The process of joint movement, of dancing with someone else, is particularly interesting for rethinking intersubjectivity in Merleau-Pontian terms as it involves a form of connection or communication which is achieved without words and through the medium of bodily contact. As Louisa suggests, openness to such bodily communication is part of an overall tacit or pre-reflective awareness that the dancer has of her embodiment and situation within the immediate context of the dance:
If you’re in the moment and you’re on stage and you’re aware – you’re in the moment and you’re in your body, you’re in that part of the piece, but you also have to be super-aware in the way that you’re ready to accept anything, and that’s like that communication that happens which is not, you don’t talk you just know, you, you even feel it in, you feel inside and you just react – that’s the strange thing and that’s really exciting when you just have that, when it’s in sync like that. [Louisa]
Here the dancers are not consciously formulating thoughts or reflecting on the situation but are reacting to each other – to each other’s bodies – at a pre-reflective level. Louisa describes the direct response she experiences to the Other’s movement as the two dancers being ‘in sync’ and emphasises that she knows or feels how to move with or respond to the Other with an immediacy which does not involve discussing or reflecting on the process.
Thus dance grounds us in our own body-subjectivity or bodily intentionality and also orients us to or opens us towards the body-subjectivity or bodily intentionality of the other dancer. The analogy with conversation used by many of the dancers is significant because this notion of a (tacit or unspoken) dialogical interaction emphasises a two-way process between two mutually engaged beings. Dancing together thus involves a reciprocal openness or awareness allowing this type of tacit bodily communication to occur:
There’s this like different kind of awareness that you have to have, just because you have to be able to move together, in a small space, and big space, so em, you definitely have to have that self-awareness and knowing kind of, kind of not just being taking care of yourself but I think what is the nicest part as well when you do get to dance actually with someone, … you have to talk with your bodies so you have to kind of listen to each other – you can’t always do it your way, you have to find the way. [Anna]
The awareness of and connection with other dancers achieved in this way is not just therefore, limited to understanding the materiality of their bodies in terms of weight and position in space but also includes an understanding of them as intentional beings who want to do things in certain ways that may be different to what you want. The dancers are able to recognise each other through their bodily interaction as other physical objects in the world and as other body-subjects, and it is this capacity which allows for the claim that dance enhances our connection with our embodied selves but also with the Other as Other. The dancer does not simply subsume the presence of the Other into her own perspective on the world but is drawn out of herself to recognise the Other’s situation and intentions and experience genuine communication and expressive collaboration.
Tara again here makes reference to the notion of talking and listening through the body when working with a new partner:
You can tell a lot without, even just working closely with them, just from the look or the way they, their body works with yours, and how they, you can kind of listen to each other through your bodies. You can become quite close to people – you have to be prepared to work very closely with people physically, but because you’re so close physically you, it opens up something mentally as well, there’s some connection there. [Tara]
Tara’s comments about the link between physical closeness and mental closeness can be understood in terms of the Merleau-Pontian notion of transfer of corporeal schema where we can come to know people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions through identifying with them at the level of the corporeal schema. It is through this pre-reflective intercorporeal identification that I can immediately sense, for example, sadness or anger in the Other, but this facility is heightened and extended in the case of dancers who work closely with each other over time and whose interpersonal connections are formed in the context of joint artistic expression.
Dancers primarily learn dance through processes of imitation, mirroring or copying others’ movements, which can be understood as involving intercorporeal overlap between how the dancer experiences his or her own body and how the dancer experiences the body of the person demonstrating the movement. In addition to this, much new choreography is developed through processes of contact improvisation where the dancers spontaneously move together allowing patterns of movement to emerge from their mutual contact rather than being conceptualised beforehand. Dance training and its creative practice therefore open us up to the reversibility inherent in intercorporeal relations, and Tara’s comments suggest that the intercorporeal identification involved in learning dance also makes the dancer more open to those dimensions of the Other’s existence that she describes as mental.
Intercorporeality and transfer of corporeal schema is thus enhanced in dance, allowing dancers to come to understand other dancers physically in terms of how they move and to develop a sense of closeness, connection or communion at a human, mental or emotional level when dancing with someone. Through moving with each other and attending to the corporeal schema of the other dancer, dancers can come to understand and experience a kind of physical and emotional or mental synchrony, a kinaesthetic empathy, with the dancer with whom they are moving. Dancing with another person thus returns us to a recognition of our shared humanity and our capacity for mutual openness and connection.
Indeed my interviewees emphasised that dance is characterised by mutual openness in the sense of both awareness and honesty:
You do get to know somebody then because you get to see em, – it’s really difficult to explain, but you get to see them for who they are, you know because people have a lot of barriers and a lot of masks upon themselves a lot of the time and if you’re really invested into the moment and invested in this connection then you have to let those masks and those barriers fall down so that you can feel one another, be with one another and experience this thing with one another and I mean, when it gets to that point you know that person whether they’re feeling sad or whether they’re feeling happy and they don’t even have to even say anything so you know, you have a sense of how they are that day and you take that into account - there’s not a judgement on that it’s just this is how the person is today, this is how I am today and this what it is today and that’s why it’s beautiful. [Steven]
This is not to say that dancers do not communicate with each other verbally. There was, however, a clear suggestion from all my interviewees that being physically close, ‘in tune,’ or synchronised with another dancer allowed some access to the thoughts and feelings of the Other without anything being reflected on or said. For Merleau-Ponty it is this direct openness to others and to a shared world which characterises intercorporeality, and in the above quote Steven emphasises that the expressive qualities of the two dancers are absorbed into the dance on a particular day without anyone reflecting on or judging the quality of the Other’s movement. The process of creative collaboration thus allows the dancers to experience their own and their partner’s mood as jointly expressed in the co-created movement of dancing together.
Steven describes this, somewhat hesitantly, then, as an interconnection or communion of the two dancers’ souls as well as their bodies which he likens to intimacy of the experience of making love:
I think that you get to know people incredibly well through dancing – incredibly, incredibly well in a way which is really quite beautiful actually, really quite beautiful because it, because, because it, because of the context of it, it allows space for you to – I don’t want to sound really cheesy here – but almost for like your, when it, for your souls to interconnect in many senses because there isn’t the em, sexuality or ego or all these other kind of things placed on top of it, it’s just simply about being with someone in the space and connecting with someone and that is such a beautiful sensation. I mean, I’ve chatted to my friends who are not dancers about this and I think the only way that I often explain to them about how wonderful it is to dance and so on is like imagine, making love to someone but you’re not – d’you know what I mean? – that totally doesn’t make no sense – You’re as intimate with, you’re as connected with that person, you know, and obviously it doesn’t always get to that level but when it does that’s when not only do you feel it but the audience feels it as well – it gets to a place where you’re communicating, you’re operating on a level of sensation and connection and it’s almost like you’re, you’re having a conversation of sensation but there’s no attachments or connotations of anything else really – it’s really quite beautiful, really something quite special.[Steven]
The comparison he makes with sexual intimacy is interesting, not only because shared sexual or orgasmic experience has been suggested above as one of the most recognisable examples in adult life of a sense of communion or synchrony through transfer of corporeal schema but also because Steven further qualifies his use of this example. Steven in fact suggests that dance is an even better example of this kind of interconnection than sex because he associates sex with notions of egoism and sexuality, which I take to mean that there are more issues around one person having and showing off his power over the Other in sex. In contrast, dance, for Steven, ideally seems to allow for intimacy without these power relations and thus something more akin to communion of the souls. This is unlikely to be true of all sexual encounters and all dancing encounters, but the context of dance as creative collaboration opens up the possibility for us to transcend our individual ego-centric concerns and feel that we are genuinely in touch with the Other in a direct and open process of co-creation and co-expression. It was this ability to come out of oneself and experience mutual connection with the Other which my interviewees talked about as making the experience of dancing with someone else particularly ‘special’ or ‘beautiful.’
In Steven’s words, dance as an expressive art form ‘allows space’ for this type of experience in a way that we do not find in other facets of life. It is not the case, however, that a connection or intimacy of this kind is always established between dancers working together. Anna, for example, mentioned that there were certain dancers in companies with whom she had felt uncomfortable while Carrie, again using conversation as an analogy for dancing with someone, commented of forming a connection with another dancer that:
You just naturally gel with another person like you would, you know, having coffee, sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. [Carrie]
It also appeared that this type of intimacy or syncretism between dancers was more usually established in a company where the dancers worked together closely over long periods of time. Rhianna describes this process as the ongoing negotiation of an unspoken relationship between dancers where:
After you work with someone for a while you get to like, you feel their body, you feel like where they’re going to take your, you just, you know if you’re working on a duet together you just develop that understanding of how much a risk you can take within that and each other. [Rhianna]
She further describes this relationship as something that is developed through working physically closely together:
As you start to like get comfortable with it and start to explore the connection, you develop your own story I think without speaking to each other – you know, you don’t say “oh when I’m dancing with you I feel like you’re this and this that and the other” – you just sort of, you don’t even know yourself exactly what, necessarily what the relationship is between you but you do definitely develop something that’s like both of you understand physically but don’t necessarily put into words – I think it’s quite special. [Rhianna]
In a continuation of the passage quoted above, Steven further explains:
You do get to know a lot about people when you dance with them because you’re working with them all the time and you sweat – you sweat with one another for goodness sake – you know when you sweat with someone you get to know everything about them … it kind of is so, such a close-knit thing and you have to be so co-dependent, you know, it’s so, you know, it’s impossible for you not to get to know someone really well. [Steven]
Here, again, Steven’s account of dancing with someone emphasises notions of mutual openness, and both Rhianna and Steven evoke a sense of vulnerability in their use of terms such as risk and dependency. What is special about the relationship formed when we dance with another person is therefore that it develops in us a capacity for openness towards the Other which may feel too dangerous in alternative situations where it doesn’t arise pre-reflectively from mutual trust being slowly built up in the process of joint movement. It provides a context in which mutual openness (and its attendant vulnerability) develops between embodied beings, returning us to an understanding of our basic potential to connect with the Other and the world and thus with our own humanity.