Dance as Communication

by Vera Varhegyi

Élan Interculturel, France


  • Intro: dance as communication?
  • What is communication?
  • Communication and context: in what ways communication is not separable from the context where it takes place
  • The people who communicate: introduction to relational embodied communication
  • The vocabulary of body communication and its diversity
  • The grammar of embodied communication – Convergence, divergence



Intro: dance as communication?

The idea that dance is a form of communication will not surprise anyone. If anything, it may even be a cliché. So, let’s turn the idea around: instead of investigating what elements of communication are present in dance, let’s have a look at what dance can teach us about communication. Such an inquiry is so interesting for us, members of the CONTACT team, that one of our first missions is dedicated to exploring how dance can help us engage in communication in situations where people tend to be reluctant to do so, because of fears, preconceptions or the risk of embarrassment. The encounter of a disabled person with a non-disabled person is apparently such a situation: both may be concerned about not doing the right thing, of frightening or embarrassing the other. It is, of course, easier to avoid the interaction altogether. Such fears appear to be one of the reasons behind the segregation/separation of disabled young people. 

Using dance in such a context may seem counterintuitive at first: shouldn’t we try to find a disembodied form of communication instead, which hides the bodies, and so hides physical disability, instead of putting the body very much at the centre of attention? For us, such an “avoidant” strategy would only make disability more of a taboo, and suggest that there is something wrong with disabled people, that they/we should act as if we did not perceive it. Instead, what we propose is to welcome differences for what they are and go beyond them to come into contact with each other. But is real contact even possible? Could communication really be the “answer to the painful divisions between self and other, private and public, and inner thought and outer world” (Durnham 1999:2)? How? 

What is communication?

“The first image that comes to our mind when we talk about communication is that of the arrow going from one person to another. The arrow stands for the intentional transmission of a message, usually a verbal message, from a sender to a receiver. This latter of course can become a sender and so forth”. 

(Winkin 2001:25)

Shannon-Weaver model of communication


 The Shannon-Weaver model as characterized by the US Office of Technology Assessment

OTA – Global communications: opportunities for trade and aid, Public Domain,–Weaver_model

The description and illustration above describe the communication model proposed by Shannon and Weaver, referred to as the “mother of all models” due to its very wide use. It is not by accident that this model was proposed in 1949: ideas and metaphors are often inspired by dominant inventions of the moment, in this case the telegraph. 


Let’s have a quick look at the three main underlying assumptions:

  1. The sender, the receiver, and the action of communication are independent from the context – besides the occasional disturbance – “noise” that may arise.
  2. The sender and the receiver are independent from each other, they are separate entities. 
  3. What travels between them is information – “communication is simply the act of transferring information from one place, person or group to another.” 


Do we feel this model grasps what is most interesting in “communication”? Let’s put this model and its three assumptions to the test of our dance-floor experiences, as promised. For this exploration, it would be handy if you remembered the  last time you were on a dance floor with others. Did you feel you were engaged with them? Were you in communication? Was there any specific “information” you were transmitting to others? How independent were you from the context?

Communication and context: separate or intertwined?

“My last time on a dance floor was a week ago. It was a session of a type of free dance called “5 rhythms”: there are no steps, no choreography, no conception of right or wrong movement. It is this specific context that makes it possible for all of us to move any way we like. Clearly, moving freely around any way we want would not fit in a Zumba class. And then, there is music. Even without steps and choreography, the music is present in the movements: their rhythm, their shape, their mood.” 


In general, we humans tend to overestimate our independence from our context – possibly as a way to feel “free” and to possess “free will”. But think of this: we’re doing our daily business on a rock that is rushing at almost 30 kilometres per second around its sun. Our daily cycles of waking and sleeping are tuned to the rotation of our planet around its own axes. Our bone and muscular structure respond to the gravity of this particular planet (we’d have trouble moving around on bigger planets and an extensive stay with less gravity would make us loose our bone mass). We carry in our genes traces of a more than a billion years old family tree. Our bodies clearly are not independent of the physical context. And then, consider the cultural landscapes: the way we present ourselves, the way we dress, the way we use objects, the language we speak, the politeness rituals we use all depend on our cultures. Take away “culture” and it would be as impossible to imagine communication as to imagine a human without planet Earth.

For Winkin, in fact, communication is nothing else than the performance of culture. A way for the cultural context to manifest itself through us. A seemingly unimportant chance encounter with the neighbours in the staircase is an occasion to confirm our relationship and our belonging to the same culture. Through the use of appropriate words and gestures we find our place in a choreography that is repeated without our awareness.

But what if the other I meet is really the other? If we don’t belong to the same culture, but are separated by boundaries of gender, age, class, nationality, ability or race?

The people who communicate: introduction to relational communication

“At one point, the facilitator asks us to turn to someone and dance in duos. The unbearable inevitability of categorization imposes itself: in a split second, I know that the one I turned to is a man, or an older woman, a black woman, a disabled person…Would this encounter happen outside or in a café, the first question I ask my partner would be based on all I know or all I believe about men, older women, black women, disabled people etc. Even if I don’t want it to be so. Fortunately, as it is, we’re on the dance floor. The split second after the categorization takes place, I’m drawn by a gesture of the other, I respond. If we’re lucky and attentive, dance takes us over, it dances us.”  


“Here is another moment: I close my eyes. I am aware of the air moving in and out with my breathing, I feel my weight, I sense my movements, I have undeniable feedback of the contours of my body, the frontiers between where I am and where I am not. I am alone. As I open my eyes the first person I see is tuned on my movements. She was dancing with me, mirroring and punctuating my gestures. We were dancing together. So how real was my apparent solitude?”


For Durnham (1999), the emphasis on the independence and separation of the sender/receiver may be more a reflection of how the Western scientists used to produce their theories (sitting lonely in the ivory tower of their institution) than of real processes of communication. We’re not saying that people do not exist as separate beings (though Buddhist colleagues may argue so). But rather, that when it comes to communication “all that is meaningful to us humans derives from a process of co-action and co-creation between people » (Gergen 2009:87). When people enter into communication with one another they define their relationship and create a renewed self-understanding (Fogel 1993:11). In short, they are changed by the communication: they become a little bit different from who they were a moment before. Our nature is dialogical. Each of us is constituted of a multiplicity of voices, self-positions that have been created through dialogues with real and fictive individuals and groups, from early infancy. Our first dialogues are entirely nonverbal, and possibly even intrapersonal: we realise we can sense and see our own hand. Then we learn to engage in dialogues with others, first non-verbally and then eventually also with words (Fogel 1993). Words eventually add to our dialogue, but we never cease to be dialogical in such an embodied way: even when there are words, there is always the body. “To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds” (Bakhtin 1984:293).

The people who communicate: introduction to relational communication

Today there are more than 7000 natural languages, all of them with their own set of words constituting their vocabularies which would be impossible to list. None of us have the illusion that we should understand the words of a language we don’t speak. Body communication is somewhat different: we have our bodies with a certain diversity of shapes, functionalities, mobilities, but the vocabulary at our disposal seems much easier to apprehend. So much so that we are sometimes tempted to assume we should understand each other’s body language, that somehow it should be universal. But the diversity is bigger than we think. Below we try to present an inventory of what could be considered the vocabulary of body communication. Before you start reading, please remember one more difference between verbal and body language. There may be a right way to pronounce “eye” in English or “silmä” in Finnish, but there is no single right way of doing eye contact. 


  • Eye contact happens when we look into each other’s eyes at the same moment. We don’t know exactly when eye contact became such an important means of contact for inhabitants of the Western world, but we do know that the notion of ‘eye contact’ became widely used in the 60’s. In modern Western societies, direct eye contact is a sign of trustworthiness and self-confidence. It is also a primary playground for first contact and flirtation. We appearto learn eye contact quite early: infants start producing eye contact from 6 months of age. This is so important that one-year-old infants who avoid eye contact raise the doubt of specific diagnoses (for instance of ASD). However, direct eye contact is far from universal: in many cultures, respectful polite behaviour implies lowering one’s eyes and avoiding direct gaze.  
  • Gestures are shapes and movements produced usually by our hands, head and arms. 
  • Postures refer to the shapes taken by the whole body. 
  • Facial expressions refer to movements and grimaces we make with our face
  • Haptics / touch refers to contact through our sense of touch. Touch is the first sense that babies develop, and not having it seems to imply much more difficulty than losing seeing or hearing. There are great cultural differences regulating when and how we can touch each other, what parts of the body can be touched in which relationships.
  • Proxemics is the study of the physical distance people take, always corresponding to a specific relationship. These distances of course have huge cultural variability. 
  • Chronemics – or expectations towards duration in time and rhythm influence our speed, the way we alternate movement and stillness, the types of rhythms in which we feel at home and where we are strangers. 
  • Physical appearance is also part of body communication: how do we present ourselves? How do we dress? What parts of our body do we consider private and public? Again, there is huge cultural diversity, very much connected to our sense of modesty. Just as nationality or religion, mental and physical disability can also influence what part of the body we wish to hide and show, which we think can be touched. 
  • Artefacts or objects can also play a part in communication. It makes a huge difference if we stand on a chair to make our speech or sit on it. How do we relate to each other’s auxiliary objects such as a wheelchair? 
  • Arrangements of objects or people also bear meaning. Just think of the difference between standing in a circle where everyone can see each other or in lines where the last row will only see the backs of everybody else. 


In a manual on communication, all the above elements are usually listed as “means of communication”, which in our analytical thinking is separated from the “content” of communication which is its message, its meaning.  So what happens in the dance, where the illusion of a compact, prefabricated message (like: what are we going to have for dinner tonight?) evaporates in the spontaneity of movements and reactions?  Message and meaning are still there, but they will be freed of our narratives about the future and the past, focused on the present: who are we in the present moment? How does the context (the musical landscape, the presence of others) transform us?  And above all, who are we in relation to each other? 


The grammar of embodied communication

Who we are in relation to each other, our relationship is continuously negotiated in any interaction.  The ‘communication accommodation theory’ (Giles, Ogay 2007) helps us to put our finger on how we do this. The theory observes signs of “accommodation”, this “constant movement toward and away from others”. Convergence is the movement towards the other, a reduction of the distance between us. Convergence is nicely illustrated by forms of interpersonal coordination and synchrony, where people in interaction coordinate the rhythm of their breathing, mirror each other’s gestures, etc. (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). On the verbal level convergence can be reached through adopting the other’s vocabulary, imagery, and metaphors, and through person-centred messages which take into account the other’s preferences, words, style, etc. On the contrary, divergence accentuates the differences between interlocutors, marking disagreement, a need to be separate, marking one’s distinctiveness, and asserting oneself. Maintenance implies that one remains in their original communication style. These strategies show on all levels of communicative behaviour explored above, be it verbal or non-verbal, in the shopping mall or the dance floor. 


What is important here is to understand that “convergence” is not necessarily good, just as “divergence” is not necessarily bad. We cannot authentically converge towards each other continuously: complete fusion, as the total understanding and dissolution in one another is not only impossible, but most probably unbearable too – even if its pull and its promise is tempting (just ask new lovers). But this is not necessarily bad news. “That we can never communicate like the angels is a tragic fact, but also a blessed one. A sounder vision is of the felicitous impossibility of contact. Communication failure, again, does not mean we are lonely zombies searching for soul mates: it means we have new ways to relate and to make worlds with each other.” (Durham Peters 1999)


So on the dance floor, we can follow the rhythm and movements of another, becoming her mirror, offering the other confirmation that she is seen, appreciated, recognised.  But if we remain stuck in the role of mirror, the other may feel suffocated; she loses her autonomy, her freedom from us. Too much recognition can become a prison.  Alternating moments of convergence (when I align myself with the other) with moments of divergence (when I do something complementary) and maintenance (when I move according to my instinct, without reacting to the other) can give her the autonomy to choose convergence in turn and establish some reciprocity (mutual recognition).  This play of alternating movements towards the other and independent movements also offers us the way to go where we have not gone before, both in the relationship and in the dance.


Afifi, W. A. (2007). Nonverbal communication. In Whaley, B. B., Samter, W. (Eds.), Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 39–59) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers NJ.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Problems of Dostoyesky’s Poetics. ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1984.


Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893-910.


Durham Peters, J. (1999) “Speaking into the Air – A History of the Idea of Communication” Chicago: University of Chicago Press


Gergen, K.J. (2009) Relational Being, Beyond Self and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Giles, H. Ogay, T. (2007). Communication Accommodation Theory. In Whaley, B. B., Samter, W. (Eds.), Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 39–59) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers NJ.


Winkin, Y. (2001). Anthropologie de la communication. De la théorie au terrain. Paris : Editions du Seuil