Embodied perception and the Bristol Swing Festival

Bristol Swing Festival is unique among swing dancing festivals because it offers the chance to learn circus skills alongside learning to dance. One of the things that I love about coming to Bristol for the swing festival every year is the way it makes me feel grounded in myself and the connection it gives me to other people and the world around me. In the past, I haven’t had a philosophical framework to help me interpret these experiences. But this year I think I found it in Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head. Reading the second chapter, ‘Embodied Perception’, I recognise many of the phenomena that he describes in my experiences here at the festival.
The key idea Crawford introduces is that we think through our bodies: our bodies are an integral part of our thinking process and thinking doesn’t occur just within the confines of our skulls. Before I think about the consequences of this idea I want to first relate the pieces of evidence that he puts forward for this notion of embodied perception to the experiences I have here at the festival. Before we go on I should just say a little more about what goes on at this festival. As the name suggests people coming to this festival to learn to swing dance but what what makes it unusual is that you also learn circus skills alongside those dance skills. On a typical day you’ll spend the morning and early afternoon learning dance steps and then the rest of the afternoon trying out different circus techniques such as tumbling, handstands, tight rope walking, juggling and clowning. It is therefore a very physical environment and one in which you make a lots of physical and mental contact with other people.
The first piece of evidence that Crawford sites in support of embodied perception is what happens when we use a stick held in the hand to explore a space we can’t see. When we use the stick to rummage around in the unseen space, we are aware of the stick jostling around in our hand as the other end moves over the contours of the hidden space; however, after a while we stop noticing the stick’s pressure against our hands changing and focus instead on what is happening at the tip of the stick. As he describes, it is as if we see through the stick right to the tip. Our awareness has shifted from our hands and is focused instead on what is happening at the tip of the stick. To use his words the probe itself has become transparent – it disappears. He goes on that the crucial fact that makes this integration of the prosthetic possible is it there is a closed loop between action and perception: “what you perceive is determined by what do you, just as when we make use of our own hands.
You can see this happening as people start to develop dancing and circus skills. The stiltwalkers are initially very aware of the contraptions they have strapped to their legs but as they gain confidence and familiarity with the sensations they receive through these prosthetics about their relationship to the physical world on the ground it is as if the stilts disappear from view. They have become incorporated into the body from an attentional perspective and what the stiltwalker senses is the ground at the at the bottom of the stilts and not the stilts themselves. I think the same can be said of the sensations that two people feel when they learn to dance with one another. When they begin they are very aware of all the places where their two bodies touch: the connection between their arms, between the sides of their bodies. To beginners this connection with the other dancer is something that they think about a lot. But as the familiarity with this dance hold increases it is if the notion that there are two separate bodies holding onto each other disappears and they experience the dance as one conjoined unit. To re-emphasise Crawford’s words this integration of the stilt or the other dancer into our own bodies is only possible because there is a feedback loop between action and perception. The sensory information we receive when we are dancing with someone is that associated with a four-legged organism with a centre of gravity that exists at some imaginary point between the two dancers’ ribcages and so based on this sensory information we no longer perceive ourselves to be two separate beings but rather one entity.
So that was the first piece of evidence in support of extended perception:tThe way we integrate tools and prosthetics and even other people into our bodies. The second set of evidence relates to how we interpret the world around us based on sensory information. He explains that the traditional model of perception has it that our eyes supply our brains with a two dimensional representations of the world. When I look at the beer can in front of me what I see is a 2-D representation. But from memory I have images of the can from other perspectives. What my brain does is a sort of three-dimensional rendering in order to create a 3-D model of the can in front of me. This model seems to imply a great deal of processing happens in the head whenever we wish to perceive a 3-D object.  That model however, as Crawford explains is being challenged by and alternative approach. That approach takes as its starting point the fact that our eyes are located in eye sockets in which they can swivel. Those eye sockets are located in a head seated up on a neck that can look from left to right up and down. Those eyes, head and neck are attached to a body that is connected to legs that can propel the body forwards, backwards, left and right and up-and-down. To repeat the quote that Crawford uses, vision is not the purely mental processing of sensory inputs but rather the way in which we use our body to extract invariants from the stimulus flux. In other words, we explore and understand the world around us by moving through it and seeing things from different perspectives and critically this allows us to identify things that remain the same from different perspectives. Movement through the world is therefore critical to understanding it.
Here at the festival we learn lots about movement and moving in different ways, so it is possible that this altered locomotion offers us new perspectives on the world. In the handstand classes we spent time moving around on all fours and connecting our hands to the ground. In solo jazz we learn to slide, hop and skip through a space, filling it in new ways. In tumbling classes we run, we jump and we fall (gracefully). All of these activities reveal the world to us from new perspectives, and remind us how narrowly we perceive the environments that we commonly inhabit.
When I look out of the window from the cafe at which I am writing this post at the streams of people walking to work, walking the same direction as each other, walking the same way as each other, to go and sit in office environments that are probably very similar to one another. If we move through (or rather remain sedentary) in very similar ways, what does that say about diversity of thought?
Crawford concludes this part of the chapter with a reflection on how toddlers learn to walk. When they are learning they are experimenting to see what movements of their bodies produce what effects. Initially this takes lots of concentration, but eventually the commands can be carried out with thinking about them. The child’s attention shifts away from the body toward the world that can now be explored through movement. Through mastering a new skill, their world has grown, and their attention and perception reaches out beyond the body. Invoking Nietzsche, Crawford says that joy is the sense of one’s power increasing. As we master a new physical skill, frustration gives way – their attention shifts from their body to the world beyond – and they feel a sense of joy.
So what do I take from all of this? Why does going to the Swing Festival feel so good. I think that there are four things at play here:
The first is that for many, myself included, our primary stimuli during the day are visual and audio – all from the head and little from the body. At the festival, the stimuli are much more physical. This gives our brains a break, and perhaps puts us back into a sensory environment to which are perhaps better evolutionarily suited.
The second is that many of the skills we learn at the festival allow us to move through the world in new ways, giving us new ways of perceiving it and understanding it. Turning upside down may seem a trivial thing to do, but when we do so much of our thinking the right way round, flipping things provides a refreshing change.
A third thing I’ve noticed is that spending a few hours a day doing bodily-focused classes seems to make people more physically playful outside those classes. It’s as if we are given permission to rediscover our world through physical play, to rediscover that intrinsic joy that children find when they run around, swing from branches, balance on walls, wrestle with one another or just give each other hugs.
And finally, the festival gives us a tiny taste of the power we could feel if we could master a circus skill: when we might one day stop looking at our hands and watch the juggling balls dancing in front of us; when we might one day feel the lightness that comes with the perfect handstand.
To conclude with one of Crawford’s phrases, ‘we think through our bodies’. Bristol Swing Festival gives me new ways to think through my body, and that’s why I enjoy being there so much.

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