Tijdschrift voor filosofie
sinds 1969


Are we human, or are we dancer?

Tessa de Vet

In 2008 The Killers released their studio album Day & Age with the peculiar song Human. The chorus is one to stick around: ‘are we human, or are we dancer?’ Not only did the grammarly incorrectness of the singular dancer disturb many listeners, the meaning of the entire song has been widely debated (or perhaps, philosophised). In 2014 the sentence was voted the ‘weirdest lyric of all time’ by Blinkbox, which quizzed around two thousand adults about the most incomprehensible phrases in song (followed by the The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus: ‘I am the eggman, they are the eggmen, I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob’). The time has come again to revisit the question: are we human, or are we dancer? But before we examine this question, we must ask what dancing is and how it is opposed to, or rather merged with, being human.


In Strange Tools. Art and Human Nature (2016) by Alva Noë, philosopher and controversial neuroscientist, dancing is an “organised activity.” Organisation here is meant biologically, in the sense that living beings are organisms or organised wholes. ‘To be alive is to be organised, and insofar we are not only organisms but also persons, we find ourselves organised, or integrated, in a still larger range of ways that tie us to the environment, each other and our social worlds.’ Organised activities shape, enable and constrain us in what we do, as we find ourselves put together and made up in the setting of the activity. To make this clearer, Noë has outlined six features of an organised activity and uses breastfeeding as an example to show how these activities organise us.

Firstly, breastfeeding is primitive — not a high culture elitist undertaking, but just a natural and basic activity. Secondly, despite its basic naturalness, it requires careful attention on the side of the mother and of the baby. It is a doing and an undergoing, listening and responding to the situation, as if they are having a conversation. Thirdly, and obviously, the whole activity is structured in time. During the activity, one moment follows after another: baby acts, mama listens. Mama acts, baby listens. The fourth feature of the organised activity is that the activity is emergent — mother nor infants orchestrates or directs the breastfeeding. Of course, the mother has instigated the activity, and the baby (hopefully) actively participates. But the activity itself, the doing and undergoing, the listening and reacting, just sort of happens. The mother and the baby are caught up in it, they are organised by it. Fifth, the whole activity has a function, be it feeding the baby or creating a relationship of attachment between the two. Finally, although breastfeeding can be a real struggle, it is also potentially a source of pleasure for both parties.

We may say that breastfeeding is a sort of primitive conversation (or as Noë notes, that conversation might be an elaborate form of breastfeeding). We could also say that breastfeeding, and conversation too, is a sort of dance. All three could be said to be organised activities, in the sense that we partake in them. We do not organise them, we are organised by them. This is not to say that we are enslaved to the organised activities. It is exactly that we choose to participate in them, that tells of our agency. But it seems that we are very likely to lose ourselves in the complex patterns of the organisation. Put differently, we often lose the flow of the activities we are engaged in. For example, let’s think of a conversation. Usually, when I am in the flow, I do not think ‘I will now speak’ and say something. If I talk, chat, whisper — it just happens. However, sometimes I will be lost in the organised activity of conversation. Then I do not just speak, but I hesitate, I am lost. When will I say something? What will I say? Or even, when I get really nervous, how do I get my voice to produce sound? This is again to show that the organised activity I participate in is not my own making. Rather, it organises me and it organises my conversation partner in the same way. We decide to start talking. Then it just happens. We have no guide. We might get lost.

Back to dancing. Dancing is an organised activity. Firstly, it is primitive. It is a physical response to rhythm, to music or to movement around us. Secondly, while we often do it spontaneously, it also requires a minutious attention and a sensitivity to the music and possibly our dancing partner. Dancing shows a heightened awareness of one’s body and the way we move it, control it, loosen it. Thirdly, dancing is organised in space and time. Fourthly, while people may decide to dance, they only decide to start dancing, they don’t decide how to dance. A good dancer is in the flow, taken by the activity. Her body just moves. Or as Noë writes, ‘Dancing happens. Situations produce them. People dance. They decide to dance. But the ability to dance is precisely an ability to let go, to let oneself be danced.’ Fifthly, dancing has a purpose. This purpose might be seduction (the good old mating dance), or self-expression. And finally, dancing is, most definitely, a potential source of pleasure.

To be sure, we are talking about ordinary dancing here, your basement party or bedroom session, and not about the work of George Balanchine or Pina Bausch. Choreography is, indeed, very different than dancing itself. The difference, as Noë argues, is that choreography stages dance — it puts the fact that humans are dancers on display. It’s never just a party on stage. Choreography is an engagement with dancing as a phenomenon and is concerned with the ways we are organised by dancing; it is also a practice for investigating our absorption in dancing. Staged dance makes manifest something about ourselves that is hidden from our view, namely the actual spontaneous structure of our engaged activity of dancing. It studies our organisation in dance — it is a meta-dance, a philosophical dance so to say, illuminating the ways we find ourselves organised in dance. And, central to Noë’s argument, choreography can show us ways how to reorganise ourselves.

At this point, we have dancing on two levels. Level one is the dancing itself, the primitive, moving my body to the rhythm, participating in the organised activity of dance. Level two is the level of choreography, of staged dance, of the investigating of dance through putting it on display.  It is the level of art. Noë argues that level two is always linked to level one, as it arises from our first-order activities. Art is like map-making, putting something on stage, in order to structure the landscape in which we find ourselves. A work of art can thus be considered a tool, but a strange tool, estranged or alienated from its usual setting. By doing so, by making the tool strange, it brings out the ways and textures that we’ve been taking for granted. Thus it becomes a way to investigate ourselves. As an easy example, let us think of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). By putting an urinal on display, Duchamp made it a means for investigating the object; the role it plays in our lives, or the way we are usually organised by it in public restrooms. The peculiar strength of this urinal was also that it simultaneously begged the question what art actually is and how we are organised by museums to regard their objects as art.

Art, and thus choreography, is a strange tool, a decontextualised implement to investigate ourselves. But let us not forget that our most inspired, most authentic movements are themselves organised, almost cliché-like, by the choreographic representations we know of dancing. In other words, choreography loops down and alters the level one activity that is its original source. This not only blurs the difference between choreography and dancing, but also shows that our dancing gets reorganised by choreography. The choreography gets consumed, digested and reworked in the organised activity of our personal dancing. Unconsciously, I might find myself in a pas de bourrée or throwing in some pasitos mid-dance. I can also decide to do the Carlton or smirkingly throw in a Milly Rock. The difference, however, is that when I consciously decide to do a move — I have entered into the realm of choreography. I can choose to do the Moonwalk, the Soulja Boy, or a triple pirouette, but then I am already putting my dancing on display. I am consciously showing that I am dancing, my dance being informed by the artistic expressions that have showed me the importance that dance has, or can have, in the organised activity in which I am participating.

I dance when I am carried away, when I am organised by the dance itself, letting the dance happen, flowing through me, if you will. If the song comes on, my body moves. First my neck, then my shoulders, and before I know it, my hips too — they have already started to move rhythmically, getting organised by the music I hear and the people who are moving around me. And even if I firmly decide ‘I am going to dance’, the dancing — not mere movement of my limbs, but really, dancing — will only happen when I let go and let the dance happen.


In light of the above, the question ‘am I human, or am I dancer?’ seems to rest on a tautology. Being human entails being dancer, or is indissolubly intertwined with it. The worth of the question is however of a philosophical nature. And one might say that as choreography is a philosophy of dance, philosophy is a choreography of thought. With philosophy, we think about thinking — we put our thoughts on display. The thoughts, dancing through my head, naturally, paid attention to, in time, emergent, potentially pleasurable — with philosophy I watch them, examine them and potentially, am able to reorganise them.