Dance: Aspiring to the World’s Favorite Metaphor

“Dancing is the world’s favorite metaphor.”
– Kristy Nilsson

Every day, dance is used as a metaphor. Moonlight dances on water. Life is a dance. Or, as Dr. Sue Johnson has written, “Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection. It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again. Minute to minute and day to day.”

Dance as a metaphor evokes connection, freedom, creativity, improvisation, beauty, emotion, and meaning. It evokes the relationship between limits and freedom, form and spirit, structure and story, logic and expression, order and improvisation, function and elegance, focus and abandon, purpose and play, rhythm and balance, unity and diversity.

Most of us are attracted to dance because we recognize its potential to be all of these things. And yet often in our dancing we struggle to reach the heights that the metaphor promises. As we go about learning to control our own body, apply dance technique and vocabulary, communicate non-verbally with our partners, and feel and respond to the music, we often find that something is missing. We struggle to find the dance in our dancing.

When we look around, we may find this is not uncommon in dance classes and on social dance floors. Why is this? How can the dance itself not have enough dance in it?

We live in a culture of mind-body duality. Aspects of the human experience that should be deeply connected are often fragmented, as the mechanics of movement have been divorced from the sensations and emotions of the mover. The way we teach and learn dance follows this broader cultural trend. Classes emphasize technique but fail to connect it to expression. We’re admonished us to “just feel it” but given no practical ways for doing so. Without understanding and nurturing the deep relationship between discipline and freedom in our bodies and in our partnerships, we fail to find the dance that arises from their fusion.

Teachers often believe that delaying this fusion is a sound strategy. Because we separate the mechanics of movement from its expressivity, we often believe that feeling and musicality should be taught later, if we believe it should be taught at all. There is already so much to think about when learning movement, we reason, that movement first and musicality later seems like the appropriate order. Musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim warned against this approach in his book A Life in Music:

To separate the technical from the expressive side in music is like separating the body from the soul… When the technical problems of finger dexterity have been solved, it is too late to add musicality, phrasing and musical expression. That is why I never practice mechanically. If we work mechanically, we run the risk of changing the very nature of music.

Changing the very nature of dance is exactly what is at risk when we separate body from soul, movement from music, and the dance form from the humanity from which it springs. As Thomas Moore wrote in his book, Care of the Soul, “Our very habit of treating the body as a machine… forces its poetry underground, so that we experience the body as an instrument and see its poetics only in illness.” But, he adds, “When we relate to our bodies as having soul, we attend to their beauty, their poetry and their expressiveness.”

In a culture where our senses are so often fragmented, dance is an incredible art form that allows us to gather them together again, to restore and celebrate the relationship between body and mind, movement and spirit, form and freedom. When we do this, dance becomes dance, releasing its poetry and aspiring to its own metaphor.

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