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Robert Abrams
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Various Partner Dances
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Heidegger's Dual States of Knowing Applied to Leading in Partnership Dance

by Robert Abrams
June 14, 2004
Heidegger's Dual States of Knowing Applied to Leading in Partnership Dance
Robert Abrams, Ph.D.

June 14, 1998

Note: This is a slightly longer version of the article that was published in Dancing USA.

Heidegger described learning as a dialectic between two states of knowing. The terms generally used in an English translation of the original German are "present-at-hand" and "ready-to-hand". Present-at-hand, or vorhanden, is an understanding of an object detached from the act of using it. Ready-to-hand, or zuhanden, is an understanding of an object in the act of using it. (Ehn 1989, p. 63) I can never keep straight which is which, so I will fit my own terms to Heidegger's concepts.

The typical example is that of a hammer. The use of a hammer can be understood separate from its use. The use of a hammer can be understood during or within its use. Thus, with separated or distanced understanding of the use of the hammer (i.e. present-at-hand), you might think "First, hold the nail just so. Second, raise the hammer 12 inches from the nail. Third, bring the hammer down with so much force. Fourth, stick finger in mouth and try not to yell." In contrast, with connected or immersive understanding (i.e. ready-to-hand), you simply act. This is a kind of knowing in which explicit rational thought gets in the way of performing the act correctly. It is like thinking of the hammer and you as a single entity, rather than thinking of the hammer as a separate tool.

Both kinds of knowing are necessary for learning to occur. Some learning is based on reinforcing your immersive understanding (i.e. repeated practice). At regular intervals, though, you need to stop and break down what you are doing in order to make significant steps forward in your skill. In dance terms, you might look at yourself on a videotape and say "Oh. My rock step is too big and that is throwing me off balance." You then need to integrate this new distanced understanding into your immersive understanding of the dance.

This dialectic process provides one description of what happens as one learns to dance where dance is an activity done alone. I believe it is also a description of the follower's learning process, but since I have limited experience as a follower, this assertion should be understood as tentative.

The main point I want to suggest here is that Heidegger's ideas can be used to explain why learning to lead is so difficult.

The leader can practice a step, break it down, and integrate the new insights. This is no different from the follower, or from dancing alone. However, during actual social dancing, the leader must be in both a distanced and an immersive state of knowing at the same time. The immersive state is necessary to fully express the dancers' emotional response to the music, and if everything is just right, to allow a transcendental state to come into being. However, the distanced state of knowing needs to be present for floorcraft. Letting your partner crash into another couple has a way of really spoiling the mood. The distanced state of knowing also needs to be present so that the leader can compose the kinds of extended patterns that can then enhance the immersive expression of the music.

It is likely that there are other activities which allow for, or demand, such dual states of knowing. Nonetheless, dance is an activity in which it is relatively easy to see the concept of dual states of knowing, and to try to put a philosophical idea to work for you.

References: Ehn, Pelle (1989). Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. Stockholm, Arbetslivscentrum.

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