What is Dance?

Posted by Rick Tjia On 2nd Jul 2018 In Rick Tjia

A few years ago, I was asked the question “What is Dance?” And when I was asked, I immediately thought, “I can tell you what dance is in one paragraph.” And I can. The request to answer the question in a formal writing would seem like an excuse to open a Pandora’s box of some long, controversial analysis worth bringing in international experts and creating world forums to discuss, creating new committees and associations, and starting up research projects... but to me it is intrinsically simple. So I’ll answer the question quickly and then go on to something else.

Here goes:

Dance is joy, dance is pain, dance is love, dance is physical screaming, dance is physical attraction, dance is spirituality, dance is nourishment, dance is draining, dance is essential. Dance is harsh discipline, dance is repetition, dance is formal, dance is codified, dance is improvised, dance is undefined, dance is clearly defined, dance is inconsistency of form. Dance is expression, and dance is communication. Dance is social.

Dance is intrinsic and visceral.

Dance is language.

Dance is animal. Make no mistake, we are animals.

“I can’t dance.” “I don’t dance.” Those two quotes are wrong.

There is no doubt in my mind; in the beginning everyone dances. Everyone dances, everyone sings, everyone plays music on something or other. Everyone draws. And if we don’t stop people from doing it, they’ll do it again. And again. They do it on their own; they do it when no one else is watching or listening. And then someone does watch, and it all becomes a bit different.

We do all this for own well-being; we do it because it is natural. We do it because we need to do it. We do it before anyone tells us that it is a thing to do. Everyone is born an artist. And yet when we do this thing (that very young children do instinctually), although most of us will agree that it is self-expression, we hesitate to call it art. We do it as children because it makes us feel good, and we do it to make ourselves not feel bad. Or less bad, as the case may be.

Adults do it for the same reasons. Sometimes we don’t do it until we have great problems to overcome, at which point we discover that we can find solace or balance in dance, or music, or writing... It becomes part of a healing process—or what has become a healing process, probably because somewhere along our childhood we stopped doing it. And stuff accumulated. But, agreed, when we hear about friends or family doing this, we don’t always call what they do art. So when does it become art?

I have, in past speeches, defined what I believe to be the moment that this type of self- expression becomes art, and I think it is appropriate to repeat that definition here.

Art becomes art the moment someone else perceives it. Before that, it is therapy.

Everyone is born an artist; the question is whether or not we decide to make a living off of art. Once you decide to do that, you aim to become professional, and the entire game changes.

There are things in this life we do to make a living and there are things that we live for. Dance, as all other art forms, falls into the latter category. When you become a professional dancer, both categories become one and the same. But when that happens we can no longer approach dancing, nor can we approach creating dance, in the same way as when we were amateurs.

As dance is expression, obviously dance is about how we feel. How “I” feel. When you choose to become a professional though, this can no longer be the sole driving factor.

As a professional we now have to be able to express other people's concepts, other people's visions, and in fact, other people's feelings. Obviously we cannot be 100% separated from our own self-expression, or we would not be authentic in our interpretation. But now we are portraying other people's stories; trying to express how we believe others might feel.

And on top of that, we now ask people in an audience to buy a ticket to watch. As a professional, suddenly it's not just about expressing yourself anymore; now you have to touch someone else. So even if you are a dancer and a choreographer and you’re performing your own show, your own creation (as opposed to someone else’s)—you have still requested that other people be in the room and that they give you their undivided attention.

So you have taken on the responsibility of being interesting not only to yourself, but to others. Suddenly it is no longer just about you; it's about us. You, me, and the lady sitting next to me with the sequined dress on. The gentleman with thick glasses in the front row. The mother of three in the back row who has forfeited lunch for three days in order to be able to buy a ticket— to watch you.

Therapy is about me; art is about us.

The challenge is how much you can please your audience without compromising your own personality. Those who find that balance are, in my eyes, successful.

Dance is language. Dance is communication.

And communication is a two-way street. When you include an audience, communication becomes a dialogue. It is a relationship we build with an audience, in almost every sense of the word. The artist cannot just talk, he has to listen as well.

So although dance must be about the self, it cannot be self-centered. Dance is social, so inclusion is paramount. "I dance for me.” Yes, but once it's done with someone else in the room, it's never "just for me”.

But the gravitation towards the “me” is perfectly understandable. Every professional reading this knows what I’m talking about when I say that the dance profession is excruciatingly hard work, and often with little tangible reward. It is hard work that builds the need for our effort to be recognized, but the dancer’s profession is for the most part non-gratifying. So it is natural to seek public approval in order to get that feeling of value, of self worth, of appreciation. And of course, the public usually obliges, because the public needs its heroes as well. If you catch their eye, you become one of those.

When the dancer ceases to understand the line between supporting the sense of self-worth and absolute idolatry... well, we’ve all seen it happen a million times. This is when stardom becomes unhealthy, as the two-way relationship turns into one-way communication. It reverts back to only “me" and obliterates the “us.” Dance is social, and when it ceases to become social, we are not well.

After all, we are human, and humans are social. To come back to the original question, dance is a social animal.

Dance is animal. Make no mistake, we are animals.

And this is the phrase that probably sums it up the best, even without the rest of the paragraph answering the question “What is dance?” Dance is animal. And make no mistake, we are animals.

I said earlier that in the beginning everyone dances. Everyone dances, everyone sings, everyone plays music on something or other. Everyone draws. And if we don’t stop people from doing it, they’ll do it again. And again.

But at some point, for some societally historic reason in our North American and neo-European culture, we do stop them. It is my firm belief that we should not.

What else is dance? Dance is physical expression of imprecise emotions (as there are, in reality, no other kind).

Meaning that I have spoken enough now and should shut up. Shut up and dance. 

Rick Tjia



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