To Dance Is a Radical Act
The practice of dancing is vital to our survival as humans on earth.
To dance is a radical act. To think about dance, to study dance, or to practice dance in this 21st century is a radical act.
Because if dancing matters—if dancing makes a difference to how we humans think and feel and act-then dancing challenges the values that fund modern western cultures.
1. Mind over body. A first and fundamental value of western cultures is the one that privileges our mental capacity, in particular our ability to reason, over and against our feeling, sensing, moving bodily selves. I think therefore I am. We believe that “we,” as thinking minds, can exert control over our bodily actions, and that we should. We believe that achieving such mind over body mastery is good, and even our ticket to success in any realm of endeavor.
This idea that reason is our definitively human part was greeted with much hope and fanfare by early modern philosophers and politicians, economists and poets. If only all humans can learn to exercise their reason, it was thought, then many minds will be able to arrive at the same answer–at true and certain knowledge, at a common good, at world peace.
However, we humans are not rational minds dwelling in bodily containers. We are bodies. We are bodily selves whose movements are making us able to think and feel and act at all. And if we are to achieve a just and sustainable world, then we must make sure that our processes of getting there honor the wisdom and agency present in the movement of our bodily selves.
To dance is a radical act because dancing reminds us that the bodily movements we make make us who we are.
2. Individuals first. Second only to the value we accord mind over body control is the value we grant to a sense of ourselves as individuals first. We aim and claim to be independent and self-sufficient, generating our own resources and meeting our own needs. We enter into relationships, ready to stay or go based on the benefits of that relationship to us.
Yet, we humans are not individuals first. Before we can ever think or say “I,” we have already been formed and enabled by others. We are who we are by virtue of the relationships we create with those who support our lives, from the day we are born to the day we die. And if we want to create healthy and life enabling relationships with others, then we must acknowledge that we are interdependent bodily selves.
To dance is a radical act because it reminds us that we, as bodily selves, exist only as an expression of the matrix of relationships with ourselves, others, and the natural world that enables us to be.
3. Write it down. A third value we hold dear is that of writing as a medium of knowledge. We grant an authority to words over and above any other medium as the one most able to document, preserve, and transmit truth and knowledge of any kind. This valuing of the written word flourished with the invention of the printing press and its first use: printing Bibles. People of any class or race or gender could access for their own individual selves the greatest mysteries of God. All they needed to do was learn to read.
However, as we now know, not everything that is written down is important, and not everything important can be written down. There are forms of knowledge that exist in media other than verbal ones. Reading and writing themselves are bodily activities demanding the precise articulation of muscle movement. Words cannot grant themselves authority. That authority comes from the lived experiences they express, and the lived experiences they enable.
To dance is a radical act because doing so implies that there are forms of knowing that cannot be mediated to us in words, which give words their meaning.
4. Sit whenever possible. A fourth value derives from the other three. We privilege the kind of work that we can do sitting down, while thinking, reading, writing. We spend years of our lives learning to sit still so that we can master these tasks. When we succeed, we are rewarded by forms of employment that allow us to sit some more. When we are tired at the end of the day, we sit to be entertained, to be fed, to be cared for. We want someone else to do the heavy lifting. We work hard, so we can sit.
Yet, as bodily selves, we are born to move. We are born moving as the medium in which we learn, adapt, invent, and nurture the relationships that support us in becoming who we have the potential to be. Moving our bodily selves in such ways gives us pleasure—even our greatest pleasure.
To dance is a radical act, because when we do it, we remember the primal joy of moving our bodily selves.
In sum, if we dance, and if we claim that dancing matters, then we are also affirming that we are not simply rational individuals whose best health is served by sitting and writing. We are bodily selves, sensing, feeling, stretching-and reaching for the knowledge, justice, and peace we desire.
So what are we to do?
We need to find the dancer in each of us, and the dance in what we do. We need to breathe to move and move to breathe, and so cultivate a sensory awareness of our bodily selves as movement. When we do, we will have what we need to be able to think and feel and act in ways that remain faithful to the body of earth and our bodies of earth.
When we understand dance broadly, we know that anything that happens to us in our life, pleasing or not, offers us an opportunity to deepen our experience of dancing and enrich our ability to dance.
4. Keep the love alive. After spending time learning a new form, the novelty may wear off and our enthusiasm pale. Suddenly the movements that seemed so life-giving are routine. They don’t produce the same sensory excitement. Inevitably the four-fold values named above creep in; we begin to try harder by exerting the power of our minds over our bodies, or we long simply to sit.
We humans are so good at creating habits. We are so good at getting caught in our habits, and forgetting that we were the ones who created them—even when we dance. Yet dancing remains our most potent resource for stirring to life the sensory awareness that reconnects us to our own creativity. As we play with movement possibilities, we open to the life-enabling currents in us that are always looking for places to break out in new forms.
So when we dance, it is up to us to keep the love alive—to return to the pulse of our breathing, to reconnect with the movements that are making us, and so open to receive the energies of the universe coursing through us.
There is a dancer in each of us, and a dance in everything we do. Once we find that dancing energy, we have the most powerful resource there is for evaluating the impact of the movements we are making in all realms of our lives; for comprehending and empathizing with the pain we are creating in ourselves and others, and for sensing how to move in ways that will better enrich our lives as bodily humans in community on this planet. If we are to survive the 21st century, we must.