PhD: Body, Dance and Environment: An exploration of embodiment and identity. (2011)

by Adesola I. Akinleye

Thesis submitted to Canterbury Christ Church University for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. December 2011 

Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research (SPEAR),

Supervisors: Dr. I Wellard, Dr. L Mansfield and Dr. M Weed

This thesis is a dance-based interdisciplinary ethnographic inquiry into the notion of embodiment as a way to understand the lived experience.  Material for the research was collected primarily through case studies in four separate schools in Great Britain. Dance, as an embodied form of communication was used in conjunction with spoken words and art installations as a means of exploring the research questions.
An ethnographic and narrative Inquiry approach was adopted in order to accommodate an ontological perspective that draws on Pragmatism, as well as explore further the notion that we are embodied beings.
The research questions looked at the narratives people presented as a means to understand their bodily experiences as well as the role of the environment in this, particularly in terms of establishing identity and engaging with learning. The research also looked at the extent to which dance reflective practices contributed to the meaningful engagement with bodily experience.
The research found that a multi-layered or three dimensional approach to communication of experience offered modes of meaningful engagement with the notion of embodiment. It also found that skills in engaging with the environment in terms of navigation of time and space resonated with practices within dance. Lastly, the research noted that social structures informed by belief systems outside of the embodied approach, such as dualism, restricted meaningful bodily experiences and encouraged a ‘closed body’. However, dance seemed to offer the possibility of a unique engagement with reflective narrative for identity and engagement with the world around.

 The research questions:
1.    What are the ways that people understand their bodily experiences within a specific environment and what impact does this understanding have on their identity?
2.    How does awareness of the body’s relationship with its environment support learning?
3.    Do reflective body awareness practices within dance provide alternative forms of engaging with environment?
The research questions attempt to articulate the inquiry in terms of the bodily experiences dancers seemed to have when moving, in relationship with more general orientation to awareness of the body as a site of knowledge.
The first question attempts to outline the parameter of the research: that it was about ‘soma experience’, that data would be collected from particular places in order to have a boundary to who was consulted, and that there was an interest in the perception of the person ‘in’ the body through seeing them as being an independent identity affected by their bodily experiences. In chapter (iii) I construct a framework for what is meant by ‘identity’ in the research (figure 3:1) in order to better pin down the notion of Self in the body that this question tackles.
The second question develops the inquiry by looking at the role of the ‘environment’ in the situation of the person who is defined by having an identity with bodily experiences.
There is an assumption in the second question that ‘learning’ is an on-going enquiry across one’s life rather than restricted to the activity of formal education. Following Dewey, ‘learning’ is seen as the result of being alert in the world. In fact any experience is a learning experience but some experiences can be negative so although one learns something in terms of acquiring information they are what Dewey calls ‘mis-educative’ (Dewey 1997a).
The second question also attempts to focus on the notion of gleaning something (learning) from the experience of being alive in an environment. Here again this draws on concepts of embodiment that are looked at in chapter (iii). The phrase ‘support learning’ is less about formal academic learning and more about on-going alertness and response to one’s life in general.
The last question focuses the research on the use of dance as a lens for the inquiry. It also seeks to provide a starting place for the idea that the experience of dancing in a place might differ from the experience of general movement in a place outside dance. (Remembering that dance is defined in the research as a kind of interaction rather than a specific style of movement.)
But there are some assumptions the questions had to make prior to the research beginning. Firstly the words ’bodily’ and ‘body’ inevitably have dualist overtones. This is looked at in chapter (ii) where I suggest that the word ‘embodied’ better articulates the concept of ‘body’ outside dualist frameworks. The use of ’body’ in the questions is to establish a sense of concrete experience in the ‘real’ world.
The term ‘reflective practices within dance’ seeks to address the idea that there is a process of reflective thought in dance, in order to compensate for dualist notions that dance could be entirely muscular direction from the ‘mind’.
The questions revolve around notions that challenge the dualist ‘mind’ & ‘body’ by inquiring about the role of the environment in location of mind / body. The questions also seek to know what the practical experience of others might be.
The research activity was a process of understanding the questions rather than one of answering them.  Dewey saw learning as proposing hypotheses that were then adapted as one’s perception of the question developed into more informed questions. The questions act as tentative hypotheses through the assumptions they make. The process of the research was to explore the questions in order to be able to generate better-informed questions, since to assume one could find an ‘answer’ would be assume one could halt the continuum of experiences, and also step outside of one’s own perception.

Overall the data have raised propositions that developed the research questions on into interesting lines of inquiry that could continue to be explored within a Pragmatist framework using the method of dance and choreography, narrative and ethnography I have used in this research. To summarise these are questions informed by continued looking at:
·      exploration of the quality of embodied experiences and what people value as a high quality embodied experience.
·      whether there is a connection between ‘high quality’ embodied experiences and location of one’s identity through Place.
·      whether there is something to understand about ‘use’ of the environment in the same terms as ‘use’ of the body
·      how dance can inform and support the competencies of transactional awareness and the maturation of embodied individuals (including pedagogical approaches to education of young people) and exploration of the notion of Place.
The research was initiated out of my experience as a dancer that had led me to a soma centred orientation to the lived world. I was interested in exploring the notion of embodiment particularly through its links to environment and identity in order to contextualize my own experiences beyond the dance studio. The research questions enquired into notions of the body, environment and identity using a methodology that drew from dance, with a foundation in Pragmatism.
The research has provided a solid platform from which to develop further inquiry. It has allowed me to create a foundation in the orientation of dance through Pragmatist philosophy. This is a construction of the lived experience that is multi-layered and transactional. Linear constructs for locating the Self are replaced by concepts of spirals, and continuums that co-create; hierarchical relationships between things that appear to be different from each other are replaced with rhzomatic relationships where variety creates richness through multi-layered possibility.
The research has presented an argument that soma experience is central to contextualising one’s lived experience.  Rather than being limited within one’s skin, the lived experience is the interaction of physical body, space, time and reflective action. Avenues into the concept of transaction and a soma centred orientation to the world are sharpened by the use of dance as a kind of methodological approach to soma inquiry.
Making attempts at thinking about lived experience as a transactional process involving a matrix of elements that create and give meaning to each other, offers a context for looking at the quality of our embodied experiences. Part of the acknowledgement of the concept of an embodied existence is a meaningful engagement with physical activity. This is an engagement that is not based on concepts of what the body should look like or how it should perform but about developing agent access to sensitive interactions with all the elements of embodiment.


My thanks to Canterbury Christ Church University for the Award of a Research Degree Scholarship.

Special thanks to the staff and faculty at the Graduate School and to the Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research (SPEAR), especially to my supervisors Dr. I Wellard, Dr. L Mansfield & Dr. M Weed for their support, encouragement and guidance.

I would like to thank all the Respondents and their communities across the four case studies and the numerous people who have talked and danced with to me, sharing their ideas and insights across the three years. Thank you to Clive and Amanda.

Thank you to Angeline, Andy, Barry and the dancers who worked with me on the ethnographic / choreographic exploration. Thank you State of Emergency and Deborah for support.

Thank you to my family especially Justin, Kyi, Olukemi and Pat, my colleagues Alan, Rosemary, Paula, Peter, Avni, Karen and Amiee, my friends Lauren and Jonathan, Bikrama Yoga A2 and my thiyospaye who come together on Pine Ridge each year; with remembrance and gratitude to Grandma Chipps.

Thank you to Olukemi and Sonia for the use of the beautiful art work and Koo and Jaskiran for help with making my drawn diagrams more presentable.