Is dance one of the arts' most misunderstood mediums?

The marmite of the arts’ world, dance has the ability to split opinion in ways that even opera can’t manage. Whether it’s ballet, tap, jazz or an indefinable modern contemporary movement, dance theatre is loved as much as it is reviled. Why is this?

Perhaps one explanation lies in understanding the medium. In the same way that some people shy away from the labyrinthine plots in opera, others decide that dance just isn’t for them, put off by the lack of dialogue and an inability to decipher meaning. Or it may be that people who don’t like to dance themselves think that dance on a theatre stage holds nothing for them. Whatever the case, there are ways to demystify dance and learn to love it.

Dance like no one is watching

From awkward dad-dancing at wedding receptions to the toddler giving it their all to Frozen’s Let It Go, moving to music is as old as sound itself. In fact, dance was around before written language and some historians are of the belief that social, celebratory and ritual dances were key to the development of early human civilisation. From the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to the medieval Europeans, Elizabethans and Regency British, people were up on their feet and swaying to rhythm long before rock ‘n’ roll made an appearance.

There’s an intrinsic human response when we hear music, whether that’s in our living room, at a club or during a gig. Along with singing, it doesn’t depend on ability and so should be one of the simplest art forms to approach – and appreciate.

Demystifying dance

When you think about it, dancing is nothing more than moving. Leaving aside the health benefits of actually being a dancer, research into the emotional effects of dance published in Acta Psychologica suggests that watching dance (in particular productions with professional ballet dancers performing rounded dance movements) can make people feel happy.

Today, professional dancers are athletes. Just as we gain pleasure from seeing hurdlers, 100-metre champions and long-distance runners achieve perfection, so witnessing the balletic grace and accomplishments by dancers at the top of their game is satisfying. And that’s before you add in the bliss of hearing beautiful music, whether it’s by Tchaikovsky, Philip Glass or a new composer.

Meanwhile, there’s the fluidity of dance. Like a Premier League football match full of deft movements and aesthetic excellence, dance theatre at its best is unmatched. It’s an escape and freedom of expression, it is passion, it is beauty. At its core, dance is inspirational.  

It is also one of the art forms that excels at reinvention. From the ground-breaking work of Matthew Bourne and Carlos Acosta in ballet to the enduring legacy of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dance escapes easy categorisation, always looking for an innovative type of expression, the most exciting contemporary trend. So, the next time you’re thinking about a night at the theatre, give dance a chance, whether it’s the English National Ballet, Northern Ballet or the Bolshoi Ballet. No matter where you live, there will be someone dancing near you.