Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life

The Wild Reed's series on dance continues with an excerpt from Havelock Ellis' 1923 book The Dance of Life. I found this particular excerpt in the 1992 anthology Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History, edited by Jack Anderson.

Dancing and building are the two primary and essential arts. The art of dancing stands at the source of all the arts that express themselves first in the human person. The art of building, or architecture, is the beginning of all the arts that lie outside the person; and in the end they unite. Music, acting, poetry proceed in the one mighty stream; sculpture, painting, all the arts of design, in the other. There is no primary art outside these two arts, for their origin is far earlier than humanity itself; and dancing came first.

That is one reason why dancing, however it may at times be scorned by passing fashions, has profound and eternal attraction even for those one might suppose farthest from its influence. The joyous beat of the feet of children, the cosmic play of philosophers' thoughts rise and fall according to the same laws of rhythm. If we are indifferent to the art of dancing, we have failed to understand, not merely the supreme manifestation of the physical life, but also the supreme symbol of spiritual life.

The significance of dancing, in the wide sense, thus lies in the fact that it is simply an intimate concrete symbol of a general rhythm, that general rhythm which marks, not life only, but the universe, if one may still be allowed so to name the sum of the cosmic influences that reach us. We need not, indeed, go so far as the planets or the stars and outline their eternal dances. We have but to stand on the seashore and watch the waves that beat at out feet, to observe that at nearly regular intervals this seemingly monotonous rhythm is accentuated for several beats, so that the waves are really dancing the measure of a tune. It need surprise us not at all that rhythm, ever tending to be moulded into a tune, should mark all the physical and spiritual manifestations of life.

Dancing is the primitive expression alike of religion and of love – of religion from the earliest human times we know of and of love from a period long anterior to the coming of humans. The art of dancing, moreover, is intimately entwined with all human tradition of war, of labour, of pleasure, of education, while some of the wisest philosophers and the most ancient civilizations have regarded the dance as the pattern in accordance with which the moral life of humans must be woven. To realize, therefore, what dancing means for humanity – the poignancy and the many-sidedness of its appeal – we must survey the whole sweep of human life, both at its highest and its deepest moments.

– Havelock Ellis

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life

Image 1: Carlos Acosta, photographed by Laurie Lewis.
Image 2: The Garth Fagan Dance Company, photographed by Steve Labuzetta. Book cover design by Meg Davis.
Image 3: Ivan Vasiliev, photographed by Stas Levshin.
Image 4: The Colorado Ballet Company photographed by Jana Cruder.

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