Invitation to the Dance

Editor’s note: This essay is one component of Seeing Dance, Talking Dance, Jacob’s Pillows audience engagement project that received funding through Dance/USAs Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) program. EDA is administered by Dance/USA and made possible with generous funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The essay  is shared here with kind permission. If you would like to reproduce this essay, please contact

By Ella Baff

Over the years, many audience members have shared their dance experiences with me. Some have described connecting immediately and viscerally with dance as the most basic and universal of the arts. Others were reluctant at first, but finally relented to a dance enthusiast friend and attended a performance. And some acquired a taste for dance over time, starting with a well-known entrée and expanding into an adventurous feast in new realms.

Whether you find dance to be a familiar country, or worry you won’t “get it” and will be out of the cultural loop, read on. Here are some helpful guideposts for seeing, discussing, and appreciating dance.

Check your preconceptions at the door

Audience members participiating in a Seeing Dance, Talking Dance program at Jacobs Pillow. Photo by Em Watson, courtesy Jacobs Pillow

Audience members participiating in a Seeing Dance, Talking Dance program at Jacobs Pillow. Photo by Em Watson, courtesy Jacobs Pillow

It’s natural to come to any new experience with preconceptions. Remember when you had none, and try to get into that mindset. Try not to foreclose on your experience on the basis of preconceptions (and misconceptions) about dance’s accessibility. Many people have shared with me that they were convinced they wouldn’t enjoy a particular kind of dance or artist’s work but were delighted to discover something new and exciting.

The language of the body

Verbal communication represents much of how we think and who we are. When we communicate with others in the same language, there’s a good chance that the meaning of what we say will be understood. Sometimes we travel to another country where the language is foreign to us. We are on the outskirts of a secret that everyone else is in on. We may feel challenged or awkward. How do I interpret meaning? What if I make a mistake?

Like music, dance has no linguistic equivalent. Dance is an art form of the body, and the body speaks in many dialects created by a vast range of choreographers and long-held traditions everywhere on the planet. Dance is typically more evocative than literal. It is non-verbal, and therefore imbued with unique capacities to communicate across language, cultural, and other barriers. Its vocabulary is often thrillingly virtuosic, but it is built on basic movement ideas that are a common life experience for all of us.

Trust yourself

Remember the analogy about being in a foreign country. You may feel ignorant not knowing the language, but relax; you packed your instincts, intelligence, interpretive skills, and curiosity. Let the work you see on stage “happen” rather than trying to make it happen. A dance will often reveal its own rules about how it should be “read” if we are attentive and patient. You may not know a particular dance tradition, form, choreographer, or company, but you are already equipped with tools that translate in new territory. No passport required.

Location, location, location

Contextual information locates valuable reference points that yield insight into a particular dance style, tradition, or an artist’s creative process. At the Pillow, you can find out about how dancers train and how dances are made. You can talk with artists; observe dancers in class with master faculty at The School; explore the Archives on site or online to learn about dance history or see performances from long ago or last week. You can attend free performances, informative talks before every performance, post-show discussions with artists, and related visual art exhibits. And you can take a morning movement class yourself; no prior experience required. Add to the resources you bring to your role as an audience member, and you’ll find that the experience becomes even richer.

Multiple ways of understanding

Both scientific research and common sense tell us that people process information in many ways, and not all of them relate to verbal processes. Babies read non-verbal signals about human emotions long before they acquire speech. Body language is an essential form of communication throughout our lives, and we can often tell more about a person by how they move than by what they say. As the choreographer Martha Graham famously said, ‘Movement never lies.’ You can respond to movement and interpret meaning without the intervention of verbal language to characterize your response.

Ambiguity can be a source of aesthetic pleasure

People tend to read movement as intentional and literal. When we see ballets such as Swan Lake, we can follow a story; that helps. But dance is often abstract and ambiguous, and part of the dance experience is embracing that ambiguity. It may be puzzling and uncomfortable, but relax – you are free to make up your own “story” about what is happening on stage. Allow yourself to harvest feelings, images, and ideas from what you see. They may cohere or not, but you will expand your meaning-making. Ambiguity can be a source of adventure, pleasure, and personal discovery.

Looking Is learning

Whether you are a neophyte or an aficionado, here are some tools that will help you to access the many different worlds that artists conjure for us on the stage. Exercise patience, and trust that “meaning” will reveal itself over time. Allow for the possibility that there may be moments of confusion or even boredom along the way. Give yourself over to the pace and energy of the work; free-associate with the imagery; and recognize that whatever your response, it is meaningful and authentic.

Try out one or more of these approaches and see what works for you.

The Journalist’s Eye

A journalist typically asks what — and who, what, and where — before tackling why. Focus in on what you are seeing, and more global reflections on meaning will follow.

  • How would you describe the movement in your own words?
  • What body parts are being used? In what way?
  • What is the speed and energy of the dancers? How do they change over time?
  • What connections can I make with how the movement looks, such as sports, nature, other dance works, or everyday movements?
  • What is the relationship between the music and movement?
  • What does the work evoke in me emotionally? How does my body feel when I am watching it?
  • What do I know about the work and the choreographer who created it? What does the choreographer say about his or her work?

The Anthropologist’s Eye

Think of dance-going as a form of “field research” on a “culture” about which you have no prior knowledge. For experienced dancegoers, this is a way to keep one’s eye fresh and challenge preconceptions. Before making evaluative judgments, ask:

  • If you were an anthropologist, how would you describe the way these people move?
  • Do the men and women move in the same manner?
  • What kinds of bodies are on stage, and what parts of the body are being engaged?
  • Are the people moving in isolation or as a group?
  • What appears to bring them together or move them apart?
  • Do they appear to have rigid or flexible rules?

The Linguist’s/Grammarian’s Eye

  • Try this fun exercise immediately following a performance:
  • Write down a few adjectives that characterize your initial emotional response.
  • Write down a few verbs that characterize the movement.
  • Write down a few adverbs to express the quality of the movement.

Now work backward from the emotional feel of the piece (the adjectives) to a better understanding of the ways in which the movement material and choreographicstructure had evoked your responses.

Go forth and talk about it

I hope that by sharing some of my own thoughts and experiences as well as those of colleagues and audience members, I have given you some new tools to enrich your appreciation of dance. Practice is an essential tool for artists, and its value for audiences is equally important. With a new sense of confidence and curiosity, I hope you will feel comfortable talking about dance with friends, family, fellow audience members, and all of us at the Pillow. I promise you that every attempt to grapple with something new or unfamiliar will make you feel more empowered. Remember, there’s no passport required – and everyone’s invited.

Seeing Dance, Talking Dance

This past summer audiences participated in chats Wednesdays after the opening night performances of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (July 3, 2013), L-E-V (July 24, 2013), and Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature (August 14, 2013). Discussion questions were published in weekly program inserts and on bulletin boards around the Pillow grounds.

Source material for “Invitation to the Dance,” as well as other writing on dance literacy, is available in Presenting Dance: Dynamic Dialogues from the National Dance Presenters Leadership Forum at Jacob’s Pillow by Mindy N. Levine.

Ella BaffElla Baff has been recognized for her work in the cultural field with several awards including the William Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture, and an Honorary Doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  In 2010, she was named one of the “Top 25 Most Influential and Powerful People in the Arts” by Inside Arts Magazine. She has been Co-chair of the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) Congress in New York in 2009 and 2012. 

Baff is currently the executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest dance festival in America. Located in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, the Pillow’s 220-acre historic campus was originally a family farm in the 1790s and was a station on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. The Pillow encompasses an international dance Festival; professional School; Intern, Scholars and Fellowship programs; an Archives; Virtual Pillow; and Community Programs. In 2003, Jacob’s Pillow was designated a National Historic Landmark, and 2011, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

Some of Baff’s past positions have included program director of the performing arts center at the University of California, Berkeley, and project director for an arts series for WNET/13 public television in New York. She has been a consultant for foundations, government, and not-for-profit organizations and has been invited by U.S. and international government agencies and arts organizations to be a speaker and panelist. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Mass.)

Ella Baff was born and raised in New York City. She studied classical music and dance and was raised in the theater world of Broadway, off-Broadway, film and television, where her sister was an actress for many years. She moved west, attended the University of New Mexico, moved further west, and graduated with honors from the University of California at Berkeley. Early in her career, Baff taught theater on an Aleutian Island. In the Bay Area, she developed arts programs for social service and community organizations and for several years taught in juvenile prisons. She co-produced and directed a play about juvenile offenders called The Baddest. An interest in literacy issues led her to become a certified literacy instructor and she taught grandparents and their grandchildren how to read.

As program director at Cal Performances, the performing arts center at the University of California, Berkeley, Baff presented and commissioned international work in five theaters in dance, music, and theater – from ethnic and classical traditions to the contemporary and experimental arts, jazz, and major rock concerts with the legendary promoter, Bill Graham. She collaborated with many departments at the university across disciplines, and developed and presented over 100 education and community programs annually for adults and children, including interdisciplinary curricula for schools and symposia with artists and scholars. While at Berkeley she was hired as the project director for America Dancing, a national outreach and educational program in conjunction with a 10-part television series produced by PBS. 

Baff has been a consultant for foundations, government, and not-for-profit organizations, including the Zellerbach Family Fund, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Advancement Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation. She has served as a site visitor, advisor, evaluator, and nominator for many funding programs including the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Funds, the National Dance Project, the Vilcek Prize, and the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Baff has served on panels and task forces for Arts International, the USIA, United States Artists, the National Task Force on Touring and Presenting, Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, Creative Capital, and the MAP Fund. She has co-chaired the National Task Force on Audience Development, and chaired the Dance Panel at the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been invited by government and cultural organizations to participate in international programs in Russia, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Japan, France, Israel, Taiwan, and Cuba.

Baff has been a guest speaker at conferences and has been a moderator for the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She has served on the boards of the Western Alliance of Arts Administrators as chair of the Professional Development Committee; NAPAMA (the National Association of Performing Arts Managers and Agents); the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA); and MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). She executive produced a feature-length documentary about Jacob’s Pillow that was released in 2012 and licensed by PBS.


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