Dancepoems: a new voice in poetic heteroglossia

The term ‘heteroglossia’ originates in the intertwined roots of the personal and social and captures the dynamic evolution of individual and collective forms of meaning inherent in human experience. ‘Heteroglossia’ was coined by the late Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, who conceptualized it in linguistic terms, as a convergence of multiple dialects and varieties within one language.

Just like all acts of expression, poetry is historically and geographically situated. Exploring poetry through this perspective of multiplicity allows expansion of these boundaries, opening them up to new territories. I have been engaged in what I call heteroglossic poetry for a number of years, with the intention of intertwining various art forms with poetry. Approaching poetry through heteroglossia has infused my practice with freedom and a sense of purpose.

I like to create my own ‘poetic cocktails’, in which I combine my playing of piano or harp with poems written by myself or others. I have also created short films, in which I edited together photographs or film sequences with music and poetic voiceovers. (And I have also experienced heteroglossia on a linguistic level as a poet writing in Slovakian, which is my mother tongue and in English, which is my dominant language).

However, I have felt most satisfied with poetic heteroglossia that blends the ingredients of several artists. In 2015, I held an honorary position as a poet in residence at the Westbury Arts Centre, Buckinghamshire, England. As part of this role I collaborated with many artists represented by the centre: photographers, ceramicists, designers, performers and other creative practitioners. A particularly fruitful collaboration was with a visual artist Kate Wyatt, which resulted in a pamphlet of ekphrastic poems and a joint exhibition at an art gallery in London in 2015.

This experience taught me the importance of placing meaning above any hierarchy of artistic forms. Genuine heteroglossia is not confined by arbitrary boundaries of ephemeral needs or situational priorities. Poetry is placed alongside other art-forms, such as paintings for example, that together constitute one artistic piece. When composing heteroglossically, I felt free to draw upon a vast, shared mosaic that captures the visceral, the complex and the ineffable. Yet, the more my poetic practice had become heteroglossic and artistic collaborations grew, the more I was moving towards a territory of untouchable and transcendent aspects of life. I came to realize that I needed another outlet for my heteroglossic expression: dance.

Dance and poetry often emulate each other. Dance is said to be poetry in motion and poetry the dance of words, so how can their dominant voices be married without conflict? When toying with the multiple voices of dance and poetry, I didn’t want to envelop movement in language. Rather, I aimed to explore how poetry and dance could address the invisible forces within each of us. I wanted to respond to the “visceral ways of connecting to the inner landscape of self and the outer landscape of the natural world” (p.67, Snowber & Bickel, 20151).

I had never danced before but felt that I needed to develop my understanding through experiencing what I was trying to express. Encouraged by Chris Bradley, a dancer, choreographer and teacher living in Milton Keynes, UK, I gained the confidence required to rise to the challenge of composing a ‘dancepoem’. Later, I collaborated with an aerial dancer, Ed Swift, in Manchester and most recently with Dickson Mbi in London. We ‘danced’ poems and ‘wrote’ dance movements – creating ‘dancepoems’.2

Poetry combined with dance has been described as moving poetry or choreopoetry. But if the two originate in unison and yet keep their discrete voices as they progress, then I feel the term ‘dancepoem’ better captures their interconnectivity and shared past. In the concept of ‘dancepoems’, words do not mimic moves and moves do not mirror words. Poetry and dance do not blend; they are in the same rhythm. In this respect, they resemble a musical argument. As Phil Lesh (1982) explained: “A musical argument is not the same as a verbal argument. A verbal argument implies that there’s two sides; a musical argument makes the two sides one thing, like counterpoint”.3 Therefore, when composing ‘dancepoems’, it is important to ensure that both arts play their own ‘instruments’. Poetry and dance should not eclipse each other’s voices, but swell into bigger proportions as one shared voice. In doing so, they enrich individual artistic practices and enable mutual learning and personal growth.

Last year a woman from an unnamed youth organization approached me, with great enthusiasm, about running a workshop for them. I had to turn down her kind offer as I didn’t want to translate this new artistic form into a business opportunity. I didn’t have a recipe that could be followed step by step and developed into a suite of courses. All my ‘dancepoems’ were created organically as a result of gradual and delicate negotiation with the individual dancers. Sometimes a poetic phrase came first, sometimes it was a move. Occasionally there was more dance than poetry, or vice-versa. At times we followed musical phrases and at others, stanzas and poetic rhythm. So far, I have danced with male dancers because it fitted the theme of universal forces that my ‘dancepoems’ responded to, but ‘dancepoems’ can relate to any theme: be it mixed, single, duo or larger dance groups. I told the well-meaning woman that they were free to monetize and popularize the concept in any way that worked for their organization. I felt fixing ‘dancepoems’ to a model would go against the very nature of heteroglossia.

Nevertheless, the more attention my ‘dancepoems’ received, the more I realized that I was producing something new which might be of interest to others. Sadly, as I am not a full-time artist I could not dedicate my time to live performances. I thought of sharing my ‘dancepoems’ online but I was apprehensive of the digital medium and how it would affect poems and dance. I was concerned that the screen might flatten a spatial experience and remove the visceral feeling spectators have when they breathe the same air as the dancers on stage. Moreover, I worried that combining words, dance and music for a small screen might fragment the meaning and overall impression. Taking into account the forces shaping our contemporary lives, including increased digitalization of privacy and communication, I found myself caught between the traditional forms (dance seen live and poetry read on paper) and our modern social media sharing culture.

I returned to Bakhtin for an answer and reread his works. I learnt that denying tension between multiple forms and rich content is at the very heart of heteroglossia. As Benjamin Bailey, University of Massachusetts-Amherst writes, “heteroglossia addresses (a) the simultaneous use of different kinds of forms or signs, and (b) the tensions and conflicts among those signs, based on the sociohistorical associations they carry with them” (Bailey, 2007, p.2574). While diglossia (i.e. the use of two clearly different varieties of language) is about the “development and characteristics of standardization” in language (Ferguson, 1959, p.4295), heteroglossia is about validating and valorizing the tensions among voices.

When I released my first ‘dancepoem’ on YouTube in 2015, it was picked up by several outlets (including Moving Poems and The Woven Tale Press) and resulted in many messages and comments from other artists. I began to realize the power of the collective digital voice and how it can lead to a re-examination of the creative process and its presentation. I came to see how much of contemporary poetry practice depends on the medium (such as so-called Twitter or Instagram poetry) and was encouraged by the prospect of ‘dancepoems’ offering a medium-free art form. I have begun a living book of dancepoems, where I capture my thoughts on producing and consuming dancepoems and where others can add their own works. (Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to join our community.)

To conclude, heteroglossia is an empowering concept that encourages fusion of established canons and innovative forms, and in doing so, is shaping a new landscape for the poetic voice. As our lived realities are becoming increasingly multicultural, multi-platform and multi-vocal, poetic heteroglossia offers a means for realising the polyphonic forces between self and others. For me, ‘dancepoems’ carry the deeper message of heteroglossia, perhaps the most important message of all poetry, which aspires to listen to the world and echo its multiple voices.


1Snowber, C., & Bickel, B. (2015). “Companions with mystery: Art, spirit and the ecstatic.” In Walsh, S., Bickel, B., & Leggo, C. (eds), Arts Based and Contemplative Practices in Research and Pedagogy, New York: Routledge (pp. 67-87).

2https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgHBEuAWdVyVgG4Z7MKxtMfXrXU79R2Nk

3Cited in Gans, David (2002). Conversations With The Dead, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

4Bailey, B. (2007). Heteroglossia and boundaries. University of Massachusetts – Amherst. From the Selected Works of Benjamin Bailey.

5Ferguson, C. A. (1959). “Diglossia”. Word, 15, 429-439.

Eleni Cay

Eleni Cay

Eleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in the UK. Her most recent poems were published by Eyewear Press in December 2017 and appeared in Atticus Review, Glasgow Review of Books, Poetry Ireland Review, Acumen and Envoi. Eleni’s award-winning collection of Slovak poems A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age was translated by John Minahane and published by Parthian Books. Eleni is known for her multimedia poetry, which has been screened at international festivals and featured on Button Poetry.

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