Dance Interpretation, The Stranger and Me

Evalina Carbonell and Sophie Malin

Dancers Evalina Carbonell and Sophie Malin. Photo credit Meredith Stapleton.

By Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor, Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal


“Is it okay if I sit beside you?”

The voice of a stranger inhabiting my space.

Casually clothed and curious, he asked if I knew someone dancing in the show.

A friendly shake of my head gave him all the information he needed as I saw the next question brewing in his mind.

I was struggling to free myself from the bondage of my luggage and he decided not to add to my moment of annoyance. I surveyed the room, looking for familiar faces.

I saw 1…,. 2…., 3…., I felt safe.

“My girlfriend is in the show”, he said.

Another lone boyfriend forced to sit through a cascade of pirouettes and jetes; out of place and bored.

Why do some girls insist on torturing their boyfriends by having them sit through endless dance performances? It’s bad enough they will have to give you the obligatory praise, let alone withstand hours of abstract dance they may never understand.

These poor boyfriends! The loving support, the forced interest, the misguided acknowledgment of a job well done.

Curator Jessica Warchal-King spoke to the diversity of the InHale Performance Series and explained that their objective was to present artists at different stages of their artistic endeavor. In its 6th year, the InHale Performance Series provide a performance arena for budding artists to share the product of their creative journey with the general public. Housed at the CHI Movement Arts Center, the Series enables artists to plant their seeds and see what grows.

“Were we suppose to take off our shoes?’ The stranger realized that he was in the minority as he still donned his footwear.

Trying quietly not to draw attention to himself, he covertly removed his shoes as he smiled a nervous smile as if to say…”my bad!”

The lights dimmed. A hush fell over the audience.

Four pieces ranging in genres from ballet to contemporary jazz, took to the space. A solo, a trio, a quartet, and a sextet, beckoned the viewers to receive them with open arms and an open palette. They danced the teachings of their choreographers, acquiescing to the role of doer. They carved the space with their eloquently articulate bodies and performed gestures that gave insight into their respective works.

During intermission my unnamed friend asked, “Are you enjoying the show?”

He was interested in my opinion on the pieces thus far as he later confessed he didn’t get it.

“I’m not sure if it’s important for you to GET IT,” I replied “instead, savor what is presented before you without outside influences and you will be left with an experience that is personal to you.”

I will say that he was not the only one lost, as a few of the choreographers tried to paint narratives that got muddled in the process.

“I just feel like if I don’t get it then I feel stupid”, he said.

The tragic flip side to the art of criticism.

The one-sided discussion of interpretation and analysis.

How can we live outside the air pocket of critic’s choice and create room to include a varied distribution of references and points of view? Maybe then my no named friend would feel less judged when asked to talk about what he witnessed; what he experienced.

Why should he defend his aesthetic preferences simply because he doesn’t have a dancer’s palette or a trained eye?

What information can be presented for him to gain access to the works being presented?

Would it help if there were notes from the choreographers in the program?

I viewed the second act through a different lens as I began to question my role as storyteller, educator and critic.

How was I presenting information to my students? What do I want my reader to know?

Am I sensitive to multiple viewpoints? Do I welcome open dialogue based on differences?

My history is a reservoir of knowledge informing the way I experience new things. As a critic, I want to allow room for conversations as it pertains to perceptions and beliefs so I challenged the stranger to accept his attachment towards certain things as a road map to his understanding.

Dance lends itself to interpretations that are translated differently from one person to the next based on culture, gender, race, sexuality and history. It is these variations that give us the permission to own and accept our personal contribution to any conversation regarding art.

The InHale Performance Series sent questions in the form of a stranger.

He quietly adjusted his shoes and thanked me for the exchange. I asked him if he enjoyed the show.

With a smirk he replied, “I had an experience!”

I shook his hand and said, “Well said mister.”

The purpose of this article was to illuminate my growing concerns with dance criticism. It was my intention to deliberately eliminate any description of the pieces in the show and focus on my interaction with an audience member who felt lost in the world of dance analysis and interpretation. I too struggle with the idea that my opinion is the only one that counts, but I humble myself so I can continue to learn and be receptive to multiple perspectives.



  1. Hello Gregory King, I truly love your writing! I’m always pleasantly surprised with the different angles you approach your writing and this article is no exception! I love how you opened up the door and showcased the untrained eye of individuals trying to comprehend and follow the storytelling, which is told by the movement of the body through dance. I really find it interesting and appreciate your outlook. I look forward to your next article!

  2. Thank you George. It’s something I wrestle with but in the end I do believe that what we bring to the viewing, informs our experience and it’s all valid.

  3. Very well written. Makes you wonder about how everyone views dance. Art for that matter. Are we as artist doing all we can to transcend the art we are creating not only to open dialogue between artists and non-artist alike but are we allowing everyone to leave the show with a mind altering experience.

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