‘How Can It Not Be Fantastic to Be Touched?’

Marie Hallager Andersen and Mette Terp Høybye investigate movement and touch in the hospital environment

The image frames four people sitting on the floor: Two are in close up with their backs to the camera – one is leaning comfortably against the other – and further away facing the camera are two others with a safe distance from one another.

Photo by Victor Krøyer

This image captures the essence of our workshop on the hospital environment as a relational space in May 2019: Bodies and spaces are never neutral and close encounters with unfamiliar bodies and spaces can produce strong sensations of discomfort as well as pleasure. The woman leaning against the other at the front asks: ‘How can it not be fantastic to be touched?’. The provocation of this statement became the title of the film ‘How can it not be fantastic to be touched?’ that documents these workshop days.

In this article we will discuss how the most basic and quotidian aspect of human interaction (and a key element of clinical practice) – touch – and our engagement with the space we are in became the pivotal engagement in this workshop instantaneously and simultaneously generating a sense of comfort and assault in participants.

The workshop days were part of an ongoing collaboration Fieldwork in the Body and was intended as research into the hospital as a relational space.

Photo by Marie Hallager Andersen and Mette Terp Høybye

Seeking to expand previous ethnographic fieldwork encounters in hospitals (Høybye 2013) and theoretical concepts of relational and transformational spaces with porous boundaries of private and public (Høybye 2013; Ingold 2000), we had invited dance professionals and academics into a dance studio to explore how interacting creatively with the materiality of hospital objects and sounds may generate a new understanding of the hospital space.

The hospital environment is an environment of constant physical contact and the negotiation of a relational and haptic space (that is, as a space of touch). To examine a lump in an armpit or test the strength and function of an impaired limb brings attention and intention to overlap in very particular ways. It is an intrinsic part of clinical, medical practice. But as our research days made clear, it is never neutral. Touch is always situated and entangled in the interactions of people, positions, context, previous experience and so on. The white coat is not just a symbol of the doctor, nor are the gowns worn by patients without meaning, they are a tangible material presence with implications for our physical experience of the hospital. We ask, how does this impact staff as well as patients and visitors, and how is it co-created by them? How can health providers, patients and researchers conceptualise and define the meaning of touch? How can they become aware of its impact both in its quotidian presence and also in its absence or impeded form, when touch is purely functional or, say, practised through a layer of plastic?

Movement tends to halt when knowing meets the written form, so Fieldwork in the Body grew out of a curiosity to place the body and embodied knowledge at the centre of our investigation. We brought together Mette’s ethnographic fieldwork notes and her written academic analysis with Marie’s movement expertise in order to literally move beyond the written, doing justice to the continuous ethnographic emergence of understanding. We call this an analytical continuation of movement.  Experiencing and knowing through the body, is an ethnographic practice that resonates with somatic practice of movement improvisation. Movement improvisation is a dance form that uses creative movement in which the improviser moves spontaneously prompted by physical or formal instructions (Tufnell & Crickmay 1993; Olsen with McHose 2014). The shifting of weight from one foot to the other or pausing before you reach for someone’s hand can determine the experience of your encounter and influence the steps and interactions that follow. This type of practice has the potential to reach instinctual and personal movement patterns and explore sensations and imagery that arise as it usually liberates the mover from representation and narrative.

In the shared space of the dance studio for our workshop Marie guided participants to move in ways where they relate to the environment or bodies and objects around them.

Photo by Victor Krøyer

To give an example: one exercise tried to imagine the transitional spaces of a hospital and Marie had the group starting on a line facing the studio back wall. Participants were instructed to walk only forwards or backwards without turning to face any other direction, so that each person occupied their own personal ‘corridor’. They were prompted to walk back and forth in this ‘corridor’ noticing the sensations that arose as the pace shifted or they chose to stand still, sit or lie down.

The sensation of moving backwards is — for most people — an unfamiliar one. A controlled falling — which is the essence of walking — without visualising your path opens a possibility to explore what we cannot see. Suddenly we may experience our bodies in all their three-dimensionality. We might become aware of the spine or the back of the head. The weight has to shift to the heels and the ball of the foot catches us as we step back into the unknown. The breath changes. We walk tentatively at first before gaining confidence in our own and others’ navigation of the space. This exercise highlighted how our bodies are equipped to accommodate the environment they are in and that all movement happens in relation to others regardless of whether you are walking forwards or backwards or are being transported in a hospital cot.

Hospital buildings are never complete (cf. Ingold 2000): they are not just the frames within which patients, health providers and other humans and non-humans interact, but are shaped and transformed as we move with them. The embodied experience of hospital spaces is entangled with the experience of illness and healing of patients (Høybye 2013; Radley & Taylor 2003). In their daily activity patients, and staff as well as researchers move through and embody narrow corridors, examination rooms and wide waiting area spaces of hospitals. The somatic practice of improvisation became the method for making sense of this sensory experience and this was the starting point of our investigation. It was a way to trace the analytical importance of embodied entanglements to the sense of illness or healing experienced by users of the hospital and by the researcher.

Photo by Marie Hallager Andersen and Mette Terp Høybye

The primary purpose of the ‘Fieldwork in the Body’ project is not to generate propositional knowledge that describes and explains a phenomenon. Moving together in the studio and the discussions about the experience they produce, fuel an emergent somatic knowledge. For both of us and our respective fields of work this opens a space that can include ambiguity and acknowledge the uncertainties of interpretations and knowledge-making. The hybrid working process can generate new working methods for our respective fields and continues to create a fresh perspective on each of our practices.

Marie Hallager Andersen is a freelance dance artist with an MA Creative Practice from Trinity Laban in London. She has developed a broad interest in movement especially in the context of somatic practices. Her work spans performing dance improvisation, filmmaking and collaboration with other artists and with academics.

Mette Terp Høybye is a medical anthropologist and Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark. Her work is concerned with the emergence of knowledge and decision-making in clinical settings, and she has a keen interest in bodily knowledge in ethnographic work.



Høybye MT. 2013. Healing environments in cancer treatment and care. Relations of space and practice in hematological cancer treatment. Acta Oncologica; 52(2):440-6.

Ingold T. 2000. The perception of the environment. Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London, Routledge.

Olsen, A. with McHose, C. 2014. The Place of Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Radley A, Taylor D. 2003. Images of recovery: a photo-elicitation study on the hospital ward. Qual Health Res;13:77-99.

Tufnell M & Crickmay C. 1993. Body Space Image. Alton, England: Dance Books

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