Learn to unlearn: a dancer’s habit

Phoebe Robinson

If we zoom into the micro processes of the body — to think of cells, hormones, gene expression, DNA — all the personal traits, tendencies and inclinations that make up a person can seem quite random. From this perspective, being someone is to be a conglomeration of cells in a complex system of molecular response to the immediate environment. Chemical reactions cause emotions that we have little or no control over. If we are not in control, how can we be made responsible for our actions? Alternatively, if we zoom out, deconstruction leads to the conclusion that our movements are not ‘natural’ or merely biological but are pre-determined by social conditioning.[1] Again, any claim to personal agency becomes problematic. If early modern dance aspired to be representative of individual expression, postmodern thought has since problematised ideas of authorship and individuality in ways that are in tension with this claim.  Where does this leave the choreographer/dancer?

There is a perception in postmodernity that our bodies are not really our own, that we are mimetic creatures who may resist the dominant paradigm occasionally, but inevitably fall back into it again as ‘new’ habits become established and begin to dominate. According to Judith Butler, even the everyday performance of stereotypical masculinity and femininity is a ‘stylisation of the body’[2] that congeals over time through the repetition of physical actions that are socially sanctioned within each cultural and historical frame.  In this view, gendered behaviour is an acquired habit that is culturally inscribed, rather than a ‘natural’ expression particular to male or female anatomy. These everyday performances, Butler says, not only represent gender, they actually produce gender through a process that she names ‘performativity’ after John Austin, via Jacques Derrida.[3]  As she put it, ‘identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’[4] To illustrate this point, she quotes Nietzsche; ‘There is no ‘being’ behind doing, acting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction imposed on the doing—the doing itself is everything.’[5]

This process of subject construction in the everyday, described by Butler, similarly occurs in dance practice. Dancers construct their bodies through ‘doing’ specific techniques, such as ballet, modern dance, improvisation, contact improvisation, and so on. These repetitive practices reconstruct bodies in a way that a dancer has some agency in, since she/he has chosen to undergo dance training. But the degree of social influence on this choice is also a factor. The dancer is still susceptible to the forces that lead so many girls to choose dance, especially ballet, in the first place; and which make it relatively more difficult for boys to make that same choice, at least in Western culture.

Early last century, modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan was not privy to the insights of deconstruction. Instead Duncan believed that the ancient Greeks had access to a natural state of being, and that by emulating the gestures and postures of Greek statues and artworks she would herself return to a natural state.[6] In her mind, she was rediscovering ‘natural movements of the body’,[7] which had apparently been lost in her own Victorian era. While her use of Grecian style tunics as her costume enabled her to move in ways that were otherwise restricted by the corsets that were fashionable in her time, the tunic also became a symbol of her work. As Elizabeth Francis put it:

Promoting a universal image of womanhood, Duncan did not use costume as a form of fashion but as a timeless image that placed her outside the particular and various histories of womanhood.[8]


Anna Denzler, one of Isadora Duncan’s dancers. Image Arnold Genthe 1925


But the notion of a ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’ woman is precisely what deconstruction denies, as it holds the view that subjects have always been socially constructed, even in Greek antiquity. Nonetheless, Duncan’s resistance to the stereotypical femininity of her own time shows that social construction can, at times, be challenged. If Isadora Duncan’s movements were not as ‘natural’ as she felt they were, she did at least break with tradition and resist the dominant cultural rules for women in her time. As Francis observes, Duncan ‘changed woman’s place in the artistic process, transforming it from the grounds for representation to [being] an agent of representation.’[9] For Duncan, this was achieved through her physical practice, which was in itself the performative construction of a modern woman.

Critical theorist Carrie Noland has extended Butler’s theory of gender construction to provide a nuanced argument for the importance of somatic intelligence in both the process of cultural inscription, and in the possibility to resist that same process of construction. While Noland draws on Butler’s theory, and finds it valuable, she is also critical of Butler for having a ‘meager account of both embodiment and interoception’.[10] Noland says that Butler tends to collapse speech acts and bodily acts into being the same thing, and tends to prioritise the former.[11] According to Noland ‘gesturing is absolutely central to cultural construction of the body’, and this conditioning goes beyond the psyche to ‘lodge itself in the very tissues of the body’.[12] If cultural inscription may be seen to embed itself in the body, Noland says, then somatic awareness may be used to directly confront cultural inscription, just as Duncan did. Dance philosopher, Philipa Rothfield has also written on this issue.

In ‘Beyond Habit: The cultivation of corporeal difference’,[13] Rothfield compares Felix Ravaisson’s theory of habit formation with the perspective of somatic education practices, such as the Alexander Technique and Ideokinesis, which critically deal with habit at a physical level.[14] According to Ravaisson habit can only be taken up by the living, and for this reason habits are also always open to change. A stone cannot possess a habit, Rothfield explains, because although a stone will always tend to move in a downward direction, this is not a habit since it is not open to change. As Rothfield says, ‘a stone thrown up thousands of times will not develop the habit of throwing itself up’.[15] While we may think of habits as being difficult to change, it is in fact the possibility of change within living beings that defines an activity as being habitual.

Ravaisson also says that when the conditions or ‘customs’ that support a particular habit are altered or taken away, the habit also tends to dissolve. But Rothfield questions the ease of this undoing, can habit simply ‘move into reverse’?[16] Rothfield indicates that it takes a special kind of attention to deliberately confront habit, and that this is what somatic education practices like the Alexander Technique and Ideokinesis address. We have to learn how to unlearn.[17]

In relation to the previous discussion on gender construction, habits play their part, and may be thought of as the physical basis of subject construction. But habit also contradicts the idea that ‘there is no ‘being’ behind doing’,[18] as Rothfield observes, ‘habit can only take root in a being, able to adopt, and adapt itself to, change’.[19]  Cultural construction is not just a one-way street, customs may induce habit, but as Rothfield says, ‘habit can itself be constitutive of custom’.[20] Furthermore, not all habits are problematic. For many dancers, ballet dancers especially, habitual pathways in the body are deliberately inscribed and used as an asset. Habits are the basis of skill. As Rothfield says:

The unconscious performance of habitual action is a skill, a form of bodily intelligence integrated within the self, ‘ready to go’. It is the body’s achievement to have developed the ability to gracefully glide between the templates of habit.[21]

Habituated movement patterns are useful to a dancer wanting to perform an established style, but less so for a choreographer who aims to invent ‘new’ movement. The traces that get left in the body are of special importance to dance practice.[22] Whose work is it, when a choreographer works with a dancer, if that dancer already embodies a lifetime of training, of learnt moves that come from countless others? Is it even possible to invent new movement? How do we move outside of influence? And is the invention of new movement really that important? For some choreographers it is, and others not.


Rosalind Crisp. Image: Anna Solé

Australian choreographer Rosalind Crisp, more than any other choreographer I can think of, has developed a rigorous practice that  trains her dancers, and herself, to continually move beyond habit and the inscriptions of traditional dance training. But, at the same time, she is not really interested in the invention of ‘new’ movement. Instead she is interested in what is behind the movement, in the attention and imagination of the dancer. In an interview with Edwige Phitoussi, Crisp says:

To see pathways of movement made without the dancer being present to them. I think this is what makes me cringe the most and which I find so stupid in dance. Actually it’s not the pathway that repulses me. The pathway’s kind of irrelevant. What’s important to me is the consciousness of the dancer to be present to the pathway or whatever else she’s doing.[23]

Crisp’s improvisational approach involves constantly shifting the angle of attention, so as not to get stuck or too attached to a certain mode. Crisp draws on a vast bank of ‘attention scores’, such as, splitting the attention between different parts of the body; moving at different speeds; or initiating movement from unfamiliar parts of the body.[24]  Crisp has developed these strategies over decades of dancing, but most especially since 2005 when her practice shifted into a new phase as part of an ongoing process that she has since named ‘danse’.[25]  Rather than practicing particular movements, she practices ‘sourcing movements’. As she says:

[Traditionally], when we practice dancing, it is most often pathways and positions that we practice and it is these that leave their traces. In my work it is not pathways and positions that we practice, but ways of generating or sourcing movements, which leave their traces in the body memory.[26]

This suggests that habit itself can be used to confront habit. Crisp has made a habit of actively trying to undo traces of past movements in her body, or to at least notice when she is riding a particular trace, and to be available to make another choice. Although individual habits and gestures are socially inscribed, it is possible to become sentient to what is culturally inscribed in our movement, at least some of the time. As Noland has shown, if we can tap into the ‘sensual apprehension’ of being inscribed, it provides an opportunity for inscribed and habitual modes of embodiment to be altered, albeit if only gradually and through reiterative and disciplined practice.[27]

Another Australian choreographer, Sandra Parker, is also interested in what lies behind movement. Similar to Crisp, Parker is interested in what is ‘beyond the obvious “steps”’.[28] Unlike Crisp however, Parker is also interested in what those steps are. For Parker, the physical traces that echo in a dancer’s body from practicing set ‘pathways and positions’ become the basis for extrapolating more movements through a method of ‘composing, fragmenting and recomposing movement.’[29] Parker works with traces, she goes into them, and in the process the traces alter in a way that Parker aligns with Derrida’s notion of trace.[30]

One influence in Parker’s research on trace came from her own experience of attending classes with Sara Rudner in the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York. Rudner taught with a method of ‘deconstructing’ movement phrases, of asking her students to only perform the arms, or only the legs of a particular phrase, before putting the movement back together again. This exercise was designed to facilitate the dancer’s awareness of their whole body while dancing. In this, Parker says, ‘aspects of the movement pathway that were less consciously noticed are highlighted’.[31] But beyond that, Parker also saw choreographic potential in this process, to ‘prise open movement structures and to elicit new sensations and responses.’[32] Parker says:

If a dancer learnt a whole body sequence, but then only performed that sequence in their arms, it seemed that the dancer was still embodying the whole pattern of the choreography without actually performing it. […] ‘Traces’ of the absent choreographic movement resonated in their legs or torso, […] It seemed that the movement actions that were made absent were still present, although they were not being demonstrated literally.[33]

In Parker’s process, phrases are often communicated and shared among her dancers by describing movements as sensations with a distinct anatomical focus, such as ‘rotate the bone of the femur’, or ‘drop the left sit bone’. Movements are initiated anatomically, but also informed by thoughts, and by interrupting or layering movements over each other, so as to leave traces of movement actions that are visualised in the moment of performance but not fully executed.

Parker and Crisp are very different in their approaches but they do have one thing in common: they are both interested in challenging habitual or automatic responses in movement. For the dancers who work with them, this requires a daily reconstruction of the self.  I have worked with both of them over many years,[34] and they have each, in their own way, taught me to recognise and activate physical traces in my body that would otherwise go unnoticed. Crisp’s work is concerned with the focus and play of the performer over and above the movement itself. Parker also requires a similar intensity of focus from her dancers, but this focus – at least for me, when I worked with her – was directed at re-locating traces of past movements and activating them differently in the present.


Video still of Phoebe Robinson in Sandra Parker’s The Very Still, 2010

Laurence Louppe tells us that modern dance shifted at the beginning of last century from being a traditional or social exercise, to reflecting each individual artist’s personal aesthetic and philosophy.[35] She says: ‘Dance belongs to a whole modern project involving each creator in reinventing an entirely personal language.’[36] But she also acknowledges that, ‘today, this horizon of a personal language can seem more like an illusion dependent upon a modernist utopia’.[37] The process of construction is in many ways inescapable, but at the same time, we do change. We dress, speak and behave differently to the way we did a hundred years ago.

If the political aim of deconstruction is to undermine dominant powers, Duncan provides a good example of why this critique is important, since in retrospect her idealised notions of beauty and nature also betray a narrow and discriminatory view on race. As Francis notes, ‘Duncan’s ideas about civilisation had embedded racial theories of evolution that situated the “new” woman in a white hellenic tradition.’[38] She is a product of her own time in this sense, and moral relativity needs to be applied. Nonetheless, critical approaches like deconstruction help to reveal moral inequalities that are otherwise accepted by the status quo.

A century later, Crisp appears to share certain similarities with Duncan. Both seek to ‘undo’ prevailing ideas of the body. Both women are also primarily solo performers, who have developed a following by teaching their improvised approaches to others. But that is where the similarities end. Crisp’s work is a clear departure from Duncan’s naive claim to a natural coherent body. Whereas Duncan sought to undo her corset and the obvious restriction it implied, Crisp has worked to undo subtle, invisible habits, to undo ‘cohesion in movement’.[39] This is not so much about learning new movements, as it is about unlearning whatever comes ‘naturally’.

[1] See for background on deconstruction: Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York, NY, 1972), Book; Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc (Evanston, IL : Northwestern University Press, c1988., 1988); Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” 1988; Bodies That Matter. [Electronic Resource] : On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2014., 2014); “Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions,” The Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 11 (1989).

[2] Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” p.519

[3] See: J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words ed. J. O. Urmson, William James Lectures: 1955 (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1962., 1962), Non-fiction; Derrida.

[4] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. [Electronic Resource] : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York : Routledge, 1999., 1999)., p.25.

[5] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Douglas Dr Smith, On the Genealogy of Morals : A Polemic : By Way of Clarification and Supplement to My Last Book, Beyond Good and Evil, World’s Classics (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1996., 1887). Quoted in Butler, Gender Trouble. [Electronic Resource] : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity., p.25.

[6] Gay Morris, “Review: Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes,” 2016 Congress on Research in Dance 48, no. 3 (2016

[7] Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, ed. Sheldon Cheney (New York, Theatre Arts Books [1970, c1928], 1970)., p.78.

[8] Ibid., p.26

[9] Ibid., p.26

[10] Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment : Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2009., 2009a)., p.171

[11] Ibid., p.171

[12] Ibid., p.21

[13] Philipa Rothfield, “Beyond Habit, the Cultivation of Corporeal Difference,” Parrhesia [electronic resource] : a critical journal of philosophy, no. 18 (2013).

[14] Félix Ravaisson, Of Habit. [Electronic Resource], trans. Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclaire (London ; New York : Continuum, c2008., 2008).

[15] Rothfield., p.102. Rothfield acknowledges Aristotle’s influence on this analogy

[16] Ibid., p.10

[17] For more background on Ideokinesis and The Alexander Technique see;

Andre Bernard, Wolfgang Steinmüller, and Ursula Stricker, Ideokinesis : A Creative Approach to Human Movement & Body Alignment (Berkeley, Calif. : North Atlantic Books, c2006., 2006); F. Matthias Alexander, The Use of the Self : Its Conscious Direction in Relation to Diagnosis, Functioning and the Control of Reaction (London : Orion, 2001., 2001).

[18] Nietzsche and Smith. Quoted in Butler, Gender Trouble. [Electronic Resource] : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity., p.25.

[19] Rothfield., p.102

[20] Ibid., p. 101

[21] Ibid., p.104

[22] See for instance, Sandra Joy Parker, “Locating the Trace : An Exploration of Tracing and the Choreographic Process ” (University of Melbourne, 2010).

[23] Rosalind Crisp in interview with Edwige Phitoussi, Erin Brannigan and Virginia Baxter, Bodies of Thought : Twelve Australian Choreographers (Kent Town, South Australia : Wakefield Press, 2014., 2014).

[24] This is just a few of her strategies that I have learnt from regularly attending her workshops since 2000. Since Crisp’s practice is continually evolving, it is impossible to name all her scores.

[25] Isabelle Ginot, “Rosalind Crisp: Dance of the Possible,” in Bodies of Thought : Twelve Australian Choreographers, ed. Erin Brannigan and Virginia Baxter (Kent Town, South Australia : Wakefield Press, 2014., 2014).

[26] Crisp in interview with Edwige Phitoussi, Brannigan and Baxter.

[27] Noland., p.21

[28] Parker., p.8

[29] Ibid., p.7

[30] Ibid. p.7

[31] Ibid., p.8

[32] Ibid., p.8

[33] Ibid., p.8

[34] I was involved in Parker’s creative research for her PhD dissertation, Locating the trace : an exploration of tracing and the choreographic process, (Parker, S.J, 2010) and worked with her as the performer in the solo work The Very Still, which she choreographed as part of the research. Previous to that, I was a member of her former dance company, ‘Danceworks’, from 2003 – 2008. I have also participated in many of Crisp’s workshops in Australia and overseas since 2000, including the National Dance Laboratory in 2004 (Critical Path) and 2007 (Dancehouse).

[35] Louppe., p.xi

[36]  Ibid., p.74

[37] Ibid., p.74

[38] Francis., p.37

[39] Ginot.

Phoebe Robinson is an Australian dancer and choreographer who has performed in numerous cities across Australia and internationally. In 2011 she was supported by Critical...


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