Thursday, February 09, 2017

Aristotle Papanikolaou on How Being Religious is Like Being a Dancer

Aristotle Papanikolaou has a fascinating and insightful piece in the February 2017 issue of The Christian Century in which he writes about how he teaches theology to his undergraduate students at Fordham University.

Because of my appreciation for dance, I find the following excerpt from Papanikolaou's article of particular interest. Perhaps you will too!

I try to lead students away from overbearing überstructures designed to force people to think a certain way or think they are never doing enough. Instead, I lead them toward an understanding of being religious that has to do with formation of the person to be in a certain way – a being that is in communion with the divine. Being religious is less about agreeing to certain propositions or following certain rules, and more about transforming one’s mode of being in the world. Being religious is very much like being an artist.

Because Fordham has a special BFA program with the Alvin Ailey School, I use dance as an analogy. I ask the students whether someone who has studied dance but has never danced “knows” dance as well as someone who has trained as a dancer. They immediately and instinctively answer that the trained dancer knows more about dance. I then try to lead them to articulate what this knowing entails, if it’s not simply reading books about dance and attending performances. A dancer must submit to a regimen of training that usually begins with basic practices that must be mastered to the point where they are performed without thinking. This training is done under the tutelage of a teacher, who has been through the training. The student of dance then progresses to more advanced practices, still under the guidance of a teacher, struggling to integrate techniques of dance into their very being as a dancer.

All this training is usually done within an institutional setting, where there are clear hierarchies, boards of directors, politics, a community of dancers that don’t all like one another, dancers who are more concerned with their ego than simply dance for the sake of dance. And yet, in the midst of all this ugliness, there is a tradition of formation in dance that is passed on from generation to generation. It is time-tested, and through it one may emerge as a dancer, but it could not have been formed without institutionalization. It’s only by submitting to this tradition that one can lead oneself to a kind of performance where a dancer is not aware of the audience, is not dancing to the audience, but is dancing simply for the sake of dance. This is the kind of performance where the dancer doesn’t control the choreography; rather, the choreography and all that it attempts to express has seized the dancer. Those capable of this kind of performance are usually the saints of the tradition of dance. They don’t attempt to reify the past, but they add to the tradition while always remaining within it. This kind of performance could never be possible without submitting to the training, and it’s only through the practices of the tradition that one can hope to be this kind of dancer.

Being religious, then, is about being in a way that embodies the divine presence, and working toward being available to the divine presence in and through religious practices and tradition. Being religious is not a set of rules one must follow or a bunch of propositions to which one must assent; it is first and foremost an art form, an expression of beauty that is also truth and goodness. The rules and propositions of the tradition – and every tradition has its rules and propositions – aim at the production of the person as a work of art.

– Aristotle Papanikolaou
Excerpted from "How I Teach Theology to Undergrads"
The Christian Century
February 6, 2017

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Soul of a Dancer
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
Yes! And of "Soul Dancers" Too
The Purpose of Art
The Potential of Art and the Limits of Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life
The Church and Dance
Move Us, Loving God
"Then I Shall Leap into Love . . ."
Unique . . . Yes, You!
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
We All Dance
And as We Dance . . .
"I Came Alive with Hope"

Image 1: Alexandre Riabko in John Neumeier's 2000 ballet, Nijinsky. (Photo: Holger Badekow)
Images 2-3: Craig Hall. (Photographer unknown)

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