Dance, Body, Universe
Dance, Body, Universe
by Andrea Deagon
Our perceptions of the world are irrevocably grounded in physical experience. Everyone lives in a body, and we have to live through our bodies. We see, smell, taste, hear and feel whatever is around us. We have unconscious physical responses to temperature, light, wind, pollen, pressure. Our physical well-being and our emotional state are buffeted by our material surroundings and our bodies’ responses to them.
We also carry time and history with us. Everywhere we’ve been, everything we’ve ever said or done, travels with us in the shell of flesh that maintains our life and our senses. There is a subtle interchange between our physical being and our perceptions, so that we instantly “interpret” what we perceive. A smell, for example, can create a barrage of associative images, and a faint whisper of music can make us relive powerful emotions and experiences. A benevolent stimulus can produce, through associative memory, extreme reactions: a dog’s bark may create a sense of terror, or seeing somebody suddenly may cause a far deeper jolt to the senses than mere surprise would explain.
Similarly, though we live through our senses, we can also lose track of them. Caught up in a task or a dream, we can fail to observe even life-threatening situations that would otherwise have caused extreme alarm. We live through our bodies and our senses, but our senses are idiosyncratic and self-willed tools. They take us where the world leads, or where we have been before, or where we may wish to be.
The body is so frail a vessel that humans, when we define who we are, cannot help imagining a soul beyond it, or mystical experiences within it. We envision a life after death, or escapes from the body’s limits, such as astral projection, telepathy, and the yogi’s dissociation from physical need. We need to imagine and actually create some escape from this body that roots us so precariously in the physical world. Ironically, this escape can arise from the body’s own actions, through sexuality, physical exertion, or the ritual movements of dance.
The dancer’s relationship with her body is more intimate than most people’s. To begin with, dancers are more conscious of their bodies. The consciousness begins at a mundane level: if something is not right, we know it; we are aware of subtle muscular pains and where they might have arisen and where they might lead. We are aware of the changes in the body wrought by illness, age, pregnancy, diet, happiness, travel, stress. We are also aware of our levels of ability, and the flow of that ability: new capabilities acquired, old ones forgotten or remembered at the level of muscle memory, the fluctuations between peak conditioning and something less.
Dancers are engaged in the practice of the body. Just as one practices a religion or a profession, one practices dance: the action and engagement in the action defines and creates the art. Dance begins with the body’s knowledge and experimentation. It is an exploration of the body/mind/spirit link in which the body takes the lead. Dancers choose different ways to practice; some work to achieve a form and discipline that is not possible in “real life,” where structure quickly breaks down under the chancy onslaught of day-to-day existence. Some practice dance by using the body as a conduit into another realm of experience, and enter a responsive, relaxed, even trancelike state through improvisation or through repeating and elaborating familiar patterns. Some seek the state that is felt as “play,” in which we are removed from the rules that dictate our obligations and undertake new self-definitions that allow us to enter a different sort of world. Dance is often seen as sacred play, an activity which honors the divine and recreates the freedoms as well as the structures of childhood experience.1
Dancers are also aware of how we use our bodies as a conduit of meaning, and how in consequence we create an effect on the world. Of course, all humans have to affect the world through the body, just as we have to experience it through the body. Whether we use gestures, the voice, words typed on a page or on a screen, we cannot impact the world without our physical selves. But the dancer, like all artists, is particularly aware of the sources of dance that do not come from the self or from conscious choice. In many different creative traditions, artists define their art as coming from outside themselves, or from the deep clear well within the self but beyond the will. The dance arises through the body but from a more cosmic source. Maria-Gabrielle Wosein comments,
[T]he body, in the whole range of its experience, is the instrument for the transcendent power; and this power is encountered in the dance directly, instantly and without intermediaries. The body is experienced as having a spiritual, inner dimension as a channel for the descent of the power. Responding and attempting to encompass the phenomenal world outside, man, by dancing, is at the same time put in touch with his own inner being; for, just as creation hides the creator, the physical form of man conceals the spiritual being.2
Dance is a way for the individual dancer to transcend the limits of the body and the earth through the use of the body and the earth. And the effect of this transcendence includes more than the feeling and being of the dancer herself. Her audience, when she has one, and the energies around her even when she dances unobserved, are caught up in the transformation of normalcy to something more. The dancer can take her audience with her to the place where the body’s senses bring freedom from its physical setting, creating emotions and sensual experiences that transcend the here and now. And in performance, this state is communal, a synergy of dancer, audience, musicians, earth and gods.
The world’s spiritual traditions give expression to the dance’s transcendent and creative force. Hindu myth shows the universe created in the cosmic dance of Shiva. Ancient Greek philosophical traditions, which combine physical science and religious feeling, speak of the “music of the spheres” and describe the universe as an eternal dance — also an element of the spiritual perspectives of the Mevlevi dervishes.3 Lucian comments,
With the creation of the universe, the dance too came into being, which signifies the union of the elements. The round dance of the stars, the constellation of planets in relation to the fixed stars, the beautiful order and harmony in all its movements, is a mirror of the original dance at the time of creation.4
In the modern world, the “spiritual tradition” of rationalism is grounded in scientific observation, but as physics describes the universe in greater depth, an almost mystical view of the “universal dance” appears in science:
[A]tomic and subatomic matter is fundamentally “restless.” Modern physics thus pictures matter not as passive and inert but as being in a continuous dancing and vibrating motion whose rhythmic patterns are determined by the molecular, atomic and nuclear structures. According to quantum theory, nature is never in a static equilibrium but always in a state of dynamic balance.5
Universe and Motion
The “belly dancer,” the practitioner of the ancient pelvic dance, performing alone in the circle of her audience, is a point of integration for cosmic forces and personal expression. In the course of her dance, she moves along a continuum, at times losing herself to the embodiment of eternal and universal powers, at other times expressing her unique experiences as an individual within her own body, with her own history. This is the essence of the power of the belly dance: that the dancer is at the same time an emblem of universal forces, and a wholly human woman or man with a wealth of life experiences and the strength and generosity to share them.
The movements of all dance have meaning that arises from the experience of being human and is common to all societies; each dance form also has its own particular meanings that arise from specific cultural practices and are specific to time and place. Beyond these forms there also lie some sorts of motion that reflect the movement of the universe. Shimmies, spins, and the dancer’s movement through her audience embody different types of universal movement, arising from and reflecting back on the physical world. The trembling that creates the shimmy and characterizes its unique quality is a form of movement that arises naturally in both the human and the physical worlds. At the atomic level the entire universe vibrates. Nothing is still. Solidity and stability in material things is an illusion, and the shimmy reveals the illusory nature of the appearance of stasis and solidity.
In the visible world, the trembling that characterizes the shimmy may occur as leaves shake in the wind, or as ripples on the surface of the water, or in the wing of a bee or a hummingbird. Or it may occur violently in the destruction of an earthquake or in the palpable vibrations of air after a thunderclap. In the natural world we come to understand that some motions are too fast for us to count or measure. The shimmy is a kind of motion that escapes, temporarily, countable time, just as the movements of insects or birds or breezes defy quantification.
In the human body, the trembling represents extremes. Terror and physical exhaustion can cause it, as can sexual excitement or joy or any agitation of the senses. The shimmy in its different forms can represent all this: “[M]eaning as well as beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and one person’s shudder of religious ecstasy may be another person’s shimmy of sexual abandon.”6 Trembling is a sign of extremes of emotion — so it becomes associated with extremes, with moments when we are not entirely who we are in daily life. We have the expression “shaken” to describe emotional disarray, usually on the face of some startling event. We are aware that trembling — and shimmying — are on some level about intense experience. Sometimes the extremes are sacred: one of the signs of spirit possession in the Brazilian candomblé is a trembling that seizes the body, as if the dancer is caught in a violent grip. Epilepsy was called the Sacred Disease by the ancient Greeks for this reason. Trembling — whether it occurs at the onset of a possession trance, at the moment of orgasm, or in the course of an intense conversation, is a sign of extremes.
In the western world, where shimmy technique is unfamiliar and has to be taught, it is often taught in the context of fast hip articulation, so it has come to be understood as a “fast” movement. But it is not fast as much as it is fast and slow at the same time. The shimmy provides a unique grounding-in-motion for the dancer, who may then move slowly through her most intimate and powerful dance. When the dancer shimmies, she embodies the flow of the universe, eternally still, yet constantly moving. The universe is founded on the truth that stillness and motion coexist in the same space and at the same time.
The dancer, in her shimmy, invokes both this universal harmony, and a fully human ecstasy. To tremble like the leaf and yet flow like the wind, to embody the river’s deep current and its shimmering surface, is an identification of body and universe that characterize the power of Middle Eastern dance. The dancer becomes a conduit for the universe’s most powerful energies. But even more, she adds to the impersonal universe the “human thing”: the range of emotional experience and individual expression that can alone bring timeless truths into the world of the here and now.
Spinning is another variety of celestial movement. As our science has shown us, the earth turns, the planets orbit the sun, the entire galaxy spins. If vibration is the foundation of subatomic movement, spinning is the foundation of celestial movement. Even in societies without our astronomical knowledge, spinning is a foundation of the cosmos, involving time as well as space. Countless traditions envision the circular course of the sun across the sky, or a circular flow of ocean around the earth. Days are circular, as the sun circles the earth (or vice versa); years are circular as the stars circle us (or we them), and this leads in many societies to the idea that the whole cosmos is circular, moving through countless creations and destructions in a cycle of eternal self-renewal.
Though spinning has a long history in the spiritual practices of the Middle East, it is only casually a part of the ancient pelvic dance. This is partly because spinning is an exclusive movement. When the dancer spins, she must withdraw from her audience; she cannot maintain the eye contact and facial expression that establish her as the real and human conduit of cosmic power. She must retreat — or else expand into a new form of expression that is less human, less suited to project intimate feeling. But the dancer’s desire to spin still surfaces in usually brief spins that evoke, though they do not recreate, the “music of the spheres.” As spinning manifests in most forms of the belly dance, it maintains contact with the audience and expresses in visual form the cosmos’s joy, profundity, intensity, abandon.
When the dancer shimmies or spins, she usually stays more or less stationary; the movement generates enough power on its own that outward movement does not need to be a part of it. But the dance is expressive; and the dancer is not always on the “celestial” plane; often the personal and individual dominate the dance. When the dancer moves from her centered position and communicates more individually with her audience, she unconsciously maintains the circular quality that characterizes cosmic motion.
Movement progresses through space, and human perceptions of space relate to the body. Most societies acknowledge four directions, corresponding to “in front, behind, right side, left side”; and beyond these, the poles of “above and below.” Some magical traditions emphasize the pentangle, even more closely allied to the human body’s form: two arms, two legs and a head. Directions, through spiritual traditions, become imbued with meaning, so that in moving through space, the dancer expresses both individual and cultural meanings.
In traditional Middle Eastern dance, performance situations dictate the motion of the dance. In some types of dance linear motion is the norm, but usually, in the solo female dance, the dance takes a circular form, as the audience forms around the performer at its center. The dancer tends to dance around the edges of the circle and toward its middle, in a pattern that replicates both the still space at the center of the orbit, and the motion around its edges. The circle is not the perfect circuit that would imitate celestial movement, because the dancer is moving in the real world. Just as gravity and impurities affect the formation of crystals, the history and imperfections of the human body and human society create a dance that is beautifully and properly imperfect. This is only fitting. Human life and human growth are never simple, so the dance, in mirroring this complexity, achieves its proper form.
The ancient dance replicates the motion of the cosmos in ways that reflect human experience, from the most ephemeral sexual joy to the deepest spiritual wisdom, and sometimes veers wildly between these poles, just as life itself does. Dance is a microcosm of human experience. The dance’s profundity hinges on and is balanced by its ephemeral expressions of sensual joy. The dancer moves like the universe: quivering, spinning, full of the mysteries of cosmic origins and touching infinity through the dancer’s presence in the here and now, the finite, frail and ephemeral body.
Middle Eastern dance offers rare challenges: to embody the characteristic motions of the universe, and to embody its truths and powers, but to do so as an individual, and thus to tie the value of the human life in with the value of the eternal forces. This dance is profound but essentially hopeful, celebrating joy and the body’s pleasures even while understanding entropy and the eventual dissolution of life, world and love. This knowledge is what makes it wise, and this wisdom is what calls the dancer to her dance.
1. See Steven H. Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, pp. 21-43.
2. Maria-Gabrielle Wosein, Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods. London: Avon, 1974, p. 9.
3. See Annemarie Schimmel, “The Ritual of Rebirth,” Parabola IV.2 (May 1979) pp. 89-90.
4. Lucian, On the Dance (2nd C. AD), quoted in Wosein, p. 8.
5. Fritjof Capra, “Dynamic Balance in the Subatomic World,” Parabola IV.2 (May 1979) p. 62.
6. Gerald Jonas, Dance: The Pleasure, Power and Art of Movement, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992, p. 12.
Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University in 1984. She currently directs the Classics program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she also teaches Women’s Studies. She has been involved with Middle Eastern Dance since age 17, and taught in New Zealand for three years before returning to the US in 1988. In addition to classwork with the foremost proponents of Middle Eastern Dance in America, she has also studied Ballet, Modern, African and Balinese dance. Currently she is teaching classes and developing workshops for Oriental dancers and the wider dance community on archetypal images as enhancers of both performance and the experience of dancing. (email:firstname.lastname@example.org)