Kinesthesia is a term coined by the neurophysiologist Henry Charlton Bastian in 1880 that refers to the muscular sense of the body’s movements. Later it also included other information mediated by joint receptors and the inner ear. The term, also spelled “kinaesthesia”, expresses a physical reaction to the aesthetic that produces a participatory response when a body is situated in front of aesthetic objects, such as paintings, statues or performance events. Kinesthesia is also linked to  “empathy”, the human ability to immediately understand the emotional situation of another person without resorting to verbal communications, and to “embodiment” which refers to thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are based on our sensory experiences and are mediated through body movements and positions. These experiences influence muscular tension, the nervous system, perception and emotion, and depend on social, subjective, and cultural contexts. The whole range of proprioceptive, kinesthetic, and embodied experiences concerns dance performers and spectators alike when performing or attending a dance performance.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the philosophical branch of phenomenology went through strong developments resulting in the opening of the field to cross-disciplinary discourses. Phenomenological theories substantially contributed to understanding the cognitive and sensorial processes of kinesthesia occurring while performing or attending a dance performance. The publication of  Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2005 [1945])  introduced the idea that the body is a primary unified entity and the necessary condition for structuring a “corporeal scheme” (which determines how we organise our postures and behaviours to conduct ourselves in accordance with the external world in any given situation) and a “body image” (the way we see, feel, think about ourselves and what we do through our own perception). In other words, the body opens itself to the world by experiencing it. The condition of simply being-in-the-world” is both a form of understanding it and a way to acquire (embody) knowledge. Merleau-Ponty does not firmly separate bodily and cognitive conduct in human beings, but rather binds corporeal existence with physiological and psychological dimensions. His theory was crucial for dance studies because it highlighted to what extent dance is a means for humans to express and release feelings and emotions and convey them to spectators. Thanks to this philosophical approach, we were also able to begin to understand better how audience can experience emotions while watching a body moving (and dancing).

Neurobiology, from its perspective, has shown the fundamental role of the body at the root of emotions, consciousness and empathy. This discovery helped to overcome the classic dichotomies of cognition/emotion, mind/body, and stresses the importance of the study of the mind as something that goes far beyond the brain. Antonio Damasio introduced the idea that reason could not function properly without emotions, and this implies direct involvement of the body, which provides the basic material through which the brain constructs images and originates thoughts. In other words, emotions are cognitive dimensions. Closely related to Damasio’s theories, the research field known as “embodiment” or “somaesthetics” (Shusterman 2008) has emerged to explore how cognitive and emotional processes in the brain are also activated by body movements. 

One of the most recent developments in phenomenology with regards to perception investigates new connections to cognition and neurosciences and was introduced by Alva Noë in Action in Perception (2004). Noë convincingly argues that perception is not something that happens “to us” and not even “in us”, rather something that we simply do. Therefore, it depends very much on our capacities for action and thought. Consciousness, as well, is not something that happens “inside” the brain, but rather the result of our interaction with the surrounding world and other people. This enactive approach to perception casts new light on dance as one of the many cultural activities through which we can better experience the world by moving and thinking together with other bodies. 

As a “practical bodily knowledge”, dance practice has benefited from this research as much as from the discovery of mirror neurons or the specific kinds of visuospatial neurons that we activate when we watch a person executing a motor act. This scientific research has confirmed what dancers and choreographers often acquire empirically. Additionally, psychoanalytic and psychological insights into human behaviour, specifically on how we perceive the world and make sense of it, consider these actions and functions at the crossroad of memories and their representations. Therefore, memory is also embodied and recalled through movement and sensorial experiences.

These multidisciplinary discourses provide a deep insight into the “affective turn” in cultural studies and performance as much as in other creative practices. In Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (2011), Susan Leigh Foster affirmed that empathy and embodiment are important elements for understanding the phenomenology of dance as a practice and viewing experience. The growing presence of dance performances and movement-based educational activities in museum programmes contributes to the re-evaluation of visitors’ performativity and embodiment processes and to the acknowledgement of the kinesthetic and empathetic perception of an artwork, which are crucial issues for contemporary art curatorship and museology. Dance and choreographic works or performative workshops created as site-specific events in museum spaces help visitors comprehend the importance of their kinesthetic engagement with all kinds of artworks. Participatory performances asking for the visitor’s collaboration with other people and performers can also help to understand how to build a local community by sharing embodied knowledge and establishing empathic relationships.


Damasio, Antonio (2012) Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Pantheon/Random House.

Foster, Susan Leigh (2011) Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. London and New York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2005 [1945]) Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London and New York: Routledge.

Noë, Alva (2004) Action in Perception. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press. 

Shusterman, Richard (2008) Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.