Only Two Kinds of Dancers

[Excerpt from manuscript.]

We, as a society (that is, Americans of various stripes), have a rather narrow definition of what we mean when we say “dance.” Here’s what I’ve heard from students and teachers:

  • Dance is a guy and a girl doing partner stuff
  • People in tights doing things on tiptoe
  • All that stuff they do on “So You Think You Can Dance”
  • It’s people in tight costumes doing something no one understand
  • Dance is just like mime with more people

We have so many encounters that we don’t even recognize as dance. I remember the late Hunter S. Thompson’s description of the circular patterns that reporters traced in hotel lobbies while phoning in their stories from their mobile phones. He called it The Cellular Waltz, and I’ll never forget that image.

There is an aesthetic thrill to carving the smoothest line down the mountain on skis, to riding the waves on a surfboard, to feeling the rhythm and flow of a soccer game at field level. When we boil down the essence of something to its motion, we enter the world of dance.

The human body is the Swiss Army Knife of evolution. We don’t do any one thing all that well (except perhaps for mucking up the environment, but that’s another book), but we can do many, many things, and we keep learning new things we can do. One thing we do extremely well is to move expressively. And with endurance.

Have you ever wondered how the Native American dancers from the Southwest can keep going for hours and hours, seemingly tireless through a night-long dance of great complexity and significance? Why are there no horse or dog races for 26 miles, 385 yards? How many non-human mammals have been to the summit of K2?

The human body is built from time immemorial to be in motion, and the human brain is to a very great extent developed and shaped by the body’s movement. Anne Green Gilbert, the great dance teacher and Brain Dance originator, says, “Movement is the architect of the brain.” (

One tasty bit of research shows that learning to juggle helps you build more white matter (axons, or connecting tissue) in your brain, as well as adding to your supply of gray matter (the “thinking” cells). You not only now know how to juggle, you also have the ability to learn more things than you did before. [Research citation to follow.]

Be that as it may, up until this moment in human history, we have had three types of dance. The first pre-dates language, possibly, the second is ancient, and the third is relatively recent:

Ritual dance: Most often either rituals of tension (asking, needing, supplication, such as the stereotypical “rain dance”) or rituals of release (celebration, thanksgiving, memorials to past events). The movement of this kind of dance is closely drawn from observations of nature, in the sense that imitating something can draw it to you (harvest, animals, rain, etc.) and from a sort of ecstatic, intuitive connection to the world both seen and unseen.

Social dance: Partially an avenue for members of the opposite sex to find one another and begin the mating process. Partially a “night out” activity in which couples can be together and yet interact with others in a structured, public way. Unattached singles can find one another and blend into the social whole. There is a “high” to dancing in unison or concert with other members of your social group that is hard to equal.

Theatrical dance: Gradually, various social dancers became so skilled at their craft, and they and their choreographers so adept at devising complicated rules, steps, and sequences for them to do, that a new sort of dancer emerged: the entertainer. Regardless of whether we are applauding for the virtuosity of technically perfect dancers or the depth of an artistic experience beyond words, we are in fact being entertained.

Now, we are evolving a kind of dance that is both new and old at once.

Like ritual dance, it contains iconic patterns and knowledge that govern the universe and can be passed down through time.

Like social dance, it helps integrate all members into an active and cohesive unit that shares common values but also encourages individual expression and success.

Like theatrical dance, it engages the observer in an aesthetic experience that can transcend any simple verbal description and can connect disparate facts and ideas into a coherent and transformative whole.

Yet it is none of these things, or it is all of them. It is constructive dance, and it is the key to solving the education dilemmas of the present, and to preparing our whole society for the future. At least, that’s my argument.

Oh, and… the two kinds of dancers?




Both trained and untrained dancers can participate in constructive or creative dance equally well, as long as they share some common vocabulary to use as they construct, discuss, and revise their dances. I’m going to call this vocabulary the elements of dance, and we’ll look at each of the elements in detail in another chapter. [end of excerpt]


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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4 Responses to Only Two Kinds of Dancers

  1. Cissy says:

    What a great job you’ve done with condensing dance history! I love the way you phrase it. This is basically what I do in a 9 week period with 3rd graders at my school. We explore elements of dance, examine ritual dance, social/folk dance, then create our own theatrical dance. Can you say more about how you get groups to make decisions together? It is always the trickiest part!

    • rbdancer says:

      That’s a great suggestion for a new post, Cissy, thanks! I’m struggling to find “bite-sized” chunks to post, while also testing out some of my manuscript text. I hope you realize you are in a minority of dance teachers at the moment who are taking your approach, but I have confidence that others will see what you do, and the results will win them over. Thanks for all you do!

  2. Meg says:

    Kathleen referred me to your site… it looks like a tremendous undertaking & that you have a great start! Your points are so well-taken (and familiar to anyone in the field!) & you’re shedding good light on our subject! I look forward to seeing more…

    • rbdancer says:

      Thank you, Meg! I’ve put your blog on my blogroll, and if you would do the same, I’d appreciate the referrals. Keep up the great work. I loved your post on working with the autistic children, and your take on teaching in the school setting is refreshing and wonderful. Do you know Eric Johnson? He’s a friend…

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