Ah, the fail-safe comment of a contemporary dance audience member as they leave the auditorium. If watching contemporary dance is merely 'interesting' in quote marks - ergo, bewildering, baffling, even meaningless - then why go?

Surely dance should evoke something deeper. In The Performer-Audience Connection (1983), anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna suggests the infamous Nijinsky was the first choreographer to seek out a kinaesthetic response in his audience. By diversifying the ballet vocabulary into something more modern - and do see L'Apres-midi d'un Faune (1912) for a choice example or two - he encouraged audiences to 'feel' the movements they were watching on-stage. But is this the primary reason audiences watch contemporary dance? The relatively unchartered field of dance psychology has recently attempted to start tackling this.

Now, despite my primary interest being in contemporary dance, the research just doesn't seem to be that specialised yet (although correct me if I'm wrong); this article is merely a glimpse. The two studies I considered looked at ballet, and various styles respectively.

In an abstract from Jang and Pollick (2011) - apologies, no full-article access for this one - they discuss how their research compared brain scans of three groups: ballet dancers (those with motor experience), experienced dance viewers (e.g. dance critics) and novices (those with neither previous dance practice nor viewing experience). After each group viewed short ballet clips, it emerged that the ballet dancers and the experienced dance viewers produced more 'extensive early processing' of dance actions when watching, than those with no previous dance experience. What this appears to suggest is that autobiographical memories of dance spring to mind when watching.

Whilst this does not justify why we go to watch dance - rather, how we respond to watching it - it can offer a suggestion. If dancers experience a more emotional response to watching dance than newcomers, then presumably, they would be more likely to go and see dance again. For them, watching elicits empathy; they feel a lived experience through watching.

But if experienced dance viewers also have this connection - the critics group - this serves to question where watching dance began for these types. What motivated them to go and start watching and writing in the first place? Were they critics in other fields (like dance critic Arlene Croce, who originally reviewed films), or were they dancers themselves at one stage? And if they were neither... what made them keep coming back?

Let's go back a year. Reason and Reynolds (2010), looking to delve deeply into the motivations of dance watchers, gathered their data from interviews and discussions. This led to detailed results with a number of shared motivations for watching dance emerging, such as musical responses, admiration of virtuosity, sensuality and escapism. Any of those sound familiar?

On the whole though, they recognised an emerging trend for 'kinesthetic empathy (sic)' as a motivation for dance watching. (Other favoured terms include 'muscular sympathy' 'metakinesis', or, my personal favourite, 'proprioception'). Their results showed that audiences go to feel an embodiment of the movement performed on stage, be it an acknowledgment of their own bodies' lack of technique by comparison ('wow, how do they kick their legs so high?') or the feeling that they too could share the stage with such dancers ('wow, I want to be up there'). Audiences seek to test their bodies' capabilities from the comfort of their seats.

Reason and Reynolds (2010) also noted, as did Jang and Pollick (2011), that those with experience of a certain style were more inclined to feel kinaesthetic empathy when watching that style. Watching ballet when you are a Kathak dancer just isn't going to move you (no pun intended) in the same way. Familiarity breeds empathy, in this case.

So far, it seems that research has largely gained insight into why people choose to watch dance, by observing their responses during or after watching. But that doesn't explain the initial decision made in purchasing that ticket. Again, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to have largely gone unexplored.

What is really fascinating is why the 'novices', as Jang and Pollick (2011) call them, go along. They can't all be partners of dance critics, friends of dance students, or loved ones of performers, as we sometimes bitterly assume. Non-dance types who like watching dance - make yourselves known.

For more of my musings on this, take a look at this article from 2013.


Hanna, J. L. (1983) The Performer-Audience Connection. Texas: University of Texas Press.

Jang, S. H. & Pollick, F. E. (2011) Experience Influences Brain Mechanisms of Watching Dance. Dance Research Journal, 29, 352-377.

Johnson-Small, J. (2012) Watching Dance. Bellyflop Magazine [blog] 19 April. Available here [Accessed 22 June 2016]

Reason, M., and Reynolds, D. (2010) Kinesthesia, Empathy, and Related Pleasures: An Inquiry into Audience Experiences of Watching Dance. Dance Research Journal, 42 (2), 49-75.

Theodores, D. (1996) First We Take Manhattan. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.