Freiburg Colloquium: Keevallik – Transmitting experience

Keevallik will be presenting an invited talk at the Freiburg Colloquium on Transferring embodied knowledge, Feb. 2019.

Transmitting experience of body movements through voice

One of the biggest challenges in instructing other bodies is conveying how performing a skill should be felt from “the inside” of the body. Verbal devices often fall short, even though descriptive mental concepts, such as “try to think X”, are frequently used. This paper focuses on the use of vocalizations as a method of transferring the embodied knowledge of dancing and discusses how voice and the body come together in accomplishing qualitatively appropriate and well-timed dance steps across the participants. The data come from Lindy hop and balboa classes in Swedish, Estonian, and English.

On the one hand, vocalizations externalize the embodied experience of performing a specific move. Stops are produced during sharp moves, among other things kicks and steps on the floor, while long vowels accompany extended and smooth moves, such as slides. What comes out of a dancer’s vocal tract is thus “naturally” tied to what the body is doing, so much so that the original dancers in the 1930ies Harlem did not separate out vocalizing from the dance. For them the sounds were an organic part of dancing. At least what we can observe today, the sounds and syllables are assembled ad hoc and vary even with identical moves. In other words, they are not entirely conventionalized, even though there may be some communities of practice where sounds are copied from dancer to dancer.

On the other hand, precisely because of this “natural” link to the body, vocalizations are deployed to achieve particular embodied qualities in the bodies being taught to dance. For example, complex rhythms may be easier to produce vocally, so a sound pattern may be practiced before the body is trained to perform the corresponding timing. Vocalizing is a regular part of teacher demonstrations of the dance steps, indexically making hearable the experience from within the teacher’s performing body in real time. The students thus not only see what they should be learning but also hear it as a different sensation, perhaps more intimately tied to the performing body. This analogical depiction in sound is useful in deconstructing the moves for pedagogical purposes, for marking salience, variation, and contrast. Furthermore, the teachers use vocalizations to guide students’ practice, as they facilitate transmission of embodied knowledge in real time. This is especially useful in the activities where the teacher cannot be constantly observed, such as when the students are changing directions in space and when their gaze needs to be organized within the dance.

Teachers vocalize both when they themselves dance and when they are standing still. A dance instruction thus emerges as a collaborative achievement where one party may be vocalizing the embodied experience that the others are currently performing. Thereby vocalizations also constitute an essential organizational device for participation in a dance class.