Experience of Watching Dance: Action and Empathy

There are many types of learning style; some absorb more through hearing lectures; some learn more by viewing the subject as pictures; and there are those who learn by observing physical movement. Dance students are trained to learn by observing physical movement and mimicking them. This is called as “kinesthetic learning” [1].

From the observer’s view point; What happens to you, as a spectator, when viewing dance? Did the dance move you or stirred something in you? Have you ever felt that you were also participating in the dance, even though you were a spectator? The American dance critic, John Martin, in 1939 argued for the theory that [2]

through kinesthetic experience – that is engagement with the medium of dance rather than its representational content – the spectator could ‘mimic’ the dancer’s movement and experience similar emotions.

In this post, we will see some research papers that have quantified the ‘kinesthetic experience’ among observers. While, it was known among researchers in Kinesiology for sometime that “observers internally simulate other peoples’ actions”, there was no simpler method to analyze and understand it. The reason is that a dance performance in real-life can be called as a multi functional socio-cultural event, encompassing music, costume, lighting, sets, and importantly the audience [3].

One way dance researchers have used to study kinesthetic experience is using a questionnaire for the spectators. Most often the spectators were unanimous in responding that even when they were sitting still, they felt like they were participating in the dance they observed, and experienced movement sensations, related feelings, and ideas. This has been described as ‘kinesthetic empathy‘ by dance researchers.

Watching Dance_BN

Screenshot from “Watching Dance”
performed by Annapoorna Kuppuswamy

The paper by Reason and Reynolds [4] is based on such type of questionnaire by use of interview and discussion group. It would be of interest to this blog’s readers that the Bharatanatyam was also one to the type of dance shown to audiences and their responses noted. There were a range of “attitude” (as the researchers call) mapped and they suggest that kinesthetic responses are key source for pleasure and motivation for many spectators.


While a questionnaire was sufficient to gauge the audience’s response it has many shortcomings. First, it is not in real time. Second, the responses are after the performance has happened and it is mostly an analysis of their observation. This is where the advances in neuroscience come to dance researchers’ help.Recently, neuro-scientists have discovered the presence of what is now known as ‘mirror neurons‘. For example, if a person is grasps for food these neurons in the frontal (front) and parietal (top part) cortex of the brain are fired. Also, the same neurons get activated when watching others doing the identical action, in this case grasping for food [5]. So, this automatic response is what is described and widely accepted as the ‘mirror neuron network’.

Lobes of the Brain
Image Courtesy: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/

It is understandable that the mirror network is activated when watching any physical activity. Can this motor simulation (NOT stimulation) be quantified? If so, what happens to a spectator who is watching dance? What impact does the pure physical component and the aesthetic component  cause on the spectator?

Previously neuroscientific studies that mapped these neurons’ activities had some inherent drawbacks: they were either for a short duration (3 seconds), or movements performed in neutral clothing, or presented without music. These studies do not come close to reality, at all.  Thus, there is a need for a multi-disciplinary approach.

Two methods used in neuroscientific studies are helpful, namely transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A little bit about these methods. In TMS, a number of magnetic simulations are triggered over the particpants’ motor cotex while they are watching a performance. This magnetic simulation causes a neuronal signal that is comparable to the participants’ voluntary movement. At a particular time, one can know what neuronal signals are being sent for what the participants’ are seeing. In fMRI, brain activity is recorded when the brain processes multiple inputs and sends out as one signal. In this case, the multi-functional/multi-variable dance performance’s response can be recorded as a one output signal.

The two papers that this post is about used TMS to map motor simulation while watching Ballet and Bharatanatyam. However, the second paper by Jola et al in Phenom Cogn Sci, published in 2012 [3] uses both TMS and fMRI. It is important to note that the questions asked in both these studies [3, 6] are different. The question asked in the PLoS ONE paper is:

If an observer who has no physical training but has been constant-repeated exposed to dance (Ballet or Bharatanatyam) can provide responsive muscle-specific internal motor simulation? 

While the Phenom Cogn Sci paper’s question is:

What extent (if at all) do spectators of dance fell that they are emotionally and cognitively absorbed by and engaged in the movement of the [Ballet or Bharatanatyam] dancer?

Let’s come to meaty part. What did the participants’ watch? 

For the western classical ballet, the performance was a concatenation of three fairy solos from ‘Sleeping Beauty’. And for the Bharatanatyam, it was Subramanya Bharathiyar’s ‘Theerada Vilayattu Pillai’. Click here to see the videos. In order to be authentic, the dancers were in full costume. As a control (FYI, a necessary scientific parameter that can be compared with the actual experients), the participants were  shown a acting segment that had no dance.

The participants were of three groups (with no formal training in dance). Those who have seen Ballet; those who have seen Bharatanatyam; and those who have no prior dance watching experience.

What they found?

Ballet viewers had more neuronal activity corresponding to their arms compared to watching BN, most likely due to the Ballet had more frequent extended arm movements. Since the participants (of ballet or BN) had prior exposure to watching performances of either style, they had acquired a physical knowledge via visual experience. At the same time, spectators who have seen BN scored a higher empathy values and had higher motor signals on the forearm area. The authors also note [6] that from the real-life stimuli the visually experienced participants’ cultural background played an important role in fine-tuning motor simulation.

Similarly, combining the fMRI reuslts the researchers found that emphatic abilities enhance neuronal activity for ‘mimed everyday actions’ and visual experience enhances neuronal activity for stylized dance movements.

Kinesthetic empathy is connected to spectators’ pleasure in watching dance.

Now, you are thinking “Wait. Isn’t this something that I have read/known from somewhere?”. Bingo! Let’s go back to the fountainhead “Bharata and Abhinavagupta”.

Chapter six and seven of Natyasastra describes in detail about Rasa and its importance [7]. Bharata has stated that ‘without rasa, no purpose is fulfilled’. What goes into ‘rasanubhava’ i.e. the relishing or experiencing of ‘rasa’? Bharata uses the four terms ‘vibhava’; ‘anubhava’, ‘vybhicaribhava’ and ‘sthayi bhava’. The immediate reaction or consequents ‘anubhava” brought about by a cause or determinant (‘vibhava’) then leads to a series of voluntary and conscious actions or transitory states (‘vyabhicari-bhavas’). The ‘vibhava’, ‘anubhava’ and vyabhicaribhavas’ go into producing the ‘sthayi bhava’ which can be defined as that feeling which is experienced for a short interval of time. It is the essentially dominant, basic emotion or feeling of which the result is ‘rasa’.

Also, the model spectator is called a ‘Sahrdaya’ [8, 9, 10]. Literally meaning one of the same heart [11]

Sahrdaya are those whose minds have been polished by repeated study (and enjoyment) of classical masterpiece to such an extent that what is described in a poem [performed in dance] will easily be reflected therein. 

Now, with these in perspective, these two research papers make a whole lot of sense. Doesn’t it?🙂

What could have been included in this experiment or in future studies?

In my opinion, more sample size. The PLoS ONE paper mentions 32 participants, which is not quite ideal. Among the 32, three participants were excluded, reducing the sample size to 29. (One BN participant dozed off while watching!) The dance had to be performed 15 times by each dancer, which makes the experiment tiring. However, there could have been dance composition chosen that distinguish pure dance movements vs. abhinaya ones. In the case of ballet, there could be scenes chosen that have a heightened emotional content, given that the time duration for each performance was ~5 minutes. This would be interesting to distinguish the motor actions versus only empathy.

The website watchingdance.org is an exciting one follow and hopefully more such exciting research comes out in the future.

PS: The PLoS ONE paper mentions “hasra mudras” which is a typo.🙂


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinesthetic_learning
  2. Pg 123 of Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices. Edited by Dee Reynolds, Matthew Reason. Intellect Books, 2012
  3. Jola C, Ehrenberg S, Reynolds D.  The experience of watching dance: phenomenological-neuroscience duets. Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences. 11, 17-37, 2012.
  4. Reason M and Reynolds D.  Kinesthesia, Empathy, and Related Pleasures: An Inquiry into Audience Experiences of Watching Dance. Dance Research Journal. 42:2 49-75, 2010
  5. Gallese et al, Action recognition in premotor cortex. Brain. 119:2 593-609, 1996
  6. Jola et al. Motor simulation without Motor Expertise: Enhanced Corticospinal Excitability in Visually Experienced Dance Spectators. PLoS ONE. 7:3 e33343, March 2012.
  7. Bharata’s Natyasastra, Manmohan Ghosh  http://archive.org/stream/NatyaShastraOfBharataMuniVolume1#page/n0/mode/2up
  8. http://www.natyam.ru/rasanubhava.html
  9. Pg 20 of Aryogyaniketan by Tarasankara Bandyopadhyaya. Sahitya Akademi, 1998
  10. http://yabaluri.org/TRIVENI/CDWEB/theconceptofsahrdayajan2008.htm
  11. Pg 143 of I. A. Richards and Indian Theory of Rasa by Gupteshwar Prasad. Sarup and Sons, 1994

2 responses to “Experience of Watching Dance: Action and Empathy

  1. Very interesting subject matter! I agree with your opinion that the studies should have distinguished between the pure dance vs. abhinaya/emotional movements. To me that is a large flaw in the study. The dance clips shown to the participants could not be more different! One has the spoken word being interpreted, the other is purely instrumental music. One is pure dance movements that are expansive, the other is abhinaya-focused and restrained. And in my opinion the BN dancer is not very good! Also, I wonder if the people watching the BN performance understand the language being sung? All of these things would affect the activity in the viewers brains, I would think! Nice post–always happy to hear about new scientific research in dance.🙂

  2. Dance research coupled with quantifiable experiments are always interesting. I wouldn’t call it a flaw, but I think someone could have pointed it out. I think during peer-review the reviewers must have looked into the significance of statistics and other kinesthetic issues and were not much aware of Indian style of dancing to point this to the authors.

    You raise an important point of understanding the language. This is valid only to certain extent as they were looking for a single output from the brain due to exposure to multiple complex signals. So, it is not that biased, although the authors do not state if the participants knew Tamil.

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