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Dancing In and Out - An Ethnographic Study of Flow in Professional Ballet Dancers

posted on 2022-05-24, 06:28 authored by Hiu Ying Fung



Flow, first identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from narratives of optimal experiences, describes an altered state of consciousness in people’s enjoyment. Over the last five decades, flow has been studied with human motivation and well-being among disciplinaries like sports, arts, work, and education. Although professional ballet dancing incorporates natures of elite sports, artistic expressions, and collective occupational setting, flow studies in this context were minimal. Like most flow studies, a cross-sectional deductive approach on flow’s dimensions was adopted overlooking its mechanism, resulting in limited account of the dynamic process of consciousness alternations in flow interventions. 

After Keith Sawyer’s studies of group flow – a shared flow among jazz musicians, later studies, limiting to team sports, music, and art-making, had biased on the social antecedents instead of individual or situational ones. Flow experiences from the viewers’ perspective, as revealed in this study, and its interplay with other forms of flow were yet to be uncovered. Beyond the narrowed perspective of flow experiences in certain moments, the evolving meaning of flow across one’s life deserves further investigation.

Integrating the radical embodiment perspective of consciousness and the multi-level model of flow, this ethnographic study aims to explore 1. professional ballet dancers’ lived experience of the dynamic interaction of their body, brain, and the environment in the process of flow, 2. their experience of flow as movers and witnesses on the collective relational level as well as the interplay among different forms of flow, and 3. their evolving relationship with ballet and flow across the career. As the participant-as-observer, the ethnographer took part in professional ballet dancing and performances for one and a half years with the Hong Kong Ballet, while observing, conducting individual in-depth interviews, and writing fieldnotes. The qualitative iterative approach was adopted in data analysis and validation through follow-up interviews and Authentic Movement practices with dancers.

Apart from rich narratives of professional ballet dancers’ flow experiences on both the individual and collective relational level as movers and witnesses, major findings of this study include: 1. The mechanism of underflow, flow, and overflow in a four-phase flow cycle, 2. Contributors of group flow both on the interpersonal and individual level, 3. The phenomenon of flow from the viewer’s perspective – the witness flow and its interplay with other forms of flow on the spatial dimension, 4. Professional ballet dancers’ relationship with flow and its evolution across dancers’ career on the temporal dimension. The perspective of dissemination is gradually broadened, inspiring discussions from the role of embodiment in the flow cycle, the value of reciprocity and kinesthetic empathy in flow on the collective relational level, to the evolutional and overlapping nature of flow cycles in life.

The findings inform the relevance of organic processes in the flow cycle to well-being and career development, not limited merely among dancers. The iterative ethnographic process involving the ethnographer as both the participating-dancer and observing-researcher has allowed empirical discoveries of the phenomenon of witness flow and metaphors of dancers’ relationships with flow across their career.