Post 33

So I Think You Can Dance:
Reflections on Dancing Today

I can imagine why, on the theory of evolution, games of hide-and-seek and tag would appeal to even young children.  But it surprised me to find that if you turn on music with a good beat, a tiny toddler will start bouncing up and down to the rhythm.  It looks largely involuntary.  Why are our brains set up to be so receptive to music?  And why does certain music make us want to dance?  Why is this trait so important, from an evolutionary standpoint?  Survival of the most rhythmic?

Some would tell me that certain traits are ‘just there’ and others would come up with something about how dancing was fundamental to our survival because in all prehistoric cultures, dancing built a sense of community and was therefore important in mating and this is why all the cavemen whose brains could not tell that it was time to party because their neurons weren’t wired for music just continued to sit and stare at the fire while the hip cavemen went off to the hip caveman nightclub and got all the cavewomen and then passed along their Caveman-Can-Dance genes to their offspring.

(And on that topic, it just so happens that after writing the above, I saw a book called Sex at Dawn: Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality which was being given away for free.  It briefly crossed my mind to thumb through it, just for laughs, but then I decided against it – one time a wise priest had said to me, “Be careful what you read; life is short,” so I generally operate on the notion that life is too short for fiction.)

But anyway, I don’t see the animals dancing.  A teensy-weensy fraction of them, out of the billions of animals out there, have been known to use a tool (which of course proves that Animals are Exactly Like People, Only Better), but I don’t see any dancing.

And no, that male bird ‘tap-dancing’ in order to impress the female bird doesn’t count.  And the amazing dancing cats on YouTube (there must be a few) don’t count either.  And as for your aunt’s ferret – oh, stop it now – don’t be argumentative!  You get my point – stick with me or go find a blog where you can leave comments.

It’s the people who are dancing.  Or to be more accurate, it’s the people who WANT to dance.  I think it’s very deeply rooted.  It’s an expression of joy, for one thing.  I watched a nature documentary where the BBC film crews were trying so hard to capture footage of snow leopards in the wild, and when they finally did, they told the local guides the good news.  I was fascinated.  The guides started dancing!  They just started twirling around – it was a folk-dance version of the football players’ touchdown dance.

I saw that, and thought: “Look at those men.  They’re actually dancing for joy. That’s so healthy!  How come we never see that?”  I, for one, don’t know any men who dance in public.

And the other day I went to a local annual festival where each country or ethnic group has at least a couple of huge tents, featuring the food, handicrafts, history and music of that part of the world.  It’s a wonderful festival and since there are eighty or so pavilions, it takes all day if you want to visit them all: a most suitable plan of action.  It’s an embodiment of distributism, another ‘-ism’ that I like.  Very nice.

Anyway, some of the countries have dancing.  Now I did enjoy a fair bit of the dancing that I saw, but for the most part, there were barely any men doing it.  So when I went to the Croatian pavilion and saw that every female dancer had a partner, I was impressed.  It was enjoyable to see, and not only did the men look good, all dressed up in the traditional ethnic clothing and doing their traditional ethnic moves, but they made the women look good, just by virtue of their contrasting look and style of movement.  I thought to myself: “Look at these men, looking so sharp!  They look good doing this.  How come we never see that?”

It gave me the same feeling that I had upon watching a performance of flag-throwers on a trip to Europe.  That was in a city square, and there were a lot of flag-throwers, both men and boys, and a big crowd of spectators.  The purpose of the performance was to raise funds to pay for the restoration of a statue of a lion.  They weren’t actually dancing, but it had that feeling, because they were very synchronized and while they did their routine, a line of drummers kept a steady beat.  The big flags were on poles and had a coat of arms on them, and the men tossed them up and caught them.  (The flags were a symbol of purity and were therefore not supposed to touch the ground.) These sturdy fast-footed men presented as very masculine, wearing smart-looking medieval clothing: hats, jackets, tights and boots.  I marvelled at the pageantry of it all: “This is so incredible.  You never see this back home.”

So this post is a lament about the loss of something from the past.  It’s a lament because I can’t see a solution.  I like that quotation from Chesterton, when he said something to the effect that “I am aware that much of what I hold dear is vanishing.”

So when do you see men dancing nowadays?  From what I can tell, the only time they’ll dance is when they go to the club to meet women.  And of course, romantic aims have always been one of the main motivations for people to dance, ever since that first disco ball was hung up in a cave.  George Bernard Shaw, who was almost always on the opposite side of an issue from Chesterton, called dancing “a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire” which I think is clever, but I like this waltz version of the same concept: “Heaven – I’m in Heaven – And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!  And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we’re out together dancing cheek-to-cheek.” (Irving Berlin, songwriter) 

Perhaps it’s this angle that led many Protestant denominations to declare dancing sinful, but I think they went too far, especially in light of all the scriptural references to dancing, and especially if dancing is part of being human, which is what I think.  Catholics say dancing has its place.

But anyway, I know that men dance at weddings sometimes.  As a matter of fact, I suspect that in many cases, it’s pretty much the last dancing some men ever do.   After that, they just go home and stare at the fire; their dancing days are over.

I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Dancing used to be so much more, and every time I saw these things – the men with the flags, the folk dancers at the festival and the spontaneous dancing upon hearing good news – it struck me that we’ve really lost something as a culture, to have kept only the nightclub version of dancing (boom-boom-boom).  Now I know about the ballroom dancing clubs, but that seems to be almost a world unto itself, like some specialized sport.   When this ballroom dancing spills out into the regular community, like at a wedding, it somehow seems like an awkward clash of cultures, like chili next to sushi at a potluck.  I’m reminiscing about the days of Cinderella, when everybody in the community anticipated or at least knew about the upcoming ball, and everybody without a wicked stepmother was able to go, and, once there, danced the same dance.

Dancing used to be done by all the adults, and it wasn’t just a mating thing; the older generations would come out and they would join in as well.  And perhaps these long-married couples were some of the better dancers – having had the same partner for decades, they’d be very well attuned to each other.

I am nostalgic for something which isn’t part of my own memories – the balls and the country dances, and maybe even the dances in the local dance hall and in the basements of the (Catholic) churches, though I think those tended to be less multi-generational.  Where have all these dances gone?  Nowadays we have dancing (although just the other day, I spoke to a 70-year-old who said that the nightclub version doesn’t qualify as dancing, which I don’t think is quite fair) but we don’t have dances.  At least, we don’t have them the way we used to.

And yet I note that we are, as a culture, quite interested in watching other people dance, either incorporated into a singer’s performance or as a reality television show (“So You Think You Can Dance”).  Dancing has changed from something which we did for amusement, into something that we watch for amusement.

And if you look at dancing today, the most recently invented versions are designed, in general, for watching.  They are for performing rather than sharing with other dancers.  Now I know that dance-as-performance has always existed, and that dancing isn’t always about interaction with other dancers.  I know that even in the context of folk-dancing, there are times when the star dancer takes the stage alone and does his or her thing.  (I can’t help but think of belly-dancing here – bleck – or Salome’s dance which ended with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, but that’s just me.)   My point is that very few (I can’t say none, because maybe there are some, and you would know, and be dying to tell me) of the new styles are designed to reflect relationship with each other.  What I mean is that in the classical and traditional forms of dance, dancers were usually facing each other, in a line or in pairs.  There was a relationship there, but nowadays, from what I can see, the dancers are solo, or if there is a group, they face the audience (or video camera) and not each other.   They may be (mostly) synchronized, like the K-Pop performers at the Korean pavilion (who do not show us the heritage of Korea, but rather, the effect of the western culture on that heritage), but they are all facing in the same direction, like people on an elevator who are waiting for the doors to open.

And so there we are, watching the dancers/performers.  We ourselves don’t sing and dance and act; we watch professionals, who sing and dance and act.

Our society has become extremely passive and far more interested in inputs than outputs.  Take singing: it used to be the case that we all knew many stanzas worth of several songs, and people like Karol Wojtyla could remember all the words even when the voices of everyone around him had faded away, but now there aren’t very many songs that we all hold in common.  Even Christmas carols, the last hold-outs for a shared musical culture, are becoming unfamiliar.  The instrumental versions pop up here and there, but we can’t sing beyond the first stanza.  We don’t sing as a community anymore.

And it’s the same with theatre – we don’t do it as a grassroots thing either; in the past, most schools or parishes would spend months preparing for a Christmas play, but nowadays it almost never happens.  A good priest was telling me that in Poland, each parish had a theatre group, and then there would be a festival where the groups would compete.  That’s a lot of regular folks doing a lot of theatre!  And why not?  It’s too fun to leave to the experts!  Here in Canada, there seems to be a lot of theatre happening, but it’s not the way it looks: if you took away the government subsidies on which almost all of them depend, most of this theatre would vanish overnight (and I don’t know if that would be a bad thing –  one could argue that the government shouldn’t be in the business of supporting art; when the churches commissioned artists, the churches at least wanted and kept this art, but when a faceless and fleeting government gives subsidies, I don’t know if anybody really cares for the art produced).  My point is that it’s been so long since average people organized theatre for themselves that we’ve almost forgotten that it’s possible.

And it’s the same with so many things – we have more cooking shows than ever, and yet the cooking know-how of the average American is lower than it has ever been.  A few generations ago, a woman could feed her family for weeks if she had access to a bag of flour and a few other things, but nowadays, that knowledge has nearly vanished; one or two generations of children raised on processed convenience foods by working mothers has been enough to almost wipe out vital skills.  I’m not saying that there aren’t signs of hope, and I know that not all cooking shows are alike, but I question whether ‘cooking as entertainment’ is going to lure average folks back into the kitchen.  Does it inspire or does it intimidate?  When the average American watches ‘the professional’ with his quick knife and exotic ingredients, I wonder if the reaction isn’t, to some extent, “Gee, I can’t do that!”  The entertainment so often consists of doing what the average cook cannot (and need not) do.  Seeing the ‘real chefs’ accomplish incredible feats in minutes in spotless kitchens is so different from how everyday cooking generally looks and feels.  And the higher the entertainment value, the more distorted things can become.  I saw one show where the judging chef actually spat out, in disgust, the food that the contestant chef had cooked.  How rude!  I hope the contestant chef can one day forgive that immature judge.

And it happens with sports, where we watch instead of play (gone are the days of neighborhood recreational soccer for example), and it happens with sex, where watching becomes voyeuristic and destructive of people and relationships due to pornography.  (Alas, the technology of the internet combined with the technology of photography or videography are turned here to evil ends.)

Now of course entertainment in moderation is a good and human thing; I’m not knocking it, actually – my point is that we used to entertain ourselves more by doing rather than by watching.

So these days we watch dancing, and we watch the judges who watch dancing, and we talk about it and some footage ‘goes viral,’ but as it turns out, we don’t do much dancing ourselves anymore.  We leave it to the pros.

At least, we don’t dance when anybody is watching.  You’ve heard the rather recent line, “Dance like nobody’s watching”?  When you stop and think about that, doesn’t it strike you that there’s a sad underbelly to that notion, even though it is supposed to suggest liberty?  In the past, you needed the community in order to dance, and dancing was one of the benefits that community offered.  But now, it’s the opposite: you can dance truly and freely only if you can dance alone.

TenaciousOne, who does organize dances at a local community hall, noticed that nobody will dance at these events until the room is completely dark.  She emphasized to me, “completely dark, as in, pitch black!”  But once the darkness is in place, everyone parties like it’s 1999.  Who can resist that addictive beat?  We’re no better at resisting than we were when we were toddlers, and even the senior in the group home taps her foot when she hears the music that once made her move.  But anyway, these people were just itching to dance; they just didn’t want to be that reality show contestant who ‘thinks he can dance.’  The ‘expert’ phenomenon has caused the average person to feel quite self-conscious about his own dancing.  If you can’t do it like the rock stars, then maybe you shouldn’t do it at all.

And here let me talk about experts in general.  The best expert is the one who educates and encourages.  The best expert is someone who does not remind you that your skills are so inferior to his nor make you feel incompetent, but rather, someone who makes you feel like you too could learn these skills if you tried, and who even makes you want to.   The great saints speak to everyone in their writings, constantly reminding all of us, who feel quite ordinary, that we too are supposed to become saints, and that we can indeed improve our ways, starting now.  When you listen to a really inspiring preacher, you feel encouraged to try again. To encourage, to educate – that’s the point.

But anyway, when it comes to dancing (and singing and acting too) I think we’d be better off to reclaim these things as part of our own personhood, as part of the simple and pure joy of being human.  I like Chesterton’s quotation: “It is too often forgotten that just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.” (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Bk. 3, Ch. 1)   In this context, even a bad dancer is a dancer.  It’s not that there’s no such thing as dancing badly, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done; let’s move away from the performance aspect of it; dancing should not become the exclusive property of the people on television or the experts.  Dancing is one of those things that belongs to everybody, like walking or running or jumping.  You have your version of it, but you have your own version of eating and sleeping too.  It’s not an activity that warrants the warning, “Do not attempt to repeat this at home.  These dancers are trained professionals who have great bodies and know how to move them.”

I’m imagining a show called, “So You Think You Can Walk.”  People would be screened and tested on their ability to adapt to different terrain, videotaped and eliminated by the 1984-esque voting public.  “No more Fit-Bit for you, my friend!” Wouldn’t it make people self-conscious about the entire activity?  There might be a lot more sitting, even if sitting is the new smoking, as they say.

And since this post is a lament, I don’t have a solution.  I don’t have a way to get what I want.  And I don’t ask for much, really.

All I want is for everyone to get dressed in ball gowns and elegant suits, in silks, satins and velvet, in embroidered cloaks and gloves, with hair done exactly so.  If we need a fairy Godmother here, then so be it.  I want everyone to make their way to the local castle, where we’ll be met by the king himself and his dazzling son.  The immaculate palace will be lit all through with glowing candles, and the orchestra will play music which sweeps us off our feet.  Everyone will dance, the young and the old, the tall and the short, the rich and the poor.  Sometimes we’ll dance as pairs, and sometimes we’ll dance in formation.  We’ll eat together, and then we’ll dance some more.  We won’t get tired and everyone will be there except for the wicked stepmother.  But the clock won’t chime that it’s midnight, because midnight will never come.  We’ll live happily ever after, and we’ll dance forevermore.

 “. . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .“ (Ecclesiastes)