Spectators’ Experience of Watching Dance without Music: a Cognitive Semiotic Exploration of Kinesthetic Empathy

Movement is a primary means for perceiving, interacting with and constructing our life world. Movements allow us to feel and express emotions. Upon observing others’ movements we are moved ourselves, not only because movements are affectively charged but also because we understand others through them. In movement perception, and in particular in dance spectatorship, we experience observed movements through our own bodies: this is kinesthetic empathy. However, it has been unclear what exactly kinesthetic empathy encompasses on an experiential level, as dance spectatorship research has been dominated by brain-oriented studies that were not complemented with qualitative data. 

We explored the nature of kinesthetic empathy in connection with how spectators experience movement – the core element of dance – from the perspective of cognitive semiotics, by combining first- and second-person methods of phenomenological analysis and interview, with third-person methods, based on experiment and questionnaire. Twenty participants, grouped as either familiar or unfamiliar with dance, watched two short dance performances, one in classical ballet and the other in contemporary dance. The two dances differed in terms of qualities of movement (Sheets-Johnstone 2015). Participants’ skin conductance and respiration were measured as they watched the dance performances. After that, they answered a questionnaire and were interviewed regarding their feelings and attitudes as well as evaluations of the performance and dance movements.

The results showed above all that the spectators’ psychophysiological responses across the two dances differed, but that the difference also depended on the degree of familiarity. There were clearer correlations between the skin conductance and respiration data and the introspections for the Familiar group, suggesting that familiarity does indeed play a role in kinesthetic empathy. Based on these findings, we propose a two-level model of kinesthetic empathy in which the pre-conscious level is manifested in psychophysiological responses, and the conscious level in imagined movements, reflected in explicit introspections about feelings and attitudes. Dance familiarity appears to affect the second of these levels, as well as how well-connected it is to the pre-conscious level.

The study makes a contribution to the field of semiotics as it illuminates the nature of dance as a semiotic system, the way meanings and feelings can be communicated through dancing bodies and the levels at which addresser and addressee can connect kinesthetically with each other.

Katja Woxell

Lund University, Sweden

has recently acquired a master’s degree in Language and Linguistics with specialization in Cognitive Semiotics from Lund University. Her major research interests include empathy, movement perception, the interconnection between movement and emotions, dance and movement therapy. She is assistant editor at the Public Journal of Semiotics administered by Lund University. Outside academia, she works as a copywriter, translator and YouTube broadcaster with the mission to help immigrants integrate into Swedish society.

Jordan Zlatev

Lund University, Sweden

professor of General Linguistics and Director of Research for the Division of Cognitive Semiotics at Lund University. His current research focuses on motion in experience and language, and more generally on language in relation to other semiotic systems like gesture and depiction, as well as to consciousness. He is editor-in-chief of the Public Journal of Semiotics.

Joost van de Wejier

Lund University, Sweden

researcher at Lund University Humanities Lab. Teaches courses in psycholinguistics and in statistical analysis of experimental data, and provides methodological support for ongoing research projects within various areas of language and speech.

kinesthetic empathy
qualities of movement
emotional arousal