Mediums Matter dance as an artistic medium

Articulate Artists

Different forms of art articulate meaning in different ways.

Dance is one art form that connects many different mediums, styles, and means of articulation to an audience.

According to John Hospers, author of an article titled "Philosophy of art," dance is defined as a mixed art through its blended usage of visual, spacial, and auditory mediums.

However, dance also functions as a multimodal medium similar to literature in that the communication techniques utilized are similar to what you might read in a book or short story.

Dance can function as a storytelling tool, but more importantly, it connects academics and practitioners with similar concepts acted upon differently.

Art does not require tangible creations such as paintings or sculptures. Literature and music are forms of art of which physical representations may be held in one’s hand, but the content itself can’t be consumed until the action of reading, speaking, or playing occurs. There is no hard copy of dance. You can’t hold choreography in your hands in the same way that you can hold a painting.

So dance is art, but it's different from art. It's similar to literature, but it doesn't use words in the same way. Dance is all its own, but it checks a lot of boxes when thinking about other mediums of art.

Let's look at some examples.

Consider the tone of this clip. What context points you to a story, an emotion, or an idea?

It's very colorful, right? The arm movements are open, and the dancers mostly face the audience. The song is upbeat, and the movements match this rhythm.

Okay, hold that thought, and we'll look at the next clip.

In what ways is this clip different from the first clip?

Starting with the obvious: this is performed in a gym instead of a stage, and the dancers are wearing face masks. There are also fewer dancers. Looking beyond that, there are lots of other differences in the music and movement. The music isn't slow, but the movements lack an upbeat feel. Instead, there's an underlying tone of panic. The costumes are used as a prop and ultimately removed.

Let's throw one more clip into the mix.

How does this clip further differ from the others?

This is danced in a dance studio rather than in a performance space. It also includes partnering, acting, and only instrumental music.

These three examples model a variety of storytelling forms. Now that you've watched them, let's talk about some background.

Video 1: "Ready to Be Found" choreographed by me

This was a musical theatre piece and the first piece I choreographed at my dance company. I was sort of embodying my experience at that time by creating a story about young people embracing their opportunity to be seen on stage despite challenges along the way. I used color, jazz technique, and a larger cast to show variety and encourage a sense of excitement.

Video 2: "Will it End?" choreographed by me

This dance modeled the experience of people who felt trapped by a toxic person. Regardless of the pain that person had caused them, the nostalgia kept them close until the pain became too much. The clip above is the end of the routine in which the characters find enough within them to get rid of that person from their life.

The shirt was, of course, a symbol for another person. It was muted and large, and a motif within the dance included pulling at it to show the discomfort of it on, even though there were also moments of holding the shirt close out of comfort. The routine continuously sped up to model the rising tension and climactic fight with the "shirt."

Video 3: "Drei Lederne Stromf (Three Leather Stockings) restaged by my dance company

The final video is of a German folk dance. This folk dance tells the story of a husband and wife blaming one another for the third leather stocking. The wife accuses the husband of losing a stocking and the husband accuses the wife of another man leaving the stocking at their home. Folk dances like these share stories of culture and history along with the love of dance.

Multimodal Art

The various categories of art coincide with multimodal literary techniques as described by Cheryl E. Ball in her book about multimodal projects. The mediums of art, according to Hospers, include visual, auditory, and verbal arts. This group then extends into a group that both meets and fails to meet these rules: mixed arts.

Modes of communication, as written by Ball, include visual, aural, spacial, linguistic, and gestural modes. These modes are used to communicate using multimodal techniques.

Dance is one means of communication and art that utilizes a mixture of these modes and mediums, therefore making it both multimodal communication and a mixed art.

visual arts + visual, spacial, and gestural modes

Visual arts include paintings, sculptures, and other 2 and 3 dimensional art that you can literally sit and look at. Most often, you can hold this type of art in your hands. Sometimes, similarly to dance, these pieces of arts must be viewed via performance.

There are many dimensions to the visual aspects of dance. Costuming, staging, and movement are three examples that exist amongst the visual arts. Costuming is a visual mode that can affect the mood of a dance. When people see a wide variety of color, they often assume they can be happy. Nude costumes hold a vulnerability for the dancers in which the audience sometimes feels uncomfortable viewing, but that discomfort is an intentional choice on the part of the choreographer. Costumes can vary within a piece, which can aid characterization in a larger cast. In some cases, like the second example video "Will it End?", costumes can function as props as well to add extra depth to a piece.

Staging, such as lighting, location, and props, model visual and spacial aspects that affect the overall tone of a dance. Staging can frame a piece by limiting what the audience can see. Movement is a gestural and spacial mode. Artistic choices in the way movement is executed communicates an entire story to an audience. Motifs are created in movement, and these can include anything from repeated phrases to a consistent use of one type of motion.

auditory arts + aural mode

Auditory arts include music and literature. As discussed by Hospers, these forms technically exist through the soundwaves created when performed, so their documentation is merely a representation of what the art should truly be.

Dance can be viewed similarly to auditory arts in that it must be performed to be viewed in its true form. There is also an auditory aspect in dance. Not all dance has music, but the lack of music is just as powerful as a song. Whether the sounds involved include lyrics, spoken word, instrumentals, sounds made by the dancers, or strict silence, each moment of sound can be used to communicate something. Soft piano music can omit sadness; intense electric guitar can electrify the audience; and silence can pull in viewers to notice a well-placed breath.

Translation Amongst Intertext

photos left to right by Logan Weaver, Marcos Paulo Prado, Hannah Miller, Mika

There exists an unnecessary divide between academics and performers in place of a mutual understanding of various fields when using similar techniques in various modes of communication.

A paper by Margaret Werry and Stephanie Lein Walseth examines the ways in which this divide was limiting in their university theatre and dance department. Their research found great benefits within performance and writing that are not being taken full advantage of. Artists often have to bring to life written art, so writing is an important process that that they might forget about practicing. According to Werry and Walseth, it comes down to translation between means of communication. Translation is crucial for performers who might need to communicate what they are creating to those not in their field, but it's also important for performers to be able to translate their movements back into words to ensure proper understanding between viewers, directors, and performers

In many university programs, writing, performing, and creating are kept separate. English departments write; theatre departments perform; art departments draw, sculpt, or paint. Where there should be overlap, there is none. This keeps these similar departments unnecessarily separate, limiting groups from fully exploring the possibilities for them to communicate a message.

Different mediums of literature function in different ways. In order to properly communicate, it’s important to be aware of the many different mediums. The divide between performance and academia is putting up walls where there should be bridges. There are so many ways in this world for people to express themselves. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to only studying and understanding one type. Let’s stop letting creativity get lost in translation and listen to one another.

Photo credit – left: Tye Doring, top right: Matthieu Comoy, bottom right: TJV Studios

Taking part in interdisciplinary studies within arts of all forms can foster creativity in a dull, mechanical world. Artists shouldn’t silence or limit themselves. Of course, it’s not possible for artists to master all mediums of art, but learning, viewing, and understanding mediums outside of one’s own only fosters good.

Artists must support one another by viewing each other’s creations and learning from them. Art can inspire, so let’s inspire one another. Find a way to translate one form of art into your own, and the creative intertextuality will be limitless.


Choreography posted with permission by Erin Kamp (me), Hayden Comstock, Jenny Krause, and Samantha Carroll. All routines are performed by members of the Illuminate Dance Troupe.

Imbedded photos by TJV Studios

Video 1: La La Land Cast. "Someone In The Crowd." Interscope Records, 2016, Spotify, spotify:track:39ncDMVidHOeQgeC5anYZM

Video 2: The Irrepressibles. “In This Shirt.” Naked Design Recordings, 2015. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/60mItLdFl6xkYc1sAjlZlf?si=me6A5j6lSLaiOXf9kAhg-A

Video 3: "Drei Lederne Stromf" Traditional Folk Music

Video 4: Gipsy Kings. "Volare." Nonesuch Records, 2000. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/5oVs4alUctAl0B0QhWY0I2?si=5a4f176303624fc3

Video 5: Hozier. "Work Song." Rubyworks, 2013. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/4Vc3bzFxXdrABa2DxgyCMT?si=a3632f5b113744b6

Ball, Cheryl E., et al. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018.

Hospers, John. "Philosophy of art". Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophy-of-art. Accessed 17 July 2021.

Lerman, Liz. “Critical Response Process.” Liz Lerman, https://lizlerman.com/critical-response-process/. Accessed 10 April 2021.

Werry, Margaret L., and Stephanie Lein Walseth. “Articulate Bodies: Writing instruction in a performance-based curriculum.” Theatre Topics, 2011, p. 185-198.