Research Question

In this artistic research I aim to explore the relationship between (group) dance improvisation and the aesthetics of play through an embodied analysis of De Jaegher’s and Di Paoli’s concept of participatory sense-making (2007).

Some definitions of dance improvisation and play
De Spain (2003, p.27) defines dance improvisation as ‘a way of being present in the moment’. Dance improvisation is often associated with the spontaneous, with the unknown (Foster, 2003) and with creativity (Nakano & Okada, n.d.). Dance improvisation is seen as a special form of social interaction (Blom and Chaplin, 1988), as the embodied interaction of bodies on an affective, cognitive and physical level (Ribeiro & Fonseca, 2011). Blom and Chaplin (1988) consider dance improvisation as the ‘dynamic daughter of dance, at times self-indulgent, at times concise and determinant, but always developing and changing. She has a free spirit: she should be given free rein within wisely and flexibly set boundaries’ (p.x).  Blom and Chaplin also refer to the intrinsic goal of dance improvisation: ‘Dance improvisation exits outside everyday life, creating its own time-space boundaries, seeking only its own profit and goal’ (p.x, 1988).

Play is defined as a ‘free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner’ (Huizinga, 1955, p.13). Fagen (1981) adds to this that play is not serving an immediate useful action. Burghardt (2011) states that play differs from functional expression of behavior since it is often incomplete, exaggerative and it involves patterns of movements/behaviors that are modified in form and sequence.

In my own artistic work I have noticed that children’s play seems to share important principles with dance improvisational practice. To mention some: energy level and intensity, risk-taking, the spontaneous, the relational, the moving point of contact between the participants and the way sense-making occurs. These are aspects that I have encountered in both physical play and dance improvisation.

Dance improvisation and play theory use similar constructs to describe and analyze the two phenomena. Terms such as challenge, uncertainty, risk, contact as a third space, collective agency and shared sense-making are frequently used. Some authors explicitly draw analogies between play and dance improvisation. Rodriquez states that play consists of transindividual processes of action and reaction ‘which often takes on a to-and-fro quality reminiscent of dance’ (n.d., p.2).  Sheets-Johnstone points to the intimate relationship between play and dance. She considers play as “kinetic happening in which the sheer exuberance of movement dominates and in which a certain freedom of movement obtains” (Sheets-Johnstone, 2005, par. 29). According to Sheets-Johnstone both dance and movement are intrinsically to play: dance in fact can be seen as the continuation of children’s natural movement-exploration.

Even more important, communication in both play and dance improvisation takes place on an embodied, kinetic level. Some verbalization may occur, but the primary instrument for sense-making remains the body. Dance improvisation and children’s physical play events can both be considered as organizational practices. Both activities organize and reorganize our lived and embodied experience. Even more both activities are socially shared and culturally shaped – and thus highly relational. Relational in the sense that collective, kinetic sense-making arises out of the intertwinement of perceptions, movements and affects (Johnstone, 1966 [2015]).

In other words, sense-making is a truly embodied process. Meaning is generated through coordinated movements of several agents in a transformational way. Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher (2010) speak of experience transformations, that is, sense-making is shaped by the environment and the collective body-mind. The participants are active creators of meaning.

Di Paolo Rohde and De Jaegher (2010) propose that the best examples of participatory sense-making can be found  in the field of dance, ritual, music and play since all these activities move beyond concrete goal-directed activities, and therefore allow for ambiguity, fluidness and the generation of novel kinds of values. However, this is more an assumption than a statement since the underlying mechanisms in dance and play – and its relationships with the concept of participatory sense-making, have not yet been thoroughly explored and analysed, at least not from an insider’s perspective. In this artistic research study I will therefore explore and describe how both practices – group dance improvisation and children’s physical play events- can be considered special forms of participatory sense-making, a concept derived from the enactive approach (De Jaegher and Di Paoli, 2017).

The enactive account and the concept of participatory sense-making
One of the founders of the enactive approach Francisco Varela describes enaction as the laying down of a path in walking: ‘Wanderer the road is your footsteps, nothing else, you lay down a path in walking’ (Varela, in Thompson, 2007, p.13). In other words,  according to the enactive approach organisms do not passively receive information, but they enact a world. Meaning arises through a dynamic interaction between an organism and its environment. Enaction can thus be defined as ‘the manner in which a subject of perception creatively matches its actions to the requirements of its situation’ (Protevi, 2006, p.169). In this viewpoint we do not engage in a pre-given world by a pre-given mind, but meaning arises out of the sensorimotor interactions with the environment. Meaning, or sense-making, is something that is co-constructed between and within living beings that interact with each other and with the environment.

Hanne de Jaegher and Ezequiel Di Paolo (2007) refer to this [interaction] as ‘participatory sense-making’, a thoroughly embodied activity in which individual sense-making is affected by inter-individual coordination of movements, perceptions and emotions. In the participatory sense-making process the participants coordinate their behaviour.Sense-making is an intentional and expressive activity. An activity affected by coordinating movements in interaction.

Each agent involved in this interaction process contributes in his own way to the coordination and co-regulation of intentions/perceptions and movements. Even more, the interaction process itself can move into directions that are unexpected to the agents and even not-willed. This means that when we engage in interaction, not only the participants but the interaction process itself can influence the sense-making. Intentions are generated and transformed into social interactions.  In the enactive approach sense-making and meaning in interaction cannot be a solely individual activity: they are co-authored, inter-bodily, situated and situational (Jensen, 2014). ‘Sense making re-enacts multiple voices, defined as silent others that affect what we think, say, do and not do in situated dialogue. Sense-making, thus, unfolds as double dialogicality that links socio-cultural history (norms, knowledge, rules etc.) with real-time dynamics as we orient toward each other and use cultural artefacts (including verbal patterns)’ (Pedersen and Linell, as cited in Jensen, 2014, p. 285).

As we have seen in the previous paragraph both dance improvisation and play seem to serve as good candidates for participatory-sense making processes (Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher, 2010), specifically when it comes to explaining how the physical couplings between agents and environment, the situatedness as well as the action-oriented approach don’t tie down cognition to the here and now. In order to do so,participatory sense-making (PSM) should involve activities that are 1) highly embodied and 2) allow for ambiguity of meaning as well as the generation of novel kinds of values. Dance improvisation and play seem to be good candidates.

In sum, in this research study I will explore how group dance improvisation and children’s physical play events can be seen as special forms of participatory sense-making. Out of the above, the following research question can be formulated:  How and in what ways can we consider children’s physical play events and improvisational dance as  participatory sense-making (PSM) activities?

In a broader context, I do believe that children’s physical play events and dance improvisation are special places that are not only energetic events, full of intensity, but are highly social and relational as well. Special places in which we can experiment in an embodied way with self agency in relationship to collective agency (in terms of risk-taking, touch/contact and shared embodied sense-making). With this artistic research I aim to create and evoke a deeper awareness of the way we interact with each other on an embodied, tactile level.


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Buckwalter, Melinda (2010). Composing While Dancing: an Improviser’s Companion.Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Burghardt, G. M. (2011). Defining and recognizing play. In A. D. Pellegrinin (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play, 9-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Jaegher, Hanne and Di Paolo, Ezequiel (2007). ‘Participatory Sense-Making: An Enactive Approach to Social Cognition’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), pp. 485-507.

De Spain, Kent (2003). The Cutting Edge of Awareness: Reports from the Inside of Improvisation. In A. Cooper Albright & D. Gere (Eds.), Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader(pp. 27-41). Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Di Paolo, Ezequiel, Rohde, Marieke, and  De Jaegher, Hanne (2010), ‘Horizons for the Enactive Mind: Values, Social Interaction, and Play’, in J. Stewart, O. Gapenne and E. A. Di Paolo (Eds), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science,Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 33 – 87.

Fagen, R. (1981). Animal play behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ferholt, B. (2007). Gunilla Lindqvist’s theory of play and contemporary play theory. Retrieved 27-12-2017,

Foster, S. (2003). Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind. In A. Cooper Albright & D. Gere (Eds.), Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader(pp. 3-12). Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jensen, T.W. (2014). Emotion in languaging: languaging as affective, adaptive, and flexible behavior in social interaction. Frontiers in Psychology5, 720. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00720

Nakano, Y., & Okada, T. (2012). Processof improvisational contemporary dance. In 34th Annual Meetingof the Cognitive Science Society.

Protevi, John (2006). “Enaction”. A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. Yale: Yale University Press. pp. 169–170. 

Ribeiro, M. & Fonseca A (2011). The empathy and the structuring sharing modes of movement sequences in the improvisation of contemporary dance. Research in Dance Education, 12, 71-85.

Rodriquez, H. (n.d.). The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Retrieved 11-01-2018,

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2005). ‘Man Has Always Danced’: Forays into the Origins of an Art Largely Forgotten by Philosophers. Contemporary Aesthetics, 3, 1-26.


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