Image Credit: Geoffrey Gee

I would believe only in a god who could dance.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

In her bluesy ballad, “Is That All There Is?”, Peggy Lee (or her character, whom I will identify as her from here on) tells a series of stories reaching back to her early childhood, in which life was not what she thought it would be. She sees her house burn down; visits the circus; and falls in and out of love. The fire is not so terrifying. The greatest show on earth is missing something. Her wonderful love ends. After each deflated excitement or shredded hope, she sings, “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing.”

Lee’s plea implies that regardless of what life brings, dancing continues. Dancing is always there. It is something that we are already doing—we can keep at it. Even if we have stopped or tried to give it up, we need not worry. We can just pick up where we left off. Everyone can do it, and we all do it together. Dancing, it seems, is all there is.

Nevertheless, in the refrain, dancing is not all there is. There is also booze, which, once broken out, helps us “have a ball.” At first, this association of dancing, drinking, and fun may seem unworthy of second thought. It is what we have been taught. The European missionaries who roamed six continents for over four hundred years forbidding native peoples to dance were convinced that dancing is disruptive to the upward progress of Western Christian civilization. Dancing, they insisted, is a slippery slope to debauchery and nihilism.

Lee’s song seems to confirm this pattern. The booze breaks out, ostensibly to keep us dancing. Maybe dancing is not so easy to keep doing after all—perhaps given how much we have internalized a bias against it. Drinking alcohol dulls our senses and softens our mental grip. It loosens self-consciousness. Drinking, we don’t care about what others think about our bodies and their awkward gyrations. We don’t care about making fools of ourselves, so we make fools of ourselves. We exist in the present, because as the song implies, that is all there is.

But is that all there is to dance? Even for Lee?

Lee suggests not. In the final verse she responds to those who ask her why, if she is so disappointed by life, she doesn’t just “end it all.” “I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment,” she replies. Even with her last breath, she will be (singing about) dancing.

There is more here to dancing than meets the eye. As Lee’s reversal tells, dancing holds her here, on this earth, attached to life. Dancing does not disappoint, or at least not in the same way as other joys and sorrows. Something about dancing gives Lee a reason to keep it, to keep at it, and to let it keep her living.

What more could dancing be?

*  *  *

It just continues—Life: generations / Dancing.
—Martha Graham

Modern dancers in the twentieth century, Martha Graham among them, practiced their art in hot pursuit of the possibility that dancing could be more than what they saw as social spectacle or frivolous entertainment. Graham consistently described her work with language drawn from religion. Dancing, she believed, is “movement made divinely significant”: it offers us an opportunity to “reveal” what it is that makes a human human.

Graham was not the only one who used the language of religion to describe the more they wanted from dance. In search of such possibilities, modern dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, and others identified, isolated, and rehearsed basic patterns of human movement—breathing, sighing, coughing, and sneezing; falling and rising; contracting and releasing, walking, skipping, and leaping. They practiced making ordinary movements.

Implicit in their respective investigations was the conviction that ordinary bodily movements are anything but. Bodily movement matters. It matters to who we are and what we become. It matters to how we think, what we perceive, and where we desire to go. It matters to what we value and what and how we conceive of the divine.

In response to what they perceived as techniques of dance—such as nineteenth-century ballet—that imposed arbitrary, artificial forms onto a body, the modern dancers strove to discover what a bodily self could do. By repeating ordinary movements, they sought to grow their range of mobility in line with the health and well-being of their bodily selves. These dancers not only wanted to create patterns of physical movement that honored bodily selves, they sought to reveal bodily selves, women’s in particular, as sources of knowledge, as criteria of value, as, in a word, divine.

What their dances made visible and visceral for audiences, then, was not any one move or set of movements per se, but a rhythm of bodily becoming in which all humans participate. A human is this ongoing, open-ended process of creating and becoming patterns of movement that guide her thought and action in the world. Every movement made becomes an agent of perception, a conduit through which sensations enter and depart, a way to organize one’s relationship to the ongoing movement of all that is.

The early modern dancers revealed a human as, first and foremost, a dancer.

*  *  *

In Why We Dance, I gather emerging evidence from across scholarly and scientific disciplines that bodily movement plays a more vital role than previously imagined in both the evolution of the human species and the development of a human person. Big brains. Empathic hearts. Strong social bonds. Tool use. Language use. Morality. Religion. Ecological adaptability. So many qualities said to distinguish a human among animals (if only in degree) exploit an inborn ability to create and become patterns of bodily movement—a kinetic creativity that the modern dancers revealed in their dances.

Because humans can play with bodily movement—because we can discover patterns, practice making patterns, and then share those patterns with other humans—we are able to find uses for objects and talents and physiological forms that have no single evolutionary purpose. We can discover new applications for a rock or a thumb or a brain because we can discover new ways of moving in relation to it. Humans have a capacity to learn to move with whatever enters our sphere of perception—whether antelope or potential mate. We can cultivate a sensory awareness that not only helps us to perceive it, but also primes us to receive impulses to move in relation to it that are life-enabling.

*  *  *

Infants’ connection to others emerges from the fact that the bodily movement patterns they see others perform are coded like the ones they themselves perform.
—Andrew Meltzoff

But why did humans evolve this kinetic creativity?

Feminist anthropologist Sarah Hrdy’s work offers a clue having to do with birth. Humans are altricial animals: newborns are helpless, completely dependent on caregivers. Relative to other primates, humans emerge from the womb with their neuromuscular system underdeveloped. In order to match a chimp’s level of maturity, a human fetus would need to stay in the womb an additional thirteen months. As a result, human infants will not survive unless they can entice caregivers to care for them. And this they do through the primary medium available to their undeveloped brains: bodily movement.

Human infants cannot grow a serviceable brain unless they put into action the capacities that every dance tradition exercises—not just a capacity to imitate others, but a capacity to mobilize their bodily self in response to others. Infants must be able to sense and respond to discomfort by finding ways to move that will invite others to help them not recreate the pain. As they do, the movements that they make make them, growing their brains into reservoirs of guidance on how to move with in the future.

If an ability to play with movement keeps human infants alive, then it may also be that the diverse range of dance traditions and techniques evident in every known culture throughout human history represents collections of movement patterns that some people have discovered and remembered as helpful in keeping themselves alive—helpful in nurturing life-enabling relationships with sources of power or sustenance in natural, social, and even spiritual worlds. Traditions of dancing are ongoing streams in which the movement patterns that make humans human proliferate and give rise to further possibilities of feeling, thinking, acting, and believing.

*  *  *

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing.
—Psalm 31

Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated these discoveries. Across his body of work, from beginning to end, the figure of dance appears at critical moments to describe an alternative value to that represented by the Christian idea of a transcendent god. Dancing, for Nietzsche, is effective. It represents a bodily practice that can give rise to values and beliefs that do not express the same hostility to bodily selves that he perceives in Christianity. Dancing points beyond the actions of reading and writing to the kind of bodily work humans need to do in order to awaken their senses and think through them; to stir their instincts and “spiritualize” them; in short, to cultivate the “great health” required to transform their mourning for god into joy in their own kinetic creativity.

As early as Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how dance works. When audience members face the horror of a dying Dionysus, the dancing and singing of the chorus sound out elemental rhythms that hook audience members under the ribs and pull them back from the edge of the abyss. The dancing quickens a sense of identification with the gods—with the ongoing creation of the world—such that audience members know their own bodily participation in the work of creating values in every moment, by virtue of movements they make in perceiving this and not that. The death of god is not cause for despair, but an opportunity to dance and so create new values that, in the words of Zarathustra, “remain faithful to the earth.” Graham alludes to Nietzsche’s work when she describes hers as an “affirmation of life through movement.”

*  *  *       

What is it about dancing that keeps Lee alive?

It is probably not the satisfaction of accomplishing technical tricks. Nor is it simply a way to forget the disappointments of losing her home, her hope, or her wonderful love. None of these losses were as devastating as she imagined they would be.

Dancing is the activity that allowed Lee to feel these feelings—to peer into the abyss and feel the full weight of her disappointments—in such a way that the disappointment yields to a radical affirmation of life. The disappointments do not appear to her as evidence that god is dead or that life has no redeeming value. To the contrary, her own disappointments appear to her as reasons to love life—all of it. She can embrace the joy and the sorrow as expressions of her own desire—the rhythm of her own bodily becoming—that wants and keeps wanting more.

Lee has no wish to die because she is always already dancing. Death has no sting. The dance continues. And as long as she dances, she too will keep willing and wanting, knowing that she will be disappointed again and again, and knowing as well, that every time, dancing will help her find ways to move—emotionally, intellectually, spiritually—that remain faithful to the earth.

Just as Zarathustra counsels the higher men, Lee lifts her legs high and higher, and learns to laugh. “How much is still possible!” Like Graham’s dancers, she participates consciously in the open-ended rhythm of bodily becoming, ever seeking and finding new ways to affirm life.

Because dancing is all there is, there is always more.

So let’s keep dancing.