We can survive without dancing, but it will be a bad life

Article by Tina Berezhnaya

A human being starts to move in the womb – the beat of the mother’s heart, her emotions are all attuned to the baby’s first moves. Dancing starts the moment the baby is born and finds itself in space, within gravity and distances, learns to control the body and gets the urge to feel the space and to fill it. Dance is essentially any structured and rhythmical movement in time and space. We all dance before we learn to speak, but not all of us take dancing to a new level – a concise, practiced, concentrated form of beautiful movement. What is the nature of dance? How does it change us and our perceptions? Why is dance communication so intimate? We asked Alexander Girshon, one of the world’s leading dance-movement therapists, about that and more.

What originates dancing in a human being? What is the source of our dancing?

It’s a good question because it doesn’t have one answer. Surely there is a number of ideas – anthropological and such – that try to explain bits and pieces. But with both dance and music there is a still a certain level of mystery – as if the magnitude of experiencing them, their significance to human culture, and the theory explaining them are incompatible in size. It is considered that there are several main sources of dancing. One of the theories, naturally, is that dancing is the expression of sexuality, but this theory does not explain ritual dances, hunters’ dances etc. – it only works for couple dances.

The second theory assumes that dancing is connected with labor: dancing is seen as a means of transmitting certain types of knowledge in a society, and it appeared before written languages. So through the dance people learn behavioral patterns, labor skills, working together etc. But again this does not explain the appearance of ritual, temple, and sacred dances. Absolutely. In this sense dancing is not just co-adjustment of people in a couple or in a society.

It is also, as seen from modern viewpoint, a way to reload, entering a different state of mind and consciousness, expanding your consciousness as required for this ritual and quality interaction with other people in the society, a couple and so on. Thus dancing due to its specific synchronous structure both in the body, the entire organism including the brain, and the multilevel communication gives you the feeling of something bigger than a self.

I see that most folk dances are dances of happiness – people are dancing to celebrate, but I’ve not seen any folk dances to feel sad. Is happiness the driving force of dancing?

I am certain there is a much greater spectrum of emotion in folk dances, it can be the expression of aggression as well. It is definitely present in military dances as a channel of clear and possibly less dangerous expression of aggression, or for agitating the troops before a battle – this has nothing to do with happiness. This is also folklore, only a specific variety. Or take flamenco, for example, it is filled with passion, and this passion is not necessarily coming from a happy place. It’s a different tonality. But the majority of folk dances are for and about happiness. I’d say it’s about happiness in wider sense, happiness as vibrant vitality, not joy, elevated spirits, or light-heartedness, but happiness as vigorous living. Yes, this is mainly the feel of the dance. Naturally dancing evolved to express any feelings at all. But when it comes to sadness, it is mainly connected with personal, solo dancing. Simply because you cannot unite in sadness. You can contemplate it, be empathic and compassionate about it, but it’s hardly a uniting emotion. This depends on the nature of the emotion – you walk into it like you walk into deep waters… and want somebody to be there for you at the shore.

Our dance form is strongly based on eye contact for clues and ideas. We look each other in the eye when in a circle. Is that the kind of non-verbal communication we are born with or a skill we have to learn and master?

Without this non-verbal communication we as human beings do not develop. It is well known that critical psychological damage, as well as one of the reasons of early deaths for children, is connected with sensory deprivation when a child is dispossessed of any direct tactile and body communication, eye contact and other types of true communication. It is a well-studied topic: a mother with a baby were filmed, and in slow motion you can see that there is a conversation, a non-verbal dialogue, there are moments of synchronization, question and response going both ways, and most of the reactions are subconscious. Without this a baby will not develop into a proper human being. When we dance as adults the same mechanisms are at work, but they play a different part.

We can survive without dancing, but it will be a bad life. This synchronizing nature of dance allows you to say, “Yes, I exist here, and I am fine, you exist here, and we are fine.” This synchronicity stands for a strong non-verbal “yes” that we experience as an agreement. The joy in dancing is connected to this “Yes, I am, I am not alone, and I’m fine.”

We often have to teach students in class to look each other in the eye – many find it extremely challenging! When do we lose this ability to look people in the eye and communicate with looks?

The most important moment here is that open communication happens between close people. If we consider the model of communication based on the non-verbal connection of a baby and its primary caregiver, it is an example of this closeness. When a society comes into the equation, it is first of all a set of rules worked out to let people live together. The rules are primarily aimed at separation. It used to be social classes earlier, then rules for behaving, guidelines for decency and various regulations including confessional ones. Within the rules you do not really need emotions, you need to follow the order. Of course to survive in a society, to be effective there you need to be a good follower of the rules and establish very clear distances and hierarchies. It’s about a completely different thing, not intimacy. It’s about civilization.

There are dance forms based on strict rules, ballroom dances for instance – very clear distances, very precise and perfectly-calibrated figures that also demonstrate the social roles taken by the dancers and the distances they establish. And even here there is a certain degree of synchronization, specific communication, also calibrated, not open, and tightly channeled.

When we look each other in the eye a lot of sync is happening on the level of facial muscles. It switches on the emotional sphere much more powerfully. We start to really feel our own feelings and see what our partner feels, and we have to do something about it. In a dance we know what to do – we can reflect it through our motions. But what if we do not yet know how to express things in movement? We start seeing a partner, we are getting feelings, but – what am I to do with all this? Uh-oh. So it is a good idea to explain to your students that we are all live humans, there is no way to escape feeling, they may vary, and they come and go. Dancing helps find and shape these feelings, and it’s great to meet this challenge and learn how to deal with it.

Is it true that dancing helps people to open?

I think there are no single universal recipes that work for everyone. Dancing has tremendous potential for this – that’s how I’d put it. If a person wants to show off, he or she will show off, but not open. If a person already has an attitude for this, if he or she is not blocking this openness, the dance can take them to great places, great emotions about him or herself and contacting other people.

Does dancing help feel more comfortable in your body and feel that your body is a part of who you are?

Indisputably.  It is a very well researched matter. There is a number of mechanisms at work, including the one that allows dancing to change the self-perception to accept oneself more. Of course, not every dance will do that. If the problems to solve are external – making a show, working on perfecting the moves – that’s one thing. Or if a person has hard time with coordination and they need to move more, dancing can become a source of frustration. But in this case a teacher can work with students individually, and then the progress is gigantic.

We often see that students come to class after a workday tired and preoccupied, but after an hour or more of dancing and intense physical activity they leave as if gliding above the ground. What is the reason for this change?

It is the change of activity first of all. It is obvious we mostly see office workers in dance classes. Interestingly enough in all sorts of folk settings, in rural life there is more space and opportunity to dance. But body and dance/movement therapists insist that modern city inhabitants starting from the 20th century have a huge gap between the top and the bottom of their bodies. Both in literal and metaphorical senses. The head is overloaded, all this information to process, the head and everything around are overburdened. The bottom part is just a service tool, a functional addition. When we get into motion, the balance is restored. And when everything finds its balance, you feel elated, free, light, filled with energy, because everything is back in its place, and I’m not burdened any more. Finally it feels even.

Is there a difference between a dancing person and someone who does not dance?

There was a research in Israel and France comparing sportsmen, dancers, other people with active lifestyle to those who do not move a lot, looking at their psychological and genetic differences. The scientists compared their DNAs and found differences. But the study was limited and impossible to repeat to verify the result. And it is hard to say whether the genetic difference is acquired with practicing sports, dancing etc. or was there in the first place.

I can say that if you listen to music and feel yourself responding to it with motion, you are a dancing person. That is all the mechanisms of dancing work, you just need to develop and use them more.

Are there any conditions preventing a person from dancing?

I’d say there are no limitations – only indications. But it depends what type of dancing and how much of it. For a person in the depths of depression every movement, even the smallest one, is already an achievement, it might be outstandingly hard to start, and maybe some other initial step is necessary. This is true for an extremely difficult situation. For a lighter condition dancing is absolutely recommended. It is most important that you can offer dancing, but cannot impose it, because any dance forced upon us is practiced without any involvement, against the collar, it is an ineffective dance. It’s all for nothing.

There are understandable difficulties when teaching, when something doesn’t work, but these are normal that can be overcome to bring you to more robust emotions. But if there is no initial will, if a person is not ready – this becomes the most important thing. No one but you can dance your dance.

When a person is ready to dance, it’s only a matter of technique: what dance form to choose, how and how much to practice. Merely technique. The moment we are in is absolutely important: I have the drive, I have the wish, however small, but it is important.

ATS® costume is lavish, but still we have a bit of exposed skin – the belly. This creates very mixed reactions in the audience – they are usually enchanted by the show, but also confused and not knowing how to deal with seeing the body. How do we teach the public to accept various forms of dancing, the most body-centered of all arts?

I think there is a huge change gradually happening now. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries we are seeing a steady trend of Western people returning to their bodies. Through sports, yoga, dancing and other practices people re-acquire themselves. Two thousand years of Christianity preaching that human body is a vessel of sin and proselytizing a different view of human body had their effect, and now it is changing. Your body can be a vessel of virtue, or sin, or both, or anything. The future is coming in uneven waves. In some places there is no question of body acceptance, as there is now a cultural code saying, “Dancing like this is OK. This body communication is normal.” This is only the cultural norm that changes in time. Things we do now in the streets were unthinkable 100 years ago, but things common 200 years ago – like public whipping – are absolutely unacceptable now. The public norms of body perception also change. One of the leading tendencies in the world now for Western civilization is accepting variety, accepting human physicality. It is important to talk to people about it. Dancing is a sexual act and is mostly indecent – we’ve heard too much of it. But dancing is delightful, it’s profound and intensely human, and this is what we need to keep saying out loud!

Is there any truth in the saying that your posture changes your emotion?

Yes. But it depends not only on the positioning of the body, but the internal predisposition of the body’s owner. If I treat my body as an object and position it like this or that, little will change in my emotional state, it will be bad and ineffective. But if I do not change, but change, then it works.

A crucial part of our dance form is a smile. Can smiling bring this change – from the outside expression to inner feeling?

One of popular oriental internal practices is that of internal smiling. It is a Buddhist practice when a person smiles inside, not outside. But you can always feel it, the muscle tone changes slightly, there is a subtle change in the direction of your motions in space – all affected by your inner state. People around you can read that. And when they do, they also change ever so slightly. If they are ready, if they are not preoccupied. Authenticity plays the key role here. I do not imitate a smile, I come to the place inside me that has enough resources for this smile to be not just what I do, but be me. I believe in that.