Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On the Philosophy of Dance

Last Tuesday, I gave a lecture at _____ on the philosophy of dance. This post expands on the ideas expressed there. Language Advisory – I use the word “ass” multiple times. Here goes!

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Something is better than nothing. Most people accept this simple fact (except for those few silly-bunnies who say - "well, supposing *I* don't think that," which, essentially, is questioning the goodness of their own existence). From this it follows that you and I are better than nothing, and that the entire cosmos is, at least in some sense, better than nothing. Or, in other words, it's all good ("it" being "existence"), or at least it's all better than nothing—because it is something.

Why does that matter?

A number of people assert that social dancing makes them feel good. They retire to their cozy beds at 2am in the morning, sometimes after quaffing copious amounts of water (or a martini, in my case - be classy!), feeling oddly and transiently validated. There *is* the fact that exercise produces endorphins which make for good moods - but that doesn't explain the feeling of rejection and invalidation when you’re turned down for a dance for reasons other than injury, fatigue, or simply being otherwise engaged. What bites is not that someone didn’t want to dance but that someone did not want to dance *with you*. Ouch. That could be due to many reasons - you might have forgotten to brush your teeth after eating a baguette positively dripping with baked garlic and brie (able to drop a person at twenty yards!). Or it might just be… you. Ooo. What a terrifying thought!

That reminds me of a mortifying experience in Kindergarten – we were playing the Farmer in the Dell. Oh how excited I was! This was a new, fun game! The people who were picked were assigned a special status – so cool – and of course I’d be picked! … Naturally, I was the cheese. The sky darkened, my classmates’ fingers became hideously elongated as they pointed at the cheese in the corner which they cavorted around as they sang the dirge “the cheese stands alone.” “The Cheese Stands Alone” – what a frightful thing! Even my friends, who I had –er- empowered against the school bully by teaching them to mock her block structures, hadn’t picked me!

Was I not pretty enough?

Social dance, I’d posit, provokes an opposite of that feeling of isolation and abandonment. It does not make us feel good simply because exercise produces endorphins but because it is a fundamentally life-affirming recreation/art: one must affirm, even if only subconsciously, not only the existence of another person, but the goodness of that other person’s existence, and not in a general and disembodied sense but you, body and soul or mind and body (and it seems to me that “mind” is understood in much the same way that a soul is).

Nietzsche once wrote, "To have joy in anything, one must approve everything." In a sense, that's quite true. In order to take joy in something you must approve of its existence - and not just its existence, but (now I'll sound like Heidegger) the totality/universality of existence. A human being does not exist in a void. There are *so many* causes/pre-conditions/etc. that go into a person being there before you, and the reason for those causes span space, time, and even transcend them. Sure, a being may exist in imperfect circumstances, but that does not mean that their being is not good or that the world they exist in and which makes possible their existence is not good. In spite of any adverse circumstances we find ourselves in, existence is good.

We don't often think of these things when we look at another human being. But that doesn't mean they're not there. Dancing is a way of affirming and delighting in the goodness of being. I have to be and you have to be before we can dance and create beauty. I have to – even subconsciously – say it is better for me to dance with *you* than for me to not dance with you (and vice versa). We make these affirmations or denials on a prosaic level everyday – that it is better to eat healthy food than unhealthy food; that it is better to go to work than to not go to work, etc. Why eat healthy food if it isn’t good for you? Why go to work if not going to work is just as fine? Why dance – which serves no purpose, really – unless it is better to create beauty?

The dancer does not dance "for the sake of” some other purpose, at least, not when he has beauty as the object of the dance which can elevate dance to the level of a fine art as opposed to a recreation or technique. And I am not saying that dance is an art because it is beautiful – many things are beautiful – but that dance has beauty as its object: beauty for the sake of beauty. That is why the person who dances "in order to be admired on the dance floor and get grrls" may certainly be called a Bad Dancer. He has taken an art and subverted it for other purposes. What a nasty man!

Social dancing, which involves two or more people, is, therefore, the co-creation of beauty. A fleeting relationship is struck up on the dance-floor with other dancers and that relationship is intimate, trusting, and obliging - even self-effacing. Intimate, at least in swing-dancing, because it is typically a relationship between two people. Trusting because no one *knows* what a lead or follow will do but each assumes the other will act with good will and not abuse their trust by dropping the follow or making the lead look like an ass and other such things. Obliging and self-effacing because the good dancer seeks harmony and unity – even when a partner is given space to do their own thing, it is done within the context of the partnership of the dance: the lead or the follow have to open up/relinquish that space. In many respects, a social dance has the same cadences and rhythms that a good conversation has – you give people space to have their say, you expand on themes, you pun, you play, but not at the expense of the other person. If you set yourself up in opposition to your partner, the resulting effect in dance is akin to a choir that has many strident singers trying to out-do one another. Horrid!

Speaking of social mores in conversation – show me an anarchist and I’ll show you a bad dancer. Dancing is a creation of a beauty that comes about through order. Dancing is not simply spasming across the floor – one is conforming/ordering movements to a pattern in one’s mind, much like a painter attempts to conform the image he puts to canvas to an idea within his mind. Swing-dancing makes use of patterns. There is the Swing-Out, the Charleston, the Scissor Kicks, the Shorty-George, &c. We are not constrained by these patterns in the sense that they impinge upon our freedom of movement - they're more like building blocks, or analogous to musical notation within a song that tell us how to order sound. Only, instead of an arrangement of sound you have an arrangement of movement (usually to sound). Yet we do not all express these patterns in the same way.

The instrument or material of dance is the body, just as a sculptor has his marble and the musician his violin. Each body has unique physical capabilities and limitations…Perhaps one has sculpted abs! Each person, then, will order the movement of their body in similar but distinct ways when following a pattern. Sometimes we cannot order our movements as we wish because we do not have the right physique, do not know the pattern, or haven’t practiced moving our body in that way for long enough. To learn how to order movement requires practice. Practice sometimes entail bodily injury either because we are unaccustomed to perform certain movements or…for other reasons. F’r’instance: I was practicing my Scissor Kicks, yesterday, when my brother walked in and told me it wasn’t the 30’s or 40’s anymore and took up a semi-Kung-Fu stance. I promptly and playfully kicked him in the shin. He retaliated by socking me in the head. That is the price I pay for practicing.

Because dancing consists in an imposition of forms upon our natural movements, we are also limited by our imagination, by how we think. Some follows just don’t think to do a Shorty-George when doing an underarm-turn. I know *I* never thought of that before someone demonstrated it. Then again, some people’s imaginations have stagnated or they don’t *think* in good ways – naturally, their dance reflects that.

Further, the personality and moods we have determine the expression of these patterns or which patterns we express. If I'm feeling playful, I'll express that in my dance. The Charleston can be done seriously. It can be done poorly. It can be done playfully. The observer can note the differences in these patterns by judging not just the technical execution, but the smaller details: where the hands are, the expression on the faces of the dancer, the synchronization of the move to the music, etc.

In social dancing, tall people dance with short people. Short people dance with short people. People with doctorates dance with plumbers. The co-creation of beauty through the ordering of movement contains an infinite number of beautiful possibilities

So far, I’ve said: dancing has beauty as its object and that beauty comes through a being’s ordering of natural movements. The ordering of one’s movements is constrained by the physical capabilities of the body which is the material of the dance and of the mind which orders the movement. Dancing is, also, fundamentally, a delighting in existence – in life, which is partly why we feel good when we dance. I have not said that all dances performed by people constitute a fine art, but that dancing can be elevated to a fine art (which I have not defined here but left rather vague) when it has beauty as its object and that it contains a number of the aspects mentioned above.

It is interesting to see that dance is, historically, part of a vast number of religious rituals, spans nations, and is linked in art or literature to something sacred or divine, to an affirmation of existence in some form or other. The great Italian poet Dante describes those in heaven as dancing – but there is no dancing in the Inferno, which is reserved for those who reject goodness, though there are people with hands linked who whirl across hot sands so as to avoid pain.

These are very preliminary thoughts on the philosophy of dance. I have relied on a very short chapter written by the French Philosopher Etienne Gilson for much of what I have written – he said what I said first, though differently. And Gilson, I think, gets certain things wrong in his analysis of dance because he implies, at one point, that dance often has as its object self-perfection, which I don’t agree with at all.

In any case, please don’t hurt me because of the disjointedness and crude reasoning!