Dance has been broadly defined as movements of the body, a form of expression and social interaction. It is defined in terms of technique. It can be ritualistic and ceremonial.  We dance to express and release emotions, and to explore the body in ways that are different to everyday experience, sometimes by taking the body to extreme limits. Dancers also reinterpret the perception of time and space – time is sometimes determined by music and rhythm, whereas space is defined by the path followed by the dancer and the space the body occupies.

My previous article proposed that dance has a tremendously broad and inclusive definition. In fact, it must have multiple and fluid definitions in order to include new and evolving forms of movement under its umbrella. It is equally important, however, to recognize that what we call dance, although broad and inclusive, is not limitless. Certainly, not everything we do is dance. So, on what basis do we classify something as dance, and something else as not dance? I argue that we can do this on the basis of intention.

Any form of sport also requires stretching the limits of the body to extreme levels. Sportsmen also express themselves freely on the playing field. Yet, it is universally agreed that sports and dance are two distinct categories. I believe the distinguishing factor is intention. In a sport, the emphasis and intention is on the competitive display of skills rather than enjoyment in the movement of the body. This is not to say that dance is not a display of skills, and that watching sports cannot evoke enjoyment in the movement of a sportsman. But I believe that the primary intention of the sportsman and dancer in the above example determine the category of movement to which they belong.

Another example can be a procession or a march. Again, movements here are choreographed and stylized, and powerful emotions of solidarity are expressed. But here again, the primary intention is the mobilization of people, not bodily movement or emotion. Certainly, the focus is not on the enjoyment of movement, or the awareness of how the body moves when marching.

Finally, the leap of a gazelle is sometimes more beautiful and graceful than a dancer’s movement. Here again, intention matters. When a gazelle leaps, it is performing an involuntary genetic movement, and its intention is to escape danger.  The leap is not intended to be an aesthetic self expression through the body.

Thus, one can argue that in order for movement to be considered as dance, the dancer must distinguish it as such and certainly must intend it to be dance. As is the case with the above examples, where a sportsman intends to display his skills to win a match, a person involved in a procession intends to mobilize people for a cause, and a gazelle leaps involuntarily in order to escape death, a dancer must intend to dance.

An American choreographer once choreographed a duet where two men simply stood still on stage or four minutes. It was undoubtedly a form of expression, perhaps even social interaction. It lacked dynamic movement, though. The experimental choreographer, however, intended it to be dance. Therefore, the spectators were aware that it was dance. 

A recent performance by choreographer Jerome Bel involved dialogue, two men sitting across from each other, talking about dance. Some would argue that the performance was theatre, not dance. The performers did dance, though for minimal amounts of time. Mostly, they talked. But the piece was undoubtedly about dance, and the power felt when both dancers depicted death through their respective dance forms was undeniable. This was the intention – to make people think about and experience the different dance forms. This intention allowed the performance to be called ‘dance’. 

To conclude, I contend that in addition to the exploration of the body movement that stretches beyond everyday activity, and the communication and release of emotions and self-expression, one must also consider intention when distinguishing dance from other patterns of movement.