As a dancer and choreographer, dancing experiences for me were mostly confined to the area of a dance studio, where we (dancers and choreographers) create our own unique culture of interactions and physical and verbal communications.

In their practice, dancers are used to finding systems of signs and terminology to aid their actions, which might be to explain a movement phrase, a transition in space, or to remember an old choreography. Due to its complexity, the dancing experience has no fixed single way to be (intellectually) put into words, interacted with, or communicated to a surrounding community, let alone other fields of study.


Furthermore, observing a dance is mostly considered through the lens of movement reflection, which is, in at least one perceptive manner, reminiscent of political attitude or emotional statements or thoughts, and addressed by a folded physical experience in the state of ''performance''.


It could be suggested that a description of the dancing activity requires more than a specification of the cause: it might also require a description of the content held by every particular movement, as well as what is moved, felt, and thought throughout. In other words, the when, where, and why. This is apparent in all experiences of modern dance practice and is also what distinguishes one experience from another.

My motivation for the study of task-based movement practice, as a dance improvisation technique, is to encourage the young contemporary dancers and choreographers to inform and be informed by other research fields such as cognitive science, architecture, and fine arts. In the scope of the study, two key lines of questioning are to be approached: How do moving bodies become a source of information when the systemic structure for movement production in dance is applied? How can a dancer's complex process of learning a sequence of movements or choreography contribute to the larger field of research and education with reference to dance?

Dancers’ physical thinking - sharing physical knowledge  


In the area of contemporary dance research, performing choreography is a complex human activity. From the perspective of a dancer, performing a movement sequence or a phrase of choreography is highly demanding on many levels: physically, emotionally, and cognitively as well. Learning and practicing a series of movements requires the dancer to concentrate on many different aspects of the performed movements, starting from the most basic elements of body positioning (spacing) while moving in-correct timing, to other features of the physical activity, such as conveying flow and weight for specific demands in the choreography or the movement-task which they perform. The body of a performing dancer must also meet other physical demands to perform the movements, such as maintaining balance, which may also increase a cognitive load in every change of position, (Warburton 2011, p. 75) How do dancers develop and improve their ability to map their cognition? To answer this question, it is necessary to discuss the dancers’ most conventional ability, which is the embodiment. Dancers’ embodied practice and knowledge may serve not only to expand their physical abilities while dancing, but may also relieve the cognitive load. Furthermore, it may allow them to rehearse some aspects of their improvisation performance without the need to allocate attention to other aspects, generating an authentic living experience. 

David Kirsh is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of California, San Diego. He has investigated the topic of situated and embodied cognition and how an environment can be shaped in order to simplify or extend cognition load. His research has given insight into how the body itself, when recognized as an instrument, becomes an interactive tool for thought through space and external representations. (Kirsh 2010) During the 32nd Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Kirsh suggested that:


“[...] creating an external structure connected to a thought – whether that external structure is a gesture, dance form, or linguistic structure – is part of an interactive strategy of bootstrapping thought by providing an anchor for mental projection.” (Kirsh 2010, p.1/2864)


When a mental projection is expressed through body gestures, the body instrument can be perceived as a container of information,  while the human body’s physical activity begins to take on the form as a source of knowledge. This also helps to address the correlation between dance phenomenology and cognitive science, which is represented by the study of the complex process of dancers learning a canonized sequence of movements or embodying a map of movement tasks.


"Embodiment" as a key factor of physical learning

In the study Interconnectedness of Lived Experience and Meaning on the embodied nature of physical literacy, it is stated that:

“knowing is achieved by perceptuomotor movement within the lifeworld and that physical activity must be understood as an embodied experience with lifelong implications.” (Durden-Myers, Meloche, Dhillon 2020, p. 15).

Let us consider an example to simplify the concept of embodiment: driving a car is one of the most complex coordinative daily activities that one can learn. At first, one might suffer from the number of tasks and the load of physical cognition that is required to coordinate multiple movements of the body, changing locations of the left and right legs and arms with correct timing and in specific ways, applying a specific amount of pressure to certain devices inside the car, while necessarily recognizing the surroundings. If we assume that these are some of the scores given to a driver to perform their activity (driving), then by practicing this coordinated physical activity (through a number of repetitions to embody the score) driving the car becomes an axiomatic activity for the body. As a result, the body is ultimately able to subconsciously lead an instrument (the car). The driver no longer needs to remember what goes where at which point in the action sequence to make the car move, because the body simply knows. Therefore, the driver is now able to complete their duties, all while additionally singing, switching the radio on, communicating with passengers, or performing a more complex activity, such as searching for the desired location on a GPS screen.


In dance, to learn choreography or an exercise, dancers go through similar cognitive mapping processes. They learn particular phrases of movements with a very specific use of space (body positioning), time (or dynamics), weight distribution, physical and cognitive effort, in complex combinations and for different purposes. (Warburton 2011) However, after a number of repetitions of the canonized activities, dancers are able to start building relationships with other subjects and communicate with their surroundings, thereby improving their movement quality and cognition of the intuitive context. (ibid.) What began as a more complex combination of dancing activities becomes an easier and more automated process by which dancers are able to control their emotional tenor (ibid., p. 76) for the context of performance in the same way that they control their physical presentation.

The term ‘embodiment’ is used mostly by dancers and choreographers when referring to the enactment of physical conflict or task, or to motivate and enhance the physical expressivity of the dancer through their movement (Warburton 2011). In this context, the embodiment also refers to the emotional and cognitive engagement of a person when enacting an action or movement task (ibid).

Physical thinking can provide integrated access from different research fields concerned with human body knowledge, to discover and physically understand the functional inter-relation that applies to the body within the functional and architectural design of its surroundings. The moving body is considered to be part of its functions. In this way, task-based practice becomes a tool to dismantle these complex relations and translate them into single physical tasks to be performed, providing a basis to discuss the core aspects of teams-interaction within particular spaces.

        Copy Rights:  Samer Alkurdi. MA, 2021, Linz, Austria.