Dance used to be about shapes – perhaps it still is. The dancer watches the choreographer create a shape, and then they replicate it within their body. Entire systems of movement are devoted to this study – look at the official ballet positions, the Cecchetti square, the Cunningham contractions. These positions are all useful. Working within them gives us a greater access to our body. They were canonized as positions because they were an efficient way to create/discover movement or at least to exercise our bodies and minds as for how to move in three dimensions and negotiate space and time.
Exercising in certain positions, we could say, is what makes up a technique. Ballet is the easiest example, so we’ll say that we work in first and second and fourth and fifth so that, when we learn the variation, we are able to do it. We practice our Graham hands so that when they are put into the choreography, we have easy access to them.
But working through various positions is a surface level way to dance. We look at it, we copy it onto our own bodies, not unlike tracing a picture. This isn’t to say it’s not challenging; it’s athletically challenging and requires a certain mental toughness. But how does the dancer make their first position plie theirs? If all they’re doing is copying a shape, how are they really dancing it?
This is where sensation comes in. Rather than trying to copy the shape of the first position plie, we imagine that we are wringing out a sponge in our pelvis, pressing down through smoke or water to resist the air we move through. We imagine that the ground pushes up so much through our feet that our knees are forced to bend, that a weight is attached to our tailbone and is dragging us down to the earth.
The ability to translate those images into movement is what makes a dancer. Anyone can learn to replicate a shape, but the translation of an almost abstract sensation into the body is what makes the movement unique or special or interesting to watch.
I’ve spoken to people who think this is silly and weird and even crazy, but there’s a reason that those people aren’t usually very good at dancing.
This brings us to two schools of thought about dance, the kind where we replicate the shape, and the kind where we embody the sensation and as a result create the desired shape. In the first, we use anatomical knowledge and cues to create the correct look of the movement.
The second is much harder, is more difficult to practice and learn and can result in greater muscular-mind confusion. However, it creates more efficient movement in your body, and your body will remember it better when it looks for the sensation rather than the muscle memory shape.
The principle of sensation-over-shape applies not only to dance but to any form of movement. You can do as many squats as you want, but your body will be most efficient when you’re imagining rooting down though your heels as opposed to just bending and straightening your knees. As much as some of us might not want to admit it, our body and our mind are connected. You’re only able to read this right now because your brain is telling your eyes what they’re seeing.
Of course, then there’s the Laban or Forsythe school of thought, where you connect two points of space and strip away any superfluous sensation. Think of the tendu that moves from first position to, let’s say, fourth. All movement can be broken down into the connection of points.