Dance Cognition: Echo Without* Delay

*Or Almost Without…

I bought a book, The Neurocognition of Dance, of which I’ve read only dribs and drabs, and which I’ve lent to my friend B. (not Ms. B or Mr. B — Blogging-By-Initials gets confusing sometimes), and I’m burningly curious right now about whether any of the chapters within touch on this. I’ll have to find out when she’s done with it.


As dancers, we learn to mirror or echo the actions of other dancers extremely well.

When we’re learning a combination, we mimic right along as it’s handed out — abetted, no doubt, by whatever formal vocabulary of movement (and its associated shorthand) is appropriate to the context, but in a way that’s still rather remarkable for its almost complete lack of delay.

I’m sure that there is a delay — some fraction of a second that passes between the action of instructor or repetiteur or choreographer or group leader or what-have-you and its echo by the rest of the dancers.

It must be eerie to watch this as it happens: to someone on the outside — especially, perhaps, to an observer who is not a dancer — it must look for all the world as if the congregation of dancers, rapt in its attention, is a kind of hive-mind.

In a way, maybe it is.

There is an element of “mind-reading,” of highly-educated guessing, involved in this process. I say that because once in a while we get it wrong: what looks like it will be tendu turns out to be jeté (a distinction so slight, when indicated with hand gestures, as to be essentially invisible to the untrained eye), or the anticipated turn is sublimated into a kind of caesura followed by a contretemps. Sometimes, this happens, and someone, unconscious of his own voice, says, “Oh!” even as he adapts on the fly; even as he continues to absorb the combination by that strange combination of habit and apparent clairvoyance.

But mostly, eerily, uncannily, we get it right.

At barre, we stand there in our array, watching with the unblinking eyes of gun dog or panther, flapping our hands or our feet in synchrony with the hands and/or feet of our leader.

Mostly, the human eye does not perceive any delay.


I found myself thinking about this yesterday while we were all absorbing one of Ms. B’s long and complex barre combinations. There was a moment during which I was participating in this process and glanced back to make sure that I wasn’t blocking the view of anyone on the wall barre behind me (I was on a wobbly center barre) and noticed that we were all like live wires of attention, all in perfect sync, and that we all appeared to be silently performing some kind of well-rehearsed ritual or carrying out a program.

Only we weren’t. We were learning a new combination, one made up of elements we all knew, but combined in a novel way.

Very cool stuff, there.

Once again, I have more thoughts, but I’m tired. I woke up this morning (morning? I mean afternoon, feh) after another thirteen-hour sleepathon with a sinus headache, a sore throat, and a general feeling of mild malaise, so I decided to give myself a day off. Rest day FTW! Tomorrow, we have a conditioning class in the morning, then I’m going to a semiotics workshop in the afternoon, which should be awesome.

I’ll try to assemble my More Coherent Thoughts on all this soon.

For now, though, I’m going to take a bath, finish reading the article for tomorrow’s workshop, and then go to bed.

À bientôt, mes amis!

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2016/01/28, in balllet and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It’s also very much a skill! For all that I am a visual person, and I also love to dance, I suck at imitating what I see. I either need to be dragged through it physically (I’ll never learn to lead swing dance) until it feels right instead of awkward, or I just make up my own stuff. Translating what I see someone else doing into the movements of my own body is crazy hard for me!

    • This is a really interesting thought! Also, great point about dance-mimicry being a skill — I’m a lot better at it than I used to be, so it seems that practice can help.

      I hadn’t considered how these things might play out in other dance-forms … mostly, I would guess, because I have depressingly little experience outside of ballet and modern dance; even when I go to clubbing, I basically just throw down a bunch of wild ballet-derived-modern improv, heh.

      Curiously, I think I’m almost on the opposite side of the spectrum from you in terms of how we absorb dances — I find it much harder to be shaped/dragged through a dance via consistent physical contact (though intermittent physical correction works) than to learn one by watching and imitating. Interesting!

      This may be why, as much as I enjoy watching the more formally-codified forms of social dance (swing included), I haven’t historically been great at learning them. This always confuses people who have seen me dance, and, honestly, it has generally confused me as well. I haven’t really tried watching, imitating, and then trying to incorporate another dancer, but I bet that would work for me.

      I also wonder if dancers practice a kind of assortative-mating thing when it comes to dance does — like, so dancers in your camp, for whom physical shaping works better, tend to gravitate towards dance forms like ballroom or swing? Do dancers like me, for whom visual shaping works better, tend to gravitate towards forms like ballet or modern, in which the process of learning tends to be mostly visual?

      This feels like a really interesting research question!

      • Whoa! That’s a really interesting thought! I think the draw for me is more music-based, in terms of what makes me want to sit and listen quietly, and what makes me want to get up and move. But I think the fact that I *could* be dragged through swing to learn it made it a lot more approachable to me – I love freestyle/club dancing, but it’s a lot more mood-dependent. OTOH, I find I really shy away from social dancing these days – it’s “people overload” for me. But every once in a while, I’ll turn the stereo up at home by myself and just boogie out. 🙂

  2. “dance does” in that last paragraph should be “dance forms”… thanks, autocorrupt

  3. I didn’t think Cunningham class would speak to dancing for its own sake much, but last week I discovered my partnering, which is usually dreadful, took a leap forward. Weird, as we’ve not done any in class, but perhaps it’s a confidence/validation thing.

    on your post, have you read anything about John Boyd?

    • Interesting! I’ve noticed similar things — sometimes visiting a different techniques does something that seems to shake things into place elsewhere. It’s fascinating!

      I haven’t read about John Boyd, but now I’m curious!

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