about communication in contemporary dance


table of contents


Communication is often defined as conveying a thought, be it verbally or visually, explicitly or implicitly.  However, this understanding of communication allows that we merely send out information without considering how it may be received. Let’s flip that coin and define communication as:  it is not about you, it is about them.

Mapping the diverse lines of communication within your practice

By ‘them’ we mean everyone you are in communication with throughout your working process. But to further define who ‘they’ are it is helpful to ask the following questions for each stage of the creative process:

When am I communicating about my practice/work/self?
Who am I communicating with (funders/partners/audience (new/existing)/media)?
Why am I engaging with them (what goal does this act accomplish for you, and for the person you are communicating with)?

Answering these questions will clarify the different ways and the different moments in which you communicate about dance and the different groups you communicate with.

After mapping the lines of communication within your practice, you will most likely notice that you are in touch with audience members as well as programmers and producers as well as technicians.  This calls for two additional questions:

How do I reach each of them? (Via which channels?)
What tone of voice / image / information do each of them need in order to receive my message?

This is what putting ‘them’ first is about: each group you will identify needs to be addressed differently to be able to connect to your ideas.  A performance is an act of communication and needs to speak for itself, but it needs a communication strategy using different narratives to reach different groups of people so that they come, see and support the work.  Answering these questions is a first step in that direction.

Putting the person you are communicating with first might seem contradictory to the importance we give to articulating your artistic fingerprint in the chapter on identity. However, these concepts exist next to each other perfectly. If you are clear and confident about what you wish to communicate, this will allow you to imagine what the other needs in order to receive your message.

An individual, tailor-made strategy

As much as it is important to articulate your individual definition of contemporary dance, so too is the development of a tailor-made communication strategy, arising from your artistic fingerprint.

Don’t worry, you do not also have to become a communication professional!  However, as an independent artist, you are often responsible for many communication tasks. Gaining insight into the diverse lines of communication within your practice is an important first step. It creates an overview and puts you in the driver’s seat.  Along with outlining your individual schedule of communication, it helps define the level of priority for each task of communication.  From there you can start building your personal communication strategy and create a plan that is realistic for you and the scale of your work.

You will find more tools to develop your communication strategy further, when we discuss Audiences.  Remember, you get to choose which aspects of communication you wish to prioritise and take responsibility for within your own personal circumstances and at this phase of your career.  

Collaborating with communication professionals

Developing your own communication strategy as an independent artist can be a real challenge. But, are you really doing it alone?

Depending on your structure and strengths, you may be working with an independent marketing professional, designer, producer, or the marketing staff within a venue, festival or dancehouse to help promote and sell your work.  These people are creative in their own right and want to add value to your project – let them!

Joining forces with communications professionals can be extremely helpful but we should acknowledge that there are also challenges.  Through the perspective of ‘it is not about you, it is about them’, we have gathered some of these challenges from the perspective of communication professionals active in the dance field:

  • It is sometimes hard for artists to let somebody else translate their core message to a wider audience, even though they themselves might not have the expertise, skill or interest to communicate clearly about their own work. There appears to be a lack of trust.
  • There is little (creative) dialogue with the communication professionals within the dance field. In the arts these professionals are often unjustly perceived as executing bodies, not as creative bodies. 
  • There can be a lack of sensitivity, awareness and interest among dance professionals to the perspective and taste of the audience member.
  • It is often forgotten that those close to the venue, festival or organisation generally study how to reach their audiences on a daily basis and therefore know how to translate an artist’s core message to their audiences. 
  • There is a difference in the way dance professionals and communication professionals think about a campaign. Dance professionals focus on what they want to communicate. Communication professionals are aware of the massive competition for eyeballs and attention and focus on how to reach audiences nonetheless.
  • Budgets are low. (Surprise!)

This list sums up nicely some of the biggest gaps in the way we currently deal with communication in the contemporary dance field. It is also food for thought when considering your own collaboration with communication professionals, now or in the future.

Are you collaborating with a communications professional already and wondering how to improve your working relationship?  Or, will you be beginning a new collaboration with a communications professional soon?  Besides reading these conditions for communicating contemporary dance brilliantly, you will also find additional tips and tricks in our chapters on collaboration and dialogue

Communication strategies of dance institutions

So far, we have talked about strategies for communicating dance mostly from the perspective of the individual artist, which reflects strongly the state of contemporary dance and the operating structures of the field today. However, as you know, a lot of communication about dance happens through dance institutions like ours (dancehouses, festivals, venues and production companies), who support dance artists, dance development and undertake the wider advocacy work for dance as an art form and sector too.

These institutions, like our own, usually propose certain ways of communicating dance. But on closer examination, we noticed that these communication strategies do not always align with our advice to artists.  Due to time constraints or not having seen a work yet, things like the importance of communicating the specificity of each individual maker can for example be a real challenge from the institutional point of view.
This made us articulate the following questions, especially directed to those involved in institutions communicating dance on a daily basis (including ourselves).  This might also give you, the artists, an insight into the types of questions that institutions grapple with daily when representing an art form rather than an individual artist or art-work.

Questions for representatives of dance institutions

  • Do you define what dance is in the context of each individual maker?  
  • Do you have the skill to vocalise and address the essence and fingerprint of an artist?
  • Do the artists you work with know what the communication strategy of your organisation is? Do you feel responsible to share and explain how you operate and why?
  • Do you ask the independent artists which strategies they have to communicate dance?  Or whether they have proposals in addition to the strategy of your organisation?
  • What is the preferred method of communication of your artists?  As organisations we too need to continually remind ourselves ‘it is not about us, it is about them’.  Discussing and agreeing the mode for communication between artist and organisation from the beginning of a relationship can be key in creating trust as well as understanding.
  • Some choreographers feel stressed about communication and being their own ambassador, others are more at ease with it.  How can a shared space be created with each one of them, supporting them in their individual needs?
  • Could your organisation customise support to the approach of choreographers and their communication, to acknowledge them in their specificity and their personality? What would that mean in terms of manpower, time and money?
  • Given the consistently evolving nature of contemporary dance, how often do you take time to re-examine your understanding of the field?
  • What are your main parameters to define your own essence and your fingerprint in the way you communicate dance?
  • What is the identity of your organisation away from the makers your organisation chooses to support?

Want to improve your communication with artists? Here you will find some pointers that will possibly help you do so.

Remember, it is not about you, it is about them.