Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Enactive Metaphors to Ignite the Imagination” – Hymke Theunissen

Metaphors are useful for getting an idea across by creating a shared framework of meaning. As a figure of speech, what Shaun Gallagher and Robb Lindgren (2015) call ‘sitting metaphors’, we can encounter them in text. Ideally, metaphors will make us think and guide our understanding. However, the authors point to a different way of engaging with metaphors, not merely conceptually, but through action. An ‘enactive metaphor’ requires us to do something; we enact the metaphor by bringing it into being through physically acting it out (Gallagher and Lindgren 2015, 392).

Think of the example of a child that acts out a telephone conversation by bringing a banana to their ear. We understand that the banana references the shape of old(er) telephones, that it is a substitute for the real thing. By looking at their pretend conversation, we are on the same imaginative plane – in this situation, we are calling our friends by banana.

This is a very literal acting out of a metaphor, but it can also be employed more subtly. This can be seen in the process of learning a dance choreography. During the final seminar session of this year’s series, Laura Karreman and Suzan Tunca discussed the impact of digital environments on the transmission of dance knowledge. We were given some time to explore the online score of the performance 60 by choreographer Amos Ben-Tal. Alongside a look into the creative process, the score also pointed to the vocabulary that was used in creating a choreography.

“Ben-Tal also describes movements that are extended, spread, and collapsed. These terms, which create strong visual images in the imagination of the dancer, are at the same time an attempt to express the intention of a movement in words.” (Amos Ben-Tal n.d.).

These terms brought me back to the ballet classes that I have taken for years. It was not uncommon that we were asked to imagine a line from our heads to the ceiling, to think of a cup of tea being placed on our feet, or to imagine strings pulling up our elbows. These metaphorical words or phrases help to ignite the imagination. They extend the movement from your body to an imaginative space beyond your body. As Laura Karreman remarked, dance language often plays with metaphors, such as the idea of leaving a trace behind you when moving through space. In this sense, the dancing body is also a drawing body.

This vocabulary can make a difference between a group of dancers carrying out a choreography, or a group of dancers moving within a shared framework of meaning. This is because, as Suzan Tunca noted, this metaphorical language is essential for creating the same intention of movements for all dancers.

Dancers might imagine themselves transforming into another creature, and this shared intention gives meaning to their movements. Obviously, the audience will not interpret the dancers as transformed into a creature. There will be no literal bananas substituting phones. Instead, the metaphorical language allows dancers to transcend to a shared imaginative space that provides a meaningful framework. This is what brings the movements on the same imaginative plane and preserves the meaning of the performance.


  • Amos Ben-Tal: 60. N.d. Accessed June 9, 2021.
  • Gallagher, Shaun, and Robb Lindgren. 2015. “Enactive Metaphors: Learning Through Full-Body Engagement.” Educational Psychology Review 27 (3): 391–404.

*Image credits: andrés j. barquín. – banana phone (tres) is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)