Dancing, Self and Consciousness

By Cassandra Smith

(December 2011)

At many American universities, dance is offered as a major option.  A complaint among many dance majors I know is that all dance majors are required to take science and math classes, but no science or math majors are required to take a dance class.  They are frustrated by the fact they believe dance offers a different type of understanding of the world, a unique type of knowledge, that is equally as important as knowledge of physics or biology.  I argue that is because, in a sense, dance offers a type of knowledge that transcends and includes both disciplines and allows individuals to be much more aware of their bodies and external environments.  Dance offers insight into understanding the deepest level of reality, gives us unique possibilities for story telling methods and can contribute to individual consciousness development.

Dancing and the Mind-body Problem

To begin, I will address how I believe dancing can act as a metaphor to address what Ken Wilber, calls the “world knot”, or the mind-body problem, which he explains arises from the two seemingly paradoxical claims: “The body is in the mind, but the brain is in the body” (2000: 179). The mind-body problem is that of trying to successfully describe the relationship between the body and mind in relation to the rest of our conscious experience.  We can accept through our basic sensory awareness that there exists a relationship of some kind; what that relationship is and how it works is less obvious.

The dancing metaphor can be explained by what Sam Gill calls “self-othering  (“Understanding Dancing” 2011:2).  Dancing is an experience of action and interaction between self and other.  Gill explains, “The dancing body makes otherness, minimally in the sense that we can discern something on and of the dancer we refer to as a dance or dancing rather than the person dancing; it is something other” (“Understanding Dancing” 2011:2).  When someone observes dancing, they can tell the difference between the dance and the dancer, but during dancing the dancer and dance are inseparable.  The dancer is a physical entity dependent on abstract concepts for meaning; the dance is an abstract concept whose meaning creating abilities can only be realized in physical form.  This conceptual relationship can then be applied metaphorically to the mind-body relationship.  The dancer is the body, the dance is the mind, dancing is chiasm, or “a crisscrossing, intertwining, [or] folding”(“Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Flesh Ontology’” 2011, “Understanding Dancing” 2011:2).  Dancing, in this sense, occurs at the point when the intertwined relationship between mind and body acknowledges and manifests itself.  Dancing is never purely mind, or purely body.  It is always interaction; human consciousness follows the same rule.  There is no mind without body or body without mind, they manifest continually through mutual interaction as an embodied mind.

Dancing as Lila

Sam Gill believes that using dancing as a metaphor can help explain not only the relationship between mind and body, but can also offer insight into the relationship between self and consciousness (“Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play” 2011).  This understanding is facilitated with the help of Hindu philosophy.  The ancient Hindus believed that the term “Lila” referred to the behavioral motives or essence of the Gods.  “Lila” means “play or sport in the sense of diversion, amusement, fun. Lila also connotes effortless, rapid movement” (“Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play” 2011).  Having no true purpose or end goal are also important qualities of this concept of play.  The Hindus believe the movement of play itself is the governing force of the universe.  According to Sam Gill, “Lila or play refers to that paradoxical structurality in which the cosmos is whole yet divided, the divine is one and completely whole and necessarily inclusive, yet differentiated and othered in such distinctions as self and other” (“Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play” 2011).  This play, the back and forth movement between self and other, is what Hans-Georg Gadamer and Friedrich Schiller define as the qualifying characteristic of art (“Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play” 2011).  However, while this claim has merit, the Hindus see this concept of play as representative of much more.  They see it as the principle factor governing the universe, and articulate the point with much more eloquent symbolism.

The eleoquent symbolism I speak of is dancing.  Hindus describe the eternal dance of the of the god Shiva, called Nataraja, as lila.  The connection between dance and play/lila can also be seen through Gadamer’s discovery, that the “the original meaning of the word spiel (play) is dance” (“Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play” 2011).  In Hindu mythology, Shiva’s dance contains five cosmic processes: creation, preservation, destruction, embodiment and release (“Nataraja Hindu Lord of Dancing” 2011).  His dance is constant movement of and between life and death, good and evil, presence and absence, visible and invisible, self and other.  Shiva’s dance contains structure, but the dance itself is freeplay.  The structure of our universe works the same way.  There are structural laws that designate the parameters and rules for the game of life, (gravity, ecology); the actual game itself is the constant motion (freeplay) within the structure.  Jacques Derrida also considers the interconnected movement between freeplay and structure as the principle constitutive of the deepest nature of reality (“Jacques Derrida” 2011).  He believes that the two interpretations of interpretation, that the universe is governed by randomness (freeplay) or that it is determined (structure), should remain in constant battle, or play (“Jacques Derrida” 2011).  For he believes when trying to choose between the two, we must “”first try to conceive of the common ground, and the différence of this irreducible difference” (“Jacques Derrida” 2011).  This irreducible difference is then understood as movement between the two, Nataraja, Lila, play.

I believe this experience, of dancing as play, is accessible to any able-bodied human.  When we dance in a spontaneous manner, we are experiencing our bodies as an instrument of play.  There are endless ways in which to move the human body, experimenting with the possibilities within human movement becomes what we call dancing.

Structure vs. Play

As a classically trained ballet dancer, I have more than 16 years of intensive experience playing with my body.  My ballet classes trained me to have an incredible level of physical awareness and mental control of my muscles.  Ballet is a somewhat unique style of dancing in that at every moment, there is an exact and precise position for every square inch of your body to adhere to.  Ballet guides the body using the ideas of opposition, geometry and an aesthetic of weightlessness.  For example, in the position called tendu devant, the dancer stands with one foot flat on the floor, directly underneath the hipbone, rotated outward from the front of the body at a 90-degree angle.  The other foot is extended outward from the body to the front with the toes pointed and touching the ground.  This leg creates a 25-degree angle from the hip and is also rotated outward at a 90-degree angle.  The torso must create a straight line from the top of the spinal cord to the bottom of the tailbone, which is done through opposition.  The dancer corrects the natural curvature of the spine by pulling the muscles on the front of the torso upwards and pushing the muscles on the back of the torso downwards.  Doing so creates inner balance and stability, which outwardly reflects an aesthetic of weightlessness.  This position shows the structural backbone of ballet.

The play is the actual movement.  The position I described is one of hundreds in ballet.  Moving and transitioning between the different positions is the playing part of ballet, and requires even further mental and physical awareness. The dance must be connected to a specific musical structure and usually requires the body to express a different type of emotional tone.  The musical rhythm dictates the tone of the movement, fast rhythms usually express lightheartedness or a joyful quality, slow music express seductive, serious or mournful emotions.  The huge range of possibilities within the combinations of music and movement provides the meaning of dancing.  Without this connection to emotion and meaning, dancing’s true nature is revealed.  Dancing is itself meaningless until we attach meaning to it.  This is where the social plays an important part in our understanding of dancing.  All of the meaning in dancing is put on top of the movement using socially internalized cultural variations of gestures.

Dancing and Culture

It seems intuitive to say that dance is influenced by culture.  When we watch the tight embrace of the Spanish tango, we understand the seductive passion that is characteristic of this group of people.  Similarly, the documentary Rize depicts the subculture of “krumping”, an aggressive style of hip-hop dancing that grew out of youth street culture in Los Angeles (“Rize Documentary” n.d.).  We seem to be able to use dance as a way of physically expressing the social concepts we experience in life.  In Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History, Jack Anderson explains that in this country, “modern dance can be said to exemplify both American self-reliance and, in its creatively permissive spirit, American ideals of democracy and nonconformity” (1993:172).  Dancers use culture as their inspiration; their social world influences what types of movement are relevant or necessary to them.  This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated by the popular film Footloose.  In Footloose, Kevin Bacon plays a young man who moves to a conservative town where social dancing is prohibited.  The high school he attends protests against the ordinance on the basis that dancing is an expressive way of celebrating life together (“Footloose: Film” n.d.).  The students feel that dancing is a part of who they are; it is a part of their social world.  They feel that the old ideals of physical modesty no longer reflect their generation’s cultural values, and they look to dancing as a way for the self to express this feeling.

Dancing as Self-expression

This perspective, dance as a form of self-expression, is a common perspective among dancers and those who study dance.  Looking at dancing as self-expression allows us to understand the individual’s role in dancing and the function of dancing for the individual.  What exactly is the self expressing while dancing, and what is happening during dancing that creates meaningful expression?  What are the benefits of knowing how to express yourself in this way? To answer these questions I will now turn to the internal aspects of the experience of dancing.

Dancing is a unique art form, because it never leaves the body of its creator.  Unlike a painting or a novel, the art a dancer creates is made of the self.  Similarly, while the painter or the writer use external materials as tools to manifest their work, the dancer’s toolbox looks extremely different.  The dancer’s toolbox is what I will call a movement vocabulary.   The movement vocabulary not only contains the range of physical movements learned by each dancer, but also what each movement means, or expresses, in a social sense.  Almost every gesture or movement we make connotes meaning; we call it body language.  A basic example is good posture; in our culture we translate good posture to express confidence or professionalism.  When the dancer creates a piece, he or she takes the social context of the audience into account and search their toolbox for relatable movements.

I have trained in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, flamenco, African tribal dance, Russian character dance, many styles of modern dance and contemporary.  These different styles of movement form my movement vocabulary; they become the fabric of movement options accessible to my body. Using this information to inform my dancing results in something that can express meaning to others and create a specified response. For example, I can imagine I my audience is an old fashioned burlesque club.  I draw upon my knowledge of burlesque and move my hips in a slow, circular manner to express an underlying sexual tone.  My torso projects an air of confidence by holding my shoulders back and sticking my chest out.  I know that burlesque is a style of dance that attempts to seduce.  Therefore, any sexuality projected by my movements must be careful and controlled, rather than indulgent and uninhibited.  This mirrors our experience of seduction; the person seducing has careful control over his or her behavior in relation to the seduced.  Another example; I can imagine my audience to be the one that might show up to a choreographers’ showcase at Colorado University.  My movements in this case will be very different, as they are tailored to a very different social context.  In this case, I take into account that my technical ability may be judged.  I also take into account this audience is more likely to have a positive reaction to abstract movement, because they are more likely to have had prior exposure to contemporary theories on dance. In these examples, the meaning provides the movement, and the movement provides the meaning.  This reciprocal relationship is how the self expresses meaning to others while dancing.

Dancing and Consciousness Development

Using dancing as a form of self-expression provides a dancer with a unique type of knowledge.  There is little research on this type of knowledge, however, I believe this type of knowledge could offer a profound contribution to consciousness studies.   Ken Wilber suggests that the more integral a person’s understanding is, the more likely it becomes that developmental consciousness transformation will occur.  In Wilber’s novel Boomeritis, he explains, “the more dimensions of our being—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—that we simultaneously exercise, the more likely transformation will occur” (411:2002).  He also states, “We find clinically that about 50 percent of the changes that occur in transformation actually occur at this simple physical level” (411:2002).  To me, this suggests that we should be paying a lot more attention to how physical activities like dancing fit into consciousness models.

I believe dancing is an expanded stage of consciousness.  From my personal experience, certain dancing experiences exercise the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of my being simultaneously.  I have already addressed how dancing exercises the mental and the physical through the concept of self-othering and discussed how dancing touches the emotional as a form of self-expression.  I also see dance as having a deep connection to Spirit.  In recent years, I have experimented a lot with improvisational dancing.  During certain improvisational moments, I experience what can be labeled an altered state of consciousness.  In this altered state, I fully surrender my self to other.  This other I believe I surrender to is Spirit.

Dance Improvisation

When I improvise, I try to give Spirit every possible option to express itself through myself.  My years of dance training give my body endless avenues to go down, endless paths to express what I now experience as Nataraja.  To give into this feeling fully, I believe, is to experience the freeplay of universe in human form.  To do this however, two seemingly paradoxical things must happen.  You must forget that you are the one doing the dancing, and you must tell your body to dance.  To me, this seems to work best when I remind myself to take my mind out of the pilot seat.  By doing this, I acknowledge that I am more than mind and more than self; I am awareness of the self-other paradox.  This allows spirit to come in.  When I take my mind out of conscious control of my body however, I do not become detached from my bodily experience.  On the contrary, I actually gain the ability to experience my physical sensations on a much more complex, interconnected and multidimensional level.  I do not surrender my physical or emotional sensations; rather, I become the fully embodied experience of movement itself.  When engaging in this improvisational type of dancing, I get to feel my self be something that is other.  The dancing comes out, flows out, like a novelist tuned into a stroke of insight.  The dancer, much like the novelist, cannot explain where this creativity came from.

Dancing and the Liberated Self

I experience these improvisational moments while dancing as the purest form of self-expression possible.  The self being expressed is no longer the self related to ego. It is no longer the self that believes it is an entity separate from its environment.  Instead, the self being expressed is what Vedic philosophy refers to as “Atman” or the “innermost aspect of consciousness (self, Brahman, jiva,) beyond categories” (Walden 2011).  This inner self is what Walter Truett Anderson describes as the liberated self (1997).  He cites several western commentators on mysticism and suggests, in regards to the liberated self, “they agree, ‘it is not the self essential to the practical carrying on of one’s ordinary daily activities, nor is it the ego in the psychoanalytic sense’” (1997:229).  When I am able to find this space of freedom in my body during improvisation, I believe I am experiencing the liberated self.  I feel that I give up conscious control of my movement, but that I remain completely aware of my sensations.  Truett’s descriptions accurately portray my physical experience; he suggests liberation “is best described as a sort of absence—but not absence of emotion, cognition, motivation or awareness.  Not the absence, either, of being a person with a name and identity. Rather, an absence of a conscious sense of self” (1997:229).  This is exactly what I experience during improvisational moments of liberation.  Truett describes liberation as being achievable through psychotherapy and eastern religious philosophies.  I see these both as limited forms of liberation.  To me, this type of liberation reaches the cognitive, emotional, moral, social and spiritual dimensions, and these types of liberation are all experienced mentally.  What about physical liberation, what about our bodies?

To me, dancing adds a physical dimension to my liberated self.  Instead of experiencing liberation on a purely mental level, I embody or become liberation, while simultaneously exercising all of the different dimensions of my being.  Physical liberation transcends and includes mental liberation, because mental liberation (usually) is a necessary condition for physical liberation.  I believe this relationship has interesting connections to research on consciousness development.  Ken Wilber believes there are high stages of consciousness development that reach beyond what is normally perceptible to our senses (1996:198).  He believes there are psychic, subtle, causal and nondual stages of consciousness, which expand one’s awareness to new levels (1996:200).  In each of these stages, also called worldspaces, one becomes self aware of new phenomenon and relationships, which leads to a more integral understanding (1996:200).  However, Wilber stresses that no matter how high up a stage of consciousness is, it is still multidimensional in the sense that each stage has a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspect (1996:209).  Wilber cites Howard Gardner’s “idea that development involves not only one capacity, but many relatively independent capacities (from musical to artistic to mathematical to athletic, and so on)” (1996:209).  So, while many developmental models assume that physical development stops when a person is done growing, studies on high levels of consciousness suggest physical development simply moves upwards to more subtle stages.  Wilber states, “As the sensorimotor dimension is taken up and enfolded in higher development, some extremely advanced sensorimotor skills can emerge.  That there is a ‘psychic side of sports’, is now widely acknowledged.  As Michael Murphy has documented, many great dancers and athletes enter some very profound psychic spaces, and this translates into almost unbelievable performances” (1996:209).  While I have yet to perfect the skill, I believe I can experience the psychic space Wilber speaks of while dancing.  He explains psychic phenomenon of these high stages “involves beginning the transcendence of gross-oriented reality, the transcendence of ordinary body and mind and culture” (1996:207).

While dancing in this altered state, the dancer blurs the lines between the “body”, which is the interior, felt part of the body, and the “Body”, which is the actual physical organism (Walden 2011).  In this way, dance offers an integral type of knowledge that crosses from the left to right sides of Wilber’s four-quadrant model (Walden 2011).  Dancing has a relationship to each of the four quadrants.  The upper right, the mind-body felt experience, contains the physical and mental sensations felt while dancing; the lower right quadrant expresses the influence of culture on dance (Walden 2011).  The upper right, the brain-body organism, is what the dancing actually happens to; and the lower right, is the environment that dancing takes place within and is structured by (Walden 2011).  I think this multidimensional aspect of dancing allows for the fully integrated experience of liberation to occur.

Implications for Consciousness Studies

While research on dance theory is scarce, there are several theorists who are attempting to understand how these unique liberated stages of consciousness surrounding dance work.  In Gehm’s book, Joao Fiadiero describes a system of dance improvisation he calls “Real-time composition”, which “aims to provide an answer, as far as possible, to the paradox that the dancer is both the subject and object of his practice” (2007:103).  The system works by using several mental strategies to get the performer to let go of trying to create meaning, without losing his ability to differentiate what he does and how he does it (Gehm, Huseman and von Wilke 2007:103).  The desired state is one in which the performer “arouses and sustains the attention of the self that watches the self act” (Gehm et al 2007:106).  I see this having a direct connection to Wilber’s concept of the “pure witness”, a highly aware state of being that is ever present, rather than emerges like the (ego) self (Walden 2011).  Fiadiero’s improvisational system and Lisa Nelson’s similar “Tuning Score” exercise were developed to be able to more fully understand what happens in the unique state of movement improvisation (Gehm et al 2007).  Alva Noel writes that Nelson’s Tuning Score exercise is “an activity of bringing the world into focus for perceptual consciousness.  It is an activity of attuning oneself to the world around them” (Gehm et al 2007:127).  When dancers enter this improvisational space, they enact their own world and therefore, become one with it.

I think these improvisation methods show how dance knowledge may be a useful tool for achieving consciousness transformation.  As I stated before, our universe is governed by perpetual movement; the Hindus call it Lila.  The saying goes, “The only constant is change”.  During improvisational dancing moments, perpetual change and an acknowledgement that the future is unknown are the only requirements.  Fiadiero explains how this state of mind extends past just dancing, “My main concern as an artist is not to avoid chaos, but to learn to survive it, so I can talk about it.  And one of the ways to do this is by accepting the inevitability of change and integrating the concept that entropy is just another form of order” (Gehm et al 2007:107).

The ability to become comfortable with change is a skill Andrew Cohen believes is necessary for “evolutionary enlightenment” (2011:181).  He explains, “Inherent in human nature is the quest for certainty and the sense of security that is its reward.  So there is always going to be a tension between the conditioned self’s aspiration for security and the necessity to relinquish that aspiration to keep moving to higher stages without ever halting one’s vertical development” (2011:187).  The solution to this tension, according to Cohen, is to make change home (2011:187).  He continues, “What feels like home is that sense of movement—vertical movement.  In the emerging recognition of the evolutionary context that has given rise to our presence on Earth, we become more at home in perpetual movement than comfort and stasis” (2011:187).  Cohen believes that by living for movement and change, we start participating in the evolution of the present moment (2011:189).

One of dancing’s defining characteristics is perpetual movement.  To me, this suggests that if Cohen’s theories are correct, dancers have a leg up (pardon the pun) on the rest of society when it comes to evolutionary consciousness development.  It also suggests that dancing may be able to help people who are at lower levels of consciousness learn to interpret perpetual movement and change as positive experiences.  Learning to live for change is something Cohen believes is necessary for evolutionary enlightenment to progress (2011:189).  He explains, “The enormous promise of conscious evolution, of cultural emergence, will never be fulfilled beyond the experience of short-term inspiration, unless this dynamic primordial shift can be made at the core of yourself and in the intersubjective we-space of a number of us” (2011:189).  Cohen is less clear about what this conscious evolution is leading to, but seems to think whatever it is, is important enough to necessitate this widespread shift in perspective.


I believe dancing can help us to make this shift.  Dancing has the ability to make us more self-aware in diverse and complex ways.  Viewing dancing as self-othering allows us to understand the connection between the body and mind.  Viewing dancing as Lila, or play, allows us insight into the paradoxical relationship between self and the cosmos.  Through dancing, we learn to use our bodies as an instrument of play, which results in greater self-awareness and the ability to reach higher stages of consciousness.  Dancing allows us to tell our stories to one another, and physically understand and represent our cultures by doing so.   When dancing, we embrace the perpetual movement that is a part of our very nature and convey the experience in a physically and emotionally expressive way.  Overall, dancing lets us understand and become comfortable with who and what we are.

Works Cited

Anderson, Jack. Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book,1992. Print.

Anderson, Walt Truett. 1997. The Future of the Self: Inventing the Postmodern Person. New York: J.P. Tarcher.

Cohen, Andrew. 2011. Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening. New York: Select Books Inc.

“Footloose: Film.” n.d. Footloose: Film. WIKIPEDIA accessed December 4, 2008.

Gehm, Sabine, Pirkko Husemann, and Katharina Von. Wilcke. 2007. Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance. New Brunwick and London: Transcript.

Gill, Sam. “Dancing as Self-Othering  – 3:  Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Flesh Ontology’” VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE accessed 27 November 2011.

Gill, Sam. “Dancing as Self-Othering  – 4:  Understanding Dancing”. PDF accessed 27 November 2011.

Gill, Sam.  “Jacques Derrida”. VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE accessed 27 November 2011.

Gill, Sam. “Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play”. VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE accessed 27 November 2011.

Gill, Sam. “Nataraja Hindu Lord of Dancing”. VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE accessed 28 November 2011.

“Rize Documentary.” n.d. Rize Documentary. WIKIPEDIA accessed December 4, 2008.

Walden, Glenda. 2011. Unpublished lecture material. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado.

Wilbur, Ken. 1996.  A Brief History of Everything.  Boston and London:  Shambala.

One response to “Dancing, Self and Consciousness

  1. Pingback: Dancing with Shiva. ~ Cassandra Smith | elephant journal