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Musical therapy

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’.

On Cult and Culture

cult and cultureCult is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds on cult, and cult feeds off culture. Our society today lacks a cult, and as a result our culture wearies itself in empty innovation. 

In ancient Athens, in the fifth century BC, you had two main festivals. In March-April, you had the Dionysia, where playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes competed for the prize of best tragedy and best comedy. For about 30 years, Athenians were treated to new performances of some of the greatest plays that would ever be written. In 431 BC, for example, Euripides’ Medea only came third, behind tragedies by Sophocles and Euphorion. The plays were mirrors held up to Athenian society, reflecting and exploring its deepest fears, desires and foibles.

Then, in September-October, people from all over Greece made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, outside Athens, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility rite in which participants apparently took some kind of hallucinogenic, and felt they journeyed to the underworld and were reborn as immortal children of Demeter. Cicero considerd the Mysteries the greatest of all the gifts bestowed by Greek culture. They were practiced for over 2000 years, until they were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD, who thereby banished psychedelics from western culture for the next 1500 years, the spoil-sport.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the central cult of Greek society. And the Dionysia was the central cultural or artistic event. Cult and culture were intimately connected. Both the Mysteries and the Dionysiac festival of theatre performed an important therapeutic role for Athenian culture. According to Aristotle, both were cathartic – they helped to ‘cure’ Athenians of emotional problems and make them whole. Both cult and culture helped people to remove their social masks, forget external reality and enter trance states, and there explore and heal the emotions, tensions and conflicts within their psyches, ultimately connecting them with the deepest part of their nature – the divine. At their best, both cult and culture cultivate the god within us.

So both cult and culture performed a similar therapeutic role. And culture also fed off cult for ideas, symbols and characters. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides often ‘riffed’ on the sacred (and secret) rites of the Mysteries. The final scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example, is soaked in the symbolism and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. So is the final scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Euripides’ Bacchae, meanwhile, explores and reflects on the rites of the maenads, the female worshippers of Dionysus.

But culture, while it draws on the ideas, characters and symbols of cult, is very different to it. The nature of cult is that it is secret, sacred, and ritualized – the ritual must stay the same for centuries and millennia. Any sudden innovation is fervently resisted. Culture, by contrast, is a public performance. It strives for originality and innovation. It mixes the grand and solemn with the humorous and irreverent. It is created by an artist, who seeks fame and success and is not bound by the same moral taboos as a priest. Culture draws from cult, but in a way that is somewhat risky and transgressive – Aeschylus supposedly died in a freak accident as a punishment from the gods for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries in his Eumenides.

Cult, then, is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds off cult.

Consider how much rock & roll feeds off religion, from band names (The Cult, Jesus And Mary Chain, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Reverend Black Grape, Young Disciples, Judas Priest) to song names (I am the Resurrection, The Cross, Jesus Walks, Take Me To The River, Great Balls of Fire, Hallelujah, Congregation, Take Me To Church etc etc). Rock tunes also rip off church tunes – the first great R&B song, Ray Charles’ ‘I gotta woman’ was a riff on the church anthem ‘It must be Jesus’ , starting a trend for secular gospel that continued through Elvis, U2 and Pharrell Williams. Think how often house music has sampled revivalist preachers, ever since Brian Eno and David Byrne started the craze in 1981 with their pioneering sampler album, My Time In the Bush of Ghosts (have a listen).

But cult also feeds off culture – it slowly incorporates some of the cultural innovations introduced by culture. Look, for example, at how western churches in the 1950s and 1960s began by condemning rock & roll as the Devil’s music, and then began to incorporate it, until now many of the biggest churches have in-house rock bands.

The problem with western society since around 1900, I would suggest, is we have lost our central cult – Christianity – and it hasn’t been replaced by any new cult which grips our emotions and imagination. All we have is a culture that has, particularly since Modernism, been gripped by restless innovation and transgression. But, in the absence of cult, this innovation and transgression feels increasingly empty and meaningless.

For culture to regain its vitality, we need to re-establish cult. I don’t know how to do this, but until that happens our culture will be trivial and diminished, distracting itself from its own exhaustion with cars and explosions.