Humanity has produced art since the beginning–one only has to look at the ancient cave paintings in places like Lascaux, Indonesia, or South Africa to see evidence of this. However, until relatively recent history, dance has lived in an ephemeral space existing only for a moment as the audience witnesses it, and then vanishing into thin air. The only true record of its existence lives on in the muscle memory of the performers. Music has its sheets of staffs and notes, while visual art long survives its artist, but until filming dance became possible, there was no easy or accessible record of dance art for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

To be fair, there have been some attempts at writing down movement sequences. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Indians drew pictograms and used descriptive language to capture the essence of a dance while Renaissance-era Europeans drew out the patterns and pathways of their dances, sketching out a kind of aerial view of the performer’s footsteps. Various short-hand notation styles have come into use over the years like Labanotation, Stepanov notation, and Benesh Movement Notation, but these all require a knowledge of the given system’s shorthand, almost like learning a new alphabet or language. It simply does not have the ease that filming dance can offer.

“Every performance is like a ghost–it’s there and then it’s gone.” - Dame Maggie Smith

Although the first dance recordings are from well over one hundred years ago, it wasn’t until extremely recently that the ubiquity of video recording reached the heights it enjoys today. Even in the 1990s and early 2000s, dancers could likely enjoy video feedback from their performances. Still, unless their teacher regularly brought a camcorder to class, using recordings as a visual learning tool was exceedingly rare. Filming video for auditions as recently as 2009 was a painstaking process that usually involved multiple people, several different pieces of technology, and a long afternoon that would be sure to end in someone cursing or crying. Now, it is common for students to approach the instructor near the end of class, iPhone clutched hopefully in hand, and request, “can I record this?” These clips are then used to ward off forgetfulness, endlessly critique one’s form, or maybe even grace social media feeds. However, as wonderful as it is to have an easy record of what last week’s class entailed, there are some glaring cons to the consistent use of and reliance on video feedback.

The first is the most obvious–if dancers know that there will be a recording of the choreography session, will they work as hard to remember the movements? Or, will the crutch of the video inhibit this, allowing the dance artist’s mind to drift away from the present moment? This depends, of course, on the temperament and mind of each individual dancer, but it is easy to see how the security of a recording might temper a dancer’s motivation to truly capture the sequence in that instant. This loss of incentive would possibly disrupt the learning process and also lessen classroom engagement–dancers that tend to space out might continue to do so without fear, rather than working to curb those inclinations by improving their focus, engagement, and retention.

Also, though recordings can be helpful, they do not answer every question about a piece of choreography. Details can still be missed, among other finer nuances. Catherine J. Stevens, et al. note in their 2019 paper for the Acta Psychologica journal, “Video of past performances can be used, but video captures the movement and kinematics in two dimensions and does not always convey all spatial, temporal, and interpersonal relations in the design of an ensemble work, or the force and weight, dynamic or quality of movement..” Any performer who has ever tried to learn choreography off of a video alone knows how frustrating it can be. Learning from another dancer in a studio setting is always a little bit easier.

Yet, on the flip side of that argument, it is quite wonderful to have a record. Even the sharpest dancers have forgetful days, and a video recording offers both the dancer and the choreographer a visual reminder from the past. The days of misremembering choreography and arguing over counts can be greatly reduced, and in theory, time can be used more efficiently rather than rehashing the material from the previous rehearsal or class. Furthermore, there is the added benefit of transmitting information to dancers who are missing that day. In the past, dance artists frequently pushed through minor colds and illnesses in order to not miss choreography, but with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, it really is best for everyone if a sick dancer stays away. However, a conscientious friend or classmate can easily text a video recording of the day’s work to their peer, reducing stress for everyone involved at the next rehearsal when the missing dance artist has returned.

Additionally, problems with timing, technique, and choreography can be solved sooner. A video allows the choreographer to step back and look at the work as a whole, rather than the close focus of the studio setting. As a result, amendments that will refine their artistic vision can be quickly developed and implemented. Dancers, too, can swiftly see the ways in which they are or are not fulfilling the movement. Just as the film offers the choreographer a wider vision, it gives that same perspective to the dancers. Now, they can view their mistakes objectively rather than waiting for an outside eye; able to see–for example–when their lines deviate from their fellow performers.

If dancers know that there will be a recording of the choreography session, will they work as hard to remember the movements?

Once again though, this is a double-edged sword. Dance artists, notorious for being hypercritical of themselves, might see the incorporation of the video into the class or rehearsal as an additional stressor. Some might dread seeing themselves on film and thus become nervous, worried, and fixated on the recording rather than seeing it as the visual learning tool that it is. For performers who are already overly harsh on themselves, watching and picking apart every minor class combination, minute of choreography, and second of performance might inhibit their artistic growth rather than augment it.

Opposite from the anxious, fault-finding dance artist lies another problem–dancers who are a little too eager and willing to share their abilities. Although being proud of one’s talent is not the issue, it becomes problematic when this pride compels artists to share bits of choreography and performance that were not ready for consumption on social media. There are a couple of issues here–first and foremost unless they had the express permission of the choreographer or it is understood by the teacher that the footage will be used for online promotion, the video should not be posted. Secondly, if it is not ready, both the choreographer and the other dancers in the film might feel upset or embarrassed that their half-finished work that was never meant to go beyond studio walls is out for the world to see. Though it can be tempting to want to feed the algorithm with steady content, dancers ought to remember that not everything they are working on is available for immediate consumption.

Dancers ought to remember that not everything they are working on is available for immediate consumption.

It is clear then that there is a fine line that must be walked when it comes to the usage of video recordings in dance class and rehearsal, and there is one final facet that must be explored: dancing for the camera. Prior to the latter half of the twentieth century, video recordings of dance were usually capturing a live performance. However, music videos and movies changed this. Dancing on camera can now have a totally different meaning and require a completely different skill set than dancing in front of a live audience on a stage. Dance artists need to understand how to relate to and use the camera to their advantage to tell whatever story they’ve been tasked with sharing. Moreover, the pandemic made virtual performances–both live and pre-recorded–much more common. It would behoove teachers to provide their students with occasional opportunities to dance with the camera lens in mind, especially if they hope to embark on a career in the dance arts.

So, like many things in life, the use of video recordings in dance class and rehearsal is not entirely good nor entirely bad. It is a useful tool that should be employed accordingly and not relied upon as a necessary component to every single situation. We can relish the fact that technology gives us the ability to hold on to some piece of a dance performance while still understanding the transitory nature of our art. As Dame Maggie Smith noted about the theater, “Every performance is like a ghost–it’s there and then it’s gone.” 

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