Dance and Cognitive Science

Lis Engel
Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, University of Copenhagen

Bettina Bläsing, Martin Puttke & Thomas Schack
The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills
249 sidor, inb.
Howe, ESX: Psychology Press 2010
ISBN 978-1-84872-024-4

The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills, edited by Bettina Bläsing, Martin Puttke and Thomas Schack, is an anthology in the field of interdisciplinary research between cognitive and neuroscientific science and dance art, pointing at the complexity and the hope that a cross disciplinary approach can open into new understandings of learning and teaching physical movement and dance. The book is introduced as one first step toward a deepening of our understanding of the physical, neural, and cognitive sciences and of dance art. This is a huge and complex topic opening into paradigmatic and epistemic questions of the intertwining of theories and practices of science, philosophy and arts. Both science and the arts are experimenting and researching to deepen our ways of knowing.

But there are many different ways of knowing, and science tends to go for generalized and evidence based knowledge from an objective point of view, while art goes deeply into investigating the unique and yet meaningful beyond the subjective. This gives challenges both to scientific and to artistic processes, productions and research. Science is based on ideas, hypotheses and concepts, while art investigates experience as ways of doing and formal, symbolic and poetic languages of experience and expression in many different perspectives.

One important question is how these different approaches can enlighten and fertilize each other and whether the meeting across disciplines can co-create new possibilities, practices and understandings of how different ways of looking at the body-mind, subjective-objective, internal-external, scientific and artistic languages will co-create different ways of experiencing and knowing?

The stated purpose of the book is multiple:

  1. To open the field of interdisciplinary research between dance art and cognitive and neuroscience.
  2. “To integrate new scientific knowledge and principles into the way of teaching dance.” (p4)
  3. “[T]o initiate a process of mutual exchange and stimulation between dancers and cognitive scientists, psychologists and choreographers, ballet teachers and neurobiologists, that this process might lead to a deeper understanding of dance as movement of the human body and mind.” (p5)
  4. To investigate the functional meaning of emotions. (p 27)
  5. To develop appropriate training methods and intervention techniques. (29)
  6. And developed from the different perspectives, ending with the scientific question of how to integrate the measurable with the experiential, opening into phenomenology of human practices and consciousness.
The chapter is highly informative, but from a rather traditional dualistic body–mind paradigm.

The anthology is composed of 10 chapters divided in three parts: (i) the Scientist’s Perspective; (ii) examples from the dance perspective; and III- presentation and reflection on neurocognitive studies of dance and dance as artistic research.Some of the basic research questions are:

  • How do science and dance art work with experimental approaches to get new knowledge and what kinds of knowing do we then get from a scientific approach and an artistic approach?
  • How is teaching and learning influenced by new neurocognitive knowledge?
  • How can art and science inspire and fertilize each other?
  • How is experiment, research and artistic form and quality related to experiential dimensions, meanings and understanding?
  • How is dance art, creative processes and production influenced by new scientific knowledge?

The primary theme of the book is investigated and answered from the new methodologies of neuroscience in combination with cognition in the first part of the anthology and the artistic and philosophical research questions are the focus of the second and third part.

Chapter one is about control and highly skilled motor performance as such, relating function and emotion to theories of cognitive representation, movement memory and performance based on methodologies of motor learning. The chapter is highly informative, but from a rather traditional dualistic body–mind paradigm. Maybe it could have opened into other understandings of human movement, experience and personal and social meaning as dynamic and sensitive processes developed in classical and contemporary phenomenology of human movement, experience and meaning (Merleau-Ponty 1942/1963; Sheets-Johnstone, 1999; Kirkeby, 2005).

Chapter 2 is about the possibilities of cross-fertilization of art and science with and example of animation as a story line, critical moments and goal postures and relation and connection of key phrases and qualities. This chapter opens interesting reflections on how different ways of training mirror ideals of perfection and movement styles and as such is a theme that has a direct importance in all movement work, whether functional or expressive or both.

Chapter 3 is an investigation and biological analysis of walking. The focus between control and freedom shows a body model related to “subjective experience” (p. 62). Again it is an interesting theme but the paradigm of research leaves the impression of the human being as an object to be manipulated.

Chapter 4 takes up the question of how to study, observe and describe movement. – not an easy task since it is in motion. Here we get examples of methodologies from the hard sciences interrelated with the qualitative languages. How to best verbalize? Through concepts, metaphors or images or? It is of course research questions and answers that can not be evaluated outside of a concrete context. How do we focus? What kinds of ideals are we looking for? How is motion and emotion part of the event?

Chapter 5 investigates how to optimize learning through mental and ideokinetic training. Again basic movement analysis is a crucial element of movement teaching and learning and seven basic elements are distilled as significant to every dance style.

Chapter 6 is about creativity and artistic processes. How can we optimize creative processes and production? Again everything has to be seen in concrete contexts as case possibilities come to expression. This is a chapter that touches the meaning of movement in its own right: Movement is seen as something that is important to explore, to experiment and to experience. It does make a difference to how we become present and what kinds of experiential and sensitive awareness and meaning will open up.

Chapter 7 is about kinesthetics and learning – a great theme pointing at qualitative movement experimentation and experience as the key nuanced experience and understanding of ways of knowing. Again the theme of qualitative movement awareness, experience and observation is the focus of a common interest crossing everyday life practices, art and science.

Chapter 8 discusses the concept of action as a voluntary movement toward a goal. It highlight the conscious and functional dimensions of movement but not the part that has to do with the aesthetic and existential dimensions of expression as a style of being in the world – as styles of relation and meaning creating “felt worlds”. Everyday life and maybe especially art is never only functional and with a rational and function purpose – it has to do with kinetic and kinaesthetic melodies and of making visible “possible worlds”. This has a lot to do with the chosen mainstream scientific paradigm where knowledge is about “control”. Dance is also about control and so is life, but it is not enough to have control; it is very important to be able to dance and change the attitude into a creative and sensitive approach that can open worlds within which it is possible to make dance art – and to be human. It also illustrates how scientific knowledge is about the average or the general, while life and art must go deeply into the reality of the event and in that way investigate the open field of freedom and possible nuances and change.

Both dance therapies, arts and sports could all be important key sources toward an embodied and qualitative nuanced investigation of the intertwining of doing, feeling, experiencing and articulating..

Chapter 9 taps deeply into observation and how physical and observational learning share more commonalities than differences at a neural level. To make the learning from observation optimal is has to be combined with imagining the feeling of doing – that is visual and proprioceptive senses must be trained to intertwine and that is especially what dancers do.The book is is an inspiring discussion of hopes and limits for future artistic research opening into a reflection on the difficulties but also inspirations that might come and hopefully be flowing both ways, from science to art and from art to science.

The book is highly informative and valuable as a cross disciplinary approach toward dialogues between neurocognition and teaching and learning of complex human movement.

I think there is a certain hierarchy in the balance between science and art. It is obvious that science is regarded as a more important and true kind of knowledge than the experiential and intuitive artistic approaches to ways of knowing. But this is exactly the gap that is the bridge of importance to all kinds of knowledge. It could become an opening into artistic and experiential ways of experimenting, as different ways of doing research open into completely different ways of knowing, and certainly broadening what kinds of languages we are allowed to use when do experiments and research.

I think that the cross disciplinary bridge means to acknowledge and give equal importance to these very different approaches and to take serious both quantitative and qualitative discursive knowledge forms, and qualitative, practical, cultural and embodied experiential knowledge forms and in a dynamic and sensitive cross disciplinary meeting open into new dialogues across neurocognition, phenomenology and arts.

This is not mainstream research but it could be a very important way to work toward a new balance in the arts and sciences, developing new ways of understanding teaching, learning and communicating as co-creations of how it is possible to be human.

Both dance therapies, arts and sports could all be important key sources toward an embodied and qualitative nuanced investigation of the intertwining of doing, feeling, experiencing and articulating. As such it would open into new multidimensional and dynamic understandings of awareness, presence and co-creation as dimensions of being and as such as social and unique experiments and inspirations of ways of being human.

Valuable inspirational sources for further embodied inquiry and dialogues with this anthology could be experiential, narrative and performative methodologies e.g. from the July/August issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies with the theme neuroplasticity and consciousness (Michael, 2011; Sheets-Johnstone, 2011), Performative Social Science(Jones et al. 2008; Winther, 2008) pedagogical phenomenology (Svendler Nielsen, 2009) and poetics of movement (Engel et al. (ed.), 2006).



Engel, Lis, Rønholt, Helle, Svendler Nielsen, Charlotte, Winther, Helle (eds) (2006) bevægelsens poetic – om den æstetiske dimension i bevægelse. København: Museum Tusculanums Forlag.

Jones, Kip (Special Issue Editor) and Mary Gergen, John J. Guiney Yallop, Irene Lopez de Vallejo, Brian Roberts & Peter Wright (Co-Editors) (2008) Performative Social Science. Vol 9, No 2

Michael, John (20011) Editorial introduction. Neuroplasticity. Journal of Consiousness Studies, Vol 18, No 7-8.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine (2001) The corporeal turn: reflections on awareness and Gnostic tactility and kinaesthesiaJournal of Consiousness Studies, Vol 18, No 7-8, 145-169.

Svendler Nielsen, C. (2009). Ind i bevægelsen – et performativt fænomenologisk feltstudie om kropslighed, mening og kreativitet i børns læreprocesser i bevægelsesundervisning i skolen. [Into the movement: a performative phenomenological field study about embodiment, meaning and creativity in children’s learning processes in movement education in schools]. PhD Thesis. Copenhagen: Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, University of Copenhagen

Winther, Helle (2009). Bevægelsespsykologi – Kroppens sprog og bevægelsens psykologi med udgangspunkt i danseterapiformen Dansergia Ph.d. afhandling København: Institut for Idræt, Københavns Universitet.







© Lis Engel 2012.

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