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Kinesthetic Communication in Dance Author(s): Mary M. Smyth Source: Dance Research Journal, Vol. 16, No.

2 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 19-22 Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Congress on Research in Dance Stable URL: . Accessed: 07/10/2011 00:49
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Kinesthetic Communication in Dance

MaryM. Smyth

"Dance is movement that has been organized so that it is rewarding to behold," writes Anderson (1974, p. 9), and many of those who talk or write about dance have attempted to explain the way in which dance rewardsthe beholder by considering the processes by which dance communicates. Andersongoes on to say: "... dance communicatesbecause it within us. Dance is not simply a visual art, promptsresponses it is kinesthetic as well; it appeals to our inherent sense of motion" (p. 9). This distinction between visual and kinestheticcommunicationis one which many dancersfind appealing. The kinestheticcommunicationis not analyzed further, but rather, it becomesan easy way of statingthe special status of dance as an art form. That is, there is a special sense for which only dance can provide aesthetic satisfaction. This paper draws on a number of areas dealing with the study of perceptionand communicationwithin psychologyin orderto examine the ways in which we can gain information about the movements of other people and to consider how such informationcould give rise to kinestheticexperience. It within the deals first with the use of the term "kinesthesis" studyof sensationand perception,arguingthat in this context kinesthesisrelates to movement of one's own body while the movement of another's body must be perceived via one or can not be more of the five exteroceptivesystems. Kinesthesis a channel for input in the way vision is because kinesthesis refersto the nature of communication, not to the perceptual systemby which it is picked up. The next section presentsthe argument that we do not always have direct knowledge of where our sensations come from so we may mis-attribute them to "subliminal"input or even to perceptual systems which are not in fact involved. If we believe that a communication is kinesthetic,this need not mean that there is a special input system, but rather, that something happens as normal perceptualinformationcomes in which relates it to the movement systemof the observer.The final section considershow watching someone dance could link to the movement system of the observer. One suggestion is that the perceptual input links to the motor command system, which becomes active and somehow gives rise to sensationswhich actually are from the observer'sbody, and another is that the input links to stored memory representationsof what movements feel like without involving the motor commands. Both suggestions who cannot make the have problemsaccountingfor observers movementsthey watch, althoughit is possiblethat kinesthetic imageryis flexibleenough to make this only a minor objection to the second account. The aim of the paper is to clarify the

issues involved in kinesthetic communication and to suggest directionsin which we might look in orderto understandhow dance communicates. The word "kinesthesis" coined to refer to the sense of was movement(kinein= to move, aesthesis= perception)of one's own body, which is derivedfrom movement informationprovided by receptorsin joints, muscles,tendonsand skin. In this context it means "sense of one's own movement," and the receptorswhich provide the information can be indicated. The orthodoxfive sense of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting also relate to particularkinds of receptors.They give us information about objects and events in the world, and for this reason Sherrington(1906) called them "exteroceptors"to indicate that they were the source of external information. Sherrington used "interoceptors"to refer to receptorswhich were solely concernedwith the internalstate of the organism, such as pain and pressurereceptors in the viscera, and he added a third class of receptors, "proprioceptors"(proprius:own) to referto the receptorsin the joints, muscles and tendons. So, if we follow Sherringtonwe can refer to particular receptors and the information they provide, and we can also speak of the sense which they serve (rodsand cones are receptorsin the retina which serve vision, Golgi tendon organs serve kinesthesis). More recently, this classification, which is based on the positionand natureof receptors,has been challengedby those who are concerned with the function of a perceptual system rather than its location. Gibson (1966) and Lee (1977) both argue that if any perceptual system provides information about the position and movement of the body then it is functioning proprioceptively,but they too are dealing with the
perception of one's own body. In this account vision can provide such information and therefore it is possible to speak of "visual kinesthesis" which is the sense of movement of one's own body when movement is seen. However, even if we loosen kinesthesis from its traditional ties to receptors in joints and muscle, we are still referring to sensing the movement of one's own body and not as yet to sensations which arise from watching the movements of another. Information which we pick up from the environment must come in via our ears, eyes, nose, taste buds or skin. If dance communicates to us it must do so through these modalities. If there is kinesthetic communication such that we experience a sense of movement when we do not move, then this must be mediated via the other senses and we need to ask how this can be done. It is not always clear from the words of dancers and

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writerson dance that they accept that kinestheticcommunication must be mediated via the "external"senses. Royce (1977) writes of channels of communications of which the kinestheticchannel is primary.The other channels are seeing, hearing, touching and smelling, all of which contribute or can contributeto the experienceof dance. Royce sums up the communicationschannels by saying: "It is clear that dance utilizesa numberof channels, the kinesthetic,which is crucial to it alone of all the arts, and the visual, aural, tactile and olfactory."(p. 200). It appearsfrom this that Royce considers kinestheticcommunicationto be a directcommunication,but how is it conveyed? If kinesthetic information (information giving rise to a sense of movement) is not visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory,what is it? If it is conveyedby one or all of these sense modalities but then requires translation into a own body, then it is not a senseof movementof the observer's in "channel" the way the exteroceptivemodalitiesare. It may be a channel in a different way, but the use of the word obscuresand mystifiesthe processesof communica"channel" tion rather than clarifies them. Dance is often compared to language, sometimes because relationsbetween structureand meaning can be comparedto syntax and semantics. However, if we think of language as verbal communication,then we can also compare it to kinesthetic communicationand investigatethe word "channel"in this context. In orderto convey meaning, words must be seen, heard or touched. People with normal vision and hearing experiencewritten and spokenwords, and the same meaning may be conveyed by a pattern of sound waves and a pattern of markson a page. If audition and vision are channels then the messages carried by the channels are quite different because the physical nature of the stimuli is different. The blind and deaf can perceive words by touch, the deaf by seeing lip movementsor manual signs. All of these different physical stimuli can produce the same understanding, the meaningof a word. If, on the other hand, we referto a verbal channel of communicationthen we mean that understanding is conveyed via words, whatever the nature of the physical stimulusor the sense modality which received it. In this case we can become interested in how different kinds of sensory input relate to an abstract representation of meaning. It would not make sense to refer to the verbal, visual and auditory channels of communication because we would be mixingdifferentusesof the word "channel,"and thisis exactly what happens if we refer to kinesthetic, visual and auditory channels of communication. Dance, like many art forms, does not communicateideas or feelings which are easily verbalizable, although in some cultures stylized patternsof dance have agreed meanings which may be verbalizable. In her treatment of meaning in dance Royce refers to Waterman's(1962) distinction between patterns in dance which have such a denotative meaning and "empathicsubliminalcommunication"(Royce 1977, p. 195). While she does not find this division adequate, Royce retains the idea that dance can communicate subliminally and she laterstatesthat "youmay be presentedvisually with one message while you are hearing or subliminally experiencingyet another"(p. 200). This may imply that subliminalexperience is not mediated via vision or hearing, or it may simply mean that dance can convey several meanings simultaneously,and that we don't know how this happens. The use of "subliminal"does not add to the explanationof how dance communicates because it is not defined, and the question simply moves from "How does dance communicate?" to "How does dance communicate subliminally?" A subliminal stimulus for perception is one which is below Dance Research Journal 16/2 (Fall 1984)

the threshold for detection (limen = threshold). If a person triesto detect the presenceof a very dim light and is unable to do so, then the light is of subliminal intensity. Subliminal perceptionoccurswhen a stimuluswhich cannot be detected affects the further behavior of the person who has been unable to detect it. Such perception is often confused with perception without awareness and if we find that we have respondedto perceptual cues without being aware of doing so, we say that we picked up the cues subliminally.However, in many cases if we are told what the appropriatecues are, we are perfectly able to detect them, that is, they are not in subliminal at all. Picking up an "impression" ways which cannot be specified does not mean that the pick-up process dealt with subliminalperceptualcues. If I speak to a group of people and they all make normal social conversationand say quite friendly things yet I feel that they are hostile to me, it would probably be incorrect to conclude that the hostility was communicatedsubliminally,but the processes which I by become aware of the hostility may not themselvesbe available to awareness.Non-verbalcommunicationhas been studied for a considerableperiod (Argyle, 1975) and we now know that attitude and emotion can be conveyed by "body language," eye contact, distancing and so on. If a person who senses hostility is directed to the aspects of the behavior of others which betrayed this hostility those aspects would be detectable because they are above the threshold for perception and not subliminal. The communication is subtle and seems mysterious but it is effected via the ordinary sense organs operating on a supra-liminalinput, and the mystery lies in how we use and understand signs which we do not know that we produce or receive. We tend to assumethat we know whether a piece of information reachedus via particularreceptorssuch as our ears or eyes, but this is not always the case. Very few people know that they are able to maintain their balance thanks to a receptorsystem in the vestibule of the inner ear, so they are not able to attributesensationsof tilt and sway to the activity of that system(the pit of the stomachmay be where we experience the sensationbut that is not the site of a balance organ). It is also possible to misattributethe origin of sensationsand perceptions when the existence of the relevant perceptual system is known. The ability of some blind people to detect and avoid obstacles and barrierswithout any tactile contact was not easily assignedto one particularsense. Many people, including the blind themselves, believed that avoidance was possibleon the basis of "facialvision." It felt as if the skin of the blind person'sface picked up some informationfrom the environment, possibly air movement. However, a series of experiments in which blind people were asked to detect obstacleswith a cloth over their faces, or while they wore ear plugs, showed that it was not the skin of the face which pickedup the information,but the ears. The blind were using echoes produced when the sound of their own movements was reflected back to them, and could in fact use this to distinguishquite subtle differencesbetween surfaces(Kellogg, 1962). Until there was evidence that "facial vision" was not occurring, it is unlikely that the experience of blind people would have been questioned. How could a sighted person deny the experiencewhich she or he was unable to share?The discoverythat auditorycues were the importantones does not mean that the experienceof the blind people was incorrect, any more than it is incorrectto experiencea pitch or sway in the pit of one's stomach. To understand how information is transferredit is necessaryto consider more than the experience of the receiver. This experienceis part of what it is to be explained, not the explanationitself.


To understand how dance communicates we have to go beyond the experiencewhich leads us to use words like "subliminal."We also need to understandhow, if at all, the sense of movementof one'sown body can be stimulatedby hearing and seeing other people dance. The fact that many dancers and writerson dance believe that kinestheticcommunication occursdoes not explain such communication, and may be no more accuratethan the belief in facial vision was. Dancers do believe that direct communication of movement experience occurs, and one, MurrayLouis, has suggested how it might operate. In writing about the creative world of Alwin Nikolais, Louis (1980) states:"One experienceshis world abstractly, through the senses: optic, aural and kinetic" (p. 143). Again a movement (kinetic) sense is posited as if it were a sense like vision and hearing which picked up particular physicalstimuli by means of specialized receptors. However, it later becomes less clear that Louis intends the "kinetic" senseto be independentof vision and hearingwhen he defines kinetics as "the excitement which sends motional sensation directly into the viewer's neuro-muscularsystem" (p. 162). The directnessof the communicationmay be via vision, but the suggestion is that the sight and possibly the sound of othersdancing is able to create activity in the neuro-muscular system, that is, in the central nervous system and in the musclesof the body. Royce'saccount of kinestheticcommunication may imply somethingof the same processbut it is confused by examples such as toe tapping and the induction of trance in spectatorsof trance dancing. Toe tapping occurs in response to rhythmic stimulation, most commonly music, ratherthan dance, and trance can be induced by watching rhythmicmovementsof many kinds, not only dance, so these examples cannot be used to suggest that dance, and dance alone, affects the neuro-muscularsystem in this way. If we accept that kinestheticor kinetic communication is not directbut is mediatedvia one or more of the exteroceptors and argue that it involves activity in the motor system of the spectator, then for this activity to be "neuro-muscular," motor commands must be sent from the brain to muscle. Presumablythe results of this activation are then perceived directly as proprioceptivefeedback from the spectator'sown body. As most people watching a dance concert in Western countrieswill be seated, the induced neuro-muscular activity cannot be very great. The muscle activity is unlikely to result in changes in the length of musclesin the limbs as this would imply limb movement, although muscle tension may alter without changes in length occurring(isometriccontraction). The perceptionof change in the spectator's body which would accompany,or resultfrom, such activitywould be very unlike that which accompaniesmovement. If kinetic or kinesthetic communicationresultsfrom activity in the spectator'sskeletal musculature, it will be much less than descriptions of it suggest. The idea that we can perceive the consequences of rudimentary movements as if they were actual movements has some similaritiesto the now discreditedbehavioristview that thought is sub-vocal speech and involves small unperceived movementsof the vocal tract. Thought processes,even verbal ones, can occurwithout any activity in the vocal tract, and it is no longer necessaryto avoid mentalist accounts of understandingand reasoning.The suggestionthat the perceptionof another'smovement involvesthe production of movement in one'sown body, even in a rudimentaryway, seemsinadequate as an explanation of kinetic communication, and may also reflect a lack of understandingof the kinds of mental representationwhich could be involved in both the perceptionand productionof movement. The memorycode for a movement

is not just a set of instructions to muscle, but an abstract spatio-temporal pattern used to generate such instructions. If we could show that such an abstract representation is also involved in the perception and recognition of movement, then we would be suggesting that perception and production involve some of the same processes and that perception of human movement is different from the perception of nonhuman movement because we can produce movement as well as watch it. A theory of this type has been put forward for the perception and production of speech. The noises we hear when other people speak (the acoustic input), do not have a direct one-toone relationship to the speech segments (phonemes) which go to make up the words we hear. The same acoustic event can be perceived as different phonemes, depending on the context in which it occurs, and different acoustic events can be perceived as the same phonemes. The motor theory of speech perception (Liberman et al. 1967) suggests that we use our knowledge of how we articulate to help us decide which phonemes we are hearing. In some languages, Japanese for example, the distinction which English speakers make between the phonemes /r/ and /1/ is not made. Native Japanese speakers cannot produce different sounds for /r/ and /1/ and are also unable to discriminate between these sounds when others make them (Miyawaki et al. 1975). The motor theory uses such evidence to support the view that the ability to perceive depends on the ability to articulate. The theory is not accepted by all of those who study speech but it is one of the few theories in which motor and perceptual processes have been linked, and therefore it merits some consideration here. Close consideration however, tends to make this account inappropriate for understanding dance communication. The important part of the message in dance is not "what was that movement?"; and for the spectator who is not a dancer, being able to discriminate one movement from another is not the problem. We are concerned with how we perceive meaning in the movement, with semantics rather than with phonemes. Those watching dance may be totally incapable of performing the movements they perceive, so their knowledge of movement production is only a weak approximation to the movements they see and hear. The most difficult problem of all for such an account of kinesthetic communication is that the communication which resulted from observers using their knowledge of production to help them perceive would not be kinesthetic at all. Motor knowledge might be involved in classification of movement, or knowing how to make a movement could be an important part of remembering it after seeing someone else perform, but such motor knowledge need not be kinesthetic. It could involve only the rules for the control of movement, not the perception of how such movements would feel. As kinesthesis is the sense of movement, communication has to access the stored representations of what movements feel like, not how they are made. Visual and other exteroceptive input might lead to a kinesthetic experience if movement memory included not only motor plans but also memories of how the movements felt, that is, of the feedback from joints, muscles, skin and other sources of movement perception, as the movements were actually executed. There are movement learning theories which suggest that this may be the case (Schmidt 1975). So kinesthetic experience of someone else's movement could arise if the sight of the movement triggered memories of what it felt like to perform that movement, or movements of that type. Again, such a process would not explain how someone who was not a dancer or who had no experience of the movements would be able to receive a kinetic or kinesthetic communicaDanceResearchJournal 16/2 (Fall1984) 21

tion. A weak version of the hypothesis could be put forward in which the sight of another's movements stimulate kinesthetic experience by analogy with movements which the viewer has made in the past. If it still seems implausible that everyday activities of leaping or turning around are sufficient to provide kinesthetic experience of jetes or pirouettes, then we may have to query the whole concept of kinesthetic or kinetic communication. The kinesthetic memory account, with its weaknesses, does not claim that the neuro-muscular system is accessed or that movements are stimulated in the observer's body, but rather than kinesthetic imagery is involved. Mental imagery is probably most often thought to be visual, although it can be auditory too. We can use imagery to answer the question "How many windows are there in your house?" (visual) or to help us decide which letter follows "t" in the alphabet (auditory). We can also use imagery to answer the question "Do you lift the pen from the paper when you write the letter 'M'?", and in this case the imagery relates to movement and includes sensations of movement or kinesthetic imagery. I have asked people to imagine themselves performing taks which they could do, such as opening a bottle of wine, and tasks which they could not do, such as climbing up a rope. In both cases visual and auditory imagery was reported but kinesthetic imagery was also present. This was true even for people who were completely unable to climb a rope, and could not remember ever having done so. They reported feeling strain on their arms and activity in the legs as they imagined the activity. So, it is possible that kinesthetic imagery can be part of thinking about a series of movements which one cannot perform. Would this be a sufficient account of the mechanism by which one can sense the movement in the body of another person? Visual and auditory input lead to a sense of movement because they somehow allow us to use stored knowledge of the proprioceptive consequences of our own movements to

create kinesthetic imagery. "Somehow" remains as a gap in the process. Even if dancers were happy that such a process could in any way relate to the experiences which they called "kinesthetic communication," we still do now know how it is effected. It is not enough to suggest that kinesthetic communication must exist because people have experienced it. As with facial vision, the experience of receiving the information from the environment cannot be questioned, but the attribution of that experience to a particular mechanism can be. The arguments presented above suggest that the experience known as kinesthetic communication must be mediated by exteroceptive systems like vision, but that it may be possible to use information provided by the exteroceptors to produce a sensation of movement by accessing the stored knowledge of what movements feel like. We do not yet know how seen movement can do this, but the question of how this occurs is an interesting one for all of those interested in the representation of movement, not only for dancers. Experimental studies of how we perceive and remember movement need to be widened to include work on how we perceive and remember the seen movement of others. This would enrich our understanding of movement processes in general as well as providing a basis for understanding communication in dance. Dance can have extremely powerful effects on those who watch it. Before we attribute these effects to a mysterious perceptual process we need to consider the other systems which might be involved, and we have to have some idea of how any suggested mechanism for communication produces the effects. It is possible that the sense of movement which arises from watching dance is purely visual, but is misinterpreted, and it is also possible that the visual input can give rise to kinesthetic imagery although we do not know how this occurs. Investigation of the processes involved in perception does not take the magic from the experience itself, but the magic should always be part of the experience, not part of the explanation.


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Dance Research Joural

16/2 (Fall1984)