Thursday, December 1, 2011

Human or Dancer? Technology's Effects on Dance

Imagine waltzing with someone who is 1,000 miles away. Or watching a ballet with no dancers at all, where wisps of light form the illusion of dancers performing. You are not dreaming. At places like Arizona State University (ASU), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), and Texas Christian University (TCU), dancers are using computers and other multimedia technology to do that and more. "Dance has always existed within the context of society," says John Mitchell, ASU dance department faculty member. "As society changes, it reframes dance. Today, dance is framed by the technology that surrounds us."

Because society today heavily relies on technology, there are those who clamor for more dance on TV and film, for example, NYC Ballet's The Nutcracker being shown in theaters worldwide. While technology allows people to experience dance in ways that they could not many years ago, there is the risk that it could overtake the human, emotional element that defines dance, reminding us of the lyrics "Are we human or are we dancer?" Are we presenting true real emotion or puppets being manipulated?

On May 4, 2004, the Lincoln Centre in New York hosted a PBS centenary celebration/tribute to Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine, arguably the most influential figure in modern American ballet. His extraordinarily imaginative rendering of the classic Nutcracker, and his ability to take his dancers to unexplored dance territories, where they had to master exacting moves, are examples of the mentoring magic of a charismatic choreographer. Technology was not a crucial part of the Balanchine repertoire.

That being said, the incomparable Fred Astaire reveled in the flexibility and freedom technology provided for him on the cinema stage. In his later career, some of his most creative work was achieved by combining his dance skills with improvisational hand-and-leg illusions and with special effects made possible by film technology. While Fred exemplified an easygoing dance style, he was actually a tireless worker who used every device and resource to craft his timeless works of art. His autobiography, Steps in Time (1959), reveals an embrace of film technology.

Great dancing is not just about the mastery of movement, but the utilization of any means, including technology, to showcase human movement at its best. The astonishing productions of the Cirque de Soleil show just what can be achieved by using technology to push back the boundaries of innovative movement theatre.

Dance education causes students to use creative thinking. With the adaptation of technology in dance, creative thinking is broadened. The use of video and the Internet can cause a student to be more creative and to learn at his or her own pace, without being left behind in a normal dance class. Video can help students understand moves that they should be mastering in dance class. In a sense, video can help serve as a model for students and as a teaching tool for instructors.

The Internet can help students to comprehend the meaning of the dance they are attempting, as well as give them the power to interact with, and ask advice from, other teachers and students around the world. Some students, especially those with disabilities, may feel uncomfortable with movement. However, with the addition of technology, dance can bring about certain movements that previously could not be achieved among those with disabilities. Even with technological innovations, students are still able to enjoy the physical and health aspects of dance, because they must perform the dance physically.

The use of technology has allowed dancers to be more dramatic with their movements without seeming to over-emphasize the motion. The enhancement of dance is due to a combination of the advancements in customizing music, scenery, and lighting. The ability to add sounds, delete words, and slow down or speed up beats has given exaggerated dance moves a "beat" to hit, which adds attitude to a performance.

Rather than detract from dancers, the scenery and lighting in performances have actually drawn more attention to the body, by covering many imperfections, while allowing the body to become part of the story that is told with the music and backgrounds. Since technology has become such a vital part of everyday lives, it is probable that it will also be used to enhance the elements of dance.

The ability to film, photograph and record dance is important to perserving the history of dance. Through videos, dvds and  YouTube, dance educators and students have the ability to watch the dance performances of the many dancers/choreographers that helped shape dance. It allows us to document choreography, movement style, costumes and music used for each piece outside of writing them down.


Technology can detract from the human element because there is no emphasis on incorporating dance into our curriculum. As a result, very few physical educators are educated as well as they should be about dance. The advanced technology allows some teachers to take a break while the VCR, television, or computer performs some of the duties that a teacher is hired to do.

What would it feel like to watch robotic, programmed, perfect dancers instead of human live ones? Would anyone be better without the human bond between audiences and performers?

Our society is changing every day. We now rely on technology for a number of things. With the new conceptions of technology being applied to dance, we must look at how this will affect the human element of dance. The human element is changed because people who once went to teachers to learn are now relying on videos to teach them. This has the advantage of making it easier to learn some dances, because people can practice them at home. However, videos/dvds should never replace going to a live dance concert. Watching dance live is a totally different experience and there is nothing like it. You feel the energy of the audience, the anticipation of the curtain opening and of course the dancers moving across the stage with strength, grace and emotion.

In the past, however, there was more emotion in the art of dance. People danced the way they felt, and different variations of movement were used. Technology is now trying to duplicate the one-on-one learning experience and mass market it to everyone. This use of technology is homogenizing the cultural influence of individuals on dance. Some things should be kept original and kept from the changes of our new society. This is one.

Dance is an expression of a person's inner being. Dance allows a person to act alone, with a partner, or in a group. When people express their feelings through movement, the human element soars. When and if technology blocks or stunts the expression of human feelings, dance runs the risk of losing its spontaneity.

Technology helps preserve dance history, but we cannot forget about all of the great books on dance history as well. There are so many dance writers, critics and dance historians that can teach and inspire through the written word.

The use of technology does not necessarily detract from the human element of any activity. It is when people allow the technology to infiltrate their thinking that technology may hinder the human aspect of movement. This is true in dance, sport, and all forms of human movement. The trick is to use the science of technology to enhance the art of human movement, not stifle its creativity. Yes, you can study dance and movement, but how can you analyze "joy"?

In today's world,  physical educators must provide students the opportunity for expression through dance. Dance provides an outlet for beauty, form, and free will. Technology can augment human movement as long as it is the technology that is used by the human element, not the technology that directs the human expression through movement.

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