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The Dancing Cure

4368315Philosophy is a story told mainly by male intellectuals, nerds, thoughtful sedentry types. The hero of that story is the intellect, and the villain of that story is often the body, just as you’d expect. If accountants told the story of the human race, the hero of the story would be accountancy.

This story leaves a great deal out. There is very little in philosophy about sex, and what there is, is mainly negative. And there is very little in philosophy about dancing. In fact, there’s very little in philosophy about the arts at all, but of all the arts, dancing gets given the least treatment because it’s so unreasonable, all that whooping and shaking and gryating. So animalistic. Also, very few philosophers can dance.

Yet dancing is a much older and more fundamental activity than philosophising. It is as good for us, too. And perhaps it is more revealing of the truth of reality than the careful deliberation of rationality. Because rationality fixes things into concepts, wheras dance understands things are always moving and turning into something else. Consciousness is more of a dance than a concept.

Dance is good for us? Yes indeed. There is a dancing cure, found over and over in cultures around the world. It is a form of catharsis or exorcism for fatigue, stress, anxieties, phobias, possession, hysterical paralysis, and the whole strange cargo of psychosomatic disorders. It enables us to shake of the discontents of civilisation. If only Freud could dance, how much time and money neurotics would have saved, instead of lying on the couch talking about Mummy! I think of Jane Avril, one of the ‘hysterics’ in Jean-Marie Charcot’s Salpetriere clinic in the 1890s, who says she was cured of her nervous disorder when she learned how to dance – she went on to be one of the lead dancers at the Moulin Rouge, dancing ‘like an orchid in frenzy’. But alas no psychiatrist took her therapeutic advice seriously.

Modern medicine forgot the Dancing Cure. They knew it in ancient Greece, in the Bacchic and Corybantic dance rituals, which Plato said were a form of ‘divine madness’ that helped people to purge their feelings of guilt and ‘made them whole’. Aristotle likewise said the Bacchic rites were a necessary part of a healthy civilized society, because they enabled people to achieve katharsis, purging or shaking off their irrational nervous tensions.

In various cultures around the world, as IM Lewis notes in his book Ecstatic Religion, one finds ecstatic dance cults used as an important spiritual and therapeutic ritual in ancient societies, as a way to cure people of things like anxiety or possession. In Ethiopia and Sudan, for example, one meets the Zar cult. If a wife is feeling overlooked or ignored, she may claim to be possessed by a djinn. She starts to be very rude and unruly to her husband (this behaviour is only allowed in these very patriarchal societies if a woman is possessed). The husband knows what must be done to cure her – he must pay for a Zar dance party, to which only women are invited. When the possessed wife has had a thoroughly good dance, she may return to the role of dutiful wife, although she may decide to leave the marriage and become a Zar priestess.

What does dance do to us? David Byrne, the lead-singer of Talking Heads and something of an anthropologist of dance, told me it helps us to ‘cool down’ – to work off the nervous jitters that comes from the emotional inhibition of civilization. The anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson quotes a tribe-leader in his book African Art in Motion: ‘it cools the town down when you dance…you are restored to repose’.  John Miller Chernoff, another of Byrne’s favourite anthropologists, writes: ‘the possessed shaman is a specialist at cooling down ‘hot’ people’. Coolness, writes Thompson, is ‘all-embracing positive attribute which combines notions of composure, silence, vitality, healing and social purification. Composure intersects with silence, vitality intersects with healing in the sense of restoration of shining health, the body politic is healed in social reconciliation’.

I remember someone saying after an ecstatic dance session, ‘This was a good session. We reached the calm.’ It was a strange comment after two hours of ecstatic tranc, but I know what she meant – after a really good dance, you reach the calm. You have shaken off the nervousness of the body and the emotions. You are made whole, centred, calm.  But how? It would seem to be connected to the Autonomic Nervous System, which (I am told) is composed of two networks – the sympathetic nervous system, which helps us to be aroused, alarmed, on edge; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to relax, and which is important for healing and rest. Our sympathetic nervous system is constantly aroused, which is exhausting, so we need to be able to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, to calm down and heal. Dance seems to help us do this, by over-stimulating the sympathetic nervous system until it gets exhausted, switches off, and we switch to the parasympathetic system, and feel cooled down. It is the cool rain after the long humidity, the cool of the fever breaking.

The connection between dance and the Autonomic Nervous System seems to be why dance can be therapeutic for disorders of the autonomic system like Parkinson’s. Watch this clip: ‘I feel like an evil has been blown out of me’, says one participant:

Dance also allows us to step outside of our conventional social role, as the Zar does for marginalized or oppressed women in Sudan and Ethiopia. It allows the marginalized to assert themselves. You ever seen a friend who is quiet and introverted suddenly come to life on the dancefloor? They are free to lose themselves to dance.

Dance gives us the joy of synchronizing with others, of being freed from what Nietzsche called the pain of individuation, so we feel ourselves part of one greater organism – the dance-floor. This is why synchronized dance routines in musicals give us joy – they are an expression of joyful collective solidarity. This is why the wedding dance is an important ritual – it’s an expression of the synchronization of two lives, two spirits. Is this a paradox – that dance gives us both the ability to express repressed parts of us, and also the chance to overcome individualism? No, it’s only in the world of concepts and logic that such contradictions exist. Dance is more protean and flickering than that.

At its best, dance lets us achieve trance consciousness  – we feel re-connected to our body, re-connected to the paleomammalian limbic system, re-connected to each other. The wound of dismemberment is healed. What I mean by that is, the evolution of the human brain, roughly 40,000 years ago, must have been a traumatic birth, with various systems – the rational, the emotional, the social, the spiritual, the physical – split apart and at war. This is perhaps what is referrred to in ancient myths like the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus, or the punishment of Prometheus. The evolution of human consciousness felt like a crime, and the punishment was disintegration. But in dance, and in trance consciousness, what is split apart is put back together. That is what ‘the groove’ is – the achievement of reintegration, coherence, wholeness.

It was a bad thing for European health when, during the Enlightenment, we started to listen to music sitting down and keeping still. It required the response of rock & roll, so that we could once again shake off the discontents of our civilisation. ‘My music is the healing music’, Little Richard would declare. ‘It inspires and uplifts people. I’ve had old women tell me I made them feel they were nineteen years old. It uplifts the soul, you see everybody’s movin’, they’re happy, it regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, the knees freeze.’ Philosophers don’t understand this – Roger Scruton has nothing but scorn for pop music, he prefers Wagner. But Scruton can’t dance.

The only contemporary philosopher I know who talks about dance a little is Martha Nussbaum, when she writes about Rabinandrath Tagore and the central place of dance in his educational system. Amartya Sen’s mother was a lead-dancer at Tagore’s school, by the by. But I’m not sure that Nussbaum ever shakes it loose – she seems a control freak to me.

So, this weekend, at Notting Hill Carnival, at Burning Man, at a house-party, in your bedroom, wherever. Dance. Get up. Get into the groove. Get back into your body. Shake it off. Work it out. Turn it loose. Shake it like a polaroid picture. Find the calmness. Dance until ‘you are the music, while the music lasts’.

ISIS and the recurrent virus of apocalyptic beliefs

Probably the worst idea in the history of religion is the End Times. It’s caused more bloodshed than any other religious belief. It’s still around, costing lives – the ideology of ISIS is soaked in apocalyptic expectation, as a new book by William McCants explores. It’s amazing that the big religions have survived so long, considering how often their followers’ totally certain prediction of the End Times turned out to be totally wrong. The Apocalypse has been announced many thousands of times over the last five millennia. And here we still are. Yet still the faithful declare the End.

What makes us keep falling for it? Perhaps it’s some inherent human frailty – in times of stress, psychologists suggest, humans are more likely to leap to strange or deluded interpretations and predictions, and we cling to them harder when faced with death. When the world is uncertain, when our position in it is threatened, we are more likely to believe someone who says they know exactly how this will play out. I remember when I had PTSD getting obsessed with palmistry and then astrology for precisely this reason.

Apocalyptic thinking goes deep into our psychology. Think of the mythical books and films we love in the 20th century, and their idea of the One who it is predicted will come to save us via a Final Showdown with Evil (in Dune, the Matrix, Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones).  How satisfying those stories are to us – a clear narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, and clearly-divided Good Guys and Bad Guys.  Candy for the soul.

But when played out in real life, such stories are a killer. They make the deluded of ISIS think that, because we’re in the End Times, anything goes – sexual slavery, mass executions, the beheading of elderly museum curators. Normal rules are suspended. All enemies must be wiped out.

The idea of the End Times goes back at least as far as 500 BC, when Zoroastrians started to talk of an environmental collapse and a final confrontation between Light and Darkness before a perfect age for the righteous. Judaism also came to expect the coming of a Messiah, a new King, who will utterly smite Israel’s enemies, liberate Jerusalem, and then rule in a perfect age where ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’.

Jesus was certain the End Times were just around the corner: ‘these things will come upon this generation’, he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Matthew. ‘There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ St Paul was also certain the End Times were nigh. The general Christian expectation of the End of Days led to a proliferation of apocalyptic texts in the first and second centuries, with one particularly florid vision – Revelation – eventually being accepted into the Canon, despite the misgivings of some Church Fathers.

But the End Times didn’t happen. Instead, much to everyone’s surprise, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nobody predicted that! Then the Roman Empire got sacked by Goths, leading to another bout of apocalyptic fever. But life went on. Then Mohammad saw an angel, who told him of a coming apocalypse when the Al-Mahdi would descend from heaven, riding a white horse and accompanied by Jesus, to utterly smite Islam’s enemies (particularly the Jews) and liberate Jerusalem . This Messianic expectation fired up Islam for one of the most extraordinary military expansions in human history. But they didn’t conquer the world, and the Mahdi didn’t come. Life went on.

Follow me!
Follow me!

All through the Middle Ages, societies would be suddenly convulsed by apocalyptic expectations. A monk, knight, shepherd or vagrant would announce they had received a vision from God – often they claimed to have found an ancient prophetic text or to have received a personal letter from Jesus – and they were destined to liberate Jerusalem, convert the Jews, and usher in the thousand-year reign of the saints (hence such movments were often called ‘millenarian’). Again and again, from the 11th to the 14th century, such people persuaded thousands to follow them to Jerusalem or somewhere nearer, often massacring Jews along the way. Usually they and their followers were executed, starved, or died in battle. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Throughout the tectonic shifts of the Reformation, many people believed they were living through the End Times, and the leading figures of the day – Martin Luther, the Pope, the Emperor, Henry VIII, whoever – were either the Saviour of Christendom, or the Anti-Christ. This being the End Times, normal rules were suspended – the enemies of the True Faith must be purged from the Body Politic, and the poor old Jews converted or massacred. This 150-year religious fever culminated in the Thirty Years War, a long orgy of violence that killed roughly a third of the German population. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Finally, by the end of the 17th century, people in western culture were fed up with apocalyptic predictions. After 2000 years of false alarms, after thirty years of apocalyptic warfare ended in stalemate, people started to doubt that the End Times were actually upon us. As life became more stable and prosperous, people’s focus shifted from the End of Days to making life slightly more pleasant here on Earth. The ecstatic predictions of prophecy gave way to the cautious predictions of science.

3pi-dab-0047-02Where before an apocalyptic prophet could be guaranteed a listening, now they became objects of ridicule. When French Huguenot prophets arrived in London in 1706, and started to go into apocalyptic spasms in the streets, they were laughed at, and even inspired a puppet show at Bartholomew Fair. This sort of ‘public raillery’ was the best antidote for such enthusiasm, declared the Earl of Shaftesbury. It worked much better than suppression, which only further agitated their melancholic self-importance.  From that point on, apocalyptic prophets became figures of fun, pity, and medical interest – they evolved into the comic stereotype of the lonely nutter wearing a sandwich-board, announcing the End is Nigh.

There were still many apocalyptic movements during and after the Enlightenment, like the Jansenist convulsionnaries of 1727, a group of End Time ecstatics who went into spasms until a violent beating calmed them down (see the illustration below); or the Seventh Day Adventists in the US, led by William Miller, who announced the End of Days would arrive on 1843. It didn’t (this is known as The Great Disappointment), but that didn’t stop the movement – every day I walk past one of their churches on the Holloway Road. But such apocalyptic Christian cults tended to be marginal and relatively harmless.

The strange sado-masochistic rituals of the Jansenists in 18th century Paris

Whenever Christianity becomes ecstatic, it involves an expectation of the End Times. The Pentecostalists of the early 20th century, for example, thought they were granted miraculous powers like speaking in tongues as a sign of the Second Coming. As the Church of England becomes more charismatic, some church leaders also nurse apocalyptic hopes. Pete Greig was the youthful leader of a 1990s charismatic revival, which he wrote about in Red Moon Rising. The title comes from a verse in the Book of Joel predicting the End of Days – Greig apparently thought his revival was a Sign of the End Times. But it wasn’t. Life went on.

My next book argues that we need to find a place for ecstasy and altered states of consciousness in modern rational society. But apocalyptic expectations are the most troubling aspect of ecstasy. So often, what has really fired up ecstasy is the belief: ‘the old order has passed, here comes a New Jerusalem!’ And that belief is not confined to theists, by the way. In different forms, it inspired the ecstasy of the French Revolution, or the worship of Hitler, or even the dot.com bubble (in which the New Jerusalem became the New Paradigm). ‘Atheism is not exempt from it’, remarked Shaftesbury. ‘For, as some have well remark’d, there have been enthusiastical atheists.’

I suppose the ecstatic belief that things can be radically better can be a good thing, and can help to drive change. What is dangerous is the totally certain expectation that a final apocalypse is at hand and that the human population can be neatly divided into sheep and goats. That’s a horrible idea, one that has been proven wrong over and over and over again, as the unhappy survivors of ISIS will soon discover.