A Few Moves: Some Thoughts On Dancing

Words by Jerome Santamaria, photo by Aimee Han

‘Through the world of the senses, man who is part of this cosmic eurythmic gains the knowledge that he is actually in step with the world when he has brought his body into time with his soul, or…when the soul can make the body so subservient to it that word, gesture and tone of voice become a true expression of spirit.’ – Hugo Rahner, Man at Play.

Have you ever found yourself about to plunge into a crowd heading the other way only to see all kinds of paths opening up in front of you? You take one path, then another, duck left, head right, shadow someone for a few steps and then break out into the open. Even the expressions on people’s faces seem in tune with your unstoppable momentum. You skip past someone smiling, slow down next to a dour office-worker, feel like leaping when you pass someone so beautiful that your heart soars, wink at a child who seems to be the only one who understands what is happening.

Or have you ever come home from work and been caught in a light shower, not heavy enough to remove your headphones but still enough to wash the cares from your tired face and to clean the gardens around you and buildings you are walking past? And right when you come out of the trees into a clearing, it stops raining and the sun comes out and your favourite song comes on. You can’t help yourself. You have to dance. If someone were to ask you why, the only answer would be: how could you not?

This is the dancing I want to talk about. Not professional dancing, but it is still extremely serious. And there are no celebrities involved, though it is most definitely a celebration. It is that sense of being one with something that you are not. The joyful feeling of determined action combined with the feeling that you are freer than you ever have been. It is this experience that I think only dance captures: a willing slave to the music.

Clive James describes this vision perfectly when he talks about watching two people dancing the tango: ‘Here in the afternoon…the best of the couples were creating poetry… The real thing was more like an ideal conversation…every step was a smooth glide, one step sliding without a break into the next, the progress of one partner providing a silent commentary to the progress of the other…you could have stopped with a still camera at any time and you would have had a picture to hang on your wall.’

Clive James also raises another great example: the conversation between long-time friends. Something old but still surprising. Where the joke that is made is perfectly your mate but you still did not see it coming and so you laugh with joy. Or the moment when a friendship deepens when a friend entrusts more and more of his or her music to you, expecting, hoping that you will be able to learn the steps. Sometimes quickly.

All this we feel when we are really dancing. And we know what real dancing is. It is not that pseudo-dancing where everyone stands in a circle and waits to be entertained by some poor fool. Or that hesitant, nervous dancing that happens when you feel people are watching you. Basically, if anything but the music is determining your movements, then it is not dancing.

In the movie ‘About a Boy’, there is a scene where Hugh Grant’s character is listening to the mum Toni Collette and son Nicolous Hoult sing ‘Killing me softly’ and he says, ‘The worst part was when they closed their eyes.’ As we all know, if it is you doing the singing, this is actually the best part. Simone Weil said, ‘We experience good only by doing it’. You just have to dance at such moments or you have missed the whole point of the moment. It is a mystery in which one should participate, not a problem to be solved.

And the dance is contagious. You only have to open your eyes briefly and you will see the hunger in other’s eyes. They want to dance. They want an invitation. They can see the truth. And this reveals another surprising aspect to the dance. It is slightly scary if you are not the one dancing. Maybe not scary, maybe intimidating. Rudolf Otto in his study on the nature of religious feeling described the primordial religious experience as ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: something that is terrifying, yet you cannot look away. The dance is like this.

People are scared to join but desperately want to do so. And this brings me to my final point: dancing requires other people. The best dance move then is the invitation, the invitation to dance. The moment when you spot someone else’s need and respond. In this we can see that the invitation is itself a move: it is as much determined as any other. It is caused by the other’s persons desire to dance.