Blog | Theatre | Philosophy

Can Dance Be Disgusting?

. 2 min read
Jan Fabre & Troubleyn, The Crying Body (2004). Photo © Maarten Vanden Abeele

Can dance be disgusting or is it forever doomed to aestheticism? That is the question I asked in a public lecture at ArtEZ, the Arnhem School for the Arts in Spring 2005 and to which I returned in another public lecture at the University of Bologna, Spring 2007. My tentative thoughts on this topic have now been published in Culture Teatrali, an Italian journal on theatre.

I was delighted when, by accident, I discovered a blog post (also available as podcast) by Stephen Fry, in which he expresses his disgust for dance. He primarily talks about social dancing at parties and in clubs and in the comments some people, including some professional ballet dancers, ask whether he feels the same about ballet and modern dance. It is interesting to read that some of the professionally trained dancers actually share his feelings.

Here's a short excerpt:

"I hate dancing more than I can possibly explain. I hate doing it myself, which I can’t anyway, but I loathe and resent the necessity to try. I hate watching other people do it. I hate the way it breaks up conversation. I hate the slovenly mixture of sexual exhibitionism, strutting contempt and repellent narcissism that it involves. I hate it when it is formless, meaningless bopping and I hate it (if anything even more) when it is formal and choreographed into genres like ballroom or schooled disco. Those cavortings are so embarrassing and dreadful as to force my hand to my mouth."

Much of this is, of course, hyperbole. The question I address in my paper relates to the actual physical revulsion we experience when we smell vomit, rotting flesh or happen upon a severely mutilated body. My own, tentative conclusion is that dance cannot be disgusting, because motion stimuli don't trigger disgust. And if dance cannot be disgusting, it may indeed be doomed to aestheticism, the aestheticization of human actions and interactions.

It is interesting to read Fry's tirade though. Ohh and yes, I envy his verbal versatility and virtuosity. He really is a dancer with words.

The picture is from The Crying Body (2004) by Jan Fabre, to which I refer in my paper. Yes, the performers are indeed peeing on stage, - the piece is "about" body fluids, among other things -, which some people find disgusting. But is the act of peeing dance? It is part of the performance, yes, but is it dance? And who's going to clean up the mess afterwards? The dancers? Jan Fabre? This supposedly radical statement in fact affirms rather than challenges prevailing social practices since some underpaid cleaners will have to clean the stage again.