Those dancing feet

Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts. For it is no mere translation or abstraction of life. It is life itself.–Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life.

Come and meet
Those dancing feet
On the avenue I’m taking you to
Forty-Second Street.–42nd Street
, by Al Dubin and Harry Warren

If you only knew me to look at me, and tried to work out what I did for a living, the notion of a career in dance is not the first conclusion you would jump to. So when people discover that I’ve spent my life writing about dance, one of the first things they ask, in somewhat incredulous tones, is: Were you ever a dancer?

And I’m reduced to explaining that, in fact, no, I only ever tripped the light fantastic in public once in my life. But it was for the Queen.

I was eight or nine, living in Nottingham. She was Princess Elizabeth, and she was on a visit to the city to open a gasworks or cut a cake, and every kid for miles around was rounded up and taken to a clearing in Sherwood Forest. And made to do country dances around the maypole as part of her program of entertainment. I remember her vividly: coming down a slope into the clearing in an open car, beautiful pink dress, big pink hat, the famous wave …

The memory has stayed with me all my life, so you can imagine how disappointed I was when I finally got to meet her during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference in Vancouver some years ago. She had no memory of me at all.

Those country dances were, of course, village dances: dances of celebration, of welcome, of thanks—ritualizations of the passages of human life. Dancing is such a transient thing—it happens and it has gone—and I’m always moved by the way we human beings are so willing to use this flimsy bit of stuff we live in, this body, to speak to each other in such undisguised and honest ways.

Here in the “developed” west we don’t use dance much any more for that kind of communication, but in those parts of the world where the main social structure is the village, dancing remains very much part of the way people relate to each other.

Some of my most vivid memories of village life around the world have to do with dance. Almost always, it has been a dance of welcome, and almost always it has been just for Susan and me, somewhere off the tourist track, because that is how we like to travel, finding what we find.

It happened on the island of Tanna, at the southern tip of the Vanuatu archipelago, in a village that still lived in the stone age, deep in the jungle. The 92-year-old chief and the men and youths of the village, all of them in nothing but their nambas, or penis-wrappers, enfolded us in a stamping, circling dance in a clearing under a giant banyan. The women and children shook and wiggled as they watched.


And there was the dance of welcome we were given in the tiny Fijian village of Ravi Ravi, on a dewy morning after a helter-skelter midnight ride in the back of a battered pickup across the stormy western mountains of Vanua Levu. We’d slept in the village guest hut, and now the village women—all the village women, a dozen or so, of all ages—gathered on the village green outside the open-walled longhouse, lines of laundry fluttering in the breeze, to give us a proper welcome. They were shy about it, as I guess we were too—we  were awkward with the gifts we had brought, and didn’t know the proper procedure—and some of them couldn’t remember all the steps or all the words, so there was a lot of giggling, and then we all sat around and smiled a lot and told stories and drank some ceremonial kava.

Village greeting in Fiji

And in an even tinier encampment on the Masai Mara, one of those hedge-bounded circles of tiny hutments around a trampled patch where the cattle are kept at night, the laughing Masai herdsmen in their brilliant scarlet cloths and herding sticks did their jumping warrior dances for us (and made me try to join them, proving decisively that old white guys can’t jump) and the women gathered in the compound clearing to welcome us with a delicate sideways step-dance on the packed cow-dung …

In every case, the dancers, grave and courteous, were showing us who they were in the simplest and most time-honoured ways—dancing as ceremony. It was Doris Humphrey, another iconic maker of dance, who said movement never lies, and what I think she was getting at was the way that what we see when a dancer dances before us is the naked truth, because the body can’t express anything else: it’s finite, visibly expressive. Without words, it speaks volumes to us about the miraculous diversity of the world we live in, and the endless variety of meanings we want to convey and intentions we all have toward each other.

And I’ve often wondered what kind of world we might make if, before we sat down to negotiate, instead of doing the deadly dance of diplomacy—mongoose circling cobra—we danced for each other, played some music and did some fancy steps, showed each other who we were … the way they do in the villages. The way I did for the Queen.


So, perhaps not surprisingly, I have a habit of telling people that I think dance is the most moving and communicative of all the artforms. Of course, even when you make allowances for the mime they do in the ballet classics, it’s not a story-telling art. As George Balanchine said, there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. But I like the idea that dance becomes something greater than itself; that it crosses the borders of language and logic, lets you see beyond the interacting bodies on the stage and through the interplay of rhythm and pattern and energy to a greater thing—it could be an idea, or an emotion, or an intuition within yourself that the dancing has provoked—puts you in touch, at the best of times, with the intuitive, the spiritual,  the transcendental … and you go away refreshed, thoughtful, energized.

It can be something as simple as the way a ballerina (so slight, so ephemeral) leans into the supporting arm of her dashing cavalier in The Sleeping Beauty and you get a sudden piercing understanding of what it is like to be defenceless, to trust, to be cared for. Or you can watch a tough little package of protoplasm in running shoes and a corset and a scrap of stretchy black silk project herself bodily through the air toward the back of  someone who doesn’t seem to be expecting her but who turns at the last moment and plucks her from a beam of light and they fall and roll …

And what you get from all this, there in the dark in the company of three dozen or three hundred or three thousand strangers, are whole volumes of pure information about recklessness and bravery and relationships, and the most piercing affirmation of what it is to be human, what it is to try to make sense of inhabiting this watery structure: the bravery of this scrap of bone and sinew and pale skin, muscle and hair and brow, all at the mercy of this huge and indifferent world … and, too, the intoxicating challenge of it: the thrill of opportunity, of the unlimited possibilities of the human condition.

The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty said it is through the body that we can know the world, because the body is made of the same flesh as the world—not actual flesh, of course, but worldly matter—and it is through the body that we communicate with the world. But because we are inside the body we see everything from a particular vantage-point—our vantage-point. Since the world’s boundaries are far wider than the limited perspectives of the individual, the meaning of what we see is likely to be far more embracing than what we actually perceive. But the way we interpret and interact with the world around us becomes embodied in our gestures, in the way we move: it becomes what I would call (though Merleau-Ponty doesn’t) body language.

I like that. It explains one of the great attractions of watching improvised movement, because improvisation shows us the imaginative and expressive depths and limitations of other people’s understanding of the world. It’s like conversation, and it makes watching people move on the stage fascinating in quite a different way from looking at them for purely aesthetic (or sexual) reasons. In the presence of experienced improvisors these shared explorations can be profound experiences. On the other hand, you can sometimes want to run screaming from the room after only twenty minutes.

There’s also the element of touch. The skin is our largest organ; it wraps us up and holds us apart from the world, and at the same time it is our way into the world. We use touch to communicate feelings, to get and to give comfort and pleasure, and because we know how powerful and dangerous it can be we also protect ourselves from it. Watching other people touch each other, hold each other, catch each other and push each other away speaks to something essential within us.

Not everyone agrees with all this, by any means. The church didn’t connect “the world, the flesh and the devil” without thinking it through, and the pioneer Quebecois dancer-choreographer Ludmilla Chiriaeff once recalled to me a time in the 1950s when her children were refused admittance to a church-run school because their mother showed her legs on the stage. Those old socio-religious hang-ups about dance as something shameful have largely gone now, but as an artform it is still widely undervalued as real communicative currency. Some tolerate it as simply a kind of human extravagance, something we allow ourselves to do because we have the luxury to be able to, the way we give ourselves and each other precious ornaments—part of our fascination with the useless.

This notion of uselessness connects us to the crux of the matter. Modern western society assigns the arts a place on the fringes of our existence, yet the creative impulse is part of what makes us who we are as human beings. As world societies refashion themselves (or are refashioned) under the impact of globalization and the new information and communications technologies, new connections must be forged with the realm of the imaginative and intuitive if we hope to discover moral and humane solutions to the dilemmas that confront us.

Cultural diversity, inter-cultural understanding and individual and national identities … dance, rooted in the real but situated in the non-literal, is ideally positioned to guide us toward fresh, nuanced and innovative responses to these challenges. However, the nature of dance—wordless in a society in which the word is paramount—blocks its widespread acceptance as an imaginative and interpretive tool. Dance has become dangerously disconnected from its audience, at a time when the connection it provides to the intuitive and the spiritual has never been more necessary.

And what makes all this hugely poignant, at least to me, is the transience of it all. The body, such an impermanent scrap, moves, and the dance is gone. The only place it survives is in the memory of those who saw it, in the words of those who wrote about it, in the images of those who filmed it. But even then it is not the thing itself that survives.

And this is where the experience lifts us beyond the careful and bloodless deliberations of the philosophers into the realm of the transcendent and the truly brave. It is an artform that simultaneously defines and defies the ephemerality of existence. We have nothing but the body, and soon enough we will not even have the body. But it is that physicality that speaks so eloquently about the implications of mortality and at the same time voices our defiance. No other artform speaks so directly about the fragile, temporary quality of life, or about the human instinct to transcend those bonds and aim for that perfect moment of self-realization.

The sentimentalist in me mourns the inevitable decay, even as I know it is inevitable. The part of me that wants to be changed, made better, given new ways to see, is joyous and grateful.

© MAX WYMAN, 2016

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