Academic Bodies in Quarantine: Dance Writers as Dancing Bodies

Lito Tsitsou and Lucy Weir

As scholars of dance, separated by disciplinary boundaries, we have spent a decade seeking ways to work collaboratively. Throughout the period of lockdown, we have explored the convergence of our work anew, embarking on an exploration of our individual and joint embodied histories as researchers and dance practitioners – our shared experiences of quarantine living and exercising, while also reflecting on the nature and future of dance. Perhaps ironically, our most recent discussions were initiated by not moving – an enforced inertia that resulted from the government’s stay-at-home orders.

What follows is a self-reflexive piece examining our shared and individual experiences of studying and inhabiting the dancing body during quarantine. It explores how our joint reflections led us to redefine interdisciplinarity as an embodied project,one that is simultaneously relational, epistemological, and methodological in scope. We confronted the pandemic as a paradox; namely, a form of motivation through confinement, a desire for movement both in the physical and intellectual sense.

I, Lucy, am an art historian specialising in performance. I am interested in the relationships between gender, sexuality, and the body, analysing the ways in which performance holds up a mirror to contemporary society. I came to dance relatively late, developing a serious interest at the point where most vocational students are coming to the end of their training. Dance and academia are, for me, inextricably intertwined. As a postgraduate student, a pivotal moment was the realisation that I could apply my embryonic research skills to dance, drawing together what I had viewed until then as polarised disciplines. Maintaining a critical distance from dance as a profession has been pivotal in my writing about – and my experience of – the art form. My decision to pursue higher academic study was cemented by this meeting of worlds.

Working life, however, has drawn me away from what was once a consistent routine. Time that was originally carved out for my own movement practice is now devoted to teaching, whether academic or movement-focused. Yet, while I advise dance students on technique, I myself rarely dance any more. My relationship to my body has also become more complex – I have a far more nuanced understanding of how the body works, how to move effectively, attentively, and mindfully, but this breadth of knowledge is now coupled with a frustration over its new limitations, due in part to the ageing process (whose effects are particularly acute in dance), and an increasingly sedentary academic lifestyle.

I, Lito, am a sociologist, with 16 years of dance training in my past – mostly ballet, and later, contemporary dance. I was a dancer who, through twists and disruptions (mainly a serious knee injury), became a writer about the dancing body. I turn bodies into texts in an attempt to unravel, deconstruct and reconstitute their physical performances, their subjective experiences and meanings into sociological concepts, theoretical entities and narratives. I employ all these techniques of sociological writing in an effort to produce a sociology of culture and art. I was always preoccupied with bodies, initially my own, its size, its shape, as a woman, and as a dancer. Gradually, I started having questions of a different kind, why I danced, why my body was or was not good enough for dance, and, lastly, why I felt so happy dancing and moving. I, then, became interested in issues of power, namely what is considered dance, who gets to dance, and why. These questions became central to my research but were investigated as part of an antithetical process, namely my progressive disembodiment and equally that of the dancers I researched into textual narratives. I entered a period of stillness very much associated with intellectual practice, product of a Cartesian division of labour between mind and body in order to write about movement.

Our bodily hexes, products of varying degrees of dance training and performance have, as Wainwright and Turner (2006: 214) explained, been ‘fractured’ by events such as serious injury and ageing. Crucially, however, these fractures have also intersected with our academic trajectories. This physical disruption is our common ground, and we hardly expected that some form of reversal was ever possible. Inevitably, this was reflected in our respective ontologies and epistemologies; we objectified bodies, orally and in writing, we fragmented their complexity, disrupted their continuity, and tended to reproduce the distinction between body and mind. As Yudovitz (2004:19-20) argued: “The question of representing materiality leads back to an economy of language […] This deferral of materiality through representation relocates the question of the body into language by demonstrating that the body’s relation to language is as oblique as the general relation of representation to experiential reality”.

Of course, we as academics are aware that language always imposes a distance between text and physical experience but living in the pandemic somehow rekindled that conversation. Surprisingly, quarantine disrupted our joint prolonged physical stillness, the bodily inertia of our intellectualism, and unexpectedly awakened our need to move precisely because it restricted our bodily freedom. As Covid-19 caused the world to grind to a halt, confining millions within their homes, the wider population sharply adjusted to a realisation that is familiar to any dancer – that stillness is the most challenging form of bodily engagement. This type of enforced stillness became a motivation to move, research and write anew. Entangled within this paradox, we as bodies – and as writers of bodies started thinking about our embodied practices, disciplinary methods and writing.

I (Lucy) have been teaching floor barre – a variation of classical ballet exercises performed supine – since 2012. As the pandemic eliminated in-person classes, I moved my courses online. A year later, teaching has induced me to move continuously alongside others, rather than physically adjusting them one-by-one, and I have formed a connection with these moving bodies despite the barriers of our screens. Seeing one another, we move in communion, which is such an important part of dance as a discipline.

Feeling the overwhelming inertia brought about by the lockdown order, I (Lito) signed up for Lucy’s classes to energise and re-establish a missing connection. My body responded instantly, everything felt in place, I felt in place. I followed the exercises almost instinctively, because after every move, the next one was needed – my body was taking over based on its needs and memories. That made me reflect, instantly, “the body knows”. This memory of technique, of posture, of movement initiation, direction and execution is always there; my creativity may have subsided, but my body knows. And, of course it knows, because my body is me, I am embodied. 

Dancing, moving and exercising are an anamnesis of our own physicality, how our mental schemata and bodily actions are actually unified, and inextricably dance together. This is why we felt in place. We both remembered that we physically experience space, time, movement and interaction. Our lengthy engagement with dance has naturalised our movement style, which is reproduced as an act of free will. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (1994) theorises this phenomenon of the body subject, intentional and expressive unified with space and time. Yet our professional engagement and writing had, somehow, driven us away from this actuality.

However, the presence of a physical threat in the pandemic, made us acutely aware of ourselves as what we are – bodies ­– conscious of our embodiedness. We recognised our physical existence in its entirety and not in a distorted fashion. During lockdown, we also remembered that our sense of being is linked to the possibility of movement, and our joint reflexive response was to embark on what was familiar despite our injuries and our fractured relationships to dance; namely, to work through the pandemic via balletic movement.

This embodied relationality as an ontological state (Merleau-Ponty, 1994; Csordas, 1999) has led us to think more deeply about our research, disciplinary and writing practices. It is our view that the history of dance as a historical discipline has so far taken a dematerialised approach, one that is primarily preoccupied with form and style rather than embodiment. Moreover, the disciplines of history and dance studies alike have avoided questioning the conditions of production – social, economic, ideological – and how the individuals placed within these are central to what counts as dance. As the pandemic brought these questions into the fore, we felt the need to ask the following: What is dance? How is embodiment experienced? How is dance made and performed? How are practitioners’ identities affected? How have their working conditions shifted? As a result, what does this signify for both the history and sociology of dance? How do we document and analyse the structural and practical aspects of a shaken dancing field? It appears that the answer is to get moving – in all senses of the word.

We have concluded that working relationally, namely between us and with dance practitioners, represents true interdisciplinarity. Our inquiry poses questions around embodied history and the history of embodiments, something we seek to understand both physically and conceptually as embodied scholars. We consider writing to be an embodied practice, and we remain reflexive about our physical experiences of writing. We question the conditions of dance production and reflect upon the historical continuity of the contexts in which dance has been produced. We document the history of the dancing body – including our own – as it unfolds. Motivated by the notion that dance is the history of embodiment, we persevere physically and intellectually, pursuing our embodied inquiry with ever greater urgency.

Lito Tsitsou is a Tutor in Sociology and Online Learning and Outreach Lead for the Q-step program at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are Sociology of Art, Ballet and Contemporary Dance, Sociology of the Body and Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory and theory of culture. She is currently conducting a pilot study on the impact of the pandemic on ballet and contemporary dancers’ and choreographers’ work across Greece and the UK.

Lucy Weir is Chancellor’s Fellow in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests encompass live art, modern dance, and theatre. She is currently co-editing a collection of essays exploring the impact of Covid-19 on performance practice, and writing a new monograph looking at the relationship between gender and self-injury in live art.

References

Csordas, T. J. (1999). Embodiment and cultural phenomenology. In G. Weiss & H. E Haber (Eds.), Embodiment: The intersection of Nature and Culture (pp. 143-162). New York: Routledge.

Judovitz, D. (2004). The Culture of the Body: Genealogies of Modernity. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1994). Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge.

Wainwright, S, and Turner, B. (2006). ‘’Just Crumbling to Bits’? An Exploration of the Body, Ageing, Injury and Career in Classical Ballet Dancers,’ Sociology, vol. 40, no. 2: 237-255

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