Kinesthetic Empathy: How Vulnerability in Dance Can Generate Strong Multicultural Connections

The Color Purple 2023

Within the world of physical expression, dance allows for kinesthetic empathy between viewers and performers and could create a bridge between our internal experiences and the experiences of others.

Ballet dancers perform on stage. Photo by Fabrício Lira via Pexels

At Colorado State University’s 20th annual Diversity Symposium, the cultural arts of dance and body language were explored by a biracial couple to show how our bodies give us away, and how that vulnerability can be used to connect with others.

Kinesthetic empathy and how body language and dance tell viewers how to react

In their workshop, dance and life partners Matthew and Madeline Harvey discussed impressions, interpretations, and kinesthetic empathy as a way of discussing bodily communications of racial bias. According to the Watching Dance Project, kinesthetic empathy is a phenomena that viewers experience where they “feel they are participating in the movements they observe, and experience related feelings and ideas.”

In the Harveys’ presentations, it was clear that certain emotions experienced by them through dance were more commonly understood and internalized than others. Within the presentation, the couple mostly showcases their vulnerability within dance through a project done throughout Madeline Harvey’s pregnancy.

Throughout their dance, the Harveys continuously express tenderness based on how their bodies interact with one another. Neither of them express violent or harsh movements, even in more intense moments.

While the meanings of certain gestures and styles of dance vary throughout the world, certain aspects of body language show different levels of comfort and tenderness while others can express discomfort and fear to audiences from a variety of cultures. Much of their choreography involves the use of empathy, and that deeply impacts how their messages are received.

How do we have our own needs met and how do we honor our own experiences while really setting aside time space and energy in understanding someone else’s experiences? [The ways we] grow by stepping into someone else’s story, and how that moment of sharing can be bonding but very frustrating.

Madeline Harvey on co-choreography as emotional sharing, Dancing Voices – 2020 Colorado State University Diversity Symposium.
Men dancing and playing drums on stage. Photo by Kosygin Leishangthem from Pexels.

For example, a certain level of fluidity in movement expresses a level of calm, while harsh and robotic movements can cause viewers to feel tension within a performance. In one moment within their project, the couple used gentle caressing within their choreography to showcase how the feelings two people experience during pregnancy can become a shared, public experience through dance.

The connections associated with the feeling of kinesthetic empathy could be an incredibly powerful tool in connecting people from a variety of cultures to each other. By allowing a viewer to feel as if they’re a part of the performance, they are able to integrate into specific parts of the culture, and feel a sense of true connection to the creators.

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