What various experiences does dance elicit? And why do people involve themselves in it? Aestheticians have often debated such questions from an audience standpoint, but much less frequently from that of the dancer. Yet many theories, representing mainstream psychology's various subdisciplines, as well as related traditions such as psychoanalysis and existentialism, do suggest, either openly or by implication, reasons for indulging in creative work. Of these, a particularly promising avenue to the dancer's psychology has come from an author who is seldom thought of as a “psychologist” at all. We speak of Jean-Paul Sartre, and his analysis of interpersonal interaction known as the gaze, or the look (le regard).
Sheets has used other Sartrian notions to describe the phenomenology of dance from an audience perspective, and the gaze figures prominently in Sartre's own analyses of such creative persons as Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and even himself, but to our knowledge it has not previously been applied to the dancer. So that will be our purpose here. However, an initial clarification, and disclaimer, seems appropriate. We shall describe the gaze more fully later, but essentially it portrays all human interactions, without exceptions, as struggles for power and dominance. Therefore such interactions allow only two reactions: the sadistic, that seeks such power over others, and the masochistic, that submits to others, voluntarily or otherwise. We will argue that dancers almost inevitably must choose the second reaction, which may help us understand some of their typical psychological characteristics. But we must emphasize that in Sartre's usage, and therefore ours, the term “masochism” is not pejorative, nor necessarily suggestive of pathology. Everyone, the psychologically afflicted and all others, must choose one of these two reactions.