Philosophy 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’.