The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Proprioceptive Illusions

A possible objection to my claim that proprioception is an aesthetic sense for dancers or for audience members is that the aesthetically relevant qualities of movement depend on the visual illusion—the appearance of floating on the stage during a bourrée, of suspending oneself in the air in grand jeté, and so forth—produced by the movement. In other words, what is aesthetically relevant is how a movement looks, not how it actually feels.

Certainly, some aspects of how a movement actually feels are aesthetically irrelevant. Performing certain steps, such as pas de couru or a difficult lift, can be painful, yet the experience of pain is typically not aesthetically relevant for either the dancer or the observer. Moreover, the aesthetic value of bodily movements at least sometimes depends on how they illusorily appear. Ballet, in particular, is based on the creation of visual illusions: leaps that appear to defy gravity, limbs that appear elongated, and so forth. Yet if all aesthetic judgments of bodily movements depend on the illusory image produced by the movement, and if proprioception only tells us how the actual movement feels, there is little, if any, room left for a proprioceptive aesthetics. I think, however, that neither condition is satisfied. Not all aesthetically valuable movements are intended to create visual illusions; sometimes, especially outside the realm of ballet, a movement is supposed to be seen for what it is. A ballet dancer’s beveled foot at the end of an arabesque is intended to create a longer line by drawing the eye out and up, while a modern dancer might leave the foot relaxed in order to show the body in a more natural state. But, more importantly, it seems to me that one can proprioceive an illusory movement. When one performs a “gravity defying” leap by further extending one’s limbs at the top of the leap, one has a proprioceptive sensation of flying and, at least for certain individuals, I would claim that the same goes for watching such a leap; in watching the leap we feel the flight, which is, in part, what makes watching such movements aesthetically satisfying. Indeed, I would claim that one of the wonders of dancing—one of the reasons why dancers will put up with the pain it often involves—is that dance allows one, as it were, to experience the impossible.

If one can proprioceptively experience a leap that defies gravity, this means that there are proprioceptive illusions. That there are such illusions is widely accepted: pilots in flight and in-orbit astronauts can experience proprioceptive illusions related to their position in space, and artificial muscle vibration can create a proprioceptive illusion that one’s limb is bent at a certain angle when it is not (CITATIONS). Of course, these sorts of illusions are more robust than the proprioceptive illusion one experiences when performing a leap, but at the same time, much studied visual illusions, such as the Mueller-Lyer illusion, are more robust than the visual illusion one has of seeing a dancer defy gravity. So, while the illusory element of the aesthetics of bodily movements cannot be overlooked, we can proprioceive, as well as see, illusory movement.

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