Dance—the Ephemeral Art


by Brenda Pugh McCutchen
August 1, 2016


ephemeral visual art


“Mountains and trees were considered tangible, measurable, and verifiable while reflections were only colored light—lost from one moment to the next.”


–comment on a wall plaque in the Columbia Museum of Art exhibit associated with the Hudson River Valley art exhibit  which referred to the paintings’ watery reflections in the landscape as intangible bits of colored light (January 2012, Columbia, SC, USA).

This memorable quotation reminds us that the art of dance is much the same way.  When we watch a dance, our eye follows the dancing body which is the tangible, measurable, and verifiable form we see.  However, in the process we can miss some of the nuance, the transitions between movements, the subtleties of motion that tend to get lost moment to moment by the viewer so that if we are not tuned into the spaces between the moves or to the small details between places in route to the most dynamic movements, we miss the “colored light” that surrounds the dance.

Dance, the ephemeral visual art that exists only in each split second of the moment and then evaporates into the next, is the quintessential art.  It is made for the moment to experience fully as performer and as audience.  That is true due to two phenomena:

1) in dance the body transcends its own visceral self to become the art instrument, and

2) its medium is momentary-movement, so short-lived that it vaporizes into thin air as soon as it appears.

concert danceWhat other art form can carry such reverence for life, such beauty of form, such exquisite combinations of motion, and then allow it to evaporate into the overall remaining image in the viewer’s memory without a concrete trace?

Paintings such as this in the exhibit are viewed in museums all over the world at any time.  But once the curtain falls on a dance masterpiece it ceases to exist until the next time it is performed.  How can dance hope to document its dance masterworks and heritage with its fleeting, momentary, ephemeral nature?

It is a wonder that concert choreographers work so hard to perfect their choreographic craft and refine a dance work.  It is a wonder that professional dancers pour every fiber and cell into refining their execution of the choreography to portray each nuance of a concert dance work when they know that the performances are so short-lived, the ideas so elusive to express, so full of unspoken movement metaphors, so quick to evaporate when the curtain falls?  As master choreographers weave their magic and also sprinkle bits of colored light that flash before us and are gone in the same instant, perhaps it is because dance is so short-lived that we treasure it so.  Could that momentary reality be part of dance’s compelling mystique?


Read more about the exhibit at this link:  Columbia Museum of Art Opens Nature and the Grand American Vision. Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters – Museum Publicity


Brenda Pugh McCutchen, MFA Dance, is author of Teaching Dance as Art in Education (Human Kinetics, 2006).  She creates integrated 6DC educational dance resources for use in higher education for teacher preparation and in the schools by certified dance specialists.  Among numerous career roles, she is or has been dance professor, state certified K-8 classroom teacher, state certified K-12 dance educator, modern dance choreographer/performer, choreographer-in-residence, and state level arts education administrator.  She served on the NDEO Board of Directors from 2003-2006.  Brenda owns Dance Curriculum Designs, Columbia, SC, USA.   (