• Hannah Friebel

Choreographing Empathy and Community: an exegesis By Hannah Friebel

The following topics raise many questions; what is the purpose of dance for an audience? What is the purpose of dance for a practitioner? Why do we dance? These questions reflect my recent considerations and run deep within the dance industry, changing in answer from person to person depending on their relationship to the art form. Undeniably though, music, coupled with dance and song are known to have preceded language, and they are highly important for group survival, forming a universal basis for emotional communication (McGilchrist 2012, p. 103).

From these considerations of ancient anthropology, we move into the present-day climate. The discussion points for the observation of dance have been changing over time; where once theatrical dance was primarily about the physical aesthetics, now, greater emphasis is continuing to be placed upon the dancer-audience transference of firstly, kinaesthetic empathy from body to body (Foster, 2011), secondly, empathetic connection from body to feeling, and thirdly abstract cognitive transference from body to mind. It is these three empathetic responses that embody my interest in exploration in the bulk of this exegeis. “Empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of [holistic] human health” (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010, p. 1), with its concepts overlapping many aspects of dance.

The topic of kinaesthetic empathy and ‘kinaesthesia’ has been of interest since the 1880’s. Kinaesthesia, as coined by perceptual psychologist, James Gibson, has lately developed alongside concepts of neurobiology, to explain how the brain senses bodily movements. Kinaesthetic sympathy has been explained by John Martin as an audience having the capacity to “actually reproduce [movement] vicariously in our present muscular experience”. Martin asserts that viewers actively partake in the same kinaesthetic experience as the performing dancers (Foster, 2011, p. 7), using the same parts of the brain as dancers. He explains that the responses of an audience are to dance ‘synthetically’ – an inward dance, or “inner mimicry” – in their chairs. Their responses are registered by movement-sense receptors, which awaken the same emotional associations to those which are awakened in the dancers themselves (Martin, 1939, p. 53).

Similar to the research mentioned above, mirror neurons have been used to explain the scientific phenomena that occur in circumstances of dancers and audience members. ‘Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action’ (Winerman 2005, p. 1). Mirror neurons were first discovered during brain research with monkeys in the early 1990’s, with further studies involving humans. Neuroscientist, Gallese explains that the neural mechanism of mirror neurons is involuntary and automatic: an innate knowing and feeling (rather than forced thought) of what other people are experiencing. For example, at a football game, whilst the spectators will not actually make the motion of kicking a football upon observing a match, their body will respond to the environmental activity through a heightened embodied response – increased heart rate, blood pressure and movement of legs and arms. Whilst a complex topic, music and dance can be related in the kinaesthetic empathy process. Music itself has the capacity to initiate movement such as foot tapping or the ‘feeling of just having to dance’. Similarly, the yearning that follows your experiences as you are engrossed in a dance performance are similar to these responses. Performances of Pina Bausch (Loriti, 2016), particularly in her work ‘Café Muller’, exemplify this notion quite accurately. As a viewer I feel an inner mimicry that responds to the movements made on stage; the slow, expressive movements of the dancer; the rushing rearrangement of chairs as the dancer moves through the space; the haunting repetition of movements between two dancers appearing as lovers. And the sweet relief of stillness, as the dancers embrace. All of these instances are something I can feel internally as I watch the piece – my own internal dance that occurs through observation, reflecting a transferred state of emotion as the body of the dancer expresses something that touches the emotions of the audience.

What we see effects our body in a certain way. It is an instinctive seeing the other, which leads to feeling in the self. This process uses the movement sense receptors, seen in monkey research as mentioned earlier, but also in therapy groups as well. Bessel van Der Kolk (2014, p. 213) was involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 – where he experienced the power of movement and music within a rape therapy group. The women were previously sad and frozen; slumped over. They portrayed a hopeless disposition, and then through humming, followed by a gentle sway back and forth, they created rhythm that emerged and encouraged others to join in one by one. Soon the women were all moving, singing and getting up to dance. The transformative power of movement and music relating to affect and the processing of trauma can be seen here.

Beyond the processing of trauma, the discovery of mirror neurons and their relationship to movement has revealed a connection to facilitating empathetic responses. Studies have shown that there may be a connection with these concepts to the lack of empathy experienced by those with autism. The essence of empathy has been described as a person’s ability stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there, and to care about making it better if it hurts. With empathy, you feel the other person’s pain. You’re feeling sorry with them, not just for them. People who have autism, are depressed, or have borderline personality disorder may struggle with empathy (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010, p. 82). Furthermore, Koch and colleagues (2017, p. 863-881) explain that patients with schizophrenia suffer from a fundamental impairment of the embodied self, experiencing their body or parts of it as alien, the outer world as alien, and themselves separate from it. Koch and colleagues assert that Dance Movement Therapy offer such patients a complete form of self-experience, integrative ways to experience their bodies, ways to express their emotions, ways to enter into contact with others and ways to experience their own and others’ boundaries more realistically. It is clear that the embodiment of dance and movement could be a step towards recovery for these people.

New research (Music, 2011), now widely recognised as Attachment Theory explores the concepts of ‘Interpersonal Attunement’, a phrase referring to deep connection, as in two people singing in harmony, that illustrates a mutual bond of understanding and empathy. This is usually initiated within the first two years of a child’s life, a time of intense brain development and most often, nurture (Van Der Kolk, 2015, p. 112). Sometimes children experience trauma in these early years, where they lack the reception of empathy, or the mother is incapable of expressing this attunement and love, leaving a deficit. For those who have struggled in this area, regardless of diagnosis, perhaps a more abstract exchange of empathy through dance expression would be less confronting and more beneficial in their recovery process.

My experience this year in teaching the Big Dance (Deakin University, 2018) to low functioning children with autism has encouraged my consideration of this possibility. The teaching of simplified movements was an avenue for communication and connection with the children, especially because some were non-verbal[1]. The feedback from parents has also been encouraging, with a strong feeling of social inclusion and increased confidence gained for their children.

Contemporary dance principles have been used in a more collective basis to increase empathetic connection and as a driver for social change. Goldman (2010, p. 96) identified links between contact improvisation or post-modern dance techniques, with the non-violent protest techniques of the civil rights movement in America. Goldman proposes that ‘nonviolent noncooperation requires a technique of the body which in many ways resembles what contemporary choreographers refer to as release technique’, but in the context of civil disobedience, the movement technique has intense political and spiritual ramifications.

Likewise, empathic connections have the capacity to occur in multiple and diverse ways (Foster, 2011, p. 218), based on a communal foundation of shared experience. The historical role of dance/movement and military drills for example create a ‘muscular bonding’ experience for soldiers going into battle. Roman tactics from over 1500 years ago were to use marching as a tool to settle any discomposure in the mind, giving a calm and cheerful attitude as soldiers moved towards their deadly fight. Their invincibility in the battleground was attributed to marching in step (Van Der Kolk, p. 334), side by side. A chant for victory often accompanied this, linking movement with sound in ways that were advantageous for the country.

The restoration and strengthening of minority communities has become a heightened concern in maintaining cultures of old. Dance has been used to facilitate this in many instances, such as Aboriginal Koroboree, Native American and other community groups. Szalavitz and Perry (2010, p. 204) record that Indigenous people who have been disenfranchised are given the opportunity for transgenerational healing through the participation in dance in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This work is in response to damage done by alcohol, drugs and sex, involving some form of musical leadership with drumming and voice, mixed age groups and a mix of traditional dance and improvisation. The old patterns, old rhythms and repetitive aspects help members of the culture be cooperative in their social life, with collaboration and increased empathy. Jewish culture also holds a strong value on the participation in dance, with dance coming close to a form of worship. Their dance form celebrates their social struggles and victory of overcoming. Therefore, in Australia, within our multicultural society, there is continuing need to both integrate and celebrate our unity and our difference. The preservation of cultural dance is important, because it is a humble, gentle form of connection that does not hold a political agenda. What’s more, in a situation where fear of the other is so easily engendered, dance provides a powerful counterbalance.

Since the start of 2017, I have been using dance within the context of community development in my local community of faith, Bayside Church (Bayside Church, 2018). Throughout the course of the program’s existence, within the context of weekly sessions, I have seen younger and older aged people come together and form relationships that run deeper than most others. I have seen shy young girls develop their confidence in their identity, and hope in the world. I have seen girls flourish in their ability to express themselves and feel understood, developing their freedom of expression. This is all through the medium of dance. What’s more, is that they have performed many times on a stage in front of multiple hundreds of people. These young women have described their experience as one like none other, with one girl, Alana saying that within the six weeks of rehearsing in Dance Ministry, she had developed relationships that ran deeper than her two-year matured friendships in high school. Bringing dance into the context of this community has helped the dancers, but also helped the audience to appreciate and connect with the dancers, building stronger relationships between people groups. My observation has been that the informal connections between various age groups has been strengthened throughout the process.

I have felt fulfillment through this process and watched the power of dance unfold in a community development setting. I consider that the embodiment of dance provides a common shared experience – or challenge to overcome – for a troupe of people. To work together, to develop a technical skill, the rehearse an item over and over in pursuit of excellence; all these things are involved in the practice of dance and contribute greatly to the development of a sense of belonging and motivation within society.

Therefore, in this essay I have answered some of my original questions, but only in part. Dance has value for the practitioner and it can be a tool for empathetic connection with others. There is kinaesthetic empathy from body to body, which is linked to interpersonal attunement. Furthermore, there is an empathetic connection between a moving body and enabling a receptive audience to engage in emotional transference. Finally, the simple illustration of military marching drill, could actually be more complex than we realise, identifying a strong connection between the body and mind in movement. These topics highlight an area to consider for ongoing research in the future, to further realise the undeniable ways dance contributes to the development of empathy and community for the progression of our society in years to come.



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