"Philosophy of Dance"


by Julie Van Camp

Dance Chronicle

Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter 1996), pp. 347-357

Copyright Julie C. Van Camp 1996

This article may be printed or downloaded for personal, scholarly, or educational use, but only if the full citation, copyright notice, and this permission notice are included in full. It may not be sold or otherwise used for commercial purposes. For permission for commercial reproduction, please contact the author.

Page numbers from the original publication are indicated in the text as follows: /p. x. Endnotes are indicated in the text as follows: (x).

/p. 347 Philosophy and Dance

SPARSHOTT, FRANCIS. Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. xxiii + 430 pp. $65.00 cloth.

SPARSHOTT, FRANCIS. A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Understanding of the Arts of Dance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. xviii + 580 pp. $65.00 cloth; $22.95 paper.

Philosophical consideration of dance has gained in vigor, diversity, and sophistication in recent decades -- even though philosophers disagree sharply on what philosophy is! Divergent methodological approaches range from the phenomenological explorations of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, the existentialist approach of Sandra Horton Fraleigh, and the postmodernist continental work of Susan Foster to more traditional "British-American" analysis by such well-known philosophers as Nelson Goodman, Joseph Margolis, and Francis Sparshott.

/p. 348 After a long and distinguished career considering the philosophical problems of virtually every artform except dance, Sparshott (now University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto) published two voluminous works to make amends. (1) They were Sparshott's "first steps to a philosophical consideration of the dance," but they most certainly were not the first attention paid to the artform by serious philosophers.

The first book focuses on the nature of dance, its unusual characteristics, and how it might be understood philosophically. He avoids proposing his own "definition" of dance, but painstakingly explores definitions offered by others. Using standard analytic techniques, he compares dance with other human phenomenon, in both the arts and the broader culture, and he considers such perennial issues as "meaning" and "expression." The second volume classifies various kinds of dance, further elucidating characteristics of the artform. He re-examines such properties as expression and rhythm and continues comparisons with related fields (music, language, and theater). He concludes with new considerations (for him) of values in dance, the training of dancers, choreography, and notation.

Sparshott says that his work on dance is preliminary, "to indicate the general character of the topic," but "not to present a general theory of dance, or to recommend a specific philosophical approach to it."(1995, p. xv) Yet he admits later that his work is "intended to exemplify a way of philosophizing." (1995, p. 454) His method is unquestionably analytic, mercilessly dissecting and classifying fundamental terms and topics, and striving for clarity by closely scrutinizing concepts and assumptions. Analytic philosophy involves what some call "critical analysis" or "critical thinking." It is not the strawman of "logical positivism," which self-destructed many decades ago. Philosophers are concerned as much with logic, arguments, methodology, and the reasoning process as with any particular conclusions. They consider "meta" questions, second-order perspectives. The critic asks, "Is this work 'good'"? The philosopher asks, "What do we mean by the concept of 'good'"?

Sparshott downplays the role of dance criticism in developing his philosophical ideas, in contrast with such philosophers as Graham McFee (2) and Monroe C. Beardsley, who characterized aesthetics as "the philosophy of criticism." (3) Sparshott's reluctance to center his philosophical work on criticism is at least defensible. His disdain for dance critics /p. 349 is not. They write, he claims, "what their editors and employers demand, approve, or tolerate. All that, and only that." (1995, p. 338) Dance criticism is not even a discipline, for Sparshott, who laments the interdisciplinary elements in today's criticism (breadth that many would praise), as well as the lack of any "tradition or skill of criticism in which one could be trained." (1995, p. 338) His refusal to consider at length the logic and reasoning of this century's many gifted critics is his loss, and it diminishes his philosophical understanding of the art form. Criticism is a vital part of the cultural context within which dance is created, performed, and appreciated.

He claims instead that he wants to base his philosophy on dance as it is actually "practiced," but he seldom discusses actual dances. When he does, he can be shockingly inaccurate. In a discussion of "dancefilm," he considers American Ballet Theatre's filmed and televised Nutcracker, broadcast repeatedly on public television and readily available commercially. (4) Inexplicably, he complains that "There were frequent and quite long periods when the camera showed us the reactions of the audience to what they were seeing." (1995, p. 447) Check your own tape -- there are no such interruptions. He apparently has the film mixed up with something else! There are indeed legitimate complaints about this production (the use of a "four-sided" stage, bows to a non-existent audience, and the interjection of slow-motion photography and trick camera work, as with Mikhail Baryshnikov's costume change from Nutcracker to Prince in Act I). But Sparshott does not mention these problems. If his reliance on a dance example easily checked by the reader is so grossly in error, how reliable are his other reports? Philosophers sometimes discuss hypotheticals, but they should be clearly labeled as such.

As an example of how to do analytic philosophy, Sparshott's work leaves much else to be desired. His meticulous attempts to distinguish dance from other movements, spectacles, and artforms sometimes show the usefulness of comparisons and contrasts in shedding light on a complex subject. But Sparshott carries this to embarrassing extremes. Almost two full pages of text are devoted to a tedious discussion of the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification schemes (1995, pp. 17-19), yet the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library is relegated to a disdainful footnote: "I see the forest and the trees, but no interesting pattern in the plantings. . . . (1995, p. 464 n. 2)

/p. 350 This misplaced emphasis pales before another major failing of both books. Beginning quite literally with the title of the earlier volume, Sparshott subtly misrepresents the history of the philosophy of dance. Whether or not intentional, he misleadingly elevates his importance as the originator of a modern philosophical tradition about dance. The overblown title is but one of many breaches of scholarly ethics. Throughout both volumes, he cavalierly presents as original ideas from the published literature in philosophy and dance.

Extensive work by other philosophers is never mentioned or cited in either volume, leading the philosophical novice to think that most of the ideas originated with him. Even when Sparshott includes a work in his Reference List at the end, he often neglects to credit the ideas in those works in his discussions. Philosophical books and articles generally do not include the obsessive documentation of every word, every case, every article that one finds, for example, in law review articles. But we do teach our students to credit sources -- not just direct quotations, but also ideas and paraphrases -- and Sparshott's carelessness in failing to cite other people's work breaches the most basic ethical standards of scholarship. Most emphatically, this is not a matter of legalities or plagiarism. It is a question of professional ethics. The most charitable reading -- pervasive scholarly sloppiness -- is as unacceptable as more cynical conclusions.

Sparshott thanks Selma Jeanne Cohen, one of the leading contemporary scholars of dance in this country, for encouraging him to pursue work on dance (1988, p. xiii; 1995, p. xvii). He briefly discusses (1995, pp. 407-408) her 1982 volume Next Week, Swan Lake, (5) a thoughtfully nuanced consideration of the difficult problems of the identity of works of art in dance. But the magnitude of his debt to her work on identity or any other topic is left unsaid. The reader would never know from either volume that she was publishing philosophical work on dance in respected journals as early as 1950, exploring the nature of dance, expression, and meaning. (6) Dr. Cohen's first steps took place almost four decades before Sparshott's.

Another distinguished philosopher, Stephen Pepper, published a seminal essay on the complex interrelationships of dance and the other arts, (7) a topic considered by Sparshott. Yet Pepper is never mentioned or cited. Neither is Barbara Mettler's essay on these issues. (8) Philosopher Curtis Carter published thoughtful essays on dance long before Sparshott, but his name appears in neither volume. (9)

/p. 351 Roger Copeland was co-editor (with Marshall Cohen) of What is Dance? a collection widely used in dance courses. (10) The Reference list of Sparsott's 1995 volume includes this excellent collection, but not Copeland's own work on dance aesthetics. (11) Sparshott discusses extensively the work of philosopher Nelson Goodman on dance, but omits critiques of Goodman's work by other philosophers, many of whom made similar observations years earlier. (12)

Beardsley wrote a path-breaking article (first published in Dance Research Journal in 1982) considering dance under the rubric of philosophical action theory. Sparshott references the article in his 1995 volume, but lists only a 1984 reprint, not the original. The critical response by Sally Banes and Noël Carroll was also first published in DRJ in 1982, but Sparshott lists only a 1989 reprint. We tell our students to cite original sources, especially when readily available. A picky complaint? Yes, but far worse, by scholarly standards, is the way the Beardsley essay is handled in Sparshott's text. He cites it in only one note (1995, p. 468-9 n. 30), for the bland observation that human bodies are uniquely expressive in dance. But in Sparshott's own discussion of action theory (1995, pp. 134-135), no citation or discussion of Beardsley's ideas is included, even though Sparshott's analysis draws directly and obviously from Beardsley's essay. Nor does Sparshott mention that his discussion of George Beiswanger (1995, pp. 379-80) centers on a seminal quote which was the starting point of the Beardsley essay. Neither does he cite the thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of Beiswanger by Raphael F. Miller. (13) David Carr's work on action theory, (14) which covered much of the same ground as Sparshott, appears no where in the text, notes, or references. The reader unfamiliar with the literature thus might well conclude -- incorrectly -- that the impressive ideas on action theory and dance (and many other topics) were original with Sparshott.

His most important contribution in the two volumes is the extensive cataloguing of considerations of dance by classic philosophers, including Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Hegel. (1988, Part I) Yet here too his lack of documentation implies that he was the first to identify this historic work on dance. Frank W.D. Ries' essay "Plato on the Dance" (15) is never mentioned. Joanna Friesen's consideration of Aristotle and dance is omitted, (16) as is Edward F. Mooney's work on Nietzsche. (17) David Michael Levin (18) considered work by Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others, but his essay is missing entirely. Katharine /p. 352 Everett Gilbert also considered many of these philosophers, but her work is never cited. (19)

Sparshott begins the 1988 volume with an essay on "Why the Aesthetics of Dance has Been Neglected." But he neglects to note that other philosophers have published essays on precisely this subject going back several decades. (20) Levin's essay "Philosophers and the Dance" (21) makes it into the reference list and gets brief mention in the text (1988, pp. 11, 338), but the uninitiated would never guess how extensively Sparshott revisits topics laid out by Levin.

Sparshott says he hopes to re-orient philosophers to the nature of dance as it is practiced to improve their philosophizing. (e.g., 1995, pp. 3, 454). Yet he neglects to mention an essay by Stuart Hodes which made exactly the same point in persuasive detail. (22) Sparshott extensively discusses the role of sex and gender in dance traditions (1995, pp. 195-201), yet never cites or mentions Randy Martin's essay on exactly this topic. (23)

Sparshott's failure to cite sources is not just a poor example for students learning the methodologies and standards of scholarship. It also has the effect of closing down the dialogue, of making it impossible for the uninitiated to pursue an idea. Does the reader agree with Sparshott's interpretation of a text he is discussing? Would the reader like to review for herself the original source to consider the reasoning and perhaps pursue an alternative approach? He too often fails to engage in open debate with his predecessors in the philosophy of dance, and he short circuits the future dialogue he claims to promote.

His exasperating habit of feigning forgetfulness in many of his examples also makes it impossible for the reader to look at sources and compare interpretations of performances and readings of the literature. (24) Once again, sloppy scholarship makes for bad philosophy by closing down the possibility of dialogue. (25)

The cavalier attitude toward documentation extends to allegedly "factual" references. He baldly cites "facts" about homosexuals in the general population without a hint of source or citation. (26) Philosophers do not generally deal with empirical data, but when they venture into this territory, they should be held to the same standards as other scholars.

The reader is doubly mislead by the lengthy "documentation" in both volumes. In 1988, numerous footnotes are included, along /p. 353 with eleven pages of references. The 1995 volume includes 86 pages of endnotes for 462 pages of text, along with sixteen pages of references. But the notes are too often meandering streams of consciousness on trivial issues best left in the seminar room or faculty lounge.

The reference lists are useful for researchers, but they should not be considered complete. Startling omissions plague both volumes, references that were obtainable from reasonable search mechanisms. Although some omissions were corrected in the later volume, many still remain. Sloppy proofreading throughout the book is a special annoyance when trying to locate references. (Sally Banes becomes Sally Barnes in 1995, e.g.)

Both volumes would have benefitted from ruthless editing and shortening. Perhaps deference was granted to material that should have been left in the "cutting room" because of Sparshott's senior status within the profession, but this did him no favors. The reader is left exhausted and bored from slogging through these volumes, yet another discouragement to the development of the philosophy of dance. Longer is not necessarily better. Editing, tightening, and clarifying prose usually improves it.

No doubt, both Sparshott volumes will find their way into every dance library in the English-speaking world, as well they should. Despite the growth of scholarly interest, the literature is still far too slim. But let us hope no one concludes that this is a model of how to do philosophy.


1. Page citations to both volumes are included in the text in parentheses, beginning with the year of publication, followed by the page number. Other sources are cited in the notes here. Return to text

2. McFee's Understanding Dance (London: Routledge, 1992), a book of broad scope and importance comparable to Sparshott's, is based on the premise, as Sparshott observes, that "understanding dance is entirely a matter of understanding explanations of dance, and such explanations are the work of critics." (1995, p. 337) But Sparshott seems to dismiss this as circular, viz., that the practice of criticism cannot define the practice of dance unless critics already know what the practice of dance is independently of their criticism. But this disdain for McFee's insights overlooks the cultural importance of recognizing and categorizing dance as dance, a function which critics (not just philosophers) perform quite admirably. Return to text

3. Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1958). Return to text

4. He lists the date as 29 November 1984, apparently the rebroadcast date, even though it was originally taped, copyrighted, and broadcast on PBS in 1977. He incorrectly names the director as "Tony Charnoli," instead of "Charmoli." (1995, p. 447) These are small, but annoying, details. Return to text

5. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982.) Return to text

6. "A Prolegomenon to an Aesthetics of Dance," in Aesthetic Inquiry: Essays on Art Criticism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Monroe C. Beardsley and Herbert M. Schueller (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1967); "Dance as an Art of Imitation," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (JAAC), 7 (1953), pp. 232-236; "Some Theories of Dance in Contemporary Society," JAAC 9 (1950), pp. 111-118; "The State of Sylphs in Academe: Dance Scholarship in America," in Growth of Dance in America, edited by Edward Kamark (Arts in Society 13: Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1976), pp. 222-227. Return to text

7. "'The Afternoon of a Faun' and the Interrelation of the Arts," JAAC 10 (1951), pp. 95-111. Return to text

8. " The Relation of Dance to the Visual Arts," JAAC 5 (1946-47), pp. 195-203. Return to text

9. E.g., "Intelligence and Sensibility in the Dance," in Growth of Dance in America, op. cit, pp. 210-221; "Some Notes on Aesthetics and Dance Criticism," Dance Scope 10 (1976), pp. 35-39. Return to text

10. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993). Return to text

11. E.g., "Dance Criticism and the Descriptive Bias," Dance Theatre Journal 10 (1993), pp. 26-32. Return to text

12. E.g., Judith B. Alter, Dance-Based Dance Theory: From Borrowed Models to Dance-based Experience (New Studies in Aesthetics 7; NY: Peter Lang, 1991). Joseph Margolis, Adina Armelagos, and Mary Sirridge are mentioned as having considered issues of identity, but no hint is given of their extensive discussions of Goodman's proposals. See 1995, p. 529 n. 1. Return to text

13. "George Beiswanger and Dance Criticism," Dance Chronicle 16 (1993), pp. 35-71. Return to text

14. "Thought and Action in the Art of Dance," British Journal of Aesthetics 27 (1987), pp. 345-357. Return to text

15. Dance Scope 11 (1977), pp. 53-60. Return to text

16. "Aristotle's Dramatic Theories Applied to Dance Criticism," in New Directions in Dance, edited by Diana Theodores Taplin (Toronto: Pergamon Press, 1979), pp. 13-23. Return to text

17. "Nietzsche and the Dance," Philosophy Today 14 (1970), pp. 38-43. Return to text

18. "The Embodiment of Performance," Salmagundi (1975-76), pp. 120-142. Return to text

19. "Mind and Medium in the Modern Dance," JAAC 1 (1941), pp. 106-129. Return to text

20. David N. Best, "Some Problems in the Aesthetics of Dance," Journal of Aesthetic Education 9 (1975), pp. 105-111; James Feibleman, "The Art of Dance," JAAC 8 (1949), pp. 47-52; Joanna Friesen, "Perceiving Dance," Journal of Aesthetic Education 9 (1975), pp. 97-108. Return to text

21. Ballet Review 6 (1977-78), pp. 71-78. Return to text

22. "Re-inventing Dance Scholarship," Ballet Review 19 (Summer 1991), pp. 68-70. Return to text

23. "Is the Body of Dance Sexed?" Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5 (1990), pp. 7-24. Return to text

24. In this discussion of "dancefilm," he complains about a PBS production filled with "atmospheric shots" of body parts, supposedly directed by the choreographer (1995, p. 446). His note says he thinks it was Balanchine but is not sure (1995, p. 541, n. 35). Given what we know about Balanchine's careful presentation of his work on public television and his disdain for such atmospheric shots, it seems unlikely that it was Balanchine.

Another discussion example about a movement performed "off centre" sounds like the Mikhail Baryshnikov solo in the second movement of Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, but Sparshott provides not a hint of documentation so we could properly consider his assessment. We are given no other clues as to the dancer, choreographer, work, date, or company (1995, p. 529 n. 3).

Indeed, his notes are replete with vague references impossible to check or reconsider. "Some theorists argue. . . ," he says (p. 524, n. 25). "An eminent dance teacher has explained to me . . . ," he says elsewhere (p. 526, n. 10). Which theorists? Which dance teacher? It makes a difference in assessing his conclusions.

I am quoted for remarks made at "a symposium on dance criticism." (1995, pp. 521-523, n. 15) From his paraphrase of the discussion, I believe he is referring to the National Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, October 1979, where I read a paper, "Anti-Geneticism and the Evaluation of Dance Performances." Sparshott says nothing about the place, time, topic, or association that would enable the reader to find out what I actually said. Nor does he mention that I published an article based on that paper, "Anti-Geneticism and Critical Practice in Dance Performances" in Dance Research Journal 13 (Fall 1980), pp. 29-35, nor that the material was drawn from my Ph.D. dissertation, Philosophical Problems of Dance Criticism (1981). The dissertation is included in his Reference list, but not the article. The reader of Sparshott's note is given no idea how to find out what I actually said on this occasion or any other. Return to text

25. At the risk of beating a very dead horse, his discussion of copyright and choreography (1995, pp. 411, 434-435) suffers from the same lack of attention to documentation of sources. My 1981 dissertation, Philosophical Problems of Dance Criticism, is cited for one minor point (reports prepared by experts for the 1976 revision of the Copyright Act) (1995, p. 534, n. 23). The dissertation itself is included in the References, although with an incorrect date [1982]. He never mentions that Chapter IV of the dissertation is devoted to a thorough discussion of the same issues of notation, copyright, and choreography that he presents in his own text. For a more recent consideration of these issues, see my "Copyright of Choreographic Works," 1994-95 Entertainment, Publishing and the Arts Handbook (NY: Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1994), pp. 59-92, omitted from his References. Return to text

26. "However, it now seems certain that a substantial proportion (11 per cent used to be the favoured estimate) of humans are innately attracted to partners of the same sex -- though an unknown number of these prefer to live heterosexually, and others whose biological predisposition is heterosexual choose homosexuality." (1995, p. 199). Return to text

AUTHOR'S NOTES (8/17/97):

The full text of my dissertation, Philosophical Problems of Dance Criticism is now available on-line.

See also:

Chronology of Publications on Philosophy and Dance: Coincidence?

Comparison of Publications on Philosophy and Dance: Coincidence?

Return to the top

Julie Van Camp's Home Page

Your comments and questions are welcome:


Last updated: August 19, 1997