““A foot that smiles, a hand that can weep” – well, the dance is not only an art of time and space, it also is the art of the consciously lived and fulfilled moment.”


Mary Wigman


Anthropology of the Body and the Senses

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Did you know that our western model based on five senses does not appear relevant everywhere? What is recognised as belonging to the ‘sensory’ domain varies from culture to culture! Some cultures include concepts such as balance, the feeling in the mouth, temperature or even temperament as belonging to the domain of the senses. Also, the way we perceive spatial directions varies from culture to culture. Where we emphasise ‘verticality’, other cultures have a more ‘horizontal’ perception of being. Balinese dancers orientate their bodies according to sacred directions, for example towards the mountains where the gods reside, and towards the East of the rising sun. That is very different to western dancers on a stage that is roughly divided in eight (invisible) sections, with a front where the audience sits.

And is the body seen as a separate entity or as part of the natural landscape? The Tiwi aborigines do not have a word for ‘living body’, a body only becomes a separate thing after death when the spirit has left and the body can be buried. However, they have a large vocabulary of body parts, which includes specific words for ‘the back of the hips’ and ‘the side of the buttocks’ which is much more specified than ours.

And is dancing an art that we need to learn, or are we born with it inside us, as again the Tiwi people believe? They call this ‘Dreaming dances’, which connect to that mythological time, long ago when the world was created. Still, these times can be accessed now through the moving body and the dances that live inside.

These examples (which are all drawn from articles by Andrée Grau and Kathryn Geurts, you can find the references under resources) just fascinate me immensely. There are such diverse ways of looking at and perceiving these aspects of physical and sensory experience, of our relationship with the world around… This is one of the areas in which I feel my passions for dance and anthropology really infuse and inform each other.


Culture as a River | Anthropology of the Body and the Senses | Symbolic Anthropology