“I have no desire to prove anything by dancing … I just dance. — Fred Astaire, famous Hollywood actor and dancer
“On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet / To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet” — George Byron, English poet, from Childe Harold III. 22
“This wondrous miracle did Love devise, For dancing is love’s proper exercise.” — John Davies, English poet, from “Orchestra, or a Poem dancing”
“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” — Ted Shawn, U.S. dancer and choreographer
Why Do We Dance?
Of all the expressions of a culture, dance has always struck me as being the most evocative and “indigenous.” Throughout my travels, I have often found myself watching people dancing, whether it be…
(a) Nubian dancing in Egypt;
(b) Belly Dancing at the Black Sea in Jordan;
(c) a private rehearsal of the prima ballerina and premier danseur in the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux;
(d) the intricate moves of roller bladers along the stunning new waterfront in Bordeaux;
(e) the almost continuous dancing at the Navratri festival in Gujarat, India;
(f) the equine dance of the Grand Prix Kur dressage;
(g) street Dancing in Amsterdam on Queen’s Day (the annual country-wide festival);
(h) the highly interpretive, evocative and free dancing in the superb West End musical Billy Liar in London;
(i) a local Pow wow of the Siksika Nation in Alberta;
(j) late-night flamenco in a small club in Madrid;
(k) the expressive welcoming ceremony of the Maori in Rototrua, New Zealand;
(l) and even the graceful, synchronized farewell dance of dolphins around our boat in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand.
And the list could go on and on. What they all have in common is the communication of something fundamental in how humans and the animal world interact with our diverse environments.
The dances I have seen have been cultural narratives in and of themselves.
What Is Dance?
Human beings demonstrate many curious behavioural patterns and dance is, to put it simply, a human behaviour that is the rhythmic movement of the body. This common behaviour has, throughout the centuries, been accompanied by music and often drums.
Dance has an enormous range and there is an equally enormous number of reasons and motives why human beings feel the need to dance. Human dance has been recorded since the beginning of human history and some have suggested that it is our response to rhythms we sense in nature and the world around us. Furthermore, sociologists and anthropologists have suggested that dance is the result of the same impulses that give rise to music; as such they are therefore closely related and naturally would go hand in hand, so to speak.
Human beings have danced in ritual ways as part of religious rites or to celebrate great events. Consider how sports players on the “field” dance, sometime alone, sometimes with their arms around each other, when they score a goal.
Imagine the feelings that are being expressed in these kinds of dances. Humans also dance to pass the time; to entertain themselves. Dance is fun. Dance is often a significant part of mating rituals. Think about the high school dances and the pair bonding that occurs at them. Consider the school prom with its “King” and “Queen” and how this very ritualistic “dance” either creates or confirms a social hierarchy at the same time “teaching” young people traditional gender roles in society. For many people, dancing is good therapy, a way to release pent up emotions, a way to express oneself in a very physical way. Dancing is a stress releaser, unless of course you feel you obliged to dance to “someone else’s music.”
Dancing is an individual activity and achievement but it is also done in groups. Dancing, as we have said, can be pair-bonding behaviour, accomplished at a certain point “cheek to cheek.”
Dance is spontaneous emotion. Dance is exciting. Dance defies gravity; it is flight at low altitudes. A basketball player shown on video in slow motion moving down the “dance” floor is visual proof of the agility, grace, energy, and skill that human dancers demonstrate.
Dancing can be very class-oriented, reserved for only those who can “afford the clothes,” or it can be a democratizing agent. Dancing in the streets as opposed to the Grand Ballroom is as different as night and day; and yet similar in many ways.
Dance can tell a story: a fantasy world can be “acted” out with dying swans, charming princes, heroes and heroines galore. And then the music stops. Or sometimes the music (of the spheres) continues indefinitely like the planets, creating intricate, predictable, cosmic patterns.
Shall we dance?
Come dance with me
Click on each of the following links to see some dancing that I have seen.
Dance throughout time in human society
(a) In 1000BC King David danced all night before the ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. This is one of the earliest known examples of ritual dance.
(b) In 774AD Pope Zacharias forbade dancing. Dancing has been regarded as an illicit, even immoral, activity. To what extent is that attitude is still prevalent today.
(c) In 1734 the dancer Maria Sallé adopted a see-through gauze tunic, a piece of clothing that was a precursor to the ballerina’s tutu. In the same year Marie Camargo shortened her skirts. Daring to say the least! How have clothes and fashion played a role in dancing, and how are they interconnected even today.
(d) In 1905, the innovative dancer Isadora Duncan appeared in Russia. Her “anti-ballet,” a free-form dance much less disciplined that classical ballet and derived from ancient Greek dances, caused quite a stir. Human societies have often attempted to “control” dancing; and yet certain individuals used dance to liberate themselves, or even as a form of revolt.
(e) In 1952, in the Hollywood movie, Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelley happily danced (with an umbrella) in the street, in the rain!
(f) In 1968 Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, founded his own company of dancers, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Is dance also a political and sociological statement, especially as a medium of expression and affirmation for minority groups?
(g) In 1983 break dancing became very popular in the inner cities of North America. Later it spread beyond North America. What was this dance phenomenon really all about?
(h) In 1995, Riverdance, a group composed of 72 dancers performing traditional Irish dancing, often in spectacular group precision, opened in London England and soon then after became a “hot item” in North America. Audiences responded to in this dance form in a way that suggested that they had rediscovered their collective rhythms.
And before we go …