Beginning my sophomore spring at Princeton and leaning towards declaring a Politics concentration, I stepped confidently into a familiar choreography: construct course schedule, participate, attend office hours, write, go out, regret it, pull all-nighter(s), receive grades, repeat. Signing up for DAN 208: Body and Language was merely another step in this carefully-constructed choreography; a pass (P) to protect the GPA, a 1:30-4:20 p.m. warmup for 4:30 p.m. fencing practice, and ultimately a course that both interested me and fulfilled the Literature and the Arts distribution requirement.
My routine froze and time slowed as I approached room 108 in the New South Building, minutes away from my dorm, yet miles from my comfort zone. I was perhaps the stiffest dancer on any night out on the Street, and having been a competitive fencer since age seven, I had never found time between athletic and academic demands to conquer my fear of the stage. Not knowing what to expect, I clung to the convention of a typical ‘first class,’ prepared to hear about a syllabus I’d already read, and armed with my name, major, and fun fact.
I was disarmed at the door.
I found myself in an intimidatingly silent studio dotted with students deep in serene contemplation, forming a perfect circle between the colossal window and mirror. A barefoot instructor appeared, handing me pencil and paper before swiftly pivoting to the next newcomer. I sat down and stared blankly at prompts that asked about language, body, and embodied language, wondering if my step into the unknown was a stumble. Nevertheless, pencil eventually met paper, and I began my first attempt at answering questions that would reshape my relationship with the arts, my surroundings, and ultimately myself.
After taking my place in the circle, I remember being drawn to the chaotic web of pipes, ducts, and fans on the ceiling. My eyes ran through a beautiful metallic maze that starkly contrasted the calm and stillness of the dance floor below. DAN 208 would become my floor that semester, grounding and supporting me as the beautiful chaos of Princeton raged above.
The studio warmed as professor Aynsley Vandenbroucke invited each of us to introduce ourselves, instructing the others to ecstatically throw up their arms and shout our names back. After uttering my name in precept tone, and being lovingly shouted down by my peers, I found comfort where self-consciousness should have been. I felt myself lean back, letting the floor support me just a little bit more. In mere minutes, Vandenbroucke had humanized the most impersonal part of the course routine, and in the following weeks she would gradually decouple the human from the routine.
After every student received their shout, we pondered the ‘languages’ each of us brought to class, and my peers mentioned home dialects, mathematics, and other systems through which they interpreted the world. Vandenbroucke then taught us the grammar of her own, and we found ourselves moving freely and fearlessly around the room within minutes.
We considered how each body part could move staccato, flow chaotically, and even lead the others, building spontaneous dances without scripts. Sometimes we would move like aimless atoms, execute every motion with control and precision, or dance in conversation with each other, allowing our bodies to naturally react to one another as new choreographies arose from the interplay.
While I initially struggled to sustain the rhythm, Vandenbroucke encouraged us to embody different characters, people, or aspects of ourselves in our dance. These performances provided a logic to my movement; I imagined and performed the character’s next move when I didn't have one of my own. Class sessions prioritized finding such moments: We began with meditation that put us in conversation with our own bodies before Vandenbroucke provided questions and techniques to guide the dance, leaving time for everyone to create movement meaningful to them. The curriculum never told us how to dance, but instead gave us the tools necessary for moving freely and understanding what such movement reveals.
Vandenbroucke paired these in-class dances with diverse readings spanning Virginia Woolf to Middle English poetry, forming a beautiful diptych of theory and practice that invited radical reinterpretation of body, cognition, and language. I came to appreciate how the body sidesteps, shapes, and acts independently of the mind — realizing that embodied language can express ideas, meanings, and reflections that are otherwise indescribable. Dancing is not merely a way of moving, but a way of knowing; it offers a unique mechanism through which to think, feel, express, and work through intricate concepts. We can paint, write, and dance to express complex arguments, or in the words of a poet our class read, “be danced,” letting the body seize control and help us contend with difficult emotions. As anthropologist Tim Ingold says, “anthropology is philosophy with the people in it.” DAN 208 has shown me that dance is philosophy with the body in it.
The course seized upon the concrete political implications of these revelations. Vandenbroucke paired our dance sessions with scripted performances where we reenacted the routine motions observed in the campus libraries, causing us to reflect upon the implications of how we move in the world and are restricted by society’s conventions.
Such pairings led me to the conclusion that if the body’s condition and motion shape the mind and generate distinct meanings, the actions we perform every day shape our identities. Through unquestioned convention, social structures regulate how we posture, gesture, present, and converse, forming the physical routines through which we live. We performatively check our phones when caught between conversations. We embody characters when asked “tell me about yourself” as employees, interviewees, and bickerees. We maintain an outdated appearance of “hard work” at all times.
We risk living on someone else’s terms.
Studying dance should not necessarily encourage rejecting the everyday choreographies enforced upon us, but rather using performance art to viscerally understand and reexamine the performances through which we live. The world may be a stage, but we need not be actors. Ironically, my time on the stage highlighted that I should not merely live through others’ eyes, straining my body to produce A’s, P’s, and all these external markers of performance.
On the second day of class, Vandenbroucke told us to have conversations about our day in three positions: leaning forward intently, lying down without eye contact, and sitting in a middle position. While lying on the studio floor, eyes once again fixated on the metallic chaos above me, I worried about appearing disrespectful, waiting for the moment when I would zone out and miss something. However, as I relaxed my body instead of performing attentiveness, I felt more engaged with the conversation and was later comfortable facing them on my own terms in the final middle position.
Unlike my initial expectation, my studies in dance this semester will likely not help me better display myself on stage, around campus, or even on the dance floor during a night out on the Street. Rather, they have provided a floor that supports me as I find my middle position, in the Orange Bubble and the grayer world beyond.
Andrew Johnson is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect and a Staff Writer for Satire at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at email@example.com.