Dancing The World Awake

The energy of creation may be our saving grace

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 28
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

Movement is one of the basic languages of our being and of the non-verbal part of the brain, important for all of us. Janet Day is a dancer and festival facilitator who enjoys leading workshops on "Finding Your Own Dance". She is a member of the Chinook Learning Community and lives in Clinton, Washington.

"We dance not only for ourselves, but for the good of the people."

– ZUNI

What comes to your mind when you think of "dance"? In your mind’s eye do you see ballerinas, stages, and supple graceful bodies? Those are certainly parts and aspects, but the more I’ve gotten to know dance, the more my sense of it has changed. Rather than a set of forms that certain skilled people do, it has become for me an experience, an orientation, a way of perceiving and communicating available to everyone – even you. "Oh no!" you say. "I’m not a dancer." Perhaps, but why not risk coming with me for a little exploration? In spite of yourself you may yet find yourself getting the blood flowing, toning a muscle or two, clearing out the cobwebs, having an excuse (if you need one) to touch another human being, to laugh, sing, roll around in the grass, or the middle of your living room carpet.

As long as you can move your eyeballs in their sockets, you can share your dances. Two of the most powerful dance performances I’ve seen were done by individuals who had physical or mental impairments. One was presented by the Sunrise Dance Company, a Salt Lake City-based group of mentally retarded adults, many of whom had Down’s syndrome. They were touring the Southwest sharing their unique dances, playfulness and spontaneity with audiences of all ages. No book or lecture on this population group could have given me as much understanding of and appreciation for their world view, their creativity, and their wisdom as this one and a half hour work of art. At the end of the performance the audience was invited to join them in the large open space where they had been performing. Dancing together, the Paul Winter Consort song echoed in my mind: "In a circle of friends, in a circle of sound, all our voices will blend when we touch common ground."

The second performance was by Merce Cunningham, whose dancing and choreographic brilliance is responsible for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was during one of their performances only a few years ago that I saw Merce himself, crippled by a movement-inhibiting malady, dancing his dance. It was not a dance of physical strength and flexibility, but it was a strong dance – a dance of sensitivity, great feeling and wholeness. His dance was proof that the artist in each of us need never be daunted by age or infirmities and that the creative spirit can make all things beautiful and whole.

This is easy to forget when we see the performances of lithe, highly trained ballet dancers or the acrobatic routines of many modern dancers. We sit and watch enraptured, admiring, possibly transformed, but certain that if this is dance, we are not dancers.

It would be better for us to say that those are not forms of dance we have chosen to learn and spend many years of our lives perfecting. If we can feel and express ourselves in movement of any kind, we are dancers. The more often we dance, the more skillful we become at using our bodies, creating movement forms, and expressing feeling. Eventually, if we choose to, we can become a master of the dance craft; but from the very beginning we are dancers.

How do we begin? We begin by exploring the movements of our own bodies, no matter how limited or unexpressive they may seem in comparison to the movements of others. We might even choose to begin with no visible movement at all, lying on our backs on the floor. Whatever images appear or that we call forth will trigger responses in our muscles that will enable us to experience every feeling and nuance of the whole dance in the familiar realm of stillness. These non-moving dances are especially helpful when we are first beginning to explore the movements of our bodies and beginning to dance our own dances. They allow our muscles to feel the images before we mobilize what still might be a shy and reluctant body. Soon, however, the shyness and reluctance will disappear as the delight, power, pathos, and freedom of our own dances begin to emerge, compelling our bodies into movement.

This is a process we have experienced before, when we were very young, when we were unafraid to move in any way we felt like moving. Then we didn’t know any of the "specialized dance forms," so there was no right or wrong way to move. As children we didn’t save our dances for a party or dance only when music was playing. We danced whenever we felt like it, wherever we were, indoors or out, to the sound of a singing bird, the ocean waves, our own song, or to no sound at all – dancing silent internal rhythms. We did large dances that involved every part of our bodies and small dances with our hands or fingers, arms, head and neck, feet and toes – so many movements to explore! We danced with objects, creatures, even other human beings when they didn’t resist or become controlling.

Try it again. Move with your own child or a young friend. Don’t talk, don’t laugh, unless the laughter grows out of the movement and becomes music for the dance; and by all means don’t stop when you get those pangs of thought that say, "I’m not a dancer, I must look silly." No one is watching. If someone was, they would be totally captivated by the sincerity, spontaneity and beauty of the dance. If you gave them an invitation and some encouragement, verbal or non, they might even join you.

As Rabindranath Tagore reminds us in his collection of short poems, FIREFLIES, "Those thoughts of mine that are never captured by words perch upon my songs and dance." Children and adults alike need movement as a means of expression and communication even after verbal skills have matured, if they desire to live fully and realize all of their expressive potential as a human being. Benefits to body and mind have long been known as well. Yet how often we resist or discourage our own spontaneous dances and those new dancers who are born into our families and communities. "You’d look more like a ballerina, if you’d point your toes and hold your hands like this," says an adult to a young child thoughtlessly setting external standards and discouraging the child’s natural creative movement expression. Or the familiar statement from fearful fathers to dancing boy children, "Let’s go play ball." We forget that men and women can be both athletes and dancers; one activity need not preclude the other. In fact the two activities are exceptionally complementary. The most creative movers are often the best athletes, and body strength and awareness contributes to our dances.

I’m reminded of a dance performance given by a group of men in Seattle, entitled MEN AT PLAY. These creative, athletic fellows entered the performance space, basketball in hand, and in moments had created all the excitement of a real game. Soon the ball disappeared, yet the "playing" continued, carrying the improvising dancers through all the feelingful realms of male to male interaction from boyhood to old age. Audience and dancers alike were surprised and amazed by the richness and diversity of the interactions that emerged in the dance, offering wonderful models for strong and meaningful relationships between and among men. I wanted to see sequels to that performance by other groups entitled WOMEN AT PLAY, MEN AN D WOMEN AT PLAY, FAMILIES AT PLAY, including grandma and grandpa.

So the next time words don’t do justice to our feelings and images, when we find ourselves not really experiencing the wind or understanding the waves, or when we know that a bird sweeping through the sky has something to share with us and we with it, we can dance our wordless images and feelings.

Experiencing that magic helps me begin to understand the ZUNI quotation at the beginning of this article. Through dance we can connect with each other, with spirit, with parts of ourselves and our world that aren’t accessible to us through verbal communication. That connection with our context helps us to understand the higher purposes of our lives on this planet in this age.

I first encountered that quote (in a slightly different translation) at the entrance to the kiva-like main studio of the Tucson Creative Dance Center. Barbara Mettler, the center’s 75-year-old founder, has expanded on this theme in her recent book, The Nature Of Dance As A Creative Art Activity (Mettler Studios, Inc., 3131 N. Cherry Ave., Tucson AZ 85719, 1980, $12.50):

Dance was once an integrated expression of the whole of life. With civilization comes disintegration, and dance breaks up into many specialized forms. A contemporary approach to the art of body movement can help reintegrate dance as an expression of the whole person and of the whole group, pointing the way to a healthier society.

How can this be? To see this, let us move on from the performances and the private dances to the family dances, the dances with a friend, a mate, the community dances, and maybe even the global dances. Around our planet there have been and are many cultures in which dance is a regular part of daily life, seasonal festival, ritual, ceremony, and celebration. There is much we can learn from these ancient dances, the dancing times, and the dancing places that can be a foundation for our group dances today. These dances are also wonderful tools for learning about the cultures which gave them birth, as well as our brothers and sisters around the planet for whom those cultures were central.

This wealth of knowledge would certainly aid world leaders in dealing with the challenging problems of global peace. What might happen at the SALT Talks if they were preceded by several hours of dancing some of these dances? Each representative could teach the dances from his or her country. Since the group would be primarily men, often the men would have to partner with one another, alternately taking the female role in the dance, guaranteed to be an enlightening experience in itself. Laughter would flow, sweat pour, neckties loosen, coats be shed, hair rumple, bodies relax and touch. Then if the talks could begin without a break, before anyone had a chance to put on the barriers of coat and tie and decorum, what would transpire? Possibly a realization of the absurdity involved in thinking one country must protect itself against another because of "the differences," or maybe some idea that weapons aren’t the only way to be "the strongest." The dancing would inevitably demonstrate that each culture offers the planet a different kind of strength – strengths that can be complementary to one another.

At ensuing meetings if the participants in the SALT Talks, as well as representatives from other countries, could be persuaded to create new dances together without planning them in advance or pausing to discuss the dance as they moved, I trust some amazing discoveries would be made. The dancers would not be restricted in any way to the patterns of the old dances, but could allow any pattern to emerge or no pattern at all. Nor would sounds that grew out of the movements be restricted, not even angry sounds that might accompany angry dances. The only rule would be that none could leave the dancing space. Participants could sit and watch supporting the dance with their attention or music making, but they could not leave. If this were to go on for an hour or two every time our leaders met to discuss peace, disagreements might be settled long before they reached the battlefield, or the nuclear arms plant.

Out of the silence the movements of this global dance could slowly emerge from among the group members, awkwardly at first with much disarray. Eventually the participants would flow in and out of the positions of leading and following during different parts of the dance. Gradually movements would emerge that were seemingly led by none, yet followed by all. As the dance began to transcend the sum of its parts, allowing inspiration to take form and add its piece to the picture, the dancers would be giving form to what had previously been formless, and would be gaining a new level of awareness about working together with each other and with spirit where previously there had been only confusion and separation. Then the magic of major global transformation would be coming into its full power, without diminishing the power or character of any of the individual dancers or their dances, but merely by adding another dimension to their participation together.

Dance experiences could be followed by other experiences in collective creativity with song, drawing, writing, story-telling, drama. One cannot doubt that an amazingly different and very beautiful world would result. One in which understanding, cooperation and co-creation abounded.

In case the nations’ leaders won’t take on the project immediately, we might need to take on the explorations first, in our homes, our communities, our states. Remembering all the time not to ignore our own dances in the excitement of dancing with the group, but rather to nurture and cultivate those individual dances and the dances we do with our family members, friends, coworkers, creatures, elements and spirit around us. Everyone and everything can be a potential partner. Let’s seek as many as we can and continue to learn about our world, human and not human.

I think again of the words of Barbara Mettler, words which seemed very bold when I first read them, but which now seem tame:

A group of dancers who meet regularly over a period of time, pursuing the common goal of practicing dance as a free creative art activity on an ever higher artistic level, can become a creative force helping to counteract the disintegrating forces in daily life.

By using the common language of movement and by building up common experiences, the group becomes more and more capable of expressing unified feeling and creating collective dance art works while retaining the freedom of the individual.

The purity of the art experience can set standards for purity in daily life and, although the life of every group member may take a different form outside the studio, all are united in a kind of creative work which cannot fail to be a positive and integrating factor in the cultural life of our time.

Dance and sing the world awake, the body alive. It’s the work and play we were put on the planet to explore and enjoy. It’s the energy of creation and it may be our saving grace.

"We dance not only for ourselves, but for the good of the people."

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