• Two movement forms: A comparison of dance and martial arts.

I will be discussing the perception of two similar yet different movement practices and their presence as written theory. Martial arts have many aesthetic differences from dance yet both their presences, in the mind of practitioners, have similar structures (presence meaning how both movement practices are defined by practitioners in relation to their personal opinions and beliefs). By studying the similarity in the theoretical writings behind both these movement forms one can abstract away from the definitions of dance and martial arts and begin to question their values and purpose amongst society.

Norman Bryson states that a more proper definition of dance is what he calls a “socially structured human movement” which he introduces in his article Cultural Studies and Dance History. His use of this term, ‘socially structured human movement’ was an invitation to dance criticism to widen the field of dance to a larger less specific topic. It is his example that assists me to argue that martial arts and dance can be considered on an equal plain.[1]

It is common that, as both dance and martial arts are both two different types of movement practice, one might be persuaded to isolate them according to their differences. However, they both have many similarities to one another as well. It is such comparison that I will rely on to locate some common beliefs and allow them to become present.

I will be using pedagogical texts from martial arts founders and masters and comparing them to texts from important 20th century modern dance choreographers.  I will compare the values present within the texts about both movement practices. The specific values I will study that are relevant to both of these movement forms include: life, the body in relation to time and space, expression, and the spirit and nature.

Within the texts I have used there is a sense of presence of one movement form in relation to the other. In Agnes de Mille’s The Book of Dance she mentions the distinct difference between dance and sport:

“Dancing differs from all other exercise. Sports require skill, coordination, and strength, but they are not dancing. Even when pleasing to watch, their real meaning lies in the practical results: the food caught, the game won, the record set.”[2]

Agnes De Mille was an American dancer and choreographer during the 1900’s. In this quote De Mille expresses her strongly opinioned view that dance is different to sport and exercise. She states that despite their similar requirement of coordination, strength, and skill they are different because dance is not about catching food, winning a game, or setting a record. To De Mille dance was a serious “art” which she wished to bring to the attention of the general public.

Martial Arts, despite being placed in the category of sports, are an oriental way of life. I must make it clear that the existence of martial arts originates from Asia. It is the result of a specific set of cultural beliefs present in a specific area of the world. Aikido originates from Japan and Taekwondo originates from Korea. Despite its ongoing popularity within the western world, their original purpose and meaning is different to the purpose and meaning created by westerners. A good example in response to De Mille’s statement is Morehei Ueshiba’s description of Aikido:

“If all you think about is winning you will in fact lose everything. The heart of Aikido is: True victory is self-victory… representing the glorious moment of triumph of the here and now.”[3]

Here Ueshiba displays a fundamental state of mind within Aikido, a state of mind achieved through practice. He states that winning is not about competing with others, but is in fact about self-achievement. “True victory is self victory”, to Ueshiba personal improvement and progression is victory.

Therefore the aspiration for self-improvement, a main factor within the belief system of Aikido, contradicts De Mille’s previous statement that dancing differs from all other exercises and sport because fundamentally the purpose of martial arts is for the self, the spirit.  If we look at it as a way of life, the way in which it intended to be looked upon, then the spectrum between “dance” and “martial arts” can be merged into what Bryson labels a “ socially structured human movement”. [4]

Both movements when examined closely can give clues about society’s structure.



As we are all living, it is common that martial arts and dance practitioners would include life within the values in relation to their practice. Life is touched upon in multiple ways. Using the term movement, a fundamental, undeniable aspect of dance, Agnes De Mille states that “movement is the source and condition of life”[5] and that the dancer and the audience are both in turn spiritually “moved” by dance. “Dancing moves us, it excites us. It compels or persuades us. It reveals to us aspects of life and human emotion”[6]. To De Mille dance is a way to show the audience a representation of life and emotion. The functional existence of dance serves as a way to display or retell recurring and common themes present in daily life.

For example throughout De Mille’s book she describes the functional purposes of dance within many different present and past cultures; how there are dances for health and destruction, war and hunting, and for peace.[7]

A similar response is found amongst Martial Arts, a practice used in wars and as way to promote peace amongst those who truly follow the way of life corresponding to each martial arts.

Gen. Choi Hong Hi states in his long list of rules regarding Taekwondo that “special consideration should be paid to promoting good health and preventing injuries”.[8]  The practice, or better yet the way of life, of martial artists is based on personal improvement. As seen in Ueshiba’s quote, earlier stated in my introduction, on “ True victory is Self victory”. The true purpose of martial arts is that of personal improvement and well-being. The significance of personal improvement travels between the physical and spiritual realms. Often amongst the rules of Martial Arts one will see the presence of a rule that implies good will to others. The activity of a “good Samaritan” is often the base of such practices.

The presence of life within such actions and the connections they have with health and the physical being allows us to question the importance of physical activities amongst these cultures.

Body in Relation to Time and Space

As in any physical activity the “elements of dance are space, time, and human bodies”[9] and thus martial artists as well must base their principle on the fact that the human body moves within a space during a specific period of time. Space and time are important to both movement forms. They are what allow rhythm and pattern to exist, an important aspect to both. The terms ‘rhythm’ and ‘pattern’ are prominent in the texts of both martial arts and dance. Their repeated mention shows that these physical movements of the human body must consider the existence of pattern and rhythm in order to properly exist. A few examples of their use within texts: De Mille describes in her book “dancing is an arrangement of pattern in space”[10] and Gen. Choi Hong Hi articulates in his rules “each movement should be harmonious and rhythmical so that taekwondo is aesthetically pleasing”[11].

Both practices rely on knowledge of the scientific. Pattern, rhythm, time, and space are all part of basic science, science in relation to the body. The presence of science is dense in both practices. De Mille describes in detail principles such as Form, Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Distortion.[12] Gen. Hi describes the existence of “power in accordance with scientific formulas and the principle of kinetic energy”13 and the definition of techniques based on the structure of the human body[13].

It is the existence and use of these sciences that creates an aesthetic. It creates a pleasure for onlookers to watch. The similarity in treatment of science by both types of practitioners shows that as a society we have a tendency to correlate movement to rhythm, pattern, form, structure, and energy.

One can then begin to question what causes such a connection? What social implementations allow a mass of people to observe such visual sciences and connect them to enjoyment and pleasure?



Both objects rely on the human body’s movement within space to express. Each movement has a purpose, a meaning, and an expression. In dance emotions can be expressed within specific codes present in specific dances. De Mille writes: “Dance consists of three types of movement: instinctive actions and expressions, sign language, and dance steps”[14]

In much the same way movements in martial arts express specific emotions and intentions within their own specific codes that can then be read and understood by others. In the words of Gen. Choi Hong Hi: “Each movement in a pattern must express the personality and spiritual character of the person it is named after.”16

Both dance and taekwondo use movement to tell stories with the use of the human body. The narrative is commonly present within dance. Not all dances are based on narratives but when one goes to see a dance performance at the theater it is common to have the performance based on storyline. Each story contains a character and each character expresses emotions. In much the same way not all martial arts contain movements that tell a narrative but taekwondo in particular does. The pumsae, or by translation the form, is the practice of techniques taught by the memorization of a pattern of movement that tells the narrative of a great ancient battle. As Gen. Choi Hong Hi stated each form is named after a character and the expression of the personality of each character must be displayed in the performance of the pumsae. Thus emotion is always present. Both in Martial arts and in Dance the presence of emotion or the lack of emotion has importance to the purpose of each movement.

The Spirit and Nature

Aikido by definition is the study of the spirit.[15] Other forms of martial arts also use the term spirit in their written transcriptions. Taekwondo for example is the “way” or “art” of fist and foot. ‘Way’ and ‘art’ signifies the presence of a spirit, which follows a specific path of life. Modern practitioners of dance also have a presence of spirituality within their definition of dance. Isadora Duncan, a dancer during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, is the perfect example of the use of spirit in regards to the understanding of dance. In her writings she frequently describes the souls function within a dancer. “Imagine then, a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration, has attained such a degree of understanding that his body is simply the luminous manifestation of his soul”.[16] Here we see the mention of ‘prayer’.

Religion is very present for many, though not all, of both types of practitioners.

Ueshiba was well known for his diligent practice of religion and the presence of his spiritual belief is seen within the existence of Aikido. Duncan often refers to the existence of dance as religion. “The dance of the future will have to become again a high Religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise”[17] Here Duncan expresses her opinion that art should be practiced religiously and treated religiously in order for it to be artistic. She wants to remove the low stereotypical idea connected to dance and attach a higher spiritual one to it. She believes that dance is a spiritual activity not just a performance.

Nature is another common factor between the two objects. Nature brings a connection between the physical and the spiritual. Duncan again is a good example of the importance of nature within dance: “If we seek the real source of the dance, if we go to nature, we find that the dance of the future is the dance of the past, the dance of eternity, and has been and will always be the same. The movement of waves, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony”20 Duncan explains that the “source” of dance is nature. She refers to the natural existence of waves and the earth as an example of dance existing naturally just as those elements do. Here the treatment of nature is nearly identical to Aikido’s treatment of nature. In Ueshiba’s teachings he states that “ Aikido is a spiritual, rather than technical, art” and he backs his statement with an analogy: “The Way is like the veins that circulate blood through our bodies; following the natural flow of the life force. If you are separated in the slightest from that divine essence, you are far off the path.”[18] ‘The Way’ refers to Aikido and in this quote Ueshiba explains that Aikido exists as the natural flow of life. So in order to properly follow the way of life of Aikido you must not lose your natural path of life and must not separate from the natural and spiritual.

Both movement forms describe themselves as natural. Not only existing in nature but also in connecting with nature spiritually. Duncan and Ueshiba express that the spirit of a practitioner should look and stay on the same path as nature.


I refer to Ann Daly and her writing on Isadora Duncan, Done into Dance, where she states:

“In order to reinvent the idea of the “dancer”, that is to say make dancing a matter of good “taste” within the existing cultural order. Duncan employed the dominant logic of difference along a number of axes, and used it to cultivate  “distinctions”. Effectively, she elevated dancing from Low to High, from sexual to spiritual, from black to white, from profane to sacred, from woman to goddess, from entertainment to ‘art’.”[19]

Daly analyzed Duncan’s writings and placed her dance body within the history of dance as an innovation. I have used Duncan’s writings about her dance body as a spiritual art and found similarities with martial artist’s writings about martial arts as a way of life.

With such critical analysis of different movement forms what can one conclude about social structure? How do the similarities between these two movement forms express common elements present within our social structure? If I were to take these movement forms and analyze their ancient existences would I receive the same results? There is much more study left to do within to comparison of both these movement forms. They each have very long cultural histories that span between many different nations and continents. I have only take a fragment of each movement form’s history and analyzed them.

The roles of each text that I used are specific. The martial arts text used play a role as the eternalized messages and teachings of General Choi Hong Hi and Morehei Ueshiba. Their teachings were placed into text so that those following their way of life would be able to continuously refer to their teaching for guidance. In much the same way Isadora Duncan’s writings and Agnes De Mille’s writings were eternalized. Duncan and De Mille used their writings as a verbal critical placement of their beliefs about dance as art. The publication of their belief situates dance as an art among other arts with critical writing.

As I have shown you, both types of writings, having had similar intents, can be read side by side in order to analyze social belief and structure. Both martial arts and dance can be looked at as movement forms which tell us much more than just what their appearance shows. They can tell us about the importance of the daily routine of life and how those routines display the common beliefs societies have. They can show us the fundamentals of movement when considering its scientific definition as a body in relation to time and space. They can place emphasis on human expression within movement. And they can display the importance that we, as society, place on the spirit and nature. Such ideas are connected through the analysis of two differing objects and through the placement of such objects and equal movement forms.

[1] Bryson, Norman. “Cultural Studies and Dance History,” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. (1997): 58

[2] De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. (New York: Golden Press, 1963), 9.

[3] Ueshiba, Morihei; Stevens, John. The essence of Aikido. (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd, 1993), 29.

[4] Bryson, Norman. “Cultural Studies and Dance History,” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. (1997): 58

[5] De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. (New York: Golden Press, 1963), 7.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 23-28.

[8] Gen. Choi Hong Hi. Taekwon-Do (The Korean Art of Self-Defense). (Taekwon-Do Federation; 4th edition, 1995), 252.

[9] De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. (New York: Golden Press, 1963), 7.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Gen. Choi Hong Hi. Taekwon-Do (The Korean Art of Self-Defense). (Taekwon-Do Federation; 4th edition, 1995), 252.

[12] De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. (New York: Golden Press, 1963), 13 -17.                  13            Gen. Choi Hong Hi. Taekwon-Do (The Korean Art of Self-Defense). (Taekwon-Do Federation; 4th edition 1995), 252.

[13] Ibid., 252.

[14] De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. (New York: Golden Press,1963), 18. 16 Gen. Choi Hong Hi. Taekwon-Do (The Korean Art of Self-Defense). (Taekwon-Do Federation; 4th edition, 1995), 252.

[15] Ueshiba, Morihei; Stevens, John. The essence of Aikido. (Tokyo: Kodansha International

Ltd., 1993), 13.

[16] Duncan, Isadora. The art of the Dance. (New York: Helen Hackett Inc.,1928), 54.

[17] Ibid., 66. 20 Ibid., 54.

[18] Ueshiba, Morihei; Stevens, John. The essence of Aikido. (Tokyo: Kodansha International

Ltd., 1993), 31.

[19] Daly, Ann. Done Into Dance. (Blommington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 16.


Agrippina, Iakovlevna Vaganova. Basic principles of classical ballet: Russian ballet technique. Courier Dover Publications, 1969.

Bryson, Norman. “Cultural Studies and Dance History,” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. (1997).

Daly, Ann. Done Into Dance. Blommington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

Duncan, Isadora. The art of the Dance. New York: Helen Hackett Inc., 1928

Gen. Choi Hong Hi. Taekwon-Do (The Korean Art of Self-Defense). Taekwon-Do Federation; 4th edition, 1995.

Ueshiba, Morihei; Stevens, John. The essence of Aikido. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1993.

Westbrook, Adele; Ratti, Oscar . Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970.


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