Exploring the Connections Between Bodies and Machines

Circle Walker, choreographed by Alan BoedingFrom the time that Descartes famously declared “I think, therefore I am,” Western cultures have tended to regard the body as separate from the mind. This separation has led to the development of an industrial model of the human being that treats the body as a machine and positions the mind as its operator. One of the most obvious examples of this model in popular culture is the fitness craze in which our bodies merge with the weight machines, and our muscles and bones are envisioned as a series of levers and pulleys, while the heart is seen as the central motor powering the body. Similarly, the health and beauty industry in America repeatedly exhorts us to “oil our joints” with a certain product, to “manage our hunger” with another, or to “fix” a malfunctioning part of our body with surgery. In fact, with the amazing advances of modern medicine, some people live with machines, such as a pacemaker, inside their bodies. As we move farther into the twenty-first century — a historical moment when an astonishing array of machines are implicated in our lives — it might be wise to reflect on the relationship of machines to our bodies and of our bodies to machines.

Dances too can include movement that is machine-like and/or can integrate the use of machines in their composition. Such dances may contest or celebrate the presence of machines in human life and/or may extend or limit the body’s movement potential in various ways. Indeed, Michael Jackson’s 1973 song “Dancing Machine” is just one of many representations of the dancing body as a sleek and efficient machine. While there are many negative dimensions to this analogy, especially with regard to the social pressure to “control” our bodies (particularly our weight), there are some positive aspects as well. For instance, if we imagine lifting the leg in terms of a system of pulleys, where a weight drops down the back in order to raise the limb in front, we can physically realize a battement in which the pelvis stays even and the back of the leg lengthens through its natural extension. This is a classic image given to beginning dancers to keep them from lifting the hip in order to lift the leg. So too, imagining our limbs as pendulums can help us release into the full motion of a swinging arm or leg.

Advertisements like this one for Phoenix Muay Thai Gym demonstrate the cultural ideal of a body that works like a machine.

One of the crucial issues at the intersection of the human body and machines is the question of natural and artificial. While science fiction is filled with cyborg bodies that are literally half human/ half machine creatures who can do amazing things, we tend to see dancers as “naturally” graceful. This is, of course, a misnomer, as most dancers train their bodies for many, many years in order to appear as if pirouetting on their toes was completely “natural.” Indeed, for a long time, dancers tried to execute movements in a way that looked “effortless,” and a measure of their skill was how well they were able to hide the physical labor involved in dancing. Recently, however, dancers have become interested in revealing that muscular effort to the audience. For instance, Elizabeth Streb chooses to highlight the physical prowess of her dancers, emphasizing their strength, daring and stamina by asking them to repeatedly engage in extreme feats. Sometimes people see Streb’s work as an exhibition of gymnastics, rather than as a dance. Her use of technology — trampolines, or gymnastic equipment — on which to stage her works, as well as her use of video projections in the background resists traditional definitions of beautiful dancing. And yet, because of her use of machines of various kinds, Streb also presents her audience with the possibility of seeing the incredibly graceful arch in a flying back flip over and over again.

Classroom ActivitiesCircle Walker, choreographed by Alan Boeding

Write: Make a list of machines that extend or limit bodily possibilities.

Look: Examine the photos of Alan Boeding’s 1985 dance Circle Walker displayed on the Primary Sources page. Discuss the relationship between the human figure and the apparatus pictured. How would you characterize this relationship? Who seems to be leading the actions portrayed in these images, the man or the machine?

Watch: View the video of Circle Walker by Alan Boeding (performed by Jim Cappelletti in 1998). Read Circle Walker: Notes and Contexts for more information on this dance.

Write: Free-write responses to Circle Walker, paying particular attention to using descriptive verbs and adverbs.

Discuss: What is the nature of the relationship between the dancer and the machine in this film?

  • Would you call this dance a duet?
  • How does the movement of the dancer affect the sculpture and how does the sculpture affect the motion of the dancer?  Is this a machine?
  • Is this choreography beautiful?
  • Can you identify specific examples of ways in which the machine expands or limits the movement possibilities of the dancer?

Discuss Further

  • What is a machine?
  • How do bodies relate to machines?
  • In what ways can bodies be served by machines?
  • Can the body or specific body parts be replaced by machines?
  • In what ways might bodies be considered subservient to machines?
  • What are some ways in which the body’s possibilities can be extended by machines?
  • What are some ways in which the body partners with machines?
  • Do machines assist or constrain the body’s possibilities?
  • Is the body itself a machine?
  • List and describe a number of machines used by people for various purposes.
  • What is the function of the machine in American society?
  • Describe movement patterns found in different types of machine use (repetitive patterns, designs in space, pathways, rhythmic attributes, movement qualities, etc.).
  • Does gender play a role in the types of machines people use? Explain.

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