Watching Dance

Taking a multidisciplinary approach to investigating Kinesthetic Empathy

Watching Dance Round Table Discussion – Laban, 25th March 2011

All Round Table panellists were invited to speak for 2 minutes on the relevance of kinesthetic empathy to their work. Your comments are welcome!


The notes below are compiled in alphabetical order, by speaker.


Glenna Batson

Embodied Practices


Say out loud the word “running” while you mentally visualize yourself “throwing,” and one can readily see the interpenetration of thought, language, and motor imagery of a physical act.  Kinaesthetic empathy is our capacity for simulating and embodying action, affording us a means of making “sense,” literally and figuratively of our experience. A confluence of many disciplines – arts, sciences, and humanities – has brought into focus the body and embodiment, increasingly providing context and substantiation for kinaesthetic empathy as a nonverbal form of modus vivendi.  Among these many disciplines, embodied practices have proliferated over the last century, giving voice to the body’s internal narrative. These practices originated in the west at the turn of the 20th century, arising out of humanistic psychology and holistic health movements which sought to dismember mind-body dualism and validate the inner experience of “self” or “soma.” Thomas Hanna, philosopher and Feldenkrais practitioner who coined the word “somatics,” turned Descartes on his head by saying, “I think, therefore I move.” Today, well over 100 “somatic” practices exist as pragmatic methods in which kinaesthetic sensitivity is cultivated through touch and movement. Yoga, tai chi, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, Selver Sensory Awareness, Body-Mind Centering, and many other methods – both ancient and contemporary – emphasize shared kinaesthetic resonance as a means of bringing body, mind, and spirit into greater harmony with self and others. Cultivating embodied practices offers us a chance to convey tacit messages, intentions, and desires across physical and verbal barriers through this resonance that enables us to share our (e)motions. The discovery of the mirror neuron system helps substantiate the empirical evidence of kinaesthetic empathy/resonance, action observation, and embodied simulation.  Yet, mirror neurons only give us a glimpse of this profound phenomenon.


Scott DeLahunta

Project Leader Motion Bank; The Forsythe Company

R-Research Director Wayne McGregor|Random Dance

Senior Research Fellow Coventry University


The Motion Bank project seeks to publish resources developed out of artistic practice and make them available for further study, peer review and application. These resources aim to invigorate the art form of dance, contribute to its preservation, stimulate dance education, participate in shifts in disciplinary knowledge, align with the emergence of digital culture and offer audiences new forms of access to dance.

What I find interesting about Kinaesthetic Empathy and the evolving discourse around it is how it suggests another way of looking at dances. It is important because it speaks to the movement/ sensation/ affect spectrum of perception and less the interpretive and semiotic way of reading dances.

It would be interesting  to contemplate Kinaesthetic Empathy in relation to the new Motion Bank resources and other similar projects (e.g. the Capturing Intention project of Emio Greco | PC, Material for the Spine DVD-Rom of Steve Paxton, Siobhan Davies Replay and the Motion Bank pilot project Synchronous Objects)



Shantel Ehrenberg

PhD researcher, University of Manchester


My PhD research examines a group of contemporary, ballet, and hip hop dancers’ reflections about dancing, primarily related to interaction and disjuncture between kinaesthesia and self-image. 


One way the concept of kinaesthetic empathy has come up in my research is as part of the complex intercorporeal relations between dancers-choreographers and dancers-teachers in Western theatre dance practices.  A specific example of such intercorporeal relations I am referring to is in the training context of a teacher who choreographs movement and dancers who learn the choreography. In this situation, from the dancer’s perspective, the kinaesthetic sensations of the other, the teacher, are translated by dancers into their own kinaesthetic experiences.  Western theatre dance practitioners, in many but not all classes across their training histories, take the movement seen on a teacher (and often also verbally described), and imagine and interpret what that might kinaesthetically feel like, and then translate the movement into their own kinaesthetic experience and perform it.  Dance scholar Jaana Parviainen (2002) calls this ‘empathic projection’, following German philosopher Edith Stein’s description of empathy, because dancers move themselves into the position of the other and this creates a shared terrain between dancer and teacher.  However, the dancers do not have access to the actual kinaesthetic experiences of the other, thus the dancers can be thought to employ kinaesthetic empathy to translate the movements ‘there’ without losing a sense of self ‘here’. 


I have found this way of thinking particularly intriguing to consider further for contemporary dance training, more specifically release technique, in which individuality is significantly valued, in contrast to mastering a codified movement vocabulary, and students are choreographers and improvisers as much as technicians.  It seems kinesthetic empathy has particular purpose for dancers of release as they distinctly aim to position themselves into a number of different teachers’ ways of moving – thus a number of different ‘others’ – and yet also aim to maintain a sense of their own way of moving – a particular balance between incorporating others while maintaining a strong sense of their own unique movement style. 


Work cited

Parviainen, J. (2002, 10-13 January) Kinaeshesia and Empathy as Knowing Act. Paper presented at the NOFOD Conference on Dance Knowledge and Cognitive Aspects of Dance, Trondheim.


Tessa Gordziejko

Creative Programmer for London 2012 and imove Creative Director
Arts Council England, Yorkshire


When I started my research project exploring the links between metakinesis, mirror neurons and dance as part of the Clore Leadership programme in 2006[1], I found that none of the people I interviewed from the dance world had heard of mirror neurons or kinaesthetic empathy, and few were aware of the collaborations between dance and neuroscientists.  Five years later, not only do we have The Watching Dance Project engaging the dance sector in the work on brain relationship between observed and performed movement, but on a Radio 4 arts programme a couple of weeks ago, Deborah Bull referred to her ‘mirror neurons popping’ whilst watching a particular piece of dance.


This is to me why the field of kinaesthetic empathy is fascinating and important.  Professor V S Ramachandran described the discovery of mirror neurons as potentially as important as the discovery of DNA. When you think how genetic science, in the fifty years since that breakthrough, has shaped all branches of social as well as medical sciences, as well as popular culture, one can imagine that the influence of neuroscience in the field of action observation could spread a lot more quickly in transforming our relationships with our moving bodies in a post Cartesian world.


It was for this reason that when I came to shape a cultural programme for the London 2012 Olympics, the idea of a celebration of human movement presented intrigueing opportunities.  The imove programme in Yorkshire[2], funded by Legacy Trust UK and Arts Council England, aims to create work which engages the public actively and intellectually in exploring movement, both performed and watched. It is not simply a dance programme – although it contains strong dance elements – but connects arts, sports, physical activity and environment to explore the embodied sense of movement that audiences and participants can build through expressive and pedestrian motion, or simply moving in the urban or rural landscape.


For me, the work on kinaesthetic empathy is too important to be kept in either the laboratory of the choreographer’s studio.  It has a profound potential for informing and effecting change in future in the way we understand movement as a primary language for engaging with the world. As such it has the potential to bring dance as a performed art form from the margins of society to a much more central and mainstream status.


There are many ways to develop this hypothesis, but here are just some of the challenges and opportunities it offers to the sector :


Firstly, it may fundamentally impact on the concept of access and how we enact that – if audiences are freed from the anxiety of not cerebrally ‘understanding’ a piece of dance, but can trust their own kinaesthetic empathy as a route to physical response, the idea of ‘accessible’ and ‘non accessible’ changes.


Secondly, it challenges the sector to forge new relationships between creative producers, choreographers and marketeers to bring the ways work is made and the ways it is brought to its watchers closer together.


Thirdly, there is a challenge of leadership in the sector – we need creative leaders who can envision the possible futures that the developments in science may bring, and to prepare us as a sector for those futures.


Marie-Hélène Grosbras,

University of Glasgow.


My research is in Cognitive Neuroscience. In this discipline, Kinesthetic empathy has taken particular relevance in the last 10-15 years with the explosion of research linked to social perception and social cognition (i.e. focused on identifying brain processes specific to social signals). This has led to the definition of a new research field “Social Neuroscience”, with new journals, societies and meetings.

Indeed there has been a shift of trend from a Neuroscience of the Subject  - when previously the “hot” focus was on investigating a neural correlate of consciousness - towards a Neuroscience of Intersubjectivity  - where a lot of effort is directed at trying to identify what brain processes and network allow us to perceive, understand and empathize with others, and why this faculty might be impaired in some psychiatric and neurological conditions.

A number of brain regions and brain circuits have been identifies that seem specifically dedicated to the processing of social stimuli. How they are related to perception-action circuits on the one hand and to emotion-motivation circuits on the other hand remains a challenge to elucidate. In this context I believe that Kinesthetic Empathy is an extremely useful concept to help us make this link (by considering empathic reaction in relation to the sense of movement) and to help us design studies to apprehend the organisation, the dynamics and the plasticity of those brain circuits important for social interaction and intersubjectivity.


Anna Kuppuswamy

Imperial College London


I view KE from the viewpoint of a motor neurophysiologist with a strong interest in movement rehabilitation and to me, KE relates to the ability of the cortical motor network to recognise and activate relevant neural pathways associated with the observed movement. This may not necessarily be a conscious process. From the point of view of aesthetic appreciation, I think, KE may be one of the sources of information for the conscious mind to decide on the appreciability of the art form. From a  rehabilitation point of view, KE has great implications for motor rehabilitation especially for those who are severely restricted in their ability to move themselves.


Zoe Norridge

University of York


I want to open with two scenes from Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Zero Degrees.

In the first:

  • The stage is a white box         .
  • Two men walk to the front and sit cross-legged.
  • Then they tell a story.


It is a first person story about identity and passports and confusion and border crossing.  And they tell it in perfect synchrony, with the same intonation, pauses and hand gestures


In the second scene:


  • There are two dummies on the stage as well as the two men.
  • Cherkaoui is frustrated.
  • He violently attacks one of the dummies.
  • Khan responds to the kicks and blows as if he was being hit himself.



I’m fascinated by Akram Khan’s work because for me it enacts the forms of kinaesthetic empathy I research in dance, literature and memorial sites.


With the first example we saw confluence.


The two dancers have very different identities – one is British Bangladeshi, the other Moroccan Flemish.  They experience the same narrative, inhabit the same gestures, whilst remaining radically, manifestly, concretely different.


The second example points towards antagonism.


One body bears witness to another’s wounding (the dummy’s in this case).  This occurs through a sense of kinesthetic empathy even though no actual damage is experienced by the person watching and responding.  Again this process takes place across diverging identities.


Kinesthetic empathy’s potential to activate cross-cultural connections, both in the sense of identification and in terms of the involved witnessing of the infliction of violence, fascinates me.  I find it hugely salient when teaching global literatures to students, in my own writing about African pain narratives and above all in my research on memorials commemorating the genocide in Rwanda.


I’m interested in how movement, witnessing movement, feeling another’s movement, opens the door to cross-cultural empathy.


Sita Popat

Leeds University


I am interested in the connections between performance and new media, and particularly the experiences of the body and its digital avatar (i.e. its representation in another space or a virtual world). 

Digital performance practitioners repeatedly deny loss of the body, and instead speak of extending it.  My research with Scott Palmer uses digital sprites projected on stage with dancers.  The sprites are created in Macromedia Director MX2004 and they are controlled by performer-operators in real-time via Wacom graphics tablets and pens. They don’t resemble humans – indeed they are simply symmetrical graphics like stars and lines, but they are programmed using the physics of nature (swarms, springs and masses) to give them behaviours that are familiar and easy for humans to understand in physical terms.   

The sprites are front-projected onto a downstage gauze, and the on-stage dancers perform upstage of the gauze so that they can see and interact with the projected sprites.  Almost everyone who operates the sprites reports experiences of dislocation or translocation - they claim to recall being on stage or caught somewhere between stage and operating position. People describe dancing with the other performers on the stage (“and then I swooped over your shoulder”, “we both span around and around”), even though they were actually sitting at a desk in the darkened auditorium drawing on a graphics tablet and watching their sprites with the on-stage performers.  Scott and I have written a number of papers exploring this sense of the sprite as a technological extension of the experiential or phenomenological body – allowing the operators to experience dancing onstage via extension through their sprites. 

Bobby Byrne is a wonderful dancer, who has one arm considerably shorter than the other.  He told me that he feels perfectly balanced when he dances, but he dislikes seeing himself dancing on video because he sees a body that looks unbalanced.  After operating the sprites, he told me that he loved it because the sprite dances how he feels. 

I have a vague hypothesis that kinaesthetic empathy between performer and avatar is critical in establishing a sense of presence and agency through the technologically extended body.   I was particularly interested in the Hebbian association, when I heard about it at the Watching Dance conference.  It states (loosely) that what fires together, wires together – ‘every time you see yourself grasping, you match the doing with the seeing’.  As I act through my avatar, I receive visual feedback that tells me that my intentions are being fulfilled through my control of its actions.  Cybernetics talks about feedback loops, but I suspect that the Hebbian association might also reinforce the sense of physical extension that one experiences sometimes with a digital avatar – as my action is reflected in its action, so we wire together … perhaps …

Most recently, my thinking around this area has taken me into a phenomenological analysis of performance incorporating virtual worlds and gaming techniques, and I am just completing an article on this topic. 

So – in a nutshell - I am interested in the role that kinaesthetic empathy plays in our understandings of the technologically extended body, and how this might help with the dismantling of physical-virtual dualist thinking in a 21st century world. 

I hope people find these rough notes interesting, and I'd be delighted if anyone wants to comment or talk further.


Matthew Reason

York St John University


My understanding of Kinesthetic Empathy is informed by engaging with and exploring audience members’ lived experiences of watching dance. That is the meanings, valuations, connotations and motivations through which audience members construct their own experiences of watching. I’ve been exploring this through qualitative audience research, talking to audiences individually and in group and also through creative, drawing and writing based workshops.


In this context Kinesthetic Empathy describes the multiple embodied, experiential, emotional and imaginative ways in which audiences translate the seen movement of dance into the felt experience.  


Examples of this range from

-          a physicalized sense of awe and admiration for the spectacle and virtuosity of the dancers’ movements.

-          a projection of the self into the dancer, an internal simulation of the seen movement, an imagination of moving like that, a longing to be able to move like that. This also connected into negative relationships of envy or shame and it is interesting to think that kinesthetic empathetic engagements are not necessarily positive.

-          the embodied adoption of an emotion or mood, the spectator feeling the tension or relaxation or freedom or anxiety or torment or release through their own embodied understanding of such states

-          a visceral recognition of muscle and effort and sinew and sweat

-          an ethereal losing of oneself into the grace and flow of movement


For me kinesthetic empathy might rest in the pre-conscious sphere of the affect, in the immediate experiential and emotional moment of watching and in the ongoing reflective and imaginative engagement with the experience. I see a difference between what might be termed kinesthetic competency, an ability to read and recognize and respond to movement in our everyday environment, and kinesthetic empathy as audience response in dance or art, which I see as also involving an aesthetic, emotion or interpretative impact as well as a cognitive attunement.


Audiences’ kinesthetic empathy, or perhaps rather audiences’ different kinesthetic and empathetic relationships with dance then become part and parcel of the rewards and motivations of audiences for seeking out and watching particularly kinds of dance performances.


Alex Reuben

Film Director


I make dance films for the cinema. I never watch the films at home but I always watch them with an audience & it feels different every time. I can sense what the audience feels & that affects how I experience & make movies.


The films focus on social improvisation, sound & politics. In different films I situate dance in history, painting & landscape, I call it Choreogeography, like Psychogeography, in movement.


I’m interested in how the eye, the ear, the mind & body are engaged in watching dance film. I don’t like my films on the internet because the reduced scale of sound & vision, arguably affects empathy. One’s immersion & focus is altered.


This has a huge effect on the choreography of the viewers eyes & ears. A reduced dynamism & emotion. You cannot really see & hear a choreographic filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick, Maya Deren or Jacques Tati on a laptop, or phone in the same way as in a widescreen.


Our eyes see very little in focus & the brain captures at about 3.5 impressions a second. The brain composes this, so I’m interested in how we fill in the gaps, how we create identity & narrative in the widest sense & the implications for what is truth in movement.


I’m also interested in the relationship between sense data & cinema & have made films that explore 2D dancers in 3D space. I’m thinking about the ‘ingestion of projection’.


I create this work instinctively, from my gut & then analyse it afterwards. Looking at neuroscience feeds into this by helping to explain what I do after the event & is now informing narrative in my movie ideas, e.g. how MIR scans illustrate that parts of the brain know we are moving before our conscious selves know, ie instinct.


Fundamentally, I’m interested in the implications of neuroscience for social improvisation, specifically the relationship between freewill & determinism.


My work is primarily emotional, from gut instinct.


Dee Reynolds

University of Manchester; PI Watching Dance project


I came to research in Dance Studies from a background in different art forms (poetry and painting), where I was interested in how perception of rhythm impacts on audience experience. I was particularly interested in exploration of rhythmic forms in poetry and painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where it coincided with challenges to content based on representation and narrative (e.g. in abstract painting), and called for new modes of engagement from readers and spectators which involved kinesthesia and empathy. I became curious about dance, and discovered that the issues I was most concerned with were being played out in dance in this and later periods. I was very intrigued by the idea that dance spectators could in some way have a vicarious experience of dancing, even though they were not moving. I was interested to find out how important this response is for spectators of dance, and how conscious experience relates to neurophysiological aspects of what goes on while people are watching dance. These questions are central to the project, ‘Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy’ (AHRC 2008-11). Subsequently, through the project, I have become interested in the role of kinesthetic empathy in intersubjective communication and in spectators’ engagement with a range of cultural and creative practices. I am also fascinated by the way in which research on ‘mirror neurons’ is feeding into discourses in the arts and humanities and creating new areas of interaction between arts and sciences in which the concept of kinesthetic empathy is increasingly playing a key role.


Darren Waldron

Manchester University


² Haven’t worked with kinaesthetic empathy per se, but some related issues have emerged in my work on film and audiences

² Combined close textual analysis of eleven contemporary French popular films that portrayed queer forms of gender and sexuality

² Films from a variety of different genres: mainly comedies, but also melodramas, road movies and three musicals

² My aim was to examine how a group of 51 mainly French respondents position themselves in relation to the themes of the films via a series of very basic questions – asking them, for example, what they liked about the films and whether they had a favourite scene

² Qualitative approach: wanted to go in-depth, but all the while allowing the respondents to take control; to see what the basic questions revealed

² So analysis of data informed by insights of discourse analysis and its application in work on media audiences

² To see subject positions appropriated, social function of talk about films

² Informed also by Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital and Thornton’s work on subcultural capital

² BUT: discovered that sociology cannot provide all the answers

² Some responses illustrate the extent to which Bourdieu’s capital theories cannot account for the intensity of the sensual impact of art and culture at the moment of reception – that is, the capacity of any art object or cultural product to elicit a reaction that is sensually and corporeally, as well as cognitively and emotionally constituted.

² this emerged in responses about the dance routines in which the combination of songs and dance movements generated a more visceral engagement with the film

² Respondents name song and dance scene from Jeanne et le garcon formidable as their favourite moment, talking about how it is moving, describing the upbeat music, the choreographed dance movements, recalling specific moves

² So respondents evoke the intensity of their connection with the film and convey how they were caught up in the thrall of its visual and aural aesthetics

² I have now been led to consider debates that seek to get beyond the purely sociological; for instance, Antoine Hennion et al’s work on the more visceral, emotional connection between listener and music when listening to classical music or, in film studies, Laura Marks’ work on the haptic and Viviane Sobchak’s work on the visceral connections between audience and film – how our reactions are not always coherent, conscious, considered; films can stir an unconscious response and that response can be elicited and enhanced by the sensation of movement

² Sobchak: ‘tactile, kinetic, redolent, resonant, and sometimes even taste-full descriptions of the film experience’ in reviews; how films appeal to our ‘sensorium’; for Sobchak, we have not yet ‘come to grips with the carnal foundations of cinematic intelligibility’; how the viewer’s response is literally ‘lived’ in the body

² Of course, I’m dealing with these interactions ‘after the event’ as it were; my responses have already occurred physically, and now it is the respondent who is recalling them

² Martin Barker’s recent contribution on the state of audience research in which he argues ‘audience responses are always emotionally-charged understandings and educated emotions… there is no way of separating out the cognitive and the emotional responses, regarding these as separately shaped or driven’

² Barker also talks about ‘investment’ which ‘draws attention to all the ways in which audience care about the experience they seek. It treats as crucial variables how much they care, and the manner of their caring’

² Allows us to consider how the text has an effect beyond the point of reception and is invoked in other aspects of an individual’s conscious and emotional lives


Karen Wood

PhD researcher

Manchester University


I am currently studying for a PhD investigating kinesthetic empathy and the screen dance audience as part of the Watching Dance Project.  I am interested in ways in which kinesthetic empathy is relevant to film.  I have used qualitative audience research methods to collect material from spectators of dance on TV and experimental screen dance.  I have interviewed 6 filmmakers and chose some of their work to show audiences. 


The audiences’ responses have enable me to explore how the kinaesthetic experience is mediated through aspects of engaging with narrative, cinematic techniques, emotional involvement and imagination.  I have initially explored camera movement, the close-up shot and camera positioning and how this stimulates a visceral and kinesthetic response.  These camera techniques can create unexpectedness and I am interested in how that jolts our sense of viewing.  Some of the filmmakers wanted to create unexpectedness in their films and for their audiences and I am looking to see whether this makes an impact on their audiences, and how it affects their kinesthetic experience.


Other areas of investigation in my research are effects of editing and sound and music and how these aspects of dance filmmaking can have a kinesthetic effect on our viewing experience. 


With another hat on, from a teaching perspective, I am interested in how we acquire kinaesthetic sensibilities and this can be taught/learnt/employed in teaching dance.  I want to be able to enrich and enhance a student’s learning and performance by accessing kinesthetic qualities of movement when teaching.   




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