Rob Walker | Essays

Dance About Architecture (Please)

From a performance of
construct, by Tanja Liedtke. Photo by Chris Herzfeld, via Seattlest.

Should you be so inclined, you can Google up extensive speculation and investigation into the question of whether it was Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, or someone else who first asserted that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Whatever its origins, the phrase means to suggest that music criticism is meaningless exercise. And by and large, it is deployed as a rhetorical bomb to obliterate some negative critical assessment of a musician’s work: Not only are the critic’s specific observations false, the critic’s very practice is pointless and invalid.

Haw haw, funny, fine; I get it. But
the problem, to me, has always been that “dancing about architecture” sounds fairly awesome. What a great thing to do! Why isn’t there more dancing about architecture? I’d pay to see it. Wouldn’t you?*

Maybe the answer depends on how good the dancing is. (Some music criticism seems more like … marching.) Or maybe — in the spirit of Bill Clinton on the word “is,” and Bill Gates on “we” — the key is what exactly is meant by dancing/writing about architecture/music. One answer was offered in this  piece in The Telegraph, the most recent thing I've read that deployed the "dancing about architecture" trop:

Writing about music has a serious built-in problem, which is that the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.

Okay, this is the problem. An attempt to describe architecture via dance does seem obtuse; so does choosing dance as a medium to express the three-out-of-five stars or thumbs-up-thumbs-down version of “criticism.” But “writing about” something, music included, can obviously mean something beyond description paired with a judgment rendered. (In fact, even “criticism” ought to mean a lot more than that.) So I reject the restrictions that the above definition implies.

But if “about” means something closer to “in response to” or even “inspired by,” then we’re getting somewhere. Maybe it’s the difference between treating “music” or “architecture” or whatever as a thing to be merely evaluated or reacted to, and treating it as inspiration, a sort of muse.

If the dancing, or the writing, results in genuinely fresh expression, something with meaning and value of its own, that’s not pointless or invalid — it’s creativity. After all, a lot of people seemed to enjoy High Fidelity.

All creativity, really, is about something, isn’t it? So would you say “singing about love is like dancing about architecture”? You certainly could. And I’d agree wholeheartedly: Sounds to me like an excellent thing to do. 

And if architecture seems an unlikely thing to dance about, that's sort of the point, isn't it? Creativity inspired by non-obvious subjects and muses isn't a problem; it's an inspiration. Really the only thing I can think of that sounds better than dancing about architecture would be dancing about ruins. But I’ll save that line of thought for another time.

* My guess is that dancing about architecture has been done, more than once. I stumbled on one example while casting about for a picture to go with this post. Please feel free to educate me further in the comments.

Comments [14]

I agree! Beth Weinstein has argued that Merce Cunningham's collaborations with architects should be considered an architectural type.

Josh Wallaert

Rob, great post!

Have you come across the work of site-specific choreographer Noemie Lafrance? Her choreography, which explores movement in the built environment, includes pieces designed to be performed in stairwells and *on* several Frank Gehry-designed buildings, among other places. Dancing that's "inspired by" architecture? Dancing "in response to" architecture? Yes, to both, I think!
Molly Block (@mollyblock)

word play or design music

You’re right, “dancing about architecture” sounds fairly awesome. Yesterday during a beautiful spring day in February, I asked some of my favorite independent study design students to watch the movie Objectified and they said it was awesome. Your “writing about design is like dancing about architecture.” It has a point; it is valid and is about creative inspiration—music.

à l'avenir, tous les artistes peuvent faire, c'est le point.
Carl W. Smith

not to push the metaphor too far, but dance, especially classical dance, is a most architectural art: a formal language orchestrated to move the body through patterns in space. one could go on....
Mark Lamster

Jaafar Chalabi has done a few installations to correspond with choreography.

andrew jennings

Funny, I never interpreted the phrase to mean that writing about music was pointless. I always thought, and still do, that it means that it's just really hard.
Jason Hashmi

Here is some material that should be on SNL. Jarrod Quarrell and Hannah Brooks from St Helens perform live on Australian music panel show Dancing About Architecture, “Don’t Laugh.”
Carl W. Smith

Dancing about architecture indeed sounds like excellent thing to do! I definitely enjoy a more open reading of this oft quoted maxim. Dancing about architecture is using metaphor, and isn't that the big secret — that novelty happens from metaphor? _______ about ________!
Andrew DeRosa

Thanks everyone for the links, tips and feedback everyone. I knew I'd get a good quick education! And thanks Carl W. Smith for the very kind words; you're getting at the direction I'm most interested in taking this line of thought. I'll get to dancing about ruins soon I hope...
Rob Walker

Trisha Brown famously did a dance up the side of a wall, and more recently Elizabeth Streb has danced on buildings and in boxes.

Noemie Lafrance does very site-responsive choreography.

Going the other way, you could say a number of architects and designers made work about dance based on the performances of Loie Fuller at the turn of the century.

Abbott Miller

Dancing about architecture IS awesome. Oskar Schlemmer did just that at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Gropius believed Schlemmer's architectonic stage work--a precursor of both performance art and computer graphics--was the most successful embodiment of the Bauhaus ideals of standardization and abstraction. http://www.bauhausdances.org/BAUHAUS_DANCES.html

Trisha Brown sublimely resurrected the concept in the 70s.

Rudolf Laban, also of the early century, created the system Space Harmony, in which one experiences and describes movement in space via the Platonic solids and various morphological structures.
Debra McCall

And another Australian work from 2006 - Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness, most recently at the Walker Arts Center in 2011:


"The work shifts between practical building of supportive structures and the impressionistic portrayal of disintegration and sorrow"

"Roger Sanchez immortalises Zaha Hadid in 'tech-house' song:
US DJ plans series of tracks inspired by his favourite architects"


Very interesting Braulio. Thanks!
Rob Walker

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