Friday, July 09, 2010

The Dancer and the Dance

I danced myself out of the womb.
Is it strange to dance so soon?
I danced myself into the tomb,
And then again, once more . . .

Cosmic Dancer

I think that in some parallel universe I’m a dancer. Or maybe it was that I was once one in a past life. Of course, all such speculation is no doubt simply a way of saying that I’m drawn to the art of dance but that in this life and in this universe, the opportunities never presented themselves for me to explore or pursue this particular form of artistic expression. Truth be told, I doubt I possess the huge amount of dedication and commitment necessary to develop the physical strength, flexibility, and stamina of a dancer. I have a hard enough time maintaining any type of regular exercise routine – plus I can’t even touch my toes!

I’m not sure where my interest in and attraction to dance comes from. And I should say that when I refer to “dance,” I’m not talking about ballroom dancing or folk dancing – as admirable as these expressions no doubt are. No, I’m definitely a modern dance kinda guy – with an openness to classical influences, of course.

I should also state up front that I’m in no way adverse to the sight of a man in peak physical condition – which, as I’ve noted, is what one needs to achieve and maintain in order to be a dancer. Lots of different sports and physical pursuits require such athleticism, but dance also demands gracefulness, and it's this combination of athleticism and grace that I find appealing. I also find it inspiring. I may not be able to touch my toes (yet) but watching the graceful and athletic moves of a dancer, mindful of the dedication and work that goes into expressing such beauty and strength, always motivates me to, at the very least, keep at my humble exercise routine – one that involves mainly push-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and some basic weight training.

It’s not, however, simply the body and moves of a dancer that fascinate me. It’s the whole idea that the human body can express meaning, ideas, emotions, truth - the really important things, in other words, of this dance we call life. I resonate with what François Rousseau has to say about dancers, after photographing many of them for his book Men in Motion: The Art and Passion of the Male Dancer. “The mission of the dancer,” he says, “is not to exhibit his body as an object, but rather to use the body he has, in the space he has, to put forth the feeling and meaning within his dance.” The physical beauty of the dancer, he adds, is “actually a by-product of the artistic determination.”

In The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance, and Musical Theater, Douglas Blair Turnbaugh contends that dance “is almost certainly the oldest art,” and that as a “bonding agent,” it has been a “factor in the creation of great civilizations as different as those of ancient Egypt and Greece and the Aztecs and the Incas.”

Annemarie Schimmel in the foreword to the book Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, notes that “in many civilizations, dance was an offering to the deities who might enjoy the harmonious movements of men and women.” Yet there is more to dance, especially in Sufism, often described as the esoteric aspect of Islam that seeks to convey direct knowledge of the sacred. In this realm, it is also an offering of one’s own self. And on musing on this point, Schimmel asks: “Does not the moth circumambulate the candle, dancing, as it were, to immolate itself in the end in the flame which is enchanting light and consuming fire, representative of Divine Beauty and Majesty?”

Schimmel goes on to describe the prominent role that dance has played in the Sufi tradition:

Dance was practiced by the Sufis from early days; in the late ninth century the first semahanes were founded – houses where the Sufis could relax somewhat from their intense spiritual work and harsh asceticism. Soon, many onlookers considered the whirling dance an essential part of Sufism – very much to the chagrin of the “sober” Sufis, let alone the orthodox lawyers. However, the only brotherhood in which the whirling was ever institutionalized as part of the ritual was the Mevleviyya, for Mevlana Rumi himself sang his immortal verses while whirling, enthralled by passionate longing for his friend Shams, the “Sun of Tabriz,” who opened to him the way to immediate experience of the Divine Beloved.

Love, however, means to die to one’s [ego] and to be revived in the Beloved, as much as the whiling dance can be interpreted as the dance of everything created around the central Sun of Divine Love, it also means to re-enact death and resurrection.

Not surprisingly, dance has a long history of entwinement with both spirituality and sexuality. The sexual act, after all, is also in its way a re-enactment of death and resurrection. In fact, Turnbaugh maintains that it is the fear of the sexual energy expressed in dance that has ensured its excising from the rituals of Christianity.

Other religious traditions, however, along with some aspects of Christianity, display a less narrow and less fearful understanding of that vital energy that, as theologians James and Evelyn Whitehead remind us, is the mysterious presence at the heart of all things, a presence that “courses through the world, enlivening and healing hearts.” We’re talking here of erotic presence and energy, known “through and beyond sexual arousal.” It's a presence that seeks and yearns to engage us personally so as to lead us “beyond narrow self-interest into fuller participation in life.” Thus this energy, this Eros, has, as Jean Houston notes, a “mission with the soul.” But what happens when we fail to recognize and/or respond to this sacred invitation to enter into a fuller participation in life? “Without Eros in some form,” Houston says, “creativity suffocates; [and] the soul does not grow.”

I sense and experience Eros in the beauty and power of dance. Through dance, this energy of radical love and transformation inspires me and calls me to enter into the dance.

What do I mean by this? Well, I don’t mean it makes me want to do pirouettes down the street, but it can and does inspire me to grow and be more flexible and creative in my thinking, my loving, my being in the world.

It inspires me, in short, to be the best I can be in all areas of my life: my physical life, my prayer life, my relational life.

In other words, I may not have, and may never have, the body of a dancer. But I can have the soul of one.

I also find it interesting that the “desire for the fullness of life” that Eros imparts is what Jesus talked about and yearns for us to embody. Is it any wonder that Lord of the Dance is one of my favorite hymns?

. . . I danced on the Sabbath when I cured the lame,
The holy people said it was a shame;
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high;
And they left me there on a cross to die.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

And I smile to think that the word we use to describe what is possessed and expressed by a beautiful and sensuous dancer, is the same word we use to describe God’s life-giving presence deep within us and throughout the world: grace. And since we are created in the image of God, I guess we’re all called to be dancers of one kind or another: graceful dancers of compassion, justice, insight, and revelation; dancers that seek to communicate, connect, and transform both ourselves and the world.

I seek to be such a dancer. And recently I’ve also decided to allow myself to be more intentionally and regularly inspired on multiple levels by attending actual dance performances here in the Twin Cities. I start tomorrow evening by attending the biennial show “Solo” at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “Solo” is an excellent way to access the “pulse of the Twin Cities dance scene” as it showcases the six most recent recipients of McKnight Foundation dance fellowships, each performing a new solo work. The “six-pack” of dance will features performances by Mary Ann Bradley, Sam Feipal (above), Kats Fukasawa, Justin Leaf, Karen Sherman, and Roxanne Wallace.

I also plan on regularly writing and sharing articles on the art of dance in a series of Wild Reed posts entitled “The Dancer and the Dance” – of which this post is officially the first. And I’ll conclude tonight’s post with the music video for the Kate Bush song, “Running Up That Hill” – a video that is unique in the realm of pop music for its intentional emphasis on dance.

Says Kate about this emphasis:

The director [of the video was] David Garfath and the dancer was a guy called Michael Hervieu, whom we auditioned. We wanted to do a piece, a serious piece of dance. Over the last couple of years, all the videos I've seen, dance has become a very exploited thing and hasn’t really been treated seriously. It’s been used to sort of be accessories around the person who’s starring in the film. And we thought it would be nice to do almost a classical piece of dance, filmed as well as possible, because it’s very rarely filmed well now. In fact, the only well-filmed piece of dance I think I've ever seen was Twyla Tharp’s “Catherine Wheel” and I think that's because she was so involved in it that it was so good. So that’s what we wanted to do, a nice serious piece of dance, simple, well-filmed and give dance a chance in a real way in this pop world.

Of the resulting music video, Paul Jeremiah Hayes notes:

The dance draws upon contemporary dance with a repeated gesture suggestive of drawing a bow and arrow (the gesture was made literal on the image for the single in which Bush poses with a real bow and arrow). At the climax of the song, Bush's partner unexpectedly withdraws from her. In a surreal sequence, both are swept away down a long hall in opposite directions by an endless stream of anonymous figures wearing masks that are pictures of Bush and Hervieu’s faces.

MTV however, chose not to show this video and instead used a live performance of the song recorded at a promotional appearance on the BBC TV show Wogan). This was possibly due to the fact that the original video contains no actual performance or lip-synching of the song, or more likely they simply felt the original video too highbrow or sexually charged for their audience.

Mmm . . . too sexually charged for MTV? I think the issue was that it’s too erotically-charged. Remember, Eros is known through and beyond sexual arousal, and seeks to draw us into engagement with the sacred, with the depth dimension of human experience. I think that's what can challenge and frighten people, and can lead some to dismiss and/or ridicule artistic endeavors such as the following, as “highbrow.”

Recommended Off-site Links:
Voice of Dance
Michelle Velluci: Dance Art Writer
The Dance Enthusiast
Kate Bush on “Running Up That Hill”
My Deal with Kate

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reclaiming the Queer Artistic Heritage
Love, Equality, and the Rumba
Oh, Yeah!

Image 1: Italian ballet dancer Roberto Bolle.
Image 2: Desmond Richardson.
Image 3: Ancient depiction of dancing Greek boy.
Image 4: Dervish and photographer unknown.
Image 5: Jason Piper and Richard Winsor in Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray. Photograph: Bill Cooper
Image 6: Raska Thomas.
Image 7: "Behold the Joy of Jesus" by Lindena Robb (from the Jesus Laughing Exhibition).
Image 8: Sam Feilpal. Photograph: Eric Saulitus.
Image 9: Kate Bush and Michael Hervieu. Photographer unknown.


Anonymous said...

Yay! Michael I am so thrilled you are starting to explore dance (and not "just" for the softcore porn like many a queen). A very learned piece here that only you could write and make the connections. How perfect that I made a blog entry on dance at the same time-kindrend minds at work. You must come to NYC and I'll show you the rainbow of dance in all its forms! Let me know how your journey expands you mind-heart-soul As a child I had to hide my ballet lessons and never pursued it - a loss I replay in my thoughts at every performance.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Mick, I would love to visit you in New York and have you introduce me to the dance scene there! Thanks for the invitation and offer. I'll be in touch about possible times that may work for both of us.