Iowa may not exactly be a hotbed of ethnic and cultural diversity, but it is a place where it is possible to step back from the immediacy of world news and steep yourself in other rhythms. So it was that I found myself, after a week of teaching teachers and then children, at the annual Sturgis Falls celebration in Cedar Falls, Iowa, marveling at the differences between American social habits and those on other continents.
Specifically, I came upon a performance at the jazz festival portion of the program. It was well-attended for early on a Saturday afternoon, and the music was surprisingly good for the time slot. (Often, promoters will save the best and most well-known acts for prime times, relegating the starting and mid-afternoon hours to lesser bands.) Soon, I found myself moving along with the gypsy jazz music of Django Reinhardt — until I looked around and decided to tone it down a bit.
Surrounding me were scores of apparently pleased and comfortable folks, mostly in lawn chairs of various descriptions, many with food and drink from the plentiful vendors. The weather was lovely and hot, it being late June in the Humidity Zone, with plentiful shade and lots of room to move for those who might want to put the body into motion.
But a full-motion video of the scene would give you no more information than a still picture, because every single one of those good, presumably god-fearing white folks was sitting almost perfectly still while the music swirled around us all.
I couldn’t help but think back to 1992, when our dance company represented the United States at the World Expo in Seville, Spain. The US pavilion was pitiful, as was the lineup of events and exhibits, but we were thrilled anyway. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dance for people from around the world, attend world dance and music performances in other pavilions, and compare notes in whatever common pidgin language we could cadge together.
I remember vividly one warm summer night, about one in the morning, when things were just heating up after the pavilions had closed but the crowds were still thick and eager for continued festivities. We were enjoying a nightcap before heading back to our barracks at a nearby Spanish Air Force base, when the band struck up the Sevillanas, the “official dance” of Seville.
Suddenly, it was as if we had stepped onto a huge movie set. Everyone, except for pockets of foreigners like ourselves, leaped to their feet, pushed in their chairs, and “assumed the position” for the beginning of the flamenco-based dance. And away they went, dressed in every variation of daily clothing, and every age from toddler to geriatric, dancing as if on the biggest concert hall stage in the world. It was amazing. And when the dance ended, everyone laughed and applauded one another and resumed their conversations as if nothing at all had just happened.
The contrast between that memory and the reality of the motionless bodies surrounding me at the festival was striking. And later that afternoon I was listening to the radio en route to another part of town, when I heard a snippet of conversation about dance. One speaker described dance as the expression of an “ancient and powerful urge to communicate without words.” And that brought something home to me.
Even before we began using artistic forms to teach each other about the world around us, before there was a spoken language, even, we humans had the urge to communicate directly and personally through movement. Gesture may have evolved into full-body movement over time, or perhaps it was the other way around: maybe complex dance communication became telegraphic, encoded in gesture, the same way that various sounds and strings of sounds may have gradually slimmed down into words.
In any case, the point is that movement is an immediate, direct, and satisfying connection between us. We link empathically through our kinesthetic sense, and dance is contagious: even in a theatrical setting, confined in our plush seats, we still find our bodies responding viscerally to dancers’ leaps and turns on stage. In this way, dance is a human imperative, and it seems to me that we suppress and ignore it at our collective peril.
What do we lose, and what have we lost, by our systematic marginalization of dance? Finally, our culture tolerates dancing as a profession, even if in many minds it is little removed from burlesque halls and brothels. But we insist on defining a “dancer” as a certain kind of person, instead of recognizing that each of us is a different kind of dancer — our own kind.
Our birthright includes the gift of dance: elegant, non-literal, and powerful expressions of humanity. The hard part is undoing decades upon decades of ostracizing dance to the edges of society. There used to be ballrooms everywhere; schools had hardwood floors in their gyms and auditoriums, and “going out dancing” was a preferred way to spend an evening, even for us Cartesian dualists with our Puritan heritage and our self-consciousness about body.
Over time, we have reduced dance to snippets of entertainment on television shows, further reinforcing the idea that only certain people dance, and that “those people” are nothing like the rest of us. And now we are paying the price in rampant obesity, addiction to substances that give us artificial highs to replace the physical ones we are missing, and a general inability to think physically and visually about problems.
Would the undersea robots working on the BP oil spill be less clumsy if their operators had danced?