Aesthetics / Africa / Art / Dance / History / Music / Neuroscience

Proprioceptive Art

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There is visual art, like painting, and auditory art, like music. And there are more complex forms of art that are geared to several senses at once. For example, if dancers perform on stage with some accompanying music, we could describe that as both visual and auditory. But there is another way to look at dance as an art form, or rather, to “feel at it”.

According to tradition, we have five senses. However, if we take a closer look, we discover that we have more than that. The sense organs for perceiving gravity, acceleration and angular acceleration, situated in our inner ears, have long been overlooked. Likewise, there are several quite different types of sensors connected to what was traditionally thought of as the one sense of touch, e.g. there are not only sensors for pressure but also for heat. And we don’t only have touch sensors in our skin, we have special sensors inside our muscles that inform us about our body posture. Close your eyes and move your arm. You will notice that you are able to perceive that movement. The brain seems to have a perceptual model of your body and this is updated with information from those internal sensors. Only as late as in the 16th century this special sense was noticed at all and only in the 19th century, scientists started analyzing it. Scientists coined the term “proprioceptors” for these muscle-internal sense organs.

The fact that this internal sense has been overlooked for so long might be connected to the anti-carnal tradition of western culture throughout medieval times. And what has also been totally overlooked is that it is possible to create art for this body-internal sense. Just like there is visual art and auditory art, there is also the possibility of proprioceptive art. We can move our bodies in ways that generate perceptible patterns of great beauty. I discovered this during the 1980s when I learnt some African dances.

There is a large variety of different forms of dance in Africa. What I am focusing on here are the dance of people speaking languages of the Niger-Congo language family. These people originated in West Africa, so one could call this the West African dance tradition. They spread into central Africa, East Africa and the Southern Part of Africa after they had invented Agriculture during Neolithic times. And one of the artistic traditions they took with them was their distinctive form of dance and music. Many dance forms of middle and south America and also dances associated to Jazz and other forms of “black” music can also be traced to this tradition.

The West African dance tradition has been described as “polycentric”. This means that different parts of the body are not moved as one rigid unity but each part of the body (shoulders, pelvis etc.) can be moved independently. The movements are not really independent, they are synchronized, but typically, different body parts will be moved according to different rhythmic components of the music. So you can think of the body here as a system of oscillators that are synchronized with each other but can be modulated and coupled in different ways.

What I observed was this: basically, a rhythmic pattern might be auditory (in the music one can hear) or visual (in a dance one sees). But from the point of view of the dancer, the same rhythmical pattern might also be a proprioceptive pattern, i.e. a pattern that the dancer observes with the muscle and touch receptors in his body. The abstract rhythmical pattern is always the same. So you can transfer a piece of music to another musical instrument or you can “play” it with your own body. Or you can add another “tune” or “voice”. So music in this musical tradition is not necessarily an audory art. The fact that many African languages don’t distinguish between concepts of music and dance in the same way as European languages do might have it’s roots here.

In fact, African dance can be viewed as a proprioceptive art where the dancer is the only person who can perceive the piece of art completely. The rhythmical structure you feel in the body is then integrated with the auditory music into a “multimedia” experience of great beauty. So Africans have created an art form for the body-internal proprioceptive senses which have been neglected or overlooked in most other parts of the world as a possible target for art.

If you know the dance, you can perceive the structures in somebody else’s dance you see (neuroscientists are telling us that we have specialized “mirror neurons” that enable us to understand other peoples movements), but I think that primarily, African dance is not a visual art but a proprioceptive art.

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Since an auditory pattern might be transferred to a proprioceptive pattern and vice versa (the abstract pattern of “music/dance” being the same in both ways of performing it) and both parts of the experience can then be integrated into one multimedia structure in the dancer’s/listener’s mind, both are just different expressions of the same abstract structure.

So the western way of looking at dance as a visual form of art is limited. The visual component does exist in Africa as well, especially in dances in which masks are also used,

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but it is only part of the story.

What is unique in the proprioceptive aspect of dance is that this is a form of art you cannot passively consume. You must learn it yourself and do it in order to be able to fully experience it.

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Once the movements have become automatized to some extent so that you can just observe them, there is a rich world of swinging patterns that you can observe in their relationships to each other and to the music. And once you have learnt that, you can also see more when observing other dancers. There is a rich world of aesthetic experience hidden to many people. Learning some of it is worth the effort.

(The pictures were taken during the funeral of my father in law, Max Kuma, in the town of Njinikom in Cameroon in 2009.)

8 thoughts on “Proprioceptive Art

  1. Pingback: The Spectrum of Creativity | The Asifoscope

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