Dance Movements and Sense of Life

[ The following article appeared in the 1966 IREC Review published by (then) philosophy graduate student Harry Binswanger. Because I agree entirely with the ideas expressed here concerning one of my favorite art forms, I presenting it on this Web Page with the author's permission.]


Dance Movements and Sense of Life

by B. M. Biderman

Body movements often indicate a particular state of mind. Many common metaphors, for example, connect the two. We may say of a person who is undecided "he does not know which way to turn", or of a man who is elated "he is jumping for joy". But how does one relate the movements of a ballerina, a tap-dancer, a denizen of the discotheques, or a Balinese temple dancer to the emotions which it might arouse in different observers? If body movements in general reveal particular emotional states, in what way does the dance as an art form express a fundamental emotional outlook -- a sense of life?

I propose to highlight three major esthetic alternatives present in any type of dance: (1) body control vs. lack of body control, (2) natural movement vs. contorted movement, and (3) freedom of movement vs. restriction of movement. I will show how every choice within these alternatives is related to either a benevolent or malevolent sense of life, to an implicit view of the nature of man and of his life on earth, and will finally give a brief indication of the manner in which these principles may be applied to particular dance styles.

Imagine that two men are walking toward you. The first has a sloppy posture and arms which swing limply from his shoulders as he moves sluggishly, seemingly propelled onward by nothing more than his forward slump and the force of gravity. The second man has a tall, erect carriage and his head is held high as he strides forward with a firm and steady step. Which man would you suppose is the more likely to be rational and possess greater self-esteem? Why?

The proud and purposeful walk of the second man is indicative of a person who is in control of himself and his actions, and, therefore, of his own body. The walk of the first, on the other hand, indicates lack of such control. If a dance purports to portray man as a helpless creature at the mercy of forces outside his control, the choreographer (the designer of the dance) would choose the posture and bearing of the first man, while that of the second would be more appropriate to man seen as an independent, self-motivated, self-controlled being.

You may have heard the phrase "the man's face was contorted with pain", but never "contorted with pleasure". Also, consider that you would know there is something definitely abnormal about a man who could bend his arm at a point midway between his wrist and elbow, because a normally constructed body would not allow such a movement without pain and injury. It is in the nature of movements which are _unnatural_ that they accompany or indicate suffering. Thus, in a dance, to portray life on earth as a painful, crushing burden, one would devise unnatural, contorted movements for the dancer. This type of movement, however, would be absent from a dance which expressed the joy of living.

The third alternative, freedom vs. restriction in movement, bears the most abstract, but very significant, relation to sense of life. Movement, motion, and activity -- the language of the dance -- are fundamental attributes of consciousness and of a life, as well as of the human body. But the life-preserving, life-enhancing _activities_ of a consciousness may be _restricted_ and impaired by unresolved internal conflicts. The range of a man's activities in his career are related to his past accomplishments or lack of them. Freedom also implies that the universe is essentially benevolent and open to man's actions. Since the dance conveys values by means of physical movements, the course of a man's life, the nature of his mental processes, and his basic view of the world are all conveyed by the freedom or restriction of the dancer's movements. The unobstructed clarity of a fully rational mind might be suggested by great majestic leaps, while the guilt-ridden, anxious, repression-blocked consciousness of a man who is "in a rut" and "never gets anywhere" could be expressed by hesitant, timid steps, a few steps backward, a turn, and a few more small, uncertain steps.

Let us see what choices within each of the three alternatives mean in two specific cases. In classical ballet, body control and natural, graceful movements are the standard, and the benevolent sense of life which they project are echoed in the dramatic and sparkling music written to accompany this dance form. (Ballet movements have tended to become static and lifeless, however, due to an almost religious adherence to previously codified dance positions and sequences.)

Modern "social" dancing, which Nathaniel Branden has bluntly termed "flat-footed hysteria", is precisely that. The body postures are those of a practiced, studied sloppiness, the movements are convulsive and spastic, and the dancers' feet are firmly cemented to one spot. Compare the "frug" with the gay and vibrant Viennese waltz, and with the philosophies which were culturally dominant during their respective periods of popularity. This contrast underscores the effect of ideas, and the sense of life they generate, on the dance.

Of course, there are many other factors besides movement which enter into an esthetic judgement of a particular dance, such as the dancer's competence, the merit of the story for narrative dances, the musical accompaniment, and the costuming. But the very definition of the dance is that form of art which communicates values by means of the movements of the human body, because the type of body movements chosen is the essential means of expressing a dance's sense of life.


Personal note: In September of 1966, young Stephen Speicher liked this article so much, he went out of his way to meet and introduce himself to the author. The rest -- as they say -- is history.

Betsy Biderman Speicher

(c) 1994 Betsy Speicher. All rights reserved.

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