Normativity, power and body politics in dance field

This essay is an attempt to describe and analyze different aspects of normativity, power relations and body politics in dance sphere. The aim is to demonstrate how power is imposed in dance regarding feminist theories, to study the achievement of a normative „ideal body“  through training and how hierarchical relations are inscribed to the underlying institutional part of dance as an art form.

Dance and social order

New fields of theoretical background have been applied in dance studies, to study the inter- and intracultural performances, the minorities and possible discriminative paradigms. For instance gender-studies and postcolonial studies belong to the contemporary theoretical discourse of dance ,  the key notions also include migration and ethnic segmentation. It is clearly noticeable that dance reflects the existing social order, performances are constantly reacting to it, the most avangard of these trying to question the habitual understanding and social rules whether by satiric approach or performative demolishing of traditional structures.

In „Dance, politics & co-immunity“, Gerald Siegmund and Stefan Hölscher expand on the subject of dance and social order, politics and communities in contemporary world. Dance and its artistic communities are seen as a model for neo-liberal flexibility and self-exploitation (Siegmund, Hölscher 2013:8). The large number of freelancers in dance field creates certain tensions between institutional structures, financing systems and creative workers. On the background of creating art, lies the socio-economical system where the possibilities of training, rehearsing and producing are determined by a wider filed of political decisions. Dance has been slowly forged into a social practice from the day it emerged as a cultural sign system.

As Siegmund and Hölscher notice, the relationship between dance, politics and social norms or rules has been pointed out already in the earliest texts on dance, for example the ones concerning Baroque dances. Mark Franko has introduced the notion of „total technobody“ to describe the body of a baroque dancer, an agent in negotiating signs and physical demands in order to produce a body that is neither the body of the individual dancer nor the body of the king. The third body emerges through dancing, recorpolizing the ideal of the state as constructed physical reality. (Siegmund, Hölscher 2013:8-9) Here we can note the way how bodies begin to signify power: under some circumstances, physical bodies become the  symbols of actual legislative or executive power.

The notion „politics of dance“ indicates how choreography and dancing bodies have become a ground for relations between bodies and the symbolic orders of societies. As Siegmund and Hölscher argue, the term„political dance“ might indicate to the dance pieces expressing political or social content, but it can also signify the institutional web (dancers, audience, producers in an hierarchical relationship) therefore the term refers to criticality (Siegmund,Hölscher 2013:11). The internal critique of the system characterizes the newest, contemporary dance where the individual artistic decisions and autonomous artist are seen as the highest value. This kind of approach and attitude questions the working mechanisms, power relations and political decisions behind artistic work.

The general critical approach sees dance as field of power relations rooted in bodily being. The relations and overall impression of dancing bodies on stage can be seen as the reflections of hegemonic  society, be it the expression of the suppression of certain groups or patriarchy. Body can hold the role of a metaphorical-symbolical battle field of different groups of interest. While classical ballet can be seen as the most traditional and institutional sphere, contemporary dance has always been on the forefront of liberating bodies, emancipating everyday movements and treating almost every kind of aesthetics and movement style as acceptable. When moving from classical to contemporary dance styles, the normative aspect and body politics have therefore been superseded by multiplicity of perspectives and approaches regarding body image and techniques. The concept of „ideal body“ has been replaced with the concept „all bodies are suitable for dancing and peforming“. The institutional and social system behind each performances adds to it the nuances connected with political motives even if the concrete performances does not adress these themes explicitly.

Political dance

Colette Conroy, the editor of „Theatre and the body“, has stated in her introduction that „the body is a site of power, and a site where power can be questioned and explored“ (Conroy 2010:5) which indicates that there exists a framework of power upon the body in culture. Through history, bodies and body techniques have included regulations, sometimes strict rules how to behave, move, sit, walk in a socially acceptable, civilized manner. Body has been used (and still is) as a territory that is manipulated or controlled and throughout this very manipulation certain normative behaviour modes have been introduced. Dance as the essentially bodily art offers possibilities to reflect on these restrictions and helps to line out the ways through which power relations are acted out.

In the forementioned polygraph, André Lepecki describes how the body is seen as a reservoir of dissensual somatic-political capacities. The question is how aesthetics of an art necessitate the activation of a semantic  field resonant with dance – revealing the kinetic unconscious underlying contemporary political-philosophical thought. (Lepecki 2013:23) Rancière has pointed out how the task of politics is to invent bodies and to discover new ways of sensing, new configurations – that is new bodily capacities (Ranciere 139; Lepecki 2013:23). Artistic research therefore becomes the way of articulating the tendencies in local sociopolitical landscape, the chosen aesthetics might reflect or comment the relevant questions through the dancers’ use of body. The overall movement styles help to through light on the content level while being physical and somatic in their own being. The attitude of executing movements on-stage might indicate different social agendas or motives. Sometimes the performance might even literally demonstrate power mechanisms, totalitarity, therefore physically designating the mechanisms of controlling human beings.

One of the examples of such kind of direct portrait has been the dance performance by Küllike Roosna and Kenneth Flak named „The Wolf Project“. That work turned towards totalitarian regimes and the abuse ofpower, narrating the story of deportation of estonians, among whom was also the grandmother of the director Roosna. It was a movement based research of power and suppression mechanisms that through expressive and powerful choreography draw the picture of controlling and manipulating individuals in the totalitarian regime. That performance showed how to embody  a collective cultural trauma and political violence by using bodily means of contemporary dance.[1]

Bojana Kunst has written about „dancing politics“ in the context of literally political performances that turn audience’s attention to social problems and imbalances on the content level. Kunst illustrates it with the example of choreographer Dana Yahalomi who created a dance collective named  Public Movement to make passage into politics through choreographies that are inscribed into the bodily knowledge of individuals. Or as Yahalomi herself puts it: „Politics exists within our bodies, as an often dormant knowledge“ (Kunst 2013:53). It seems that politics and society is one of the undercurrencies of dance: the latter can argue, demolish or question the existing order and dictates. One of the brightest examples of that kind of political dance is the work of group DV8. DV8 Physical Theatre has produced expressive and efficacious works that deal with ethnic segmentation, gender stereotypes and cultural conflicts already for decades.

Instead of body politic, we can perhaps trace a certain „body politics“ – the general discoursive hegemonic framework that lies behind different bodily practices, including dance. This kind of politics bears the regulative rules that are connected to human bodies as instruments. There are certain ways of executing movements in different dance styles during different eras, with the purpose to form a capable, sensible, effective body. Through institutional layers it can lead down to the implicit norms which state what kind of movement or body techniques are feminine, what kind of them masculine, how to provoke aesthetical cognitive sensations, what movement modalities are looked on as correct ones. Such regulations can be seen as bodily restrictions, deliberating subjective movement and bodies, therefore bodily autonomy in its widest sense.

Training and ideal body

As an art form that uses body as its medium, the main normative ideals and categories in dance are directly derived from the human body. Through history, body has been regarded as an instrument, implying the futuristic idea of body as a machine and there have been certain characteristics attributed to dancing bodies, both male and female. The main question is that of the suitable or ideal body. Fortunately, since the rise of contemporary dance, the limits of bodies on stage have been taken down. Contemporary dance paradigm demolished the idea of norms – every kind of body was allowed, every kind of body was accepted as a performative body. Yet, in the earlier stages of modern dance and in classical ballet, a search for a ideal, trained, proportional body is clearly noticeable. This throws light to the mechanisms of controlling bodies through the bodily image, through the clearly normative and socioculturally constructed guidelines that describe an ideal body.

Bojana Kunst has described this process as internalization: dancers internalize the relational component of the movement in a precise way, they rehearse and train to make the qualitative aspect of movement visible. It is necessary to hide the qualitative change in virtuosity, then the movement can take over autonomously and become a quantitative change of steps, directions dominations over space and time (Kunst 60-61). The aim has been to achieve professional standars, normative movement vocabulary and a skillful, efficient body. The trained body is able to execute specific movements without bigger effort, the movement codes have already been internalized. The normative frame of training is directly derivedon the basis of dance institution, traditions and different training techniques that are combined in the dance education.Jelica Šumic-Riha has also stated that dance is always surpassing the phantasm of the institution which is training the body to become skilled. (Šumic-Riha 1997, Kunst 2013:61)

In her article on the roles and stereotypes in dance, Sally Gardner points out that the terms „choreographer“ and „dancer“ have a history of cultural discoursive power that is based on a division of labour. Clark and Crisp position these roles as classical dichotomies, such as mind-body, idea-matter and see it as an instrumental relationship. Gardner turns our attention towards the role of training in socities, as it was described by Foucault in his „Discipline and Punish“. Gardner argues that training as Foucault understands it, has been integral to modernity. The history of ballet, although not discussed by Foucault, is closely articulated to the wider history of training regimes. (Gardner 2014) In certain dance fields, for instance classical ballet, the bodily training or realignment of one’s body is an essentially relevant process.

Gender roles, female body

A wide subject related to power relations and reproducing hierarchical relations in dance is the female body on stage. In the context of feminism and Western gender codes, Sally Banes has studied the presentation of women in choreography and performance in her book  „Dancing Women.Female Bodies on Stage“,  addressing the question how these create cultural representations of gender identities. Author stresses the role of existing canon, the canon which is inherited, related to memory and cultural capital and can not be left out. (Banes 1998: 11). She reflects upon the representation of women’s agency on stage to bring out hegemony and hierarchically structured and institutionalized dance field. The feminist approach studies dance as the field where patriarchy shows itself in the stereotype portaying of female characters in dance. Women are seen as the weaker gender which is also expressed in choreographies.

According to Conroy, the notion „performative gender“ posits the idea that bodies appear within a regulative frame, forming a part of politicised discursive structures. (Conroy 2010:61)The gender on-stage can also be seen as a legacy of discourse. The certain movement styles have been charaterized as feminine or masculine, while the portraying of women in traditional dance styles like ballet has been largely influenced by old stereotypes showing women as overly sensitive human beings who need the support of a powerful male character.

Gender is instituted through the stylization of the body, movements and gestures acted out help to confirm and create the gendered self, as Butler argues in her essay. (Butler 1988:519) Just like gender roles have been formed and developed in society as general, the gender stereotypes has been reflected in performances. The contemporary dance field has turned a lot attention to the stereotypic female body, the aspect of „male gaze“,nudity and the traditional gender roles, critizising the forementioned attitudes using different aesthetical and performative means, offering the female body anew type of subjectivity and autonomity.

Discourse and body paradigma

Conroy has described the dance discourse and overall bodily paradigm through the dichotomy „private-public“ as she turns toward the process of presenting personal relationships and private sensations on stage. „The discursively and sociologically instituted reduction or exclusion of the so-called ‘private’ or personal aspects of social life needs to be resisted if the ‘non-professional’—that is the relatively intimate physical and personalised relationships of modern dance practices are to be reclaimed.“ (Conroy 2010:4) So, in dance field, the subjects that are usually kept private, might become social and public in certain discourse. The constant balancing between private and public body is the question that lies behind every performance that demonstrate nudity or intimacy as their artistic declaration.

Conroy stresses that the conventions of presenting and viewing bodies on stage, the prescriptions on what sorts of bodies may appear onstage, the relation between inert body and its movement are connected to how we watch and appreciate performing arts. (Conroy 4) Author regards the notion of the body as an overall paradigm, a conceptual framework and expands on how performing arts explore and articulate ideas about bodily experiences. (Conroy 7)

Butler has written about the phenomenological theory of ‘acts,’ presented by Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead, according to which social agents constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign. (Butler  1988:519) Acting out social self and the existing symbolic order finds its expression in bodies on stage. The manners that are organizing our social reality can often be portrayed using physical possbilities and choreographical solutions. Dancing or moving in larger sense, is rooted in performative practice in away that in movements artists can act out other arbitrary sign systems, social manners and communication habits. By doing that, body becomes the performative signifier of meanings that might belong to abstract social sphere, in behaviour and cultural traditions.

Abnormal bodies

The aspect of estrangement might be connected to the body that falls out of the cultural categories of known and aesthetically pleasing. Body that is used or presented  in unhabitual performance modalities. Conroy points out how some performances and are searching for bodily limits while including pain, human endurance and boundaries of the lived body (Conroy 2010:8). She has equally turned attention to the discomfort among audience coming from the uncanny image or use of body. It happens when our habitual ways of reading a body does not work, or a body changes expectations resulting in a confused or frightened spectator (Conroy 26-27). It is important to keep in mind that such categories are relative and are usually constantly developing and changing through eras. The ways of interpreting dance and physical performances are also evolving in dialogue with new bodily aesthetics used in dance field. The use of abnormal bodies is perhaps the clearest rebellion towards the ideal and normative body. This kind of performances do not set limits to the performing bodies: there are choreographers that are creating choreographies for disabled dancers  or the choreographers who are keen to naturalistic aesthetics where body is seen as a mass of moving flesh. This approach defends the liberation of bodily existence, the natural ways of human body.

Cultural bodies and appropriation

Judith Butler has stated that the notion of the body is an abstraction carrying regulatory systems, for example gender.“The body is only known through its gendered appearance“ (Butler 1988:406).

Bodies are not empty of meanings,they are socio- cultural texts. Conroy has stressed that in theatre we can read bodies in a controlled and intentional context. This gives way to a communicative process: our thoughts and perception as an audience is a social response to a shared cultural text. She states that the public conventions of bodies in theatre change just like the concepts of body in science and philosophy. (Conroy 2010:41)

Susan Bordo has pointed out how cultural representations  are incorporated into the image of the self. In her “Unbearable Weight“  she writes how the body is a medium of culture – a text to be read and written through action, clothing, dress – but also a direct locus of social control (Bordo 1993:165). While describing phenomenological viewpoint, Conroy points out that the body image is not a reflection of an objective body. Rather it is dynamic, based on the inner preception and relationship to the world. (Conroy 2010:55) The ideal body is the ultimate goal opposed to multiple, „normal“ bodies that are untrained, therefore have not been placed into a regulated, normative system. The stricter the regulations and norms, the more controlled becomes one’s own body image,which can be detected especially in classical ballet where young people are often facing eating disorders and mental problems connected to low self-esteem rising from the pressure of accomplishing ideal body. The body image is often imposed on bodies from outside (the media, society, culture, institutions), the image that helps to construct the self cannot involve and develop naturally, autonomously.

Butler has pointed out that body is embodying cultural and historical possibilities, it is a process of appropriation (Butler 1988:403). We embody and perform cultural ideals, living is a whole history of bodily action, interaction and interpretation (Conroy 2010:57). In contemporary dance, we can notice how these underlying approriation processes are brought into daylight, revealing the mechanisms through bodies are formed cultural and social. The individual subjective body is always influenced by the collective idea of what a body should be and look like. The questioning of such socially constructed ideas and liberating individual bodies isone of the positive sides of contemporary dance paradigm.

Desexualized body and nudity on stage

A good example that illustrates the social constructions in the context of sexualized body can be found among the latest performances given in Estonia. Doris Uhlich’s „more than naked“  that was performed in Estonia in the autumn turned towards the naked body. Here, the body as sexualized phenomenon is opposed to the body as a neutral material. The performers’ bodies have been emptied of sexual meanings.  Here, the body is not a signifier, rather it becomes the signified, it is presented as Ding an Sich. The body itself in its whole physicality is the purpose not a vessel of meanings. Through the reduction of the sexuality, these bodies are given sociocultural neutrality and the extra layers are ripped off. Nudity in contemporary dance is quite a habitual artistic take to desexualize or liberate the human body. It is often used to demonstrate the critique towards traditional conservative gender roles.

Additionally, performer’s body on-stage is subjected to the spectator’s gaze,  a relation is built here: the one who is looking and the one who is looked at or watched by others (usually strangers).  The audience’s attitude is applied on the performer’s body that is autonomous, yet recieving their reactions all the time. It can raise questions like whether the audience members have power over the performers bodies or vice versa and in what extent.

According to Kunst, the aesthetic and political differences at the beginning of the 20th century were connected the processes of interiorization of movement on different levels, making a change in the approach of contemporary choreographers. Dance artists’s aim was to liberate movement and bodily expression as a force from the inside. Through these reforms human subjectivity became an ultimate form of subjectivity. (Kunst 2013:66) During last decades in dance field have recognized the tearing down of strict norms and bodily restrictions. The contemporary dancing body lends from every possible dance technique, combining the suitable choreography following the individuality of one’s own body. The institutional background helps to provide finances and performing possibilities rather to narrow down the expressive qualities of dancers to objective ideals and rules. Every day movements have been introduced as adequate movements for dance performances, bodies onstage come in every possible form, there have been performances choreographed especially for disabled people. Oppression, gender stereotypes and discrimination have been explored as relevant topics in dance. It all shows a tendency towards liberate society, towards the choice of freedom in bodily discourse and dance as an art form.


Sally Banes  „Dancing Women. Female Bodies on Stage“, Routledge, 1998

Judith Butler „Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory“, Theatre Journal vol. 40, No. 4. (Dec., 1988)

Colette Conroy „Theatre and the body“ , Palgrave MacMillan, 2010

Sally Gardner „Gendering discourses in modern dance“

Gerald Siegmund, Stefan Hölscher (ed.) „Dance, politics & co-immunity“ , diaphanes, 2013


[1] A longer description and analysis can be found as an article on international dance writing web –

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