Transgression of Bodies and Minds
The realm of dance, intrinsically dynamic and progressive, continually transforms – not just in technical, stylistic, and genre terms. It also extends beyond the confines of subject matter and expression, which were traditionally relegated to the realm of the taboo.
Increasing emphasis is placed on discerning the mechanics that govern the world, seeking a key or system that allows us to identify with it and at the same time find a way to rid oneself of the fear of the oppressive nature of some of its aspects. Contemporary dance embodies a form of art that extends beyond boundaries, exhibiting not only the universality of its language but also the collaboration and integration of artists, choreographers, and dancers within diverse geographical, mental, and emotional spheres. Dance is a transcendent art, flourishing beyond political and ethnic divisions, being open and resistant to xenophobia, isolationism, hostility towards difference, and ethnocentrism. However, much like any societal phenomenon, it is not immune to issues brought to light by movements such as #MeToo and other repressive situations, some of which are still coming to light.
The 20th century redefined dance, scrutinizing and reshaping its standing in profound ways.
In the 21st century, following years of experimentation within the broad domain of contemporary dance — which included attempts to holistically explore the potential of the human body, devise a novel approach to movement, foster the coexistence of various art forms, as well as to deny all that — the conventional genre categorizations have lost their original significance. The rigid delineations of roles have become blurred, transforming relationships and expectations for increasingly versatile dancers and choreographers, who are transcending their traditional roles as strict composers of dance forms. This evolution also begins to extend to the spectator's position, a domain that has remained off-limits for centuries, with audience members now often invited to share the stage during performances. Seizing the newfound freedoms, dance has also begun to emancipate the body, setting a course towards new art. To study the history of dance today requires the ability to navigate various phenomena, not only in a vertical, chronological sequence, but also to notice and identify processes that seemingly occur outside the conventional order associated with art.
Many anthropologists posit that dance is the earliest form of art. They suggest that this unique form of "thinking in motion" was humanity's inaugural step towards self-expression, laying the foundation for spiritual life and creativity. This aspect of dance was most likely the precursor to thinking using word symbols. We are born as physical beings, equipped with a body as our instrument. Undergoing a continuous process of development, movement and dance are not merely components of human evolution, but more importantly, they stimulate it across nearly all facets of human activity. The versatility of dance allows it to serve various societal functions, including therapy. In theater where we communicate through the body alone, the body autotelically narrates the human experience, striving to avoid manipulation and pressure emanating from various sources. On stage, the body confronts technology, and it is subjected to inquiries regarding the boundaries of naturalness and artifice. The naked body is additionally exposed to judgment, where ideological and aesthetic criteria are often supplanted by quasi-moral ones. The naked body has had a longstanding presence in the realm of dance. Today, we can recount a lengthy roster of artists, from Jérôme Bel to Sasha Waltz, who regard the body as a symbol, distancing it from allegations of manipulation. A crucial issue here involves intentionality, which resides within both the creator and the viewer.
Dance also has strong ties to illnesses and medicine. One of the most striking manifestations of this is choreomania, a group dance frenzy likened to an epidemic, which remains one of the most enigmatic phenomena in modern European history despite exhaustive research efforts. The earliest instances of choreomania were recorded in the 7th century, and the latest in the 17th century. Paracelsus, the originator of this term (gr. choros – dance, mania – madness), was a 15th-century physician and naturalist often considered the father of modern medicine. Paracelsus classified dance manias based on their causes, differentiating between dances triggered by desire, a pathological mental state, and unknown physical factors. Choreomania was a widespread phenomenon, although the reported cases predominantly pertain to Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Poland. Typically, it would start with one or a few individuals compelled to dance, and over the span of days, and sometimes weeks, it would attract hundreds more, forming roving groups that continued to dance until exhaustion, and in some cases, until death. Even today, inquiries into the causes of dancing mania remain relevant, with theories ranging from mass hysteria and the effects of ergot poisoning or hallucinogenic mushrooms, to mystical and religious influences.
In contrast to the destructive impact of choreomania, there exist various models of choreotherapy, instinctively practiced dance since time immemorial, whose therapeutic benefits were rediscovered in the 20th century. The restorative function of dance has been recognized almost as long as dance itself. Since the dawn of civilization, movement rituals have been employed to express intense emotions and assist in alleviating the tension associated with them. The scientific, research-based roles and objectives of choreotherapy were formulated and implemented in the 1940s in the USA. However, its precursors can be traced back to the works of François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, and the expressionist choreographic explorations of Mary Wigman, who inspired the American pioneers of choreotherapy: Marian Chace, Liljan Espenak, Mary Whitehouse, and Alma Hawkins. In their practice, they applied the psychological theories of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Friedrich Adler, Rudolf Laban, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Gustav Jung. Their contributions led to the development of the first system of strategies and therapeutic intervention methods, for example, in the areas of body awareness, psychomotor activity, and complex reactivity. Marian Chace made the most profound contributions to the formalization of dance as a therapeutic method. She operated her own dance school in Washington, where she incorporated movement improvisation into the curriculum. Later, she employed therapy with patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, a method that was particularly successful when verbal communication failed. In 1966, Chace took the helm of the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), which she founded. Similar structures, now well established and ingrained in societal consciousness currently also exist in Poland. The practice of dance in therapy is currently one of the most dynamically evolving aspects of the field, effectively responding to the needs of a society that is overstimulated and assailed by destructive narratives. Choreotherapy is defined as a therapeutic method that leverages dance and movement in a process aimed at enhancing the comfort of its participants. It fosters internal integration, harmonizes relationships with oneself and the environment, enhances body awareness and its capacity for expression, neutralizes negative emotional states, opens new cognitive perspectives, and facilitates integration processes. It is a complementary tool in the diagnostic and clinical process, playing a significant role in rehabilitation, and more recently, in psycho-oncology. It relies on movement improvisation and the execution of thematic tasks. For many years, the terms choreotherapy and dance psychotherapy were used interchangeably. Contemporary choreotherapy distinguishes three forms of action at different levels of intervention: therapeutic dance, dance therapy, and dance psychotherapy. Each of these forms hinges on movement and the potential of dance, which is understood beyond its artistic dimension. In therapeutic dance, dance is the primary factor stimulating therapeutic processes in this case, whereas in dance therapy and psychotherapy, the therapeutic relationship serves as the foundation.
Rudolf Laban, who recognized the relationship between the human body and psyche, argued that since movement patterns reflect a person's identity, altering physical habits can influence not only their psychophysical state but also improve their social functioning and the quality of the relationships they build with others. Current research led by specialists has demonstrated that dance activates vast regions of the cerebral cortex, as well as several deep brain structures. Positive changes have been observed in areas responsible for memory, movement control, and communication between both brain hemispheres following dance and movement-based therapy. The relationship between body and mind, stemming from Descartes' division into "spiritual and corporeal substances," has reinforced the awareness of the need for a holistic understanding of the human being and this form of expressing oneself. Consequently, this understanding has invigorated and dynamized contemporary dance, encouraging artists and therapists to adopt a transgressive approach, to traverse increasingly archaic genre and formal boundaries.