What dance reveals to us about the universe and ourselves
Recently I shared millennia of thoughts on the importance of dancing as part of life. The response I got prompted me to go on with what some thinkers/dancers/writers have said about what dance reveals to us about the universe and ourselves as humans, as audience for dance and as dancers.
The brilliant American autobiographical writer and poet, Maya Angelou summed this up, "Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances." “In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves", according to the 19th century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. More soberly or simply wisely, choreographer Jerome Robbins observed that "Dance is like life, it exists as you're flitting through it, and when it's over, it's done".
The English writer W. Somerset Maugham expanded on this theme, “I saw in the fugitive beauty of a dancer's gesture a symbol of life. It was achieved at the cost of unending effort but, with all the forces of gravity against it, a fleeting poise in mid-air, a lovely attitude worthy to be made immortal in a bas-relief, it was lost as soon as it was gained and there remained no more than the memory of an exquisite emotion. So life, lived variously and largely, becomes a work of art only when brought to its beautiful conclusion and is reduced to nothingness in the moment when it arrives at perfection”.
For those who appreciate the importance of music in their lives but less sure that dance is as essential I would share the immortal words of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, "Dancing can reveal all the mystery that music conceals" and 20th century choreographer George Balanchine stated, "Dance is music made visible".
Every art communicates uniquely through its mode of expression and so dance goes beyond even making music or the word visible. This was well expressed by Ibrahim Farrah, USA dancer and publisher, "Dance is so important in the world. It needs no language. Our bodies speak a language of their own".
The assumption that because classical Indian dance genres evolved as expressions of spiritual consciousness within temples and Western classical dance evolved from court traditions and is therefore purely secular entertainment is far too binary. Dance performance art in the twentieth century aimed higher.
The pioneering and iconic American modern dancer pioneer Martha Graham said, "Dance is the hidden language of the soul", as well as "Wherever a dancer stands is holy ground". She lived and danced between 1894-1991 and her early training was with Ruth St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn at Jacob's Pillow. They were not only pioneers inspiring the first generation of the greatest American modern dancers but also committed to including "Oriental" or Asian dance forms to the best of their abilities at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Divine Ms. Ruth inculcated into her dance students her spiritual values, "I believe that dance communicates man's deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written" echoed in Ted Shawn's view that "I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words".
Not surprising then that Martha Graham also made such pronouncements as "Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather". She also believed that "Nothing is more revealing than movement. The spine is the tree of life. Respect it...The next time you look into the mirror, just look at the way the ears rest next to the head; look at the way the hairline grows; think of all the little bones in your wrist. It is a miracle. And the dance is a celebration of that miracle.
We look at the dance to impart the sensation of living in an affirmation of life, to energize the spectator into keener awareness of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety, and the wonder of life."
The question, Why dance? could not be better expressed than by the outstanding and influential ballet artist Jacques d'Amboise in these words, "Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing. It's the rhythm of your life. Its the expression in time and movement, in happiness, joy, sadness and envy".
Back in the 5th-6th century BCE Simonides of Ceos, a Greek lyric poet, wrote "Dancing is silent poetry". More recently a Marks and Spencer spokesman said, on the hiring of an in-house poet to help bring out the creativity of its staff, "Poetry is like dancing. Not all of us can be ballet dancers but all of us dance. Everyone has a poet inside of him struggling to get out."
It has struck me that it is not difficult for an audience to sit for hours or even all-night for a music concert but too challenging to do this for dance, simply because watching dance is more than aural and visual but actually kinetically demanding. I found this sentiment expressed by America’s first major dance critic, John Martin, “The dance exists exclusively in terms of the movement of the body, not only in the obvious sense that the dancer moves, but also in the less apparent sense that its response in the spectator is likewise a matter of body movement”.
“People in the audience, when they've watched the dance, should feel like they've accomplished something, that they've gone on a journey” helps communicate the benefit of this as articulated by Paul Mercurio, an Australian dancer. I remember in a Graham company master class being told “We give the audience the experience of the body they wish they had”.
It is true, as Ted Shawn said that, “Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made”. Dame Ninette de Valois, Irish choreographer and founder of the Royal Ballet, charmingly said, “The smile is the dance of the face - the dance is the smile of the limbs”.
King Solomon of Israel said around 1000 BCE, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance”. I wish everyone a New Year that is a time to dance.