What Is Dance?

What is the nature of dance, and how can it contribute to the celebration of a culture of complementarity?

Defining Dance

What is dance? That might sound like a silly question. Surely everyone knows what it is. However, the purpose of the question here is to look more closely at the nature of dance so as to see just how much potential it has for celebrating a culture of complementarity. Let's begin with a broad definition:

Dance is expressive body movement.

On its own that would be too broad, since 'expressive body movement' would also include mime, and the movements used in acting, or in the performance of a song, and even how one walks so as to project a certain attitude. However, although it is a broad definition, we don't have to be too finicky here because we are not compiling a dictionary but looking at the development of a culture of celebration.

To clarify matters I want to introduce some basic distinctions.

Participation vs Display

We can distinguish between participation dance and display dance. Now obviously every dance involves some participants, but here we are distinguishing between a dance where, in principle, everyone is involved by actually dancing, and a dance performed by some for an 'audience' of others.

So at a ballroom dance, although there will usually be some people standing or sitting round the edge of the dance floor who are not dancing, the purpose of the dance is to participate in it. Non-participation is coincidental. Those who are sitting out a dance could in principle be participants in the next dance.

By contrast, a display dance is performed with the specific intention that some will perform and others will watch. It involves a choreographed sequence intended to communicate some meaning and feeling to the watchers.

Partnered vs Group (or Solo)

We can distinguish between partnered dance and group dance. (Solo dance is only mentioned in passing as an alternative to partnered dance, but in the sense pertinent here has more in common with group dance.) Partnered dance has a 'romantic' form, portraying the masculine-feminine dynamic in expressive body movement. It is dances such as a waltz or a tango. It doesn't mean that the particular man or woman dancing together are 'romantically involved' but that the form of the dance expresses some of the intelligibility of romantic relationship.

Group dance can portray any kind of meaning. Most ancient tribal cultures developed dances that expressed their stories and beliefs. Modern dance troupes explore all sorts of meanings. These are not directly relevant here, but group dance can also express aspects of masculine-feminine attraction. A group of women can dance so as to communicate something to men in general, and vice versa. Or a group of men and women can present a choreographed representation of some aspect of relations between the sexes. In its own way a group dance is also usually a 'display' dance, in the sense that the others present provide a 'temporary audience'. So a group of all the men present perform a dance with all the women as watchers, or a group of all the women present perform a dance with all the men as watchers.

Social vs Competitive

We can distinguish between social dance and competitive dance. In social dance the emphasis is on participation for its own sake, while a competitive dance is held as a way for those who want to develop a higher degree of expertise to test themselves against others. In its form a competitive dance could be either a partnered or a group dance. The competitive character is extrinsic to the dance as an expressive form. 'Competition' refers to the social context rather than to the dance as a dance.

It is not referring to elements of the meaning of the dance form. For example, a particular dance might express something of the 'battle of the sexes', a certain degree of competition between men and women, as if trying to demonstrate that one is 'better' than the other in some way. In this sense 'competition' is intrinsic to the dance form itself. That is not the distinction being made here.

Communal vs Aggregate

We can distinguish between a communal dance and an aggregate dance. A communal dance is one that takes an intentional approach to the relationships among the participants. All of what is considered in this article is about communal dances. An 'aggregate' dance is one where people come simply as individuals or loose groups and the structure of the dance, such as it is, is merely the provision of a space and music. The classic case is a 'rave'. There is very loud, continuous rhythmic music, flashing lights, and a mass of individuals 'bopping' around however they wish. It is largely formless, though elements of form can be added through semi-choreographed elements to well-known songs. It is in some sense also a musical 'performance' by the DJ.

Planned vs Improvised

We can distinguish between planned and improvised dance. Planned dances include standard traditional forms, newly designed dances, and choreographed sequences. Improvised dances give some time and space for the dancers to express themselves more individually. Ideally there is a fairly close relation between improvisation and already familiar forms. Without common set forms improvisation quickly descends into mere idiosyncrasy. Leaving some space for improvisation can help some people connect better with the experience, though others can be left feeling disconnected. Most of what is considered here involves planned dances, since the focus is on an intentional effort to foster the development of a culture in places where it has become diminished, or never been developed.

The Potentials of Dance

Developing a culture of complementarity involves (1) developing forms of celebration that express complementarity, and (2) drawing people into participation in these celebrations. In the rest of this article we explore the first of these tasks.

We do this by considering the potentials in each of the kinds of dance mentioned above, the participatory, display, partnered and group forms. We are not concerned here with competitive dance, but consider all these from the perspective of social dance.


If someone said, "Let's organise an annual ball", he or she would have in mind an occasion consisting of participatory-partnered dance. People would normally expect to come already as couples, so the married men would already know they would have to bring their wives, and the single men would need to ask someone to come as a partner. There would be a general expectation that everyone would dance, even though some might try to get away with the minimum. The same thing would often apply for an ordinary 'traditional' dance, a bush dance, or barn dance of some kind, though there would be some such dances where individuals turned up hoping to meet someone. A youth dance could be run on that basis with everyone coming simply as individuals.

The participatory-partnered style dance should be the easiest to 'resurrect' since it already has well known styles of dances and conventions of behaviour. It is a 'package deal' that could fairly readily be organised for adult, youth and all-age community dances. One of the main challenges is getting men involved. It is worth noting here that partnered dance could also be called 'romantic' dance, and is more resonant with women's emotionality than with men's. Extra effort is required to help men discover the potential enjoyment it holds. (For more on that question see "Why Men Don't Dance".)


What is here characterised as participatory-group dance is envisaged as most commonly taking place within a dance organised primarily as a participatory-partnered dance. What does this mean? It adds a second dynamic. The partnered dance can be thought of as emphasising the romantic aspect, while the group dance emphasises 'allurement'. A partnered dance typically begins when each man approaches a woman and asks her to dance. The man takes the initiative. Although there is a tradition of a 'ladies choice' dance, this is not the opposite of the usual 'men's choice'. It is an occasional break from the norm. Do women never take the initiative then in their own right? Actually they do, but it is more apt as a group rather than individual initiative.

It will be easier to explain by giving an example. A group dance of this type would typically begin with the group of all the women dancing a 'beckoning' dance to the men. Once they had finished the men would then dance a group dance. It might be a 'dance of acceptance', following which the individual men then go and ask the women to dance as per normal. Or there could be a further 'call and response'. After the women's beckoning dance the men then do a 'reluctance' dance. The implication is that they are hoping the women will accentuate their feminine attractiveness a bit more. The first beckoning dance is of a type that women would come up with to appeal to their own sensibilities, but the men are hoping to see something more distinctively feminine in the kinds of things men are more attuned to. So after the men's reluctance dance, the women act as if to confer, and then come out and do an 'alluring dance', which involves stylised forms symbolic of what men would be looking for. This could involve a more pronounced swing of the hips, lifting their skirt hems a little and being more facially expressive of their interest. None of this implies impropriety, being lightly symbolic of what attracts men visually to women. It's intent is to be emotionally engaging to men, so that they come to see dance not as 'women's business' but as something for both.


Display-group dance has endless possibilities but it is fairly undeveloped in our culture as social dance. It has tended to become the preserve of professional dance troupes. This is a field in which a lot of development would be needed in the social field. Realistically it would have to begin with youth and then be sustained through suitable communal contexts, gradually becoming well established.

Let's take a simple example. This sort of thing could take place at a theatre concert, or in a break in a dance. A man and woman do a mime, acting out a scene of domestic life. Take the classic case of a woman upset that her husband is not helping with the household chores. Then he makes some amorous advances, only to be rebuffed. At first he is confused. Why would his doing chores make her more open to his advances? Not understanding, he nevertheless gives it a go, in typical male fashion overdoing it and taking over, thinking this is something that can be solved by one big effort, not realising his wife wants his regular contribution. Then he flakes out, exhausted, forgetting his amorous intentions. After a while his wife takes pity on him and comes and makes her own advances. He struggles to respond but she persists and he responds wearily but gratefully, and they come to a rapprochement. A scenario like this could be clearly represented in mime, which should be a bit easier than dance. In its expressiveness it crosses over well into dance. Importantly, it can communicate a clear meaning, whereas dance is often a bit too abstract for many people.

Let's take another example. A suitable song is chosen in which the words of the song clearly tell of some romantic situation. A group of dancers then perform a choreographed dance to accompany the song. This has endless possibilities, in older and more contemporary styles. Then songs can be intentionally written to highlight themes related to complementarity and masculine-feminine attraction, preferably with humour but not too simplistic. These can be thought of as 'theatre-clips' as a counterpart to 'video-clips'. As a genre video clips tend towards either unimaginative pastiche or virtual porn. There has to be a lot more scope for high quality, decent 'theatre-clips' as a form in youth culture, integrated into dances and theatre events.


This mostly occurs in competitive dance. In social dance it is fairly rare. The most obvious example is the 'bridal waltz', where the newly married couple dance for a while on their own, while everyone watches, and after an appropriate time in the spotlight are joined by others.

A little imagination could devise some opportunities where display-partnered dance could be done. Take the case of a St Valentine's Day dinner-dance for married couples. Each couple could have a turn in the spotlight, in a manner reminiscent of their bridal waltz.

For young singles, it could be done as a kind of game. Names would be drawn from a hat and the couple would endeavour to do their best for a short dance while everyone watched and (hopefully) applauded. Everyone present would get a turn. It has a playful element because no one is really expected to be a highly accomplished dancer, and one could expect some slip-ups. Also, some odd partnerships might be drawn from the hat, providing some amusement. But it serves the purpose of giving people more opportunities to grow by being put under some light pressure to perform in a kind of romantic context. Learning to handle yourself in such situations can help your emotional growth.