Ballet dancers in sensor suits: new research explores how dance is used as a form of communication

Audio guides, maps, traditional and interactive texts help people attending art exhibitions to understand the works in front of them. With dance, however, the audience’s understanding is usually taken for granted.

It’s assumed they will make sense of a performance thanks to the synopsis included in programmes, or reviews published in newspapers and magazines. These supporting materials are optional and do not work during performance.

However, the English National Ballet (ENB), for example, has produced versions of classical ballets for young audiences where dancers perform a shortened version of a well-known classical ballet while a narrator recites the story.

But words cannot translate everything dance expresses. Verbal and movement-based communication can convey similar meanings, but they do so in very different ways. Whereas verbal language is immediately understood, the language of dance can be lost to a general audience.

So how can dance performances become a more accessible source of cultural and social information for people who are not specialists?

Detecting communication

Our research group focuses on Kinesemiotics, the study of meaning made by movement, an area we are developing. Our project, called The Knesemiotic Body, is carried out at Loughborough University in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bremen and the ENB.

The Functional Grammar of Dance (FGD) explains how body parts create meaning by interacting with the space and the people surrounding dancers in a performance. We used it to annotate and interpret data collected from live dance rehearsals.

The FGD draws on linguistics and semiotic theories (how people communicate through signs) and is based on “projections”. Projections are the trajectories designed by dancers when extending their body parts towards meaningful portions of the performance space.

Projections connect extended body parts to surrounding people or objects, creating a meaningful visual interaction. Imagine a dancer moving towards a lake, painted on the backdrop of a stage. They extend an arm forward towards the lake and a leg backwards towards a stage prop representing a shed. That extended arm will mean “going to lake” while the leg will mean “coming from shed”.


For the full article by Dr Arianna Maiorani and Chun Liu visit the Conversation.


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 23/40

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2022 QS World University Rankings – the sixth year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’.

In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.