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Dance and Meaning. Is there a Conceptual Thinking in Dance? Kultursemiotik und Kulturtheorie. Akten des 4. Österreichisch-Ungarisches Semiotik - Kolloqium, Wien 1994. Jf. 18 1-4/1994. 95-104.

Tánc és jelentés/ Dance and Meaning

Tánc és jelentés/ Dance and Meaning. What are Abstract Dances About?

Megjelent angolul (Dance and Meaning. Is there a Conceptual Thinking in Dance? címen) a Kultursemiotik  und Kulturtheorie. Akten des 4. Österreichisch-Ungarisches Semiotik - Kolloqium, Wien 1994. Jf. 18 1-4/1994. kötetében (95-104.)

Is dance a language? The inefficiency of the application of linguistic model(s) to dance is easily perceivable. 'Dance' is not such as homogeneous an entity as that of language. The anthropological inquiry of dances pointed out that there may be as many concepts of dance as there are cultures or subcultures (cf. Hanna 1987: 18). Each cultural community creates and shapes its own communicational media[1] in its own way,  so dances can differ greatly from each other in their content as well as in their structural formation. Dances are at very different levels of conventionality, they cannot be "translated" into each other the way verbal languages can. On the other hand: the boundaries of a community using a special dance-idiom do not necessarily coincide with those which indicate a community speaking a common language. Like many other non-verbal communicational systems, dance-communication is capable of forming special cultural communities which may differ from the verbal communities, and may intersect them.

In spite of these facts when speaking about dance we often refer to it as "language". "Body language", "kinesic mother tongue", "language of movements": these are very frequently used metaphors in everyday speech but also in dance literature[2]. But would it be more than a metaphor? A systematic comparative analysis of dance and verbal language would certainly help to clarify this question but it is hard to find an efficient starting point for such an analysis. The formal analysis of dance pointed out that the structural formation of some dances is really analogous to verbal language (Martin/Pesovár 1959, Martin 1990), but the application of a structural linguistic mod-

el fails in explaining the nature of a great part of dances which are of a more autobiographic character. Semantic examination of dancers also fails to the extent that we understand by meaning exclusively verbal meaning. In many cases dance is capable of expressing meanings which can be put into words, but an important part of dances remain without any verbal meaning.

Instead of extending any cultural definition of dance to all other cultures or to apply a linguistic model in a normative way to dance it would be probably more useful to work with such a general conceptual framework into which all culturally different dance-concepts would fit in and which would be capable of explaining the formal and semantic diversity of dances. Perhaps a broader semiotic field would lead us to a deeper understanding of the nature of the analogies between dance and language as well.

Dance can really be analogous to language both in its form and in its semantic aspect, but these analogies do not necessarily go together. In order to understand this phenomenon my working suggestion is to make a theoretical distinction of the para-verbal from the non-verbal both at the level of the form-substance and at the level of the content-substance of dance, that is - in a semiotic understanding -, at the level of the signifier and the signified.

It is known that verbal communication is not indispensably bound to the phonic material (Saussure 1967: 24 ). We can utter verbal concepts with the help of a graphic "substance", that is with writing, with Morse signs and many other modes of expression. So it is obvious that different systems of expression can correspond with the same content (Hjelmslev 1953: 66-67).

Movement is also capable of communicating verbal content, in fact a great part of kinesic, that is body-language sign systems, are doing this. Consider the examples of the sign-language of deaf people, but also mimics or hand-gestures. We may consider these para-verbal phenomena as derivatives of verbal language.

A part of dances may also be comprehended as para-verbal kinesic communication, not in the sense that verbal language would necessarily be a primary source for these dances, but in the sense that their content is at least partially apprehensible to verbal cognition. We can conceive as such, for instance, the 'ballet d'action' of Jean-George Noverre, the French choreographer of the romantic ballet, or the expressionist dramatic dance in Western thater-dance, but also a lot of dances of mimetic-pantomimic character in various ethnic cultures like some of the warrior dances, dances imitating animals, and so on. These dances convey meaning in ways rather analogous to the way verbal language does.

However, the verbal meaning of these "para-verbal" dances should not be conceived in the way that 'meaning' can be understood as in the case of natural languages.  Dance is a form of poetic communication and it should be examined as such in the conceptual space of poetics and not of the natural languages, as it has been mostly done. The term of poetics should be used here not in the West-European normative sense of fine arts and poetry but in the very broad sense of the concept which refers to the main intention of creation which primarily concentrates on the structure of communication as such and which pushes into the background all the other functions of communication (cf. Jakobson 1972: 234-241). Therefore, in dance communication we cannot speak about practical aims or common meanings since dance does not exist in the "normal" sphere of everyday life. It can exist only in the aesthetic sphere (cf. Spencer 1985: 28).

Conceiving dance as an aesthetic phenomenon we ask about the relationship between dance as a para-verbal kinesic sign system and the "extralinguistic", in our case the extrasemiotic "reality", i.e., when we look for the denotative meanings of these dances we have to take into consideration that these meanings will be very analogous to the meanings of verbal poetic communication. To put it in other words, we cannot expect an unambiguous, definite correspondence, a solidarity between the dance-sign and the extrasemiotic reality, that is to say, the outside reality. The meaning of dance can be only imagined

as polysemic, metaphoric (cf. Jakobson 1972: 262). Even in cases in which we can find meanings in dance which can be verbalized, they must be understood in a figurative sense, as in all kind of poetic communication.

An important part of dances remain, nevertheless, without any verbal meaning. These dances can be called "pure" or "abstract" dances: for example, classical French and Italian ballet from the 16th and 17th century, or the plotless abstract dances of Merce Cunningham and George Ballanchine. We can find a series of figurative dances without verbal meaning also in non-Western or in Western non-professional dances like some ritual lad-dances in the Carpathian basin, for instance.

Any distinction between abstract and expressive dances is surely artificial since in reality they are nearly always combined with one another. But we have to make this distinction for purely theoretic reasons if we want to grasp the notion of non-verbal meaning of dance.

So if we suggest that in case of the so-called expressive, narrative dances, the form-substance is a kinetic one, but the content-substance is essentially verbal, that is to say, para-verbal, in case of the "pure" or "abstract" dances the content-substance is non-verbal, that is, it cannot be approached by verbal means of cognition. Thus, the meaning of these dances cannot be "translated" into verbal language. Yet it would be premature to jump to the conclusion that these dances do not have meaning at all. Far from wishing to elucidate the complex concept of meaning I would like to suggest an approach to the denotative and connotative non-verbal meaning of abstract dances.

If we conceive the denotatum as an actually or virtually existing object to which the sign refers - which does not affect the question of reality since for mental cognition both actual and virtual can be just as real -, this object can be both external to consciosness or within consciousness. So extralinguistic or extrasemiotic reality does not mean reality existing separate from the mind. Thus, denotata of abstract dances would be those contents of the contents of the consiousness which are

special non-verbal kinesic contents and to which the process of semiosis, that is of signifying, connects mental images in a systemic way.

Elaborating an analytic model of semiosis in abstract dances is an indeed difficult task for many reasons. First of all, dance, the "signifier", is conveyed by a mixture of channels (cf. Hanna 1987: 89-90; Moore/Yamamoto 1988: 47-54). The "signified", the mental image, is also hard to grasp since it cannot be reduced either to a visual or to an auditory image. The conceptual non-verbal sensus, the "apperceptum" of Janos Petofi's sign-mode (1990? 91), in dance semiotics is usually called "kinesthetic image" or, as it has been proposed by Eleanor Metheny, "kinecept" (1965: 61). The kinesthetic image is the complex sensation of the movement, as the word itself refers to it: "kinein" meaning 'to move' and "aesthesis" 'perception' (Smyth 1984: 19). So according to its essence the conceptual non-verbal sensus, the "kinecept", if we adopt the term, refers to entities of space, time, and force, or relations existing between these entities, more precisely the apprehension of them.

Since the "relatum" of abstract dances is located in our counciousness, the reality "denoted" in abstract dance becomes totally dependent on our mind or cognition, and as such it is a "created reality". As abstract dance is fiction par excellence, in the sense that it is a purely mental construction, and is capable of communicating mental contents without representing the outside world, it has been conceived as a non-representational sign system which, like music, "means itself". Stephane Mallarme, who was probably the first dance semiotician anticipating a series of 20th century ideas, perceived the dance-sign as a perfect unity of the signified and the signifier. According to Mallarme's metaphor, the dance-sign is an ideal sign since the signifier is not the representation of the signified but its material embodiment, that is, shows the idea in itself. So quoting Mary Lewis Shaw who is interpreting Mallarme's dance theory:

Unlike linguistic signs, which [...] can only name or refer to what is physically present in the world (or evoke, as in poetry, the affecting presence of things in their absence), dance signs seem to constitute their own referents; they do not merely name, copy, or suggest but actually incorporate what they signify. (1988: 4)

It may be the ambiguous nature of the denotational aspect of abstract dances which makes us imagine dance as a kind of "pure communication". Abstract dance has no verbal reference, and as non-verbal reference is unperceivable for verbal cognition, we can say that abstract dance-communication has no referential "burdens". The metaphor of Valeria Dienes on dance semiosis, that is, "symbolization" and "sublimation", as she calls it, is rather close to this perception: "Even if I am unable to express myself clearly, I am not helpless, I am able to transcend my own consciousness and reach other's, or other's may enter into mine". (1981: 27)

Following this frame in dance the emphasis falls on the pure interaction or, seeing it from the other angle, on the identification processes of the dancers. The dancer, in this respect, dances "himself" or "herself", or according to some conventions his or her identification with other people. Considering the problem from this point of view, dancing as an idiom then may be conceived as exhibiting one's gender, age, or whatever social role a community allows to be exhibited through a non-verbal, kinesic discourse.

This shows that dance can convey or suggest meanings also apart from its denotational aspects in very much the same way verbal language does.  The additional meaning, that is, the connotational meaning of these dances, can be more easily grasped, thus dance research of a sociological character can tell much more about dance in verbal terms than denotative dance semiotics. Dance literature supports this statement since most of the case studies made on dance concentrate on connotational meanings and operate with concepts od gender, generation, social community, ethnicity, or even politics - consider the dialectological research method of Hungarian and other East-European dance theories, but also a great part of Western anthropological studies.

Physical manifestation is not the single criterion which determines the character of such communication. Quite true that kinesic communication can convey verbal content, but in most of the cases it has a non-verbal, kinesic content. It is of most interest that kinesic communication with a purely kinesic content can be analogous just in form to phonic verbal communication, this analogy having no impact on the non-verbal meaning.

Adam Schaff claimed that conceptual thinking is possible only through verbal signs, and all other signs form a kind of "anti-class" which could not operate without verbal language (1970: 115). Yet it seems that it is characteristic for many "abstract" dances without any verbal meaning to use conceptual ways of constructing their structure, that is to use relational, classificatory devices very similar to those used in verbal thinking. Concrete analysis showed that these dances have clearly distinctive elements which can be analyzed on the basis of linguistic analogy: they can be disjoined to phrase - motif - kinemorpheme - kineme according to the pattern of sentence - word - morpheme - moneme[3]. The elements can be related to each other according to some basic rules like opposition, gradation, combination. These rules operate systematically and they affect each other in a complementary fashion so that they produce algorithms similar to the linguistic paradigms. The physical carriers of the basic meaningful elements, that is of the dance signs, can show such a consistency that they can be compared to the form of lexical units of language. The formal differences of these constant elements are similar to the phonetic differences of the language signs.

Thus it seems that it is not necessary to have verbal lexical units in order to achieve a high degree of conventionalized communication. It seems that it is possible to produce and communicate commonly shared concepts without any verbalization. Of course, not all abstract dances are structurally so well-formed that they can be compared to verbal language. There is a great variety as to the structural formation of dances, from inchoate forms up to highly conventionalized forms. It is amazing that the essence of the meaning, being verbal or non-verbal, does not affect the structure of the form-substance.

So we have, on the one hand, dances with meanings which can be verbalized but carry an inchoate formal structure like some pantomimic dances, and dances with verbal meaning with a very strictly formed structure, like classical Indian dance. On the other hand, there are dances with a loose form, and there are some with a very conventionalized form, which both lack any verbal meaning. So it is possible that dance be analogous solely in form to verbal language. In other words, there is no compulsory connection between para-verbal content and para-verbal form in dances.

Our mental concepts, feelings, impressions are certainly shaped by verbal language, our cognition is locked up in the web of verbal language. The structural form of verbal language penetrates also in the regions of non-verbal thought. Nonetheless, it seems there is some chance for free, unconventional thought coming from the non-verbal field of consciousness. A part of kinesthetic communication, being much less conventionalized than verbal communication, is capable of transcending more efficiently the secrecy of one's experience that verbal language is.


*          This paper is a result of my research work carried out at Collegium Budapest, Institute of Advanced Studies. Here I would like to express my thanks to the Collegium.

Dance Ritual Music. Proceedings of the 18th symposium of the Study Group on Ethnochoreology, The International Council for Traditional Music. August 9-18, 1994 in Skierniewice, Poland. Warsaw 1995

[1]               According to Janos S. Petofi (1990: 82) the concept of "medium" differs in nature from the concept of "chanell" since the medium is the semiotic "material" of communication, and the chanell points only to the physical side of the semiotic process.

[2]              Moore&Yamamoto (1988: 107) give a series of examples from everyday language as well as from scientific discourse. Ann Hutchinson (1970: 17) uses the linguistic metaphor in her dance-