Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy

Audience research and neuroscience have both been utilised in ‘Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy’, an AHRC funded project exploring how spectators respond to and identify with dance. The results have had resounding influence within the field and externally.

When fully engaged in watching a dance performance, an audience might be more involved than they realise.  The theory of kinesthetic empathy explains that though a spectator may be sitting still, they can feel the effects as if their body is participating in the movements they see before them as well as experiencing the feelings that the performance evokes.

Neurophysiological research has looked into these claims in more detail through measuring neural pathways between the brain and muscles; however, ‘Watching Dance’ was the first to investigate whether familiarity with viewing dance movements might also influence response, and whether sound and music play a role in activating this response.

The research is of particular relevance to choreographers and others who engage with dance audiences and have a special interest in understanding their motivations and responses.

Rosie Kay and Morgan Cloud rehearsing Double Points
Rosie Kay and Morgan Cloud rehearsing Double Points: 3x in Manchester, September 2009. Photograph: Frances Blythe

Rosie Kay of the Rosie Kay Dance Company has found collaborating with the project very useful and continued her involvement after its completion in 2011. Kay wrote of using sound effects in innovative ways to engage spectators: “From the work with Watching Dance, we knew that this elicited a different approach to the dance - we could use it for the effect of unsettling the audience, making the dancers seem like real bodies on stage, rather than actors or dancers portraying an idea”. Some of these insights were implemented in her highly successful and influential 5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline (2010).

The Watching Dance project has also had benefits for choreographers in the Manchester area though a series of dissemination events, one of which was ‘Interactions with Dance Audiences’, which included local participants such as choreographers, audiences, venues and agencies. A major outcome of the meeting was to set up the Manchester Dance Consortium to support local development and facilitate collaboration within the field and to encourage interaction at all levels. This research has had a very positive impact on the cultural life of the community. MDC has held several dance Platforms to support emerging work and to facilitate interactions between different artistic disciplines (e.g. dance and music, dance and the projected image). We also held a Microchoreolab, led by dance artist Emilyn Claid & composer Christopher Best for the Music and Dance workshops and a Dance workshop led by Navala (Niku) Choudry.

Project leader, Professor Dee Reynolds has also indicated the research could have significant impact in other areas. “One of these is the area of embodied practices in therapeutic contexts, such as dance movement therapy. We are in the process of preparing a funding bid for a project which aims to use the potential of dance to stimulate kinesthetic empathy to improve standards of care for dementia patients.” A  team of new collaborators arising from the Watching Dance project – Beatrice Allegranti (University of Roehampton), Jill Halstead (University of Bergen), Bonnie Meekums (University of Leeds), and Dee Reynolds (University of Manchester) entered a consultation process with the Alzheimer’s Society.

The groups exploration of dementia-related issues and their relation to kinesthetic empathy  in dance, music and film culminated in a 12-minute screendance, I Can’t Find Myself (Direction & Choreography: Beatrice Allegranti Original Soundscore: Jill Halstead). The film has its UK Premier on 9th May 2015 at the Olympic Studios Cinema and its Norwegian Premier on 28th May at the Bergen International Festival. A review from Dementia Pathfinders described the film as ‘a powerful tool for increasing understanding of what it is like to live with dementia’ and said that ‘It could be used as a staff development tool, but also as a vehicle for allowing people with dementia and their families to open up about their feelings and the impact of the condition on their relationships.’

For more information on the project visit: http://www.watchingdance.org/

Gateway to Research Project Links:   Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy, Apr 2008-June 2011