Classifying the Art of Dance

The following is a paper written for a dance appreciation class.  The requirements for the paper included responding to the question, “What is Dance?” while including various points from specific lectures (I.E. the propaganda section).  It’s not my best work, but due to a request, I am posting it anyway. Enjoy!

What is dance? That question has a myriad of answers stemming from all aspects of the art. When I was first approached with this question, at the beginning of the semester, I had many ideas as to, what the answer to this question was. I entertained the thought that the art of dance is an expression of feelings and emotions reflected upon movement to rhythms. While that idea may be true in substance, it is incomplete in description. It leaves out some very import parts or avenues within the art of dance. In this essay I will attempt to establish a more complete definition of dance and its role in the human condition.

Let’s take my initial surmise: “Dance is the expression of emotion through movement.” Lest we forget, communication is thought to be seventy percent nonverbal.1 Therefore, most of what we say, our feelings and emotions, are openly displayed through the movement of our bodies. If we remove the verbal part of a conversation we have something akin to sign language; but if we remove, altogether, words from that conversation, we are left with nothing but our base emotions. With only the tools of gestures to portray our thoughts, those movements become exaggerated and full. One can easily see the emotions displayed. This is what I would call the beginning or the origins of dance. The display of pure emotion can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. Birds and other animals display mating or courtship dances. Some show an aggressive form of movement depicting territorial or physical prowess. Others use this movement to tell a story. One of the best examples of storytelling in the animal kingdom is the dance of the honey bee. The emotions displayed during a honey bee’s dance are so clear as to become a distinct language of its own that can be followed be other members of the colony. The dance of the honey bee leads directly into the next definition or role of dance; this would be storytelling.

Let’s delve deeper into our definition of dance by taking a look at some prominent examples of utilizing it as the storytelling medium. During a number of class lectures we discussed some of the dances from India. The following is quoted from Wikipedia:

The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories. The name of the form is properly कत्थक katthak, with the geminated dental to show a derived form, but this has since simplified to modern-day कथकkathakKathaa kahe so kathak is a saying many teachers pass on to their pupils, which is generally translated, ‘s/he who tells a story, is a kathak’, but which can also be translated, ‘that which tells a story, that is ‘Kathak.’ (Kathak, from

Of the eight the eight forms of classical Indian dances Kathak seems obviously devoted to telling stories. The movements can depict everything from the toils of daily life, such as a happy girl carrying water home2, to tragic dramas of love and betrayal.3 These are only a small example of storytelling through dance, whereas, dance has been used for millennia to depict the stories and histories of most cultures.

Because of the nature of dance and its use to tell stories and recite histories, it becomes an integral part of each culture. To remove, or even forget, a dance established by a culture is to remove or forget a piece of your heritage.  As we learn the history of this art we can glean a greater understanding and overall appreciation to those who invented and practiced it. When we learn to understand people we inherently develop more appreciation for who they were and what they did. A good example is the breakdancing history and how understanding its roots and origins has helped to eliminate some of my own prejudices toward those utilizing its style. By understanding that breaking is, in reality, a modern interpretation of very old styles and traditions, I was able to break my own mental blocks to really examine this genre.

With so much background on each dance, there are some responsibilities that are inherent to those practicing the art. For example, the dancer him/herself must connect to the dance he/she is involved with. The dancer must allow emotion to fuel and drive the flow of the dance as well as fulfill the necessary steps or movements. The dancer is responsible for conveying the message; whatever that may be. The audience’ responsibility is to receive the message portrayed by the dancer and to interpret it for their own selves. This may be simple, but it means that you must be partially involved in the dance, even if only in mind. The choreographer’s responsibility is twofold; one, to choose the story or emotion to build the dance movement upon, and two, creating the movement depicting those emotions and stories.

With all this art and display of emotion, a question comes to mind, “Can dance be used to hurt, depress, and manipulate people?” Unfortunately, as with most things, it can be used for nefarious purposes. From the elitist court dances of France, depicting the king as a ‘god’, to modern propagandic displays in places like China, and especially, North Korea in promotion of ‘communal spirit’ and a total reliance on the state for wellbeing.4 You find a small group of overly selfish people have used the art of dance to convey their desired view and bolster control of people in subtle ways. Because partial truths and outright lies are mixed with some real honesty and placed into an artistic form with so much beauty, people will generally take the entire message as fact, not realizing they are being duped.  Some may argue against this premise, but like the old saying “you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar”, it becomes an easy way to sugar coat falsehoods and plain nastiness. One can find many common examples of art and dance being used to facilitate propaganda, bolster control, and to belittle or dehumanize opposition. One must always remain vigilant to the possibility of some using such wonderful art and expression for devious purposes. Generally speaking, we need not worry; as most dances are truly art and real expression, not some convoluted mixture of egocentric or tyrannical progression.

The movements of dance to rhythms can unlock energy and promote health. When one engages in dancing, the body’s health and wellness can benefit greatly. First, the aerobic nature of the art helps to strengthen the lungs and heart. Next, the technical aspects of the movements help to strengthen and build muscles. By strengthening muscles, it helps decrease the chances of osteoporosis by building bone mass. Dancing helps to increase flexibility, agility, and the coordination of the body; it enhances physical confidence. Dancing can help increase spatial awareness, and aid in the functionality of the brain and nervous systems. It can help to facilitate weight loss for those who seek it. By raising levels of self-esteem and confidence, dancing can help to increase a persons’ overall wellbeing. Finally, dance can lend support to the improvement of social outlook.

Throughout my investigation into to world of dance I have learned much. There is history, background and story all wrapped up in a complex structure of rhythmic communication. Each piece speaks volumes to many people. Each style invites a different mode to convey that story and its ties to the heart. There is so much to learn about dance that one lifetime may not be enough to glean half of what exists. With all of this said, I’ll return to the initial question. What is dance; be it for good, bad, or an otherwise indifferent purpose, dance reflects the spirit of humanity. What is dance that portrays love, hope, joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, and many other base and other complex emotions? What is dance when it reaches into the soul to connect with those emotions to provide a link into the spirit of love and friendship? What is dance that builds the bridge to potential mates? What is dance that cures so many of loneliness, heartbreak, or depression? What is it? The answer is actually very simple and a single word epitomizes the complex vehicle of communication. It all boils down to this: Dance is life.


  1. Power, Mary R., “Chapter 11: Non-verbal communication” (1998). Working Through Communication. Paper 12.
  2.  Charka, Satya Narayana, “Instruction” (2008) Kathak Dance: Kathak Dance Storytelling Video. (
  3. Rabindranath, Laureate, “Performance at Durga Puja Montreal” (2011) Tagore Shyama – Rabindranath Tagore’s Dance Drama (Geeti-natya) (
  4. Associated Press, “The Sydney Morning Herald” (2009) “North Korea stages propaganda dance spectacle” Print

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