Bourdieu, Habitus and the Disabled Dancer. by Hannah Donaldson

While conducting research for my PhD, I started to read the works of Pierre Bourdieu and in particular, his theory of practice. My own research surrounds the requirement for inclusion in, and the exclusion of, disabled people from physical activity. InVisible Difference has been interesting to me from this perspective. Despite the project examining the art form of dance rather than participation in sport, there is (in my mind at least!) some overlap. Pierre Bourdieu’s practice theory provided one such potential overlap.

In summary, Bourdieu claims that we operate in certain ways depending on the social structure in which we sit. ‘Society’ is replaced with ‘field’ and this can be whichever group we are part of at a particular time, e.g. school, university, or circle of friends. Within each of those fields there exists the habitus which is summarised as “generative basis of practice. Socially constituted dispositions, subconscious schemes of perceptions”[1]. In other words, the habitus of our field is something that’s been accepted as part of that society/field. One such example within the context of dance may be the dancer’s body. We often think about the dancer’s body as the physically beautiful. When we think of dancer we think of high cheekbones, defined muscle tone, elegant, graceful; the ballet body. This habitus of the dancer’s body is being challenged and is changing.

In InVisible Difference we have spent many hours discussing the dancer’s body. We have discussed how the audience reacts to seeing a differently abled body on stage. That differently abled body does not always meet the habitus of the field and the results from the audience are often striking[2]. We have found that the audience either embrace this, or are uncomfortable with it[3]. Such a theme was also examined in Hunter, Smith and Emerald’s work on Bourdieu in which they said:

“To put one’s body on display, as in dancing, presupposes that one consents to externalising oneself and that one has a contented awareness of the image one projects towards others. The fear of ridicule… [is] linked to an acute awareness of oneself and of one’s body, to conscious fascination of corporeality”[4]

Bourdieu’s practice and field theory is further developed by his hypothesis that the doxa (rules of the field) are created by the dominant group in that field. The doxa give the individual their ‘place’ in the field. This raises an interesting question for me; are disabled dancers outside the habitus of non-disabled contemporary dance due the doxa created by the dominant group (the non-disabled, ‘traditional’ dancer)? Could it be that because the differently abled artists do not conform to the habitus of the field, disabled dance may never be viewed as the same as non-disabled dance? Do disabled artists want to be viewed as the same as non-disabled artists? Do Bourdieu’s doxa create a platform for each art form to be dominant in its own right, but they will never align under the same field and habitus?

Hunter, Smith and Emerald’s work on Bourdieu did contain one nice journal entry which seems like an appropriate closing statement here. The journal was written by Elke Emerald who was working with dancers who didn’t necessarily meet the doxa of the field. They did not fit the habitus and were therefore different. Emerald said “young and beautiful… supple, confident bodies… sameness to me is their dancing confidence and joy of dance”[5].

[1] Hunter, L., Smith, W. and Emerald, E. “Pierre Bourdieu and Physical Culture” Routledge 2015 P10
[2] We have undertaken an analysis of discourse from YouTube surrounding clips of disabled dance. The commentary follows certain trends from supportive and seemingly unfazed by the disability of the artists, to gushing sympathy for the dancer, to rude comments and jokes aimed at the dancer.
[3] Whatley, S. Waelde, C. Harmon, S. and Brown, A., Validation and Virtuosity: Perspectives on Difference and Authorship/Control in Dance, Choreographic Practices special issue 2015 (forthcoming)
[3] Hunter, L., Smith, W. and Emerald, E. “Pierre Bourdieu and Physical Culture” Routledge 2015 P27
[4] Hunter, L., Smith, W. and Emerald, E. “Pierre Bourdieu and Physical Culture” Routledge 2015 P31

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