Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy

What is kinesthetic empathy?


Spectators of dance experience kinesthetic empathy when, even while sitting still, they feel they are participating in the movements they observe, and experience related feelings and ideas.

As dance scholar Ann Daly has argued:

‘Dance, although it has a visual component, is fundamentally a kinesthetic art whose apperception is grounded not just in the eye but in the entire body'

(Daly 2002).

Spectators can ‘internally simulate’ movement sensations of ‘speed, effort, and changing body configuration’ (Hagendoorn 2004). 

An important source for the concept of kinesthetic empathy is Theodor Lipps’ theory of ‘Einfühlung’. Lipps (1851-1914) argued that when observing a body in motion, such as an acrobat, spectators could experience an ‘inner mimesis’, where they felt as if they were enacting the actions they were observing.

This shared dynamism of subject and object implied the notion of virtual, or imaginary movement. 

Kinesthetic empathy and related concepts took on particular relevance in the context of modernism, which emphasized the idea that receivers should respond directly to the medium of a work of art (eg. movement rhythms) rather than to a storyline or a subject.  

In the US, Lipps’ ideas were taken up and developed by the influential dance critic John Martin (1893–1985), who championed the dance of Mary Wigman and Martha Graham. Martin argued that what he variously called the spectator’s ‘inner mimicry’, ‘kinesthetic sympathy’ or ‘metakinesis’ was a motor experience which left traces – ‘paths’ – closely associated with emotions in the neuromuscular system.  Sensory experience could have the effect of ‘reviving memories of previous experiences over the same neuromuscular paths’, and also of ‘making movements or preparations for movement’ (Martin 1939).

Recently, Martin’s theory of kinesthetic empathy has been criticised on the grounds that it ‘denies difference’ (Foster 1998) and ‘universalises the personal and essentialises the irrational’ (Franko 2002).

However, Foster argues that the student of dance, who learns by a process of imitation, experiences difference as well as similarity, as no two movers are the same. Similarly, kinesthetic empathy can engender awareness of both similarity and difference. It can also open up experiences of ways of moving which resist cultural norms. 

Since dance is indeed a kinesthetic art which can be experienced in the entire body, it is crucial to reassess the role of kinesthetic empathy in the reception of dance. This is also a timely investigation as recent studies in neuroscience suggest that ‘when watching dance the observer is in a sense virtually dancing along’ (Hagendoorn 2004). 

Below is a quote from choreographer Adesola Akinleye, talking about her work and the relation of the body, space and built environment:

"...It is how the audience sees that is as important to my work as what.  There is an action of witnessing that I hope to stimulate the audience to engage in, and they may not all 'witness' the same thing.
The person who watches dancing does none of the physical work themselves but in perceiving the performance they experience the rhythm of it as though it were in their own body.  When attention is bought to the line and curves of the physical environment through the choreography, the audience starts to experience a building with the same sense of movement that they observe in dance....
I see choreography working in such a way that the audience becomes aware of their own feeling of the aesthetic of the body in space.  I aim for my work to continue to be alive within the space when the dancing bodies have finished; for the dance to have left a trace".

Akinleye, A., GEOGRAPHY OF THE BODY, DanceUK News, Issue 70, Autumn 2008, p.21.

See the Bibliography page for details of texts.