In 2018 I am looking forward to the publication of a journal issue I am editing (with co-editors Yvonne Daniel and Sally Hess) called “Dancing on Earth.” Nine scholars who are also dancers, representing a diverse range of cultural traditions and disciplinary perspectives, have contributed essays that reach into the past and scour the present to gather resources from dance practices and techniques around the world that may help humanity toward a healthy planetary future.
One theme occurs repeatedly in these essays: dancing is effective. The act of moving our bodily selves has agency – an agency that does not depend upon what we think or how we feel about what we are doing, but is rooted in our evolutionary history. That history is present in us as a capacity to move. This capacity to move is not only built into shapes of bone and muscle, limb and length, or in the bodily systems of sensation, digestion, and respiration that support these movements. It is present as an ability to play with patterns of movement – to copy, to invent, to experiment, to discover, to move and be moved by other people, animals, plants, and elements. And then again, it is present not only as a capacity to play with movement, but to feel joy while doing so.
What popped out of the essays for me, time and again, was a fact known by cultures from Africa to India, from Japan to the Americas, from summer deserts to snowy winters: our human ability to feel joy – to be moved to move by it – is rooted in experiences of playing with bodily movement, of dancing.
I dance all the time. I think about dance; I write about dance, and every day, I open to dance experiences to some degree. Yet even I felt energized reading these essays. So here are some thoughts for the new year that are arising in me for me, and moving me to write them down.
Dance anywhere. In your kitchen. Around the table. In the street or yard. Along the sidewalk. Down the path. On the beach. While waiting in line.
Dance anytime. Morning, noon or night. Before you get out of bed. Before you lie down at the end of the day. Any time in between.
Dance with anyone. A person or a dog. A chair. A tree. A door. Another person. Your image in the mirror. A rock. The ground. The sky.
Dance to anything. To music, of any kind, of course. But also to the rattle of a car going by. The chug of a train on the tracks. A jet overhead. Wind through the trees. A dog barking. Your own breathing. A heartbeat. The striking of feet on the ground, or hands together.
Dance for any length of time. It could be thirty seconds. Three minutes. Or an hour. But start with thirty seconds.
Dance with any part of your bodily self that moves. Could be a finger. An arm. The tip of a head. A wink of an eye. Or your envelope of skin.
And begin. Take any movement that you make during the day – from brushing your teeth to pulling on a shirt -- and play with it. Take any movement you can make and vary it. Make it slow and fast; sharp and soft; big and small. Feel what happens as a result.
Let the feeling of making one movement guide you to make another -- the feeling of the movement -- not your mind, not an image of what you look like, not the fear of making the wrong move. Let this sensation of moving guide you to make another movement along the trajectories that your movements are opening up in you.
Let it happen.
Maybe this call to dance more sounds silly or impractical, hard to do or otherwise unnecessary.
It is not.
To be open to the possibility of dancing more, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, in any clothes, with any thing is to shift to a mentality, a way of being, that greets every moment of life as an invitation to discover who you are and what you can do.
Every moment of life becomes an invitation to move in ways that stir up feelings of joy that spill over into gratitude for whatever is possible.
Dancing more is not about exercising. It is not about burning calories. It is not about impressing people. It is about opening to your own capacity to sense and respond to movement arising in you and around you, because of you and regardless of you. It is about tapping into your own ability to be moved by joy.
Dancing more does not require excessive will power. As study after study insists, will power is a relatively weak human virtue. It is short lived. It can carry enormous side-effects, including stress, anxiety, irritation, and disappointment. Will power is good in small doses, to jump start other sources of motivation.
Stronger than will power are feelings and sensations that arise within us in response to stories and images and music and people and the earth around us.
To dance more, then, think the thought. Put the idea in your mind. Let it sit there for a while. Return to it from time to time. Feed it with your attention. Let it grow. Feel the possibility of its unfolding. Imagine it. Notice opportunities to dance when they arise. Notice moments when you almost feel inclined to do so. Attune to when and where the dancing in you stirs. And then, in such a moment, when you are on the brink, about to do it, engage a small dose of will power, and push through the resistance. Let the dancing happen. Trust it. Go with it.
When dance happens, endorphins fire. Neural pathways change. Desire begins to realign with movements that are nourishing to your bodily self. It may take a few doses of will power, but soon the will to move – the deep pleasure of stretching though space – will take over, and begin to feel like a need. Every day.
Don’t just dance when you are happy. Dance to be happy.
Don’t just dance when you are well. Dance to be well.
Don’t just dance because you feel good. Dance in order to feel good.
Make it small. Make it big. Make it secret. Make it public. Make it whatever it wants.
Dance more. Even professional dancers can sometimes forget why they are spending so much time and energy developing technical prowess. For the art to keep coming, it helps to stay in touch with the spontaneity. The joy.
Joy is political. Joy is a refusal to succumb to cynicism. It is a refusal to shrink away in despair from situations that seem untenable. It is a refusal to relinquish hope for a better future.
When you dance for joy – not because you already feel joy, but because you want to feel joy – other concerns fall into place. Even a brief spell of dancing can facilitate clarity of heart and mind. Priorities reorder themselves. More is revealed. More becomes possible.
So my mantra for 2018: More dance!