Dancing on the Head of a Sin: Touch, Dance and Taboo


  • Sue Hawksley


This paper will outline the practice and performance of haptic_dance (2011) and discuss the ethical issues raised and the challenges presented to dance’s ontology by this work. haptic_dance is a dance work received by touch, choreographed and performed by Sue Hawksley for an audience of one. It aims to make tangible some impression of a dance, and through focusing attention on this aspect of the sensorium, to enhance the audience’s experience of kinaesthetic empathy. The use of touch to deliver and/or communicate dance is a novel and little explored choreographic approach. Within Western traditions, while social dances are often shared kinaesthetic/ kinetic experiences, theatre dance performances are generally engaged visually and from a distance. The concept of touching the audience in order to deliver the dance raises interesting issues concerning professional and ethical codes of practice. Touch is generally the least shared, or acknowledged, and the most taboo of the senses. Haptic and touch-screen technologies are becoming ubiquitous, but although this makes touch more commonly experienced or shared, it is often reframed through the virtual, while inter-personal touch still tends to remain sexualized, militarized or medicalized (in most Western cultures at least). haptic_dance employs what could be seen as the simplest of mediating tools – the hands. However, the somatic senses are complex, involving the proprioceptive, vestibular and visceral systems, not limited to any specific organ but involving the whole organism. In haptic_dance I encountered the complexities of delivery and interpretation of inter-personal touch, and the limitations encountered by touching on a taboo. Does the haptic engagement with dance – a medium in which touch is nowadays often accepted (in social dances, tango, or contact improvisation for example) – make it easier for the work to transcend taboos, or does it add to the complexity? Dance has been prohibited in some European societies since medieval times, and still is in certain cultures. Another key issue this work raises is where the dance is located. Some audience members felt that it was in or around them, others felt that it was in me as the dancer, or in the danced material from which the touch version derives. This question of where the dance is significant in considering whether, how and why the use of haptic mediation technologies within this or another choreographic context can make touch more broachable.