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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

How Do We Put 'Feeling' Into Dance? - Private Emotion and Symbolic Expression

Dance is the strongest art form in its ability to weaponize empathy, making both the art and the artist themself far more personal to the audience. Of course, looking at a painting or listening to a work of music can be powerful experiences, but the human ability to relate to the action of another human is deeply programmed in our DNA. We are empathetic creatures who love the sight of people and relish sharing in their emotional experiences.

How then, do we as dancers create those emotional experiences, both for our audience and our judges? When our coach yells to “do it again with feeling”, what do we inject into our movement? Is the most emotional person necessarily the most relatable dancer?

Several misconceptions surround these questions, but the answers aren’t difficult. The confusion largely stems from looseness in the terminology. I’d like to briefly explore the role of emotion in dancing and analyze how we as performers create a relatable experience for the audience. To do that, let’s lay down some definitions:

Emotions – the states of mind caused by confrontation with reality

Feelings – the mental or physical awareness of emotions

Expression – the manifestation of either emotions or feelings

Emotions are the actual biological sensations we experience. They are an entirely internal experience brought to the public world first by our awareness of them (feelings) and second by allowing our body, behavior, and language to reflect those internal states (expression). We respond to frustrating events with anger, which we feel and develop a temper, then we express by closing our first or clenching our jaw.

We don’t see emotions or feelings, but both are made visible by expression. These expressions, deliberately or not, tie a few predictable physical actions to our internal states. The knowledge of these associations is what gives the dancer or the choreographer power in their creation of an “emotional” dance. As an example, if we want to create a flirtatious attitude in a performance, each of the dancers will move their bodies in a way that typically reflects romance and playfulness.

This is where the confusion comes in. People don’t relate to emotion or feelings (they cannot see them, how could they?), they relate to expression. When we are told to show more personality or “feel it” when we perform, we are being asked to modify what we express. The dance as a whole, in fact, is largely a string of physical actions designed to express some thought or attitude, allowing the audience to either join us in that experience or appreciate it from afar.

This is mind, dancing is not literally expressive of internal states. It’s symbolic and representative of those emotions and feelings, but nowhere are we told to suspend disbelief and affirm that the dancers are actually feeling or doing what the story is telling. We don’t celebrate because a real bull is killed in Paso Doble, nor do we shy away because the Mambo dancers are really having sex. We allude to these ideas as themes just as any other representative artist would. Likewise, a painting of a man being impaled allows us to aesthetically appreciate the feeling of tragedy, where a photo of the same scene would likely fill us with disgust.

It’s easy to see that we don’t necessarily feel or emote the thing that we are expressing in our performance. Giving a dancer bad news moments before their Paso Doble will not improve their quality of movement, nor will actual sexual tension improve your Rumba. We act, and we train as dancers to reflect those imagined emotions in our body movement without needing to legitimately experience them. Think, how unreliable would it be to only be able to Quickstep when you are absolutely overjoyed?

Symbolic expression of imagined emotion is key. But, in order to create a relatable dance, the symbolic expression must be tied to physical action. We cannot separate a Spanish Drag from the attitude we intend to convey with it, yet all too often we are taught to perform a move and sprinkle the intention and expression on later as an afterthought—doing so leads to excessive or inauthentic expression that is not believable to either the judges or the audience.

Dancing with feeling means realizing that the movement itself is designed to convey some particular idea. It is inextricably tied to expression, whether symbolic or actual. As we learn and rehearse a given figure, we need to understand its intention; what feelings or emotions are invited by the movement, and how should we make sure the audience understands this? Asking these questions is crucial to performing your dance in all its depth and fullness, allowing you to understand and embody the movement rather than show it as a mere athletic feat.

Dance does not require that you emote or feel a certain way at a given time, just as a painter mustn’t be morose to paint a sad work of art. Indulging in the emotions or feelings you represent with your body is another topic entirely, but this, altering your emotions and feelings rather than expression, does little to change the quality of your dance on its own. Weaponizing expression and being intentional about showing the audience your story is what gives you control over the work you produce. If you use their empathy in this way, you can build a powerful connection with those watching you and demonstrate the strength of dance in its purest form.

(Published in Sheer Dance magazine February 2020)

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