Why Dancers Believe in Magic

Batsheva Dance Company in the film Mr. Gaga | Photo by Gadi Dagon

As much as this picture of the Batsheva Dance Company may look like magic, and is used here with great love and admiration, I don’t believe in magic. Rather, I’d like to try to explain why so many dancers do.

The thing is, dancers love hippie stuff. Go to a handful of dance classes of different styles and levels and you will undoubtedly hear a teacher say something that, if you share my skeptical worldview, will make you cock your head and ask yourself, “Do they actually believe that’s a real thing?”

While there are certainly social and cultural explanatory factors for this phenomenon, what may surprise some skeptics is that it also has an important functional role — one that is independent of the reality (or non-reality) of magic, “energy,” and all that other stuff we might collectively call “woo-woo.”

By understanding energy (I’ll omit the scare-quotes from here on out), in particular, as metaphor, we can gain a little more insight into what’s so attractive about it in movement communities. I also hope that this will enable skeptics interested in dance to understand and use metaphor for their own growth as movers.

In case it’s not clear by now, this is written to a skeptical audience. By this I mean that’s it’s written with the assumption that you, like me, don’t entertain any sort of spiritual beliefs. If that’s not the case, you’ll probably just be confused and offended by this, and if you’re interested in reading things that challenge your views about the world, check out Skepticism 101. Also for this reason, I’m not going to try and defend skepticism at all, and will take the problematization of woo-woo as axiomatic.

Woo-woo is sometimes defended, often problematically, as metaphor. The common retort is, “What is energy a metaphor for?” The answer is that it is not, when taken altogether, a metaphor for anything in particular. Rather, many of its pieces function as metaphors for bits of ordinary mental and physiological activity.

Let’s start with an unprovocative example. When learning to sing, it’s important to gain voluntary control of the soft palate. An easy way to teach someone what that feels like is to ask them to imagine an apple in their hand and bring it toward their mouth to take a big bite. Most students will, right before the bite, feel and immediately recognize the feeling of the soft palate lifting in the back of their mouth. The apple is imaginary, but has proven useful in teaching new movement. However, here there is no risk that the metaphor will be overextended and the apple believed, for example, to provide real nutrition. We are not so lucky when dealing with energy.

One major class of energy exercises useful in dance is projection. To project is, in the context of acting, singing, and dancing, to act like you’re interacting with something very far away. What would you imagine if I asked you to picture a person projecting from a stage to balcony seats? How would you draw it, make a diagram? The common name for whatever visual artifact you probably pictured between the performer and the balcony is “energy.” We say that the performer is sending their energy to the balcony seats. Dancers equivocate “projecting” with “sending energy” because the latter is easier to visualize and, in most cases, something people will have more intuition about.

Our giving this thing a name at this point may seem unnecessary — why can’t we just “project to the balcony seats”? Well, we can complicate the desired behavior further. We might need to project behind ourselves “out of our backs,” or outward evenly in all directions. We might need to project out of the end of our working leg, or sideways out of our hips — here even the language “send energy sideways out of our hips” seems less contrived, more tractable. It is a useful metaphor for describing the expected behavior.

Of course, calling the indirect object of our projection “energy” is exactly as arbitrary as the New Age use of the word. It is selected in part because of this woo-woo precedent. For those who believe in it as a corporeal thing, it utilizes a preexisting mythos of stuff that they know how to manipulate in approximately the way we expect. For those that don’t, it’s at least obvious what to imagine, and probably as helpfully meaningful as any other set of syllables other than maybe “intention,” which is probably the best substitute available.

Another major use of energy in dance is to describe subtleties in movement technique. A classical plié must have a feeling of lift, it “pulls upward” as the dancer descends. What lifts? What pulls upward? If there is anything that does so literally, it requires great physiological awareness to perceive, identify, and especially to reproduce voluntarily. Ascribing this to energy is optional, but teaching this without an appeal to some kind of metaphor is nearly impossible. The same can be said of relevé, which “pushes” or “sends” energy downward.

The gist of this is that energy provides a useful set of metaphors for behaviors so subtle that literal description is both inconvenient and vastly less useful, especially pedagogically. This includes complex behaviors that combine mental and physiological activity, such as the voluntary activation of muscle chains. But to go even further, metaphors can also help us trigger involuntary and reflexive movement patterns. To borrow some terminology from a neurobiologist friend, these metaphors leverage the connection between emergent emotional experiences and physiological phenomena on both macro and micro scales. They allow us to move in ways we cannot voluntarily emulate by thinking about things literally.

There are three ways in which energy as metaphor becomes problematic. The first is relatively harmless equivocation. Since energy is so nebulously defined, we may mean different things with it in the context of different metaphors. For example, the “sending energy down into the ground” that accompanies a relevé is something very different than “projecting down into the ground,” which is how one might translate that phrase per our treatment of projection. The latter is something almost universally discouraged in performing, while the former is a common way of describing “grounding.” This is complicated further by the fact that “grounding” is itself an equivocation, with descriptions that include “engaging muscle chains through the ground as if bearing weight” to merely “being securely on balance.” Some dancers, of course, find the energy-based description useful.

The latter two ways we run into trouble with energy as metaphor are unfortunately the source of much confusion and erroneous belief.

One is overextension of the metaphor. Having experienced the incredible power of a functional metaphor, it is understandable that movement practitioners might be unclear about the boundaries of its usefulness, or be sufficiently inspired by the known function to seek to expand those boundaries. Sometimes they will be unsuccessful. In a Tango class a few years ago, I witnessed an instructor describe the feeling of a leader’s intention to step forward. In Tango, each step a lead takes is preceded by, in her terms, sending intention forward. She asserted that a follow might even be able to feel this intention without physical contact with the lead. In an apparently impromptu demonstration, she closed her eyes and physically disconnected from embrace with her partner, who then prepared to take a step forward to which she was entirely oblivious until he bumped into her. This is also a useful illustration of how use of “intention” vocabulary does not necessarily preclude overextension. Of course, due to confirmation bias, those who hope to extend a metaphor will usually consider their attempts successful, creating a false belief about the limits of the metaphor, and possibly the limits of human physiology (or, more obnoxiously, just their own).

The other problem with energy as metaphor is when it is granted ontology — when energy is mistaken for something that actually exists. This is closely related to overextension of the metaphor: if the aforementioned Tango instructor had thought about it, how would she have supposed she would become aware of her partner’s intention, other than via some corporeal thing? Further, once energy is accepted as real, the overextension of metaphor ceases to be a rational error. The matter of where a metaphor is and is not functional is transformed into a matter of what the individual can and cannot (yet) do with energy. This is the point at which the movement practitioner falls away entirely from a scientific worldview and into magical thinking.

Clearly, there is safe middle ground. We can use these metaphors without modifying our beliefs about what exists and what doesn’t. As skeptics, we do ourselves no favors by denying ourselves useful tools just because others misunderstand how they work. If you’re trying to learn a movement practice, you’d better get comfortable with dealing in metaphors. I’ve watched plenty of dance students struggle unnecessarily and plateau early due to an unwillingness to think about their movement metaphorically.

You don’t even have to use the regnant energy-based metaphors in your own work, as long as you can understand them well enough to be a good student, even in classes taught by really out-there seeming hippies. Developing your own metaphors and exercises of imagination will help you grow as a dancer, and is an integral part of teaching. And, by communicating your metaphors, you’ll help develop the language of dance in ways that don’t assume anything about the beliefs of the practitioner.

And, if we should choose to engage critically with movement practitioners about woo-woo, we have to understand the experiences and practices that ground their belief. I think these metaphors go a long way toward explaining why dancers connect so readily with certain types of spiritual thought. Separating useful metaphor out from belief yields an understanding that neither trivializes the experiences of woo-woo movement practitioners nor compromises on a coherent scientific understanding of the universe.