. Thank you Dancehouse for taking up our question.


When I enjoy dance as an audience member, I often read the dancer’s body as an extension of my own. The closer their experiences and lived history are to mine, the closer I am to dancing with them from my chair; the more I become a ghosting partner. Seated, I jump when they jump, turn when they turn, gesture when they gesture, grimace when they role their ankle. I read their body thinking and I think my body into a delightful sweat and sometimes exhaustion.

When I enjoy dance as an audience, often a dance performance offers me a rare invitation. It declares, “Come and look at me! Place your eyes on my flesh in whatever way you like. I’ll show you what this body can and can’t do.” It’s more than a perve. The dancer places their body in an extra normal position of vulnerability and in that situation they reveal something of themselves. It’s something I’m not usually encouraged or conventionally allowed to do. I rarely glare at a stranger’s hands or calves whilst having a coffee at a café.

This is one of the reasons why I use dance as a performance form. It functions very differently to theatre, or music, or film, or sport. It is simultaneously the most abstract and most human of all the art forms. Using these paradoxical aspects, it makes an intimacy possible that otherwise would be impossible. It’s a space for being with. It’s a place for me to be vulnerable and offer up a scarred and imperfect leg for you to glare at.


As creators, the ‘why dance’ question naturally leads us to the questions of what we create and how we engage, why we participate in this mostly silent world, why we see dance in corners of the world that others pass by. Personally, it led me to ask why do I work in this medium to communicate in a language that challenges definition. It led me to ask questions about my own ‘theory of practice’ and in beginning to define these theories, life as a true, living form begins to shape itself in front of me. These ‘theories of practice’ are at the very core of my own personal belief system, the foundation of my values and my knowledge and through this the dance appears. Dance is a language in which we ask questions and form opinions, in which we have the ability to guide ourselves and others to make decisions about their actions and beliefs, about what is useful and what is not. Dance is the lens through which we begin to reflect our culture, identity, and develop our own (mostly) silent language.

The silent visceral language where the body can say more than words can describe, where the invisible becomes visible, and the audience silenced as there is no appropriate language to label the moment that a dancer, inside of their practice, moves their arm skyward and the world in which we live stands still for a second. Dance, where judgment and evaluation hold their breath long enough to let the dancer fall outside of themselves, and long enough for us as the viewers to look inward and perhaps ask a question of how we participate in or view the world around us.

We all know what love and loss, conflict and defeat, courage and despair mean; with emotions felt in our bodies. So it is through dance that I aim to capture these emotions, through meaningful images and attempt to transfer those images through the dancer to the audience. We live in a shared world; we discover each other through images, voice, sensation and emotion. And through this unwritten language we call movement, and because we all experience and live within it, dance has the ability to resonate with all of us in some small way.


The word dance is the skin of an organic process that continues to evolve. The action Dance is/are structures one creates with which to explore movement.

‘… a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity… for a moment it seemed to embody some monstrous, diseased imagination of the lunatic’s brain. For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively that by words.’ (Virginia Wolf on seeing the film Dr Caligari in 1926)

Surrounded by the film and camera crew a dialogue takes place between myself and the performer, Carlee Mellow. All of us are focused, watching, listening, speaking and understanding. I speak a direction to the performer and I watch her hear the words, catching what she understands and in turn claiming what she catches. She transports my direction, through her understanding, from being about listening with ears and sight to that of her physical intelligence. I watch the minute subtle shifting of a dialogue of movement that travels through her body in which muscle, spine and limbs listen, respond, listen, respond. The site is the moment we are in. We are all listening, waiting, for her response to arrive. The movement is a small shift of a muscle on the side of her face and a tone of thought that can be seen in her eyes. This series of small movements is amplified by the intensity of the concentration of the group. We capture its moment of arrival. (Filming Under the Weather -Ballroom Scene 2009).


Why Not? Why Not Dance!

To be honest, I have never been a fan of ‘why’-questions. Maybe partially because as an artist, you are constantly subjected to them – by presenters, producers, funding bodies, dramaturges, and sometimes even by your peers and individual audience members. What I don’t like about the ubiquitous WHY? It sets up, I feel, a power dynamic, in which the person who asks the question assumes that it is okay to put the person who is asked in a position where they need to explain themselves. So, now we’ve got the entire National Dance Forum dedicated to a ‘why’-question. Ah well, more explaining to do . . .

Why Dance? My answer would be – Why Not? Why Not Dance! Make no mistake, there is a lot to be said against it. It’s hard, it doesn’t get easier, it’s highly competitive, you don’t make any money from it, recognition is rare, promotion even rarer, it is not exactly a popular art form, it struggles to reach audiences, sustainability is difficult, longevity nearly impossible. Dance is not for the faint- hearted and the idea of dedicating one’s life to it must sound most unappealing to them.

But for those who feel adventurous, endlessly curious, prepared to challenge themselves on an ongoing basis, develop new models of how to communicate with people, discover alternate ways of being in the world, putting their body and their entire being on the line all the time – for those, and it’s certainly true for myself, the answer to the question Why Dance? will just simply be Why Not? Only to add, emphatically: Why Not Dance!


Presented by project partners Ausdance National and Australia Council for the Arts, the second National Dance Forum (NDF2013) will take place at Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne, 15-17 March 2013 and is set to coincide with Dance Massive.

Keynote artists-in-conversation are Dalisa Pigram, co-Artistic Director of Marrugeku, with David Pledger, and Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre Garry Stewart with Anne Thompson.

Diverse breakout sessions cover panel, presentation, roundtable and screening formats:

BlakDance First Nations Dance Panel

‘Whose responsibility is it to make sense of this?’

Dramaturgy, outside eye or feedback?

Virtuosi industry preview screening

‘What role dance education play in shaping Australian culture for tomorrow?’

Beyond hybridity: current Australia/Asia-Pacific dance practices

A Lifetime’s Collaboration

BETWEEN US: Connections within and beyond the independent dance sector

What is dance doing in Australia? And what is Australian dance doing in the world?

The NDF2013 Facilitator is Jeff Khan, co-Director of Performance Space, Sydney. Also joining the NDF2013 team for a number of sessions is Janenne Willis, guest co-facilitator, roving provocateur and catalyst at large. Janenne will bring her energy, seasoned facilitation skills and experience co-creating futures one conversation at a time.

  1. Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Earth, Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, New York: Columbia University press, 2008, p.21.