The Dancers Paradox

By Josef Brown

How many times have you heard a dancer say what they most love about dancing is that they, ‘feel free’ or that it gives them, ‘a sense of freedom’.

Free. Freedom. Liberation. Wild. Abandon. Unrestrained. Self-empowered. Emancipated. Honest. Pure. True. Alive. In the moment.

Just some of the more common language associated when describing the experience of dance and those powerful feelings that motivate many to want to dance or continue dancing. And yet I hear this, and though I’ve felt these things myself as a dancer, there’s a mystery I can’t help wanting to probe. Why do dancers feel so free and unbounded, while arguably working within so many clearly drawn parameters? 

Consider this; the performance dancer, arguably more so than the actor, or perhaps even the singer or musician, is typically bounded by a precise technique (particularly so in ballet), they’re provided with the exact steps, the choreography; the music, giving them the pulse, rhythmic dynamics and melody; usually the character, mood and/or feeling; the setting, the clearly delineated space and area and even down to what they wear and perhaps their make up has been a choice quite often handed to them, and sometimes foisted upon them by others. 

In fact almost every detail of the dancers performance craft – obviously more so with some styles than others, and even within those styles, by some choreographers and Directors more than others – is served to them and yet, within those often meticulously defined details the dancer will often come to later report feelings of being free. 

Indeed, they arguably come to feel, though perhaps not actually have, a greater sense of freedom than performance artists from other mediums. And while I’m certain other performance artists recount similar feelings as part of the love of their craft – and I don’t have statistics to back this up – for the dancer, experience and anecdotal evidence suggests, feelings of being free would be the number one reason that attracts people to dancing.

And personally I find this the fascinating dancers paradox. That within quite intense, and sometimes even rigid parameters and even, dare I say restriction, the dancer finds, feels and even explores an intoxicating sense of freedom. And further, that this sense of freedom is often conveyed to those watching and vicariously experiencing the dance. That those witnessing will also report, as their primary motivation for enjoying dance that they love the sense of abandon and freedom in the dancers craft.


Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take 

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my love am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace – To Althea, from Prison

Perhaps there’s a correlation in that, if you ask someone to choreograph, paint or write, anything they want, many will become paralysed with seemingly unending questions and creatively blocked. 

What to choreograph, paint or write? 

Where to start? 

Why say this and not that?

And how do I know say what I want to say? 

Yet provide some simple parameters: you must use this 4 x 4 space, only three people and 1 chair and I need 2 minutes of choreography to this particular music and suddenly ideas begin to germinate. Throw in a couple of random words: circles, fear, sponges for example and movement ideas can begin leaping into existence from a seeming nothingness, gravitating to one another and soon coalescing and moulding themselves into some increasingly interesting shape and form. 

That’s all the freedom we can hope for; the freedom to choose our prison.

L.M Montgomery, The Blue Castle


Many young dancers can often be heard to disparage technique. The daily grind and patient practice can at times feel all-too-time-consuming, slow and annoying. Yet speak with professional dancers, those who’ve honed their craft over decades to a level of mastery and they’ll often paint quite a different picture. 

They might explain how it’s only along the pathway and through the keyhole of precise technique that one can find true freedom. That it is via the mastery of technique; dedication, discipline, concentration, persistence coupled with courage and curiosity to explore ever further, that finally allows the individual spirit to be fully realised, soar and be most free. 

While engaged in studies, in our studios or at work, we often day dream of lazy, sun-drenched days extending into an unknown future, yet the truth is, we are bound by parameters; our period in time, our age, our genetics, our up-bringing etc. and it is only via a deep acknowledgment, understanding and appreciation for those limitations that define us, that bind and bound us, that perhaps we can ultimately be most free, both during the dance and when we step out of our dance shoes. For the dancers paradox is perhaps the great paradox for all human life and perhaps that is why people are drawn to dance at such a primal, barely conscious level.

Dance when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.. Dance in the middle of the fighting. 

Dance when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.

Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi 

What makes us unique is small. As a species we share as much as 98% of our DNA with Bonobo Chimpanzees, 36% with the Fruit Fly and 15% with Mustard Grass*. I’ve even heard – but am cautious about accepting – that we share as much as 50% of our DNA with the dancers post-performance food of choice, the humble banana. Indeed across Individuals and races we are between 99% and 99.9% identical as one another. For an alien race looking in, for all intents and purposes we might appear the same. 

What makes us unique is actually tiny and perhaps fragile, like a small snow flake of a diamond embedded deep within each soul. And yet those tiny differences in genetics and experience compounded over time and varying environments come to be significantly interesting and sometimes fascinating. 

Could it be that the process of working on a craft, and the more structured and seemingly restricted that it is, in the end allows us to shine that tiny diamond of the soul buried within us till it illuminates as a guiding star in the night sky, and sometimes throughout history, as though brighter than the sun itself. 


MDM Muse, Juliet Doherty performing choreography by Krista King-Doherty

Banner Image – Birmingham Royal Ballet,

Romeo and Juliet with Jenna Roberts and Iain MacKay

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