In elementary school and high school I would sit in the audience of talent shows and think “This is admittedly impressive in that the performers have great control of their body, but isn’t this form without content? Doesn’t this lack meaning or message?” So for the first 20 years of my life I was convinced that dance was just an inferior art form if an art form at all.
My thinking began to shift when I watched a Ze Frank video in which Ze narrates a dancer’s life story over his performance.
I liked this. I loved it. There was a marriage of form and content that I had been searching for. I wouldn’t have been able to read Harry’s performance without Ze’s narration, but we all have to be taught to become literate. No one is born reading. No one is born understanding much of anything. So then I had a problem. I had found a dance performance I liked. I could no longer write off an entire art form as inherently inferior. So what was different?
I wouldn’t know until a couple years later. I sat down to consciously think through dance. Every art form has advantages and ideas that it’s better at exploring. Theatre explores causes and effects. Poetry relates connected ideas. The various movements in the history of painting demonstrate different ways of perceiving the world. What does dance do?
The answer I came to was this – dance demonstrates dynamic. A dance that takes place between two people represents the innermost essence of relationship; some are exciting, some are happy, some are equal, some have a leader, some are slow, etc. So dance is about connection and interaction. Dance is what two souls are doing while two bodies are talking or walking or working or whatever.
So what about these solo dance performances like the detestable ones in high school or the beautiful one on youtube? If dance is about connection, aren’t solo dances inherently deficient? Aren’t they inherently about loneliness? Well, yes and no. Solo dance performances (I am including coordinated dances done in groups but without interaction between dancers) are about what the soul does when its on its own. They’re a way of sharing an innermost part of ourselves.
But that has to be vulnerable. And there’s the difference between hip-hop loving teens and Harry. Harry is exposed. Harry is embodying his pain. The talent show performances aren’t vulnerable. They should be but what they say is “The inner most part of me is strong and sassy and beautiful and ain’t takin’ nuthin’ from nobody.” That claim is almost certainly a lie and I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone for whom that was honestly true. Real people are vulnerable and demonstrating that takes incredible courage. Anything less than that isn’t art. It’s a lie you tell yourself. Unfortunately it’s the lie that most talent show participants have told themselves.
But dance is made for more. Dance is what the soul does. It can be what two souls do together or it can be a single soul at its most vulnerable. What it should never be is without risk.
You may disagree. You may find “strong and sassy” inspiring. That’s a conversation we can have. The point is I don’t hate dance anymore. What I hate is invulnerability. What I admire is vulnerability. If you admire strength, I submit to you that real strength is the courage to be open.