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date: 16 October 2017

Dance as Intergroup Communication

Summary and Keywords

Dance is a visual, socially organized form of communication. There are countless forms and styles of dance, each with its own criteria of excellence, with varying degrees of technical training ranging from classical ballet to krumping. This could, at times, lend itself to intergroup antagonism with the various genres of dance as subgroups. However, all types of dancers have the potential to identify with one another as sharing in the superordinate identity, dancer. Dance may be consumed as an artistic performance, or one can engage it as a participant—dancing as a professional, as a form of recreation, or as a form of self-expression. The processes of producing, consuming, and participating in dance as a spectator, choreographer, or performer are all intergroup phenomena. For example, a spectator of a performance learns something about the culture that produced this dance. With this there is potential for intergroup contact and vicarious observation with dancers and the various audiences. This can be powerful for changing attitudes and conceptions of different dance groups. The attitude change may occur as people are exposed to a culture presented as art instead of exposure to information via factual accounts such as textbooks or museums. Also, a spectator or consumer’s perception of the performance is informed by group membership. For example, some religious groups discourage dance because they believe it is a sin or evil. These groups, if exposed to a dance performance, will experience it much differently than members of other groups that encourage dancing and actively seek its viewing.

In sum, dance is a vehicle through which group membership and social identity can be expressed. As dancers perform they can, for instance, express gender and sexuality. As choreographers direct movements, they express their conceptions of gender through the dancers. And as spectators view the performance, they are shown something about gender expression. When it is used as a form of protest, as a cultural expression, or as a form of social innovation, dance can express social group membership.

Keywords: dance, social group, identity, performer, gender, spectator, intergroup communication


Dance has been documented for at least 9,000 years, as evident from tomb and rock paintings, and is a vibrant and seemingly ubiquitous feature of most cultures’ social activities and creativities. Indeed, different cultures are known for their own unique dance steps, as in the Latin American salsa, samba, and tango; the Viennese waltz; and the Scottish Highland and Irish dances with their solo and gendered styles. Furthermore, many cultures are imbued with enormously diverse, regionally specific dance traditions, as, for example, in Greece.

Dance then comes in many different forms (see National Arts Center, Canada, 2016) and is integral to many social events, such as weddings. In Africa, it can be performed ritualistically at births and funerals and with healing intent (and with masks, body paintings, and other adornments), thereby facilitating various emotions from joy to grief (see Welsh, 2010). Dance can, therefore, fulfill a wide variety of personal and social functions. These functions range from promoting fitness and health (e.g., jazzercise) to theatrical performances for entertainment—typically enacted on a stage, but sometimes on the street or at block parties (see Mann, 2016)—by trained professional and/or talented artists. Dance can also have narrative and dramatic functions. For example, it may tell a story (moral, political, or fictional) that can often be transmitted across generations. In some cultures, at different times, it has been banned (as with Western missionaries) for its attributed immoral sexualized qualities. In other cultures it has been invoked to instill fear (e.g., the Maori Haka).

While there is likely to be a social consensus about what constitutes dance within different cultures, there are, nonetheless, many definitions available. We will, elaborating upon Fraleigh (1987, p. 49) and Hanna (2003), opt for the following succinct definition given our intergroup frame: dance is culturally sequenced patterns of human movement created and expressed for an aesthetic and/or instrumental purpose. Most forms of dance are typically, albeit not always, enacted with music, and while the latter has received the attention of intergroup communication scholars (Giles, Hajda, & Hamilton, 2009; Harwood, 2015), dance as an art form has not (see, however, MacIntyre, Baker, & Sparling, 2016).

Discussion of the Literature

This chapter is a first attempt at rectifying that lacuna by giving an intergroup voice to dance. We recognize that other disciplines such as anthropology may have a rich existing body of literature regarding dance history and other topics. Additionally, some studies in biomusicology have acknowledged the potential for dance to be a highly group-oriented phenomenon. For example, studies in this discipline explain how it is a sort of rarity for individuals to form coalitions when they are not kin. However, they found that with both music and dance, “the universal features [of music and dance], synchronization and variation, are ideally suited to credibly signal both that a coalition has been internally stable and that they are able to execute rapid, complex, coordinated action” (Hagen & Bryant, 2003, p. 30). This signaling of quality could be attributed to the amount of time it takes to rehearse or train to work toward an arguably unattainable perfection in these two complex art forms. This time commitment made by each individual member suggests high levels of motivation to improve the quality of the group, thereby enhancing internal stability of the group.

While these studies have considered the evolutionary functions of dance as a group (i.e., sexual selection, warfare), this chapter will cite specific examples to conceptualize dance as intergroup communication, focusing mostly on theatrical dance. In what follows, we elaborate on some of the notions mentioned above but in terms of their intergroup parameters, including the communicative construction of identity, emotional expression, and between-group contact and through cultural rituals and social innovation.

Dancer as a Superordinate Identity

Dance is a topic of study pertinent to the intergroup communication scholars as it considers the sharing of meaning through the body as the medium. Dance can be used to express feelings, ideas, and messages that words are incapable of satisfactorily reflecting. Additionally, it implicates nonverbal communication as it must consider proxemics, the distance people are from each other during an interaction; kinesics, the gestures and body movements that carry communicative power; haptics, the touch that can occur during an interaction; and oculesics, the eye movements and contact in dynamic choreography as dancers move through space, typically, with and around one another. Dance can consciously communicate information (i.e., tell a story or replicate an experience), or information may be inferred or gleaned from motions that may be more abstract. These inferences depend on the perspective of each individual audience member of the performance or the collective energy of the audience as discussed below.

While there are many different forms of dance, dancer can be considered as a superordinate group identity. Various qualifying adjectives of group membership can be added before dancer (e.g., ballet), signaling a subgroup. It is valuable to note that dance is an activity that can invoke group membership. Depending on the context, it may bring to saleince either a superordinate identity or a group identity. It can also bring about both a superordinate and group identity simultaneously. The common ingroup identity model states that intergroup biases can be ameliorated by having ingroup and outgroup members recategorize into a superordinate group with a shared identity (González & Brown, 2003). This can occur in dance as various genres of dancers, considered subgroups here, may consider one another to be outgroup members. However, when faced with a non-dancer, the larger superordinate identity may become salient. While the superordinate dancer identity is salient, intergroup biases between subgroup genres may diminish. For example, one may be a ballet dancer, ballroom dancer, or street dancer, and these groups may consider one another outgroup members when faced with only communication with one another. However, the groups instead rely on the superordinate dancer membership when faced with more salient outgroup members such as a macho sports player.

Furthermore, dancer can be considered a superordinate group identity in terms of its movements connecting both mind and body. This superordinate identity subsumes many languages and dialects of dance. According to Hanna (1979), dance can be analyzed at two levels. First, it considers that all dances have certain similar, distinctive features. The second level considers how each form reflects the culture and community creating it. This perspective allows dance to be conceptualized as an intergroup communicative phenomenon; the first level of analysis considers dance as a superordinate group phenomenon, and the second level considers the subgroup genres of dance. Building a positive, superordinate group identity allows members to band together as artists. Intergroup favoritism can occur for this larger social entity of dancers rather than multiple subgroups working in biased ways against one another (Gaertner, Mann, Murrell, & Dovidio, 1989).

It is also conceivable that within the performing arts, performer may be an even more universal superordinate identity. This more universal identity could mean that the dancers, choreographers, musicians, and any other groups involved in the performance may consider one another an ingroup. However, a comprehensive overview of this level of identity as a performer is beyond the scope of this chapter and merits further study. At a more global level, anthropologists have asserted that “dance may reflect universal body structures, experiences, and structures of the mind . . . the universal collective consciousness and universal aesthetic sense” (Hanna, 1979, p. 31). With this consideration, dance reflects these elements not only to fellow performers, but most often to different audiences, as discussed in the following section.

Communication Between Performers and Their Audiences

Performer Perspective

In a dance performance of any style, the performers are communicating some idea, energy, or emotion to, and with, the audience. At times this intergroup interaction can be unreceptive or misunderstood. This may occur as performing may make salient the differences between the audience and the performer. For example, within-group differences of the performers or the audience could make members of the groups disagree on what the performance is representing or on the intended message. This message may be an idea or an emotion. Furthermore, often performance groups are regarded as homogeneous, yet the diversity within the group may generate tension. This may occur as the group may disagree with the homogeneous stereotype cast on them by audiences (Hanna, 1994). However, it is often a harmonious intergroup scenario in which there is mutual enjoyment in the creation and consumption of the entertainment. The difference between a receptive versus unreceptive audiences occurs because an audience, while still an overarching group, can be different for each performance. This difference occurs because the variances in each individual member in the audience group can alter his or her reception of the performance, as discussed below.

There is bidirectional communication of emotion and energy between the audience and performers. The emotion of the performers can either be the impetus for the performance, or it can be the outcome of the act of performing. The implications of this for intergroup theory are that the communication between the audience as a group and the performers as a group evokes or stifles that emotion. This evoking or stifling can alter the performance both positively and negatively. For example, a dancer may come off of the stage alleging that they had performed to “not a very good audience.” This means, for example, that the audience did not laugh at humorous antics of the performance, or they did not clap and appreciate the difficult movements in it. Having a “bad audience” often changes how much energy the dancers muster to fuel their performance while on the stage and can generally be quite disheartening.

To demonstrate this point, a former professional dancer reported that when he attended a show while feeling tired as a member of the audience, it was a handicap for the dancer (Hanna, 1983). By contrast, as one of us was a professional ballerina, she can attest to an energy high that comes from a “good audience.” This type of audience is one that is believed by performers to be engaged and enjoying the meticulous efforts of the performers. Such appreciative energy felt by the performers from the audience not only makes the performers feel better about their performance but can also actually lead them to contend they are physically performing at a higher caliber level. The audience may not be aware of the impact they have on the dancer, but it can be substantial from the perspective of the performer. For example, experiments comparing musical rehearsals without an audience and concert performances have found that an audience presence intensified not only the tempo of the music but also the movements of singer and musicians on the stage, making them more grandiose. While this is an empirical example from music, it is a useful comparison to draw as we consider the movement of the musicians intensified by the audience’s presence (Moelants, Demey, Grachten, Wu, & Leman, 2012).

Audience Perspective

From an audience member’s perspective, if those around you are engrossed in the performance (clapping often, etc.), their engagement is contagious. Clapping in this scenario communicates satisfaction or appreciation for the dancing and is often the only way audience members are able to show these feelings. This then can become a central behavioral action to audience identity. Also, consider, for example, a standing ovation, which happens most often in formal dance performances in theaters or other forms of organized performance spaces. They are initiated with one or more audience members who, at the end of a performance or final bows of the performers on the stage, feel the performers have done so well as to merit extra public credit. This person or persons stand, and then those around him or her more often than not stand, clap, and cheer as well. These actions to comprise a standing ovation can be understood in several ways.

First, it can be understood as the audience members are all so moved by the performance that they stand. It could also be understood as the audience members seeking a favorable perception from the performers. A standing ovation communicates that they share in the perception and value of the performance. It can also be understood as audience members as part of a group seeking a favorable social identity with each other such that standing becomes normative behavior in that group. For example, social science research regarding social networks considers the standing ovation problem (SOP). The SOP considers when and why some individuals make choices to join in the activities of others due to social influence. This research explains why members who may not genuinely wish to stand do so anyway. Some reasons for standing include strategic behavioral mimicry, or to conform to the behavior of those around them to avoid feeling awkward (Miller & Page, 2004).

Another example is evident from audience responses to street dance battle performances. Audience members who can identify with these dancers as their ingroup and experience the communicated energy, demonstrate solidarity or appreciation by throwing up their group symbol, similar to a gang sign. This can be seen on the television show America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV. This reality show features street dance crews competing through battles to win the title of best dance crew and a cash prize (Phillips-Fein, 2011). Each crew has a name and a sign they make with their hands. To show solidarity with a crew, audience members show this same hand sign back to the crew at the end of their performance, or while they are mid-battle. This showing of appreciation and solidarity often hypes up the crew, helping them to perform with more energy or celebrate at the end of their performance. While this can be seen in the television show, this occurs in street dance battles that are not televised.

Audience Reception and Perception of the Performance

Although performers feel the collective energy of the audience, and there is evidence of cross-cultural consistency in labeling certain emotions (e.g., Ekman, 1993), different subgroups of audience members experience the performance of emotion in different ways. For instance, some anthropological research suggests women are more likely than men to experience the emotion of a performance through empathy and nonverbal sensitivities (Hanna, 1983). Furthermore, ethnic identification can alter the reception of the performed emotion (see Mann, 2016). This can occur as different cultures have different criteria for judging the aesthetics of dance and may misinterpret what the dance intends to communicate (Hanna, 2003).

Cultural relativism is the idea that only someone from the culture can pass value or technical judgments on a production of their culture (Donnelly, 1984). For example, many cultures may find exotic dances such as burlesque, in which the woman on stage is dressed in an elaborate costume and dances a strip tease on stage, to be lacking artistic merit, unlawful, or even obscene, while others do not. For some cultures, it is appropriate to judge a dance on the basis of morals or perceived contributions to societies, while others base their evaluation of the dance on its aesthetics or how the dance looks and moves them. Cultural similarity with the performer may help an audience member or critic to evaluate the dance more favorably. Consider, for example, that in most performances on large stages in opera houses or theaters, the majority of the dancers are of the predominant racial or ethnic group of the region and performing upper-middle-class roles and stories. Notably, most reviewers and critics for these productions are also of the dominant racial or ethnic group and from the upper middle class. Members of the audience who can identify with these performers as their ingroup will be more likely to experience the performed emotion, or intended message.

Many nonverbal gestures delivered in large, formal stage performances are mostly well understood by elite and educated members of the population. For example, classical Western ballet performances use a repertoire of nonverbal gesture to convey meaning such as a man raising two fingers and grandiosely placing them over his left ring finger to signify a promise of marriage. While these symbols may seem clear when explained in text, often they happen very quickly and under elaborate costumes on a stage, often making them difficult to understand or easily overlooked. Many of these symbols would be more easily accessible to an audience with an understanding of classical ballet and its nonverbal repertoire of movements. Those audience members who understand some of these more difficult-to-decipher communicative acts may use this sophisticated, particularized knowledge to further define their group membership as lovers of ballet rather than casual audience members.

The distinction between high- versus low-context cultures is conceivably relevant to dance. Low context refers to messages in which the information is conveyed directly and explicitly and is exemplified in European contexts. Conversely, high context refers to messages in which the information is indirectly conveyed by the contexts, with little being transmitted explicitly within the message or gesture and more evident in Asian cultures (Hall & Hall, 1995). In the case of dance, the messages considered high and low context are gestures and movement. Due to the lack of spoken messages, all forms of dance may be considered to be high context. However, these gestures and movements emblematic to each dance style place the style of dance on a continuum ranging in levels of high context.

Correspondingly, in classical ballet, generally from Western cultures, the gestures tend to be more “low context.” For example, a performer may cross his arms across his chest with hands in fists to signify his love for a woman. The context of this happening in a performance can mean it is high context. This can be due to the speed, costume, and other choreography in which it occurs, obscuring the movement. However, in comparing gestures such as these emblematic to ballet with Asian forms of dance, they seem low context. The gestures in Asian forms of dance are more subtle, “high context,” and meaning-laden (Labarre, 1947). This may include, for example, Japanese Kabuki, in which picturesque poses, carefully chosen colorful costumes, and elaborate makeup are used to establish one’s character, which may be a historical or political statement. This held pose is then responded to with a loud shout from an audience member to show their understanding and appreciation of the movement.

Although we have discussed performers and their audiences as separate groups, the symbiosis referred to above can induce such collaborative interactivity of persons that the two entities may merge. This may leave the audience and performers feeling as one collective (see Lickel, Hamilton, & Sherman, 2001). Not unrelatedly, Small (1998) coined the term “musicking” for the ways in which different participants such as observers, dancers, musicians, vendors, and broadcasters can collectively determine the meaning of a performance (see also Mann, 2016). Nevertheless, an audience member who may be unfamiliar with the culture producing the performance is experiencing intergroup contact. To this issue we now turn.

Intergroup Contact

Intergroup contact is when a person from one group encounters an outgroup member. This contact has shown to be effective for improving attitudes toward outgroup members in general under certain conditions. Intergroup contact is likely to be more successful when satisfying the following four conditions: equal group status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, and authority support (Pettigrew, 1998; see also McIntyre, Paolini, & Hewstone, 2016). When intergroup contact is positive, outcomes of intergroup contact can include disconfirming stereotypes and developing relationships across groups. Relationships developed across groups can blur boundaries between groups in a less conflictual way. Similar to music (Harwood, 2015), dance is an appropriate venue to consider successful intergroup contact. Experimental studies in psychology have found that when people move in synchrony, or witness peoples moving in the same rhythm, they perceive more entitativity (Lakens, 2010). This can lead to both the mover and viewer perceiving fewer differences between one another. Instead, they then perceive more unity.

This unifying effect is thought to be stronger when the behavior enacted in synchrony requires more effort. For example, performing complex movements together in rhythmic unison as occurs in dance has stronger unifying effects than members of the group having the same hair color. This is the case because the former requires time and effort to achieve. Furthermore, moving in synchrony has been demonstrated to motivate members to participate in the group more and cooperate with the wishes of the group in the future (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). Finally, experimental psychology has also shown that moving in synchrony can increase emotional connection between members of the group (Wiltermuth, 2012).

Intercultural contact can result in the creation of hybrid dances, or dances that blend elements of both cultures. This can be powerful for intergroup contact as dancers take on elements of the other culture. This may include taking elements of the elite, or elements they were previously prohibited from experiencing. This can influence or increase identification with another culture through performance of cross-cultural borrowing (Hanna, 2003). One example of this is American tap dancing. Tap dancing as a percussive dance began to emerge in the United States in the 1700’s in enslaved or laboring African American and Irish American communities in the South. It is a quintessential example of a hybrid dance formed through intercultural contact as it combines elements of the Irish jig, the English clog, and many African rhythmic dances such as the juba.

Contact with a Live Performance

When a person witnesses a live performance of any style, they are at some level experiencing a connection with the dancers’ host community (Vezzali, Hewstone, Capozza, Giovannini, & Wölfer, 2014). This can produce a sense of spending time with those individuals and, as above, potentially co-experiencing emotion and energy with them. When the performance is highly acclaimed, the sense of spending time can be powerful. The performance can indirectly serve as a model for the onlooker for how they might behave when encountering someone of an outgroup dissimilar to themselves but similar to the performers. This can be exemplified through dance in situations in which a person is walking down the street and sees a street performer surrounded by an audience. The passerby is able to see the performer and crowd jointly experiencing amusement and spending time with one another in very close proximity. This has the potential to create alternative joint categories with the interactive contact rather than keeping a strong divide between performer and onlooker (Harwood, 2015).

Finally, direct intergroup contact can occur within dance. One example from popular culture in which this happens is the U.S. television program Dancing with the Stars. In this competitive show, two social categories of dancers are the focus of viewers’ attention: celebrities are paired with a professional ballroom dancer to learn a new style of dance to perform each week on the show. Then, formal judges and home viewers are able to vote for their favorite performers to ensure they stay on the show until there is one winner. For the performers coming from different groups—celebrity and professional ballroom dancer—they are likely to experience empathy and interpersonal attraction through this direct intergroup contact and their compatible goals. In the case of the home audience, they experience vicarious intergroup contact as they watch the pair create a working relationship and are then able to vote from home. Having this shared vested interest increases co-emotional experience and responses and may have the potential to lead to overlap between ingroup and outgroup.

Dance and Social Disparities

The optimistic tone of the foregoing can be in stark contrast to the traditional social disparities depicted in much dance as seen with respect to gender, culture, and history. The following sections will discuss how dance depicts disparities between men and women, the production of culture, and disadvantaged groups in history. It will also discuss how dance can attempt to lessen said social disparities in those contexts. It will conclude by explaining how dance can function as social innovation.


According to Lorber and Farrell (1991), gender is a social construct, created and recreated through human interaction. People often describe this communicative phenomenon as performing gender (Bell, 2006). Gender construction begins with the assigning of a sex and is then perpetuated and performed through markers. These markers include gendered parenting, dress, descriptions, and the way others treat and communicate with the individual (Steffens & Viladot, 2015). Gender categories give an individual social expectations and norms that they then communicatively enact or perform in interactions with others. This production of gender is subject to change as it varies by context. However, in each context, gender is an easily accessed category with external triggers. Therefore, gender is an intergroup phenomena. When people access this social category, it is an integral piece of someone’s identity as they enact group membership (Palomares, 2012). Gender expressed via dance is an observably demonstrated, relevant identity; it is one way to embody gender performance behaviorally and symbolically by both reflecting and producing gender. In other words, dance as nonverbal language, rather than traditional verbal language, is an easily accessible, deeply rooted marker of social identity group membership (Dingfelder, 2010).

With an interactional framework, Hanna (1988) proposed that the dancer is the encoder of the message who is able to send many different messages, such as gender. In the majority of contexts, dancers are performing gender within the traditional gender binary, male and female. For instance, many of the powerful and strong moves are often reserved for men, while the delicate, graceful, or sexual moves are often reserved for women. This repetition of the gender binary and classical gender expectations of a dominant male and a sexual female often goes unnoticed because dance is so attractive and entertaining to watch (Hanna, 1988). In light of intergroup theory, men are the dominant gender group and women the subordinate gender group. Most choreographers and company owners are men, men are often the dominant partner in a performance, and the dance world has responded to the demands of what powerful men wish to see. For example, during the reign of King Louis XIV, and by his desire, ballet became a spectacle for men, as seen by the tutus that expose the ballerina’s leg. Additionally, women dancing en pointe elongated and showed off their legs. The adherence to the wishes of the king to have them dancing en pointe meant that women were perched precariously atop their toes, needing the aid of a man for partnering impressive movements.

The dominance of male heterosexuality is further emphasized through ballet as many male dancers are expected to perform roles in which they must feign love for their female dance partner, regardless of their sexual orientation. Ballets in which this may occur include Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, and Swan Lake (Roebeck, 2004). It is noteworthy, however, that many of the narratives of the classical ballets, such as those just mentioned, capture the paradoxes of gender quite well. For example, Giselle tells a story of a woman who goes mad and enters into a land of ghosts of barren women who seek vengeance on men who have done them wrong. This ballet narrative not only portrays women as traditionally understanding their worth through their ability to bear children but also shows them as potentially dangerous and capable of exacting retribution. This brings us to the notion of courtship.

One example in which traditional notions of gendered courtship are performed and culturally celebrated through dance is the Jarabe Tapatío, or Mexican hat dance in Mexico. This dance, originally banned in the early 19th century for its sexual nature, is emblematic of traditional machismo in that culture through its movements and costuming (Hansen, 2006). In this dance, the man pursues the woman by a series of movements that the woman watches—and then accepts his invitation to dance. The pair dances very close to each other, underscoring the sexual nature of the dance. Further, the costumes generally worn to perform this dance communicate traditional gender norms given that the man is dressed as a cowboy or rancher who is a macho outlaw, while the woman is dressed in a dress called the “China Poblana.” In the 19th century, the China Poblana was a woman who arrived in Mexico to be a servant to men (Pedelty, 2004). Not only does dance make gender happen in cultures, it also shows spectators how each culture construes gender.

As gender is a deeply rooted social issue, it can be difficult for women to achieve a more equitable position in dance, as the boundaries are strict (Turner & Reynolds, 2004). One way women try to achieve a more dominant position is by using sexuality in dance as a source of power. For example, one way to understand the rumba (a Cuban dance) is as essentially a performance of a heterosexual courtship and attraction with dancers in very close proximity. The woman behaves as a temptress with sexual hip movements. While some understand the rumba as a male-oriented dance that reflects the danger of women, others understand the control and awareness of her body as allowing her to seek power from the dominant male group; she makes herself wanted, which gives her power and status through desirability. This may be considered a social creativity strategy. Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory describes a social creativity strategy as an attempt to gain a more favorable comparison with this ingroup by altering the elements of the situation (Jackson, Sullivan, Harnish, & Hodge, 1996). Here the woman is using sexuality to alter the power and status differential between her and men.

That said, and more progressively, dance reflects the change in gender norms in the feminist movements. Modern dance is a genre of dance that developed in opposition to the traditional representations of gender presented in classical forms, such as ballroom and ballet (Hanna, 2010). Modern dance choreographers such as Martha Graham, Límon, and others create forms of movement that do not fit the traditional strong powerful moves reserved for male performers and the delicate, graceful movement reserved for female performers. This form of dance blends and obscures the gender groups in the binary. This may be considered a social change strategy outlined by Tajfel and Turner in social identity theory as this form of dance seeks to produce actual change in the status of men and women in the dance world, particularly on the stage. Traditional forms of gender are further challenged with parody companies such as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male company who, while talented and technically trained, comically perform the traditionally female roles in classical ballets. Here, dance as a performance art has the flexibility to play around with traditional notions of gender. This exemplifies a social creativity strategy that seeks to enhance the status of the group by reframing elements of the group that are generally seen as negative to make them less disparaging to the group (Jackson et al., 1996). Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo functions in this way as it enhances the social identity of the men dressed and dancing as women, which would be generally seen as negative, through comedy.

A further way that the lines are becoming blurred between the traditional binary of male as the powerful strong group and the graceful, supported female group can be seen in popular television shows about dance such as So You Think You Can Dance. This is a reality television dance competition including classical, contemporary, and street forms of dance that airs in 25 countries. In it, Emmy-winning, world-renowned, and up-and-coming choreographers alike create dances each week. A pair of dancers is asked to perform the different styles of dance randomly assigned to them. On this show, males can be paired with males and females with females to perform strong dances depicting relationships between friends or family rather than the usually depicted romantic relationship. Women performing strong, powerful masculine movements and men performing more sentimental performances with other men blur the intergroup power lines that have demarcated these two groups for so long. Additionally, choreographers are starting to have women be the physical supporter of the male partner, accentuating his movement by partnering him in many dance moves. This is noteworthy as it used to be the man partnering the woman to enable or accentuate her movements.

As described, gender and sexuality expression through dance is rooted in social identity. Dance reflects cultural expectations and norms for gender in which men have traditionally been the dominant group and women the subordinate group. As women fight for gender equality, gender expression through dance is blurring the lines of the gender binary and the inherent power disparity that exists within it.


Cultural Experience

According to Hanna (2008), culture is the norms, values, beliefs, and rules of a group. Cultural experience through dance as the communicative medium can be considered an intergroup phenomenon. Here groups (e.g., dancer, audience) share these cultural components. One example of dance performance as a communicative, cultural experience is when Aboriginal groups in Australia perform a Welcome to Country (Everett, 2009). This tradition is performed regularly across Australia. It often includes speeches, musicians, artists, and/or a dance to welcome people to the local region. This dance is a powerful decision made by the Aboriginal group to communicate their culture to outgroup members who may be migrants or tourists to the region. This Aboriginal performance demonstrates an organic participatory dance form, which carefully communicates culture.

An example of dance performance art as a communicative cultural experience in the United States (and in many other Western countries) is The Nutcracker. This ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa with music composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, is a fairy tale set on a cold snowy Christmas Eve in which a young girl named Clara receives a Nutcracker doll for Christmas. Her nutcracker comes to life, turning into a handsome nutcracker prince. He then wins a battle against an evil mouse king and his army of mice. After the battle he whisks her away into the land of sweets. Many families attend a Nutcracker performance as part of their Christmas season ritual. For example, the New York City Ballet alone sold out 45 shows of The Nutcracker, or over 100,000 tickets, in the 2015–16 Christmas season.

Attending The Nutcracker is significant as it is a cultural (and often family) experience, capable of affecting community connection and social judgment (Foreman-Wernet & Dervin, 2011). Community connection considers opportunities for social bonding as people engage with each other and their cultural heritage. By attending The Nutcracker, Western people can bond by celebrating their Christmas rituals such as giving gifts and looking forward to snow on Christmas. This would not be a bonding ritualistic cultural experience for those from other cultures who do not celebrate Christmas, or whose Christmas falls in a different season of the year. Further, attending a community performance (rather than a professional performance) of The Nutcracker offers additional opportunity for community bonding.

Families may attend a professional performance, which could be an international company, or they could attend a local community performance. Attending a community performance is an opportunity to engage with members of a proximal ingroup as many members of the community may know one another or be somehow involved in the production of the performance (e.g., working backstage, helping build sets or create costumes). In contrast, viewing a professional, perhaps international company is an opportunity to engage with members of an outgroup. These two types of performances might also have different standards for evaluation. For example, if fellow community members are performing, one may be less judgmental of the performance or view it more favorably as they are fellow ingroup members.

Additionally, when people see The Nutcracker, they may draw comparisons between themselves and the dancers performing the story. For example, Clara comes from a wealthy European family that has a lavish Christmas party. An attendee of this ballet may confront issues of ethnic identity and socioeconomic status when viewing the performance (Foreman-Wernet & Dervin, 2011). Specific to The Nutcracker, the ballet dancers, the majority of whom are Caucasian, portray a family of high socioeconomic status on stage. A viewer may use this as a standard of comparison for his or her own race and status. While annually attending The Nutcracker is a Christmas ritual for many families, dance as a religious ritual has a different cultural function.


Dance as ritual can demonstrate cultural values especially when social identity is salient. Because it is thought to bring about desired tangible outcomes such as harvest and favor from the gods, it can be a powerful aspect of group membership. One example of this is seen through the Rarámuri, an indigenous group in Mexico. Both their social identity and their needs from the gods are enacted communicatively in the form of their religious dances. The Rarámuri’s economy is based on corn cultivation. They believe their dance rituals can win the favor of the gods to bring them a good corn harvest. This indigenous group considers their dance a form of work because of their belief in its capabilities to win favor (Delgado, 2012). Social identity salience, in this case, affects Rarámuri perception of their dance’s ability to achieve its purpose. In other words, the more an individual identifies with the Rarámuri group and their religious practice, the more likely they will believe their dance to communicate their desired outcome—winning favor with the gods for the purposes of more corn. Furthermore, considering this ritual dance practice a form of work demonstrates the high value placed on corn cultivation and favor of the gods by the group. Conversely, a person who does not strongly identify with the group may not have the same values. Consequently, people like this would not likely consider this really any form of work or a way to communicate their needs to the gods.

The high value placed on garnering favor from the gods by way of corn cultivation also demonstrates the early history of this people and their relation to the Nahuatl language and Mayans, followed by the Aztecs. The Mayan religious text Popul Vuh tells a story of man being created from corn. In this way, the Rarámuri continue not only to tell a story of their religion and work but to perpetuate ancient cultural values through dance performance. This can help an audience or studier of dance forms to learn about this culture and its history.


Not only does history reflect ancient cultural and religious beliefs or power imbalances between subgroups, it can also be embodied through dance (similar to gender). The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a modern dance company that is committed to performing black corporeality. This company rests on “mastery of form” as a principle. This principle teaches its dancers to articulate African American subjectivity in their movements that serve to reshape and appropriate stereotypical black representations. Through this, the company foresees a “deformation of mastery,” or a subversion of what they consider hegemonic white culture in dance. This includes dancers attempting to reveal to themselves and to subsequently manipulate existing expectations and norms for black artists (DeFrantz, 2005).

In the early 1960s, Ailey created this company in the realm of modern dance, which described itself as “antiracist.” Alvin Ailey began as a company in which African diaspora dancers could come together and find a home. Dancers in this company perform revived dances such as The Magic of Katherine Dunham that were intended to be representative of black history and black choreographers in the United States (DeFrantz, 2005). By this means, “deformation of mastery” allows the dancers to redefine black social identity, especially in a realm of classical dance inhabited by primarily other artists. Dancers in this company are able to simultaneously be a part of the superordinate group of dancers and define their unique social identity through shared history values with others like them.

Another way dance communicates values shared with other members of a specific social group is by using genres of dance to express or communicate their unrest as members of a disadvantaged group. One example of this is krumping, a form of street dance that emerged in the early 1990s. It is characterized by free, hard-hitting, and highly energetic motions and is most prevalent among African American, low-income youth, and young adults in Los Angeles, California. While more formally trained dancers often appraise this dance negatively, krumping has been considered a “fund of knowledge” (Kafai & Peppler, 2008, p. 2). For example, it is used as a resource for organizing, learning, and expression. Krumping can then be considered collective agency because participants in a traditionally disadvantaged, resource-scarce community are using dance to express their unrest and their identity as a disadvantaged subgroup. One well-known krumper, Tight Eyez, explains this communication as like writing in a diary. He states that while many onlookers only see violence and anger in the dance, he says he and others are communicating their lived experiences (Borgman, 2005). These lived experiences may include escaping gang life and expressing frustration in a non-violent way.

Social Innovation

Dance can also be used in nontraditional forms of social innovation in which participants purposefully attempt to blur the lines between the dominant group and the somehow disadvantaged subgroup (e.g., groups with physical or mental disability). For example, Chan’s (2016) analysis of the Shen Yun Performing Arts corp explains how it has been banned in China because it questions governmental ideologies of what it means to be Chinese. Yet, the group performs all around the world and is a potent illustration of social innovation. The dances are meant to portray a more authentic sense of “Chineseness” to a global audience by debranding Chinese culture. This demonstrates political strife between groups performed through art. At one end there is a commercialized re-appropriation of the culture and a performative attempt to change that through invoking emotion at the other.

Another poignant example of this is “Tangoterapia,” which is using the tango as a form of therapy. This therapy is aimed at better integrating people with disabilities into the community and improving their quality of life. This practice of using tango classes as a therapy is accessible to many people, as it requires no previous experience. This helps serve to also bring people together who are increasingly solitary (Dopació, 2002). While it is most popular in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tangoterapia is respected internationally as seen through the Congreso Internacional de Tangoterapia, held in a different country every year. The purpose of this Conference is to note the benefits of tango as a form of therapy through international cooperation to improve the quality of life of participants (Comasco, 2014).

Tangoterapia has worked well for people with Parkinson’s disease. This dance as a form of therapy aims to integrate people with Parkinson’s disease into the community. Pairing people with Parkinson’s disease with a healthy person for an hour-long class helps them focus on their body and mind, rather than their disease. Having these two types of people work together minimizes the othering of those with diseases—as conceptualized as a subgroup by the dominant group of able people (for an intergroup approach to interability communication, see, e.g., Fox & Giles, 1996). Tangoterapia for persons with Parkinson’s is beneficial because it offers them a space to diminish the salience of their self-categorization as those that have Parkinson’s disease and fosters a sense of community (Alegre, 2014). Indeed, they may actually be so absorbed in dance to even, in the moment, forget they are members of a disabled group. This practice intentionally blurs the lines between the dominant able group and the disabled subgroup by having both groups in the same space, learning a new activity together in which neither group is required to have any experience. They are both taught the same language of dance. As they both speak that language through Tangoterapia, the group boundaries are often successfully blurred through direct intergroup contact. Then, a greater community level integration can be achieved.

Future Directions

In light of an understanding of dance as intergroup communication and an identity that is demonstrated, perpetuated, and fluid, further empirical research is needed. There is potential for researchers and practitioners alike to strategically use dance and social identity to create interventions for mental health and community building. For example, according to the social identity model of identity change, subjective well-being can be improved following a transitional or traumatic life event by encouraging people to sustain previous group memberships and to develop new ones (Jetten, Haslam, & Alexander, 2012). Therefore encouraging group membership in dance, in general, or a subgroup of dance can be a powerful way to improve subjective well-being before and/or after a traumatic life event.

Dancer as a superordinate group identity has the potential to be a membership that offers both subjective well-being and physical wellness as it is both a social and physical activity and a powerful group membership. Similarly, further interventions and empirical research can be conducted to test using dance as a way to break down intergroup boundaries, such as the efforts in Tangoterapia, and to reduce intergroup conflict. Given the paucity of intergroup communication research featuring dance, there are a large number of equally valid directions in which it could go. Among the important questions that can be posed are the following:

  • What contextual circumstances give rise to different genres of dancer construing themselves in superordinate identity terms (i.e., as dancer)?

  • Under what conditions do different genres of dancers make different kinds of intergroup comparisons, and with what valenced effects?

  • What nonverbal feedback cues give rise to the comparative attributions of a good versus bad audience, and how do different troupes or individual performers discursively manage these?

  • What behavioral effects does construing an audience as bad have on performance?

  • When social category disparities are enacted in dance, do they have the effect of solidifying the status quo in meaningful ways? What are the effects of audience identification with dance characters on their more general views of the groups implicated on stage?

  • When social innovations about an intergroup status are performed in dance, in what ways does this impact what kinds of audiences’ reactions to the relevant intergroup setting?

  • In what ways can dance be used to improve or otherwise meaningfully shape relationships between contentious groups?


Dance as a medium of communication has important implications for varying societal factors (i.e., gender, culture, political protest, intergroup contact) through shared group membership and social identity. First, the communication between audience members and performers of energy and emotion is a co-experience. The energy of one group influences the experience of the other group. Various subgroups of the audience likely experience the performance and experience of energy in different ways as they have different social identities including gender and ethnic identity. Audience response to a performance can show solidarity and shared values with the performance or disagreement and othering. In the setting of viewing performance, there is potential for powerful successful intergroup contact, both direct and vicarious.

Dance can serve various social functions best viewed through an intergroup communication lens. First, The Nutcracker serves as a communication of culture to which spectators can compare themselves. Second, the religious ritual dances of the Rarámuri show how social identity salience can lend credibility to the importance of dance as they consider dance not only a form of work to provide sustenance but also a way to gain favor from the gods. Third, dance can show social identity salience through performing historical experiences of one’s ethnic group. Fourth, dance from disadvantaged or subgroups, such as krumping, can communicate unrest or unique struggles only experienced by that group. Finally, Tangoterapia shows how dance as a form of social innovation can intentionally blur lines between groups to help foster community and set aside differences.


The authors are grateful to Jake Harwood, Judith Hanna, and Cindy Gallois for their systematic and thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this chapter.

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