In our imagination, dance and movement are inextricably linked. But are they really the same thing? If one wishes to grasp the differences between dance, movement and art, metaphysics comes into play.
Because dance is movement, dance does not exist. From a philosophical perspective, that is how the paradox in which the art form of dance is locked could be formulated. Movement is an immaterial state of material. Movement is a phenomenon that has no density, duration or substance of its own. The basis for realizing dance is therefore something that lies outside our concepts of reality. Although movement occurs, it never remains sustained as such. It has no “basis” or “foundation” of its own. Movement is nothing.
Movement shows itself only secondarily, as an effect or result. And to do so, it requires a medium. In dance, the movement carriers are bodies – usually at least. As a result of movement, they change their shape, their form, their outline and often also their meaning. Yet as bodies, they remain the same while dance as a movement passes over them. Nothing of the movement remains on the body. Nothing of what we desire or expect from dance – beauty, youth, fullness of meaning or presence – is causally integral to it. So while movement may be a sign of life – only something that moves is alive – it does not have a life of its own.

The culmination of art
However, if an art form is based on precisely this property of insubstantiality, that is to say if dance is primarily characterised by a property that has no objective existence, the status of this art, too, is uncertain. Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), the notorious American art critic of the post-war modern period, described the culmination of art, its classicism, by saying that pure means are applied. The entire meaning lies in the use of these means. Art history therefore gained its own fulfilment in the creation of abstract art. It created something that only means itself and, as such, it is a museum piece at which to marvel.
For dance, this form of fulfilment is hard to imagine. It may be the case that its physique and material appearance as a movement of the body have no museological form or objectivity. Thus, it may be the case that there is only a purely metaphysical guarantee of the physics of dance. What we like to view as the authentic, universal and unconditional qualities of dance, namely movement for movement’s sake that is devoid of reference, and the presence of the human body as an artistic event and a manifestation, has its basis and its rationale precisely in something that is completely immaterial. Namely in the metaphysics of movement(s) and in the transcendence of the individual movement carrier that come to us via a framework of subordinate references, speculations and aids: dance criticism, dance technique, theory of expression, impression or quality of experience. So it is no wonder that for a long time, philosophy had no time for dance. If something is to be thought, then first of all it has to be substantiable. Something that is unsubstantiable, however, does not need to be thought.

Inside the categories
Because dance does exist in spite of all of this, instruments other than pure philosophy are required to understand it. In line with the general strategy of modernism to give every art form its own, inalienable dimension, dance, too, invents a story, aesthetics and a few basic assumptions for itself in the hope that they will secure its existence. In the Western context, these characteristics are generally youth, suppleness, wordlessness, musicality and iconicity. These characteristics are attached to the movement phenomenon “from the outside”, so to speak, as a kind of description or circumscription. This would mean that dance is the things that are within these categories. It would be what is covered by our criteria when they nestle up to it, sometimes lovingly, sometimes protectively, sometimes even indecently. The immaterial quality of dance, its logical improvability, is protected and enclosed by the aesthetic strategies of the culture business. Herein lies the great power of dance.
It is precisely because dance is movement that it is needed. It represents what cannot be possessed in life and what for that very reason is so precious. Dance can assert the metaphysics of movement(s), and they become the real resource of its reality, its effectiveness in the world. Thus, dance makes its immaterial nature the only reality.

Clement Greenberg: Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. New York, NY [inter alia]: Oxford University Press 2000, 256 pages.
Franz Anton Cramer is a dance scholar and writer.
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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