A word on dance ecologies

I often hear the terms ‘dance ecology’, ‘dance ecologies’ or even ‘the dance ecosystem’. An ecology is essentially a network of relationships between living beings within their physical environments. It includes growth, decline, competition and conflict as well as co-operation, interdependence and communication. Metaphorically applied to dance, it can encompass many interacting aspects, including economics, spectatorship, mobility, publicity, education, policy, nutrition and pleasure. How we spin the metaphor may depend on our own outlook on life – whether we see ecology as a competitive, survival-of-the-fittest system, or whether we see its more holistic, harmonious, Gaia-like face. But either way, ideas of complexity, interaction, organisation and disorganisation, freedom and constraint, sustainability and change, come to the fore.

The ecological metaphor has been criticised because it can easily obscure factors such as power and wealth beneath a feelgood but imaginary cloud, as if the state of things were as natural and harmonious as flowers blooming and birds singing.

But I think there’s another level of obfuscation too: the metaphor becomes parasitic, drawing life from its host (the ecology itself) and weakening it in the process. We take the expansive image of relationships between living beings within a physical environment, and reduce it to relations between human beings in a social environment.

An example. Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform (one of many international congresses, including Spring Forward, for the encounter of artists, programmers and producers) published a policy statement called Soft Footprint, Strong Handprint, with the goal of reducing its negative impacts on the environment and increasing its positive ones (I am all in favour of this, and encourage further steps in this direction). Their first report found that 97% of Ice Hot’s carbon emissions resulted from travel to and from the platform; also, that incentives to find alternatives to flights were ineffective. On the other hand, it commented that “the whole dance sector benefits from gatherings like this, as getting to know each other’s works and interests leads to new collaborations and co-productions that develop the field, thus strengthening the whole ecosystem.”

What happened there, linguistically? After pointing to real ecosystemic impacts, the term shifts into metaphorical mode, referring to networks of social relations within dance, rather than “the whole ecosystem”.

Is there another, more effective metaphor? (I can’t see the host-parasite one catching on!) Perhaps the issue is not what it is, but how we use it. And that will not be a question of simply “including” the environment in our ways of thinking and being – putting the “eco” back into “ecosystem” – but of knowing that our metaphorical dance ecologies depend, for their lives, on real ones; and acting accordingly.

Sanjoy Roy