Mood and movement (and dance)

Search on the web for something about spontaneous dance, and you eventually alight on the saying: “You’ve gotta’ dance like there’s nobody watching,” expanded, varied and attributed to several sources, but mostly the self-help author William W. Purkey. Then type “dance like nobody’s watching” into YouTube, which shows real or faked videos of people caught unawares, dancing and moving, usually alone, and sometimes plugged into their smartphones and MP3 players.

Untutored, private dancing is kind of odd, and it’s unfair and invasive to make it public, but the phenomenon does draw into relief something about the nature of space and the body’s complicity in its formation. In fact phenomenologist Otto Bollnow  (1903-1991) saw dance as a primitive and challenging mode of human mobility that expresses oneness with environment.


On the one hand, dance changes our relationship with space: “we experience a new space, which as such fundamentally differs from that of our everyday lives” (236). As participant or observer, dance renders space as something other than what walking to work, hoovering the carpet, cooking a meal or other everyday experiences offer.

Of interest to a philosopher trying to get back to basics, the main difference (with the everyday) is that dance is without purpose, in the sense that it involves the expenditure of effort but does not get the mover anywhere. This theorising about dance is a further development on the idea of aimless wandering, approved as a phenomenological model for being-in-the-world.

Dance is movement in itself, “rests in itself and, without indicating an external aim beyond itself, fulfils its meaning in itself” (237). Apparently the urge to dance is deeply metaphysical: “In dancing, we experience a breakthrough from the everyday practical world of purposeful action and structure” (237). Dancing is not a means to an end.

Subject object

Bollnow translates some of Martin Heidegger’s themes into simple language. Bollnow argues that dance is another means of erasing the tension between subject and object.

He says something similar about mood: “Mood is itself not something subjectively ‘in’ an individual and not something objective that could be found ‘outside’ in his surroundings, but it concerns the individual in his still undivided unity with his surroundings” (217).

“One speaks of a mood of the human temperament as well as of the mood of a landscape or a closed interior space, and both are, strictly speaking, only two aspects of the same phenomenon” (217).

Bollnow also draws on the psychologist Erwin Straus, and both were probably thinking of folk and ballroom dancing and perhaps 50s rock-n-roll, or natural expressive movement in the manner of the legendary Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).

Search YouTube for crazy dance moves. We are now in a dancing age, much of it highly skilled. But even just moving in front of a computer screen or gyrating to the stimulus of a music track on an iPod at a bus stop propagates the mood of the dance. See blog post on empathy.


  • The images on this page are from a conference on digital performance art at Brunel University in 2005.


  • Bollnow, O.F. 2011. Human Space. Trans. C. Shuttleworth. London: Hyphen Press
  • Straus, Erwin Walter Maximilian. 1966. Phenomenological Psychology: The Selected Papers of Erwin W. Straus. Trans. E. Eng. London: Tavistock



  1. Richard, I read this a few weeks ago but didn’t have time to respond then. However, this post has been on my mind since. The comment about untutored private dancing made me dig into my library to find the story of the Kenge, a tribesman in Colin Turnbull’s “The Forest People.” When Turnbull found Kenge dancing alone in the forest and asked him about it, Kenge replied “But I’m not dancing alone . . . I’m dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.” Certainly, a deeply metaphysical experience and in line with Bollnow’s reference to dance “that expresses oneness with environment.”

    Spontaneous solo dancing is most likely been around as long as humans have felt to need to express themselves by moving in space – the new twist, of course, is capturing it and sharing it digitally. I wonder if dancing is not only a physical expression of emotion, but an attempt to define ourselves within our physical space, to explore the relationship between it and our bodies. Perhaps recording ourselves in the act is just the next step in that definition.

    1. Nice comment Lyn. The other day I saw a couple of under fives break away from mum and dad and start dancing to the tune of a particularly energetic busker in Sheffield’s main shopping street. Eventually we get it trained out of us though 🙁

      1. Oh, you are so right, Richard. I used to adjudicate a lot of music composition competitions, especially for age 5 – 18 year olds, and the arc of the entries was shocking. The youngest children, 5 – 8, were the most inventive – creative, unique, inventive. As soon as they began formal music training, about age 9-14, their entries were a wasteland of weak imitative concoctions of whatever was upheld as the ideal. A few returned to creative work in the mid to late teenage years, those who overcame their training and reclaimed their originality and creativity. It was an object lesson in the danger of advancing judgements of “right” and “wrong” or perhaps “socially acceptable” in creative endeavors.

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