Stepping Out

Danseuse, deuxieme version; painting by Sonia Delaunay
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo/Art Resource/© Pracusa
Sonia Delaunay: Danseuse, deuxieme version, 1916

I hold hands with strangers. I do it quite often, and for long minutes at a time. I wrap my arms around them to bring them close in an embrace. I search their faces. I fit my body to their dips and hollows. Recently a man said to me, “I can feel your hot belly.” He happened to be French, and something about the deliberate way he said it, carefully pronouncing the English words, meant that I could suddenly feel my hot belly too. It was as though I were inside him, and the heat pushing out through my skin was really pushing in. The membrane between us was suddenly so thin we could have peeled it off, or pressed right through it. Where did I end and where did he begin?

This man was a stranger, or, rather, he was a person I had just met. I did not know his name. We were standing close, listening for the moment in the music when we would begin to dance. We were listening for each other. It is often in the moments before the dance proper begins, before conscious moment and figure intrudes, that listening is at its most creative and we are most aware of the body—our own and others’.

What do we write about when we write about dance? Arguably there are as many ways of talking about dance as there are types of dancing. But the experience of dancing—what it feels like, as opposed to what it looks like—has been poorly served by language. When we try to describe how it feels to dance—in the kitchen, on the dance floor, or on the street—we are stuck with externals. Adjectives like energetic, romantic, joyful, liberating are as much about what we hear as about what we feel, and sometimes they are about what we see—although we can’t see ourselves dance. Even if we look in a mirror, we are watching ourselves watching ourselves dance.

It is the problem of the predicate, memorably summed up by Roland Barthes in his impatient dismissal of the way we talk about the singing voice. “Are we doomed to the adjective?” he asked. “Are we faced with this dilemma: the predicable or the ineffable?” Barthes’s discomfort with description extended as far as objecting to human relationships being figured in language: “A relationship which adjectivizes is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death.” The aim should be to abolish within oneself, and between oneself and others, adjectives. He felt the same way about metaphor, the drawing of analogies. And it is true, the point about dancing is not to be like anything, or compared with anything, not to be this or that, but to be.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.