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Dance is not the invention of man, since animals dance too. In origin, dancing is a purely physiological action, the ordered and more or less rhythmic expression of an impulse of movement. On November 16, 2019, an exchange between the dance clubs of Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Dance Derivatives (DDZ) and Singapore Institute of Management’s Dream Werkz (DWZ) was conducted in the form of a friendly competition and showcase. This event was called Ignition Vol. 2.0, the second installment of the event Ignition, an exchange with the purpose of trading and learning dance skills between the two school clubs. The art of dance consists not just of the movement, song, and performer, but also of the choreographers, and audience. In this essay, through the lens of Clifford Geertz, dance will be argued to be a process of communication.

Clifford James Geertz was an American anthropologist who is remembered for his strong support for the practice of symbolic anthropology. Geertz also described the practice of thick description as a way of providing cultural context and meaning that people place on actions, words, things, etc. Thick descriptions provide enough context so that a person outside the culture can make sense of the behavior. He provides people with both an ethos and a worldview – in his terms, both a “model for” and a “model of” reality. Ethnographic descriptions are “thick”, to use the word coined by Clifford Geertz. Thick description “takes us into the heart of that of which it is an interpretation” (Geertz, 1973, p. 18) To examine dance from an ethnographic perspective is to focus on dance as a kind of cultural knowledge. The knowledge involved in dancing is not just somatic, but mental and emotional as well, encompassing cultural history, beliefs, values, and feelings.

Dance is a performing art form consisting of a purposefully selected (sometimes freestyled) sequence of human movement. These movements have aesthetic and symbolic value, dance is the translation of four-dimensional movement (time is the fourth dimension) into signs written on two-dimensional paper. Geertz has said that it is impossible to determine the “message” of a wink without referring to the social codes that lie behind the gesture (Geertz, 1973, p. 7). Using Geertz’s example, it is necessary to know not just that a person is winking, but how he is winking. Both the “message” and the experience of a wink are impossible to determine without discussion of the movement itself, for the way people move provides a key to the way they think the way they feel, and what they know. In terms of dance, this means that no movement is “natural”, it all refers to socially negotiated conventions. Every movement is executed with purpose, to bring a message across. The dance movement’s evolutionary importance as a mode of communication is borne by the fact that it has not been superseded by verbal language, although clearly, the latter is generally more efficient for cultural adaptation.

As such, movement is aided by music and song. Music represents emotions and feelings, good times, bad times, and messages from your inner self. Music appeals to the sense of hearing (while movement appeals to the sense of sight), enhancing the experience of the receiver (the audience) of dance as a whole. For example, the competing dance group Xi Ha Wu Guan had the theme of martial arts in their piece, and the use of oriental and fast-paced music choice, when timed properly in cooperation with movement, brought their performance to greater heights, ultimately aiding them in winning the entire competition. Music accompanies and complements movement; hence it can also be considered a mode of communication.

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Performers are the medium of communication, they are the ones who listen to the music and execute the movements, making sure both are in harmony. Competing dance group Changi Chingus’ piece consisted of a soundtrack with a substantial number of beat shifts that had to be coordinated to detailed movements, else there would have been a lack of depth (the wow factor) in the piece. Performers are the bearers of the purpose of communication; to put across a message.

Next then comes the initiator of communication; the choreographers. The choreographers have power and right over everything that was mentioned above, they are the ones who create and sequence the movements, the ones who choose the music, and the ones who tell performers who goes where. The choreographers are the mentors and guides to the performers for their choreography; the initiator of communication imparting the message – the story that the choreography tells – upon the medium of communication.

The audience is the final destination, they are the receivers of communication. During Ignition Vol. 2.0, a total of fifteen dance groups competed on the stage. All fifteen groups performed to bring across their concept, their message – symbolic conceptions of the general order of existence, be it a concept, a feeling, or a Netflix show – to the audience, and the success of the event would suggest that most, if not all, performers have managed to complete their tasks.

In conclusion, the possibilities of learning to use full movement, an important mode of communication, are curtailed because its non-verbal characteristics are devalued. Movement cannot educate people to think verbally, but this does not rule out the possibility of thinking non-verbally. Furthermore, when aided by music, movement, and music, executed by performers, combine to become the dance. Dance, as a theatrical art form, is a powerful form of communication with its audience. It may be created to communicate a broad idea or a specific spark or stimulus from a particular culture, place, or time. Choreographers drive the creative process, experimenting and developing movement and sequences. 

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