Dancing, fot Nietzsche, was another way of saying Yes! to life.
He introduced idiosyncratic concepts such as the free spirit, the Übermensch, eternal recurrence, ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the revaluation of values, and the affirmation of life. He shifted allegiances: writing books, for example, in support of the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but later delivering blistering critiques of both. Not surprisingly, scholars range widely in their interpretations of Nietzsche: was he a poet or a philosopher? A nihilist, moral relativist, or Nazi sympathiser? A critic or a system builder? Anti-Christian or Christian? Answers frequently depend on which portions of Nietzsche's work a reader deems most important.
In the face of this complexity, Nietzsche offers an interpretive key: his references to dance (Tanz). Taken together, these references light a path that begins in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and wends through every major work into his final book, the posthumous Ecce Homo (1908). These references not only link his ideas and styles, they also shed light on Nietzsche's enduring motivation: to teach readers how to affirm life here and now on Earth as human bodily selves. Nietzsche's dance references call attention to the sensory education that he insists is necessary for creating values that 'remain faithful to the Earth'.
When Nietzsche wrote his first book, he was unaware of the significance that dance would have for his philosophy, in part because he was deeply enamoured with Wagner. The musician had begun composing a cycle of four operas – his now-famous Ring – intending to revive the tradition of Ancient Greek tragedies. In so doing, Wagner hoped to realise the power of music that Schopenhauer described: to save humans from the cravings and suffering of Will.
During visits paid by Nietzsche, Wagner and his wife Cosima encouraged the younger man to write a scholarly book to justify these claims. Yet, as Nietzsche later admits, in his rush to laud Wagner (and Schopenhauer), he shortchanged one of his own insights – namely, that, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, the dancing of the chorus was essential for ensuring that stories of madness, suffering and death nonetheless produce in spectators a rousing affirmation of life.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche analyses this paradoxical experience. He explains that the dancing and singing of the chorus move spectators to identify viscerally with what the chorus represents: elemental rhythms of an endlessly creative Nature. As they are moved by these rhythms, spectators feel joy. They know their bodily selves as members of an endlessly generative whole. And from this sensory vantage point, they are not devastated by the tragic death of their hero, god or ideal; instead, they perceive this death as a mere moment in an ongoing flow of appearances. Nietzsche calls the effect a 'magic transformation': spectators' sensations of suffering and terror yield to feelings of 'metaphysical comfort' and the notion that 'life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable'.
Later, in Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche elaborates that all human symbolism – even music – is rooted in the 'imitation of gesture' at work in ancient tragedy. He writes that the human impulse to move with others 'is older than language, and goes on involuntarily … [even] when the language of gesture is universally suppressed,' as he observed among Christians of his day. When humans don't learn how to move their bodily selves, Nietzsche insists, their senses grow dull and they lose the capacity to discern what is good for them. He asks: where are the 'Books that teach us to dance'? Here, dance assumes a role it will play throughout Nietzsche's writing as a litmus test for any value, idea, practice or person. Does it dance? Does it catalyse a joyful affirmation of life?
On the heels of Human, Nietzsche's poor health forced him to retire from teaching, and he began to conceive plans for writing his own tragedy – a book designed to awaken in his readers a sensory vantage point from which they might experience the death of a god – in this case, the Christian God – as good for them, and a reason to love life. A book that would teach us to dance.
Nietzsche began writing his tragedy only after breaking off relations with his friends, the psychologist Paul Rée and Lou Andreas-Salomé, the woman they both loved. Nietzsche believed that he had found in Andreas-Salomé the one person who understood his quest for a radical affirmation of life. He made plans with her and Rée to live together in an intellectual society that she called their 'Unholy Trinity'. However, due primarily to suspicions planted by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, the trio's plans did not materialise. A despondent Nietzsche wrote to his dear friend Franz Overbeck: 'Unless I can discover the alchemical trick of turning this – muck into gold, I am lost.'
Nietzsche's own 'magic transformation' appeared a month later: Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Three more parts soon followed. In this story, Zarathustra is a man who has lived alone on a mountaintop for 10 years, and comes down to teach people how to love themselves and their humanity. All four parts are saturated with references to dance, dancers and dancing. Zarathustra is a dancer, and dance is what he admonishes others to do. As Zarathustra exhorts: 'You higher men, the worst about you is that you have not learned to dance as one must dance – dancing away over yourselves! What does it matter that you are failures? How much is still possible!' And when Zarathustra states: 'I would only believe in a god that knows how to dance,' he confirms that even our highest ideals must encourage us to affirm bodily life.
After Zarathustra, Nietzsche continued to evoke dance as a touchstone for life-affirming values. In his critique of western European Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), dance appears as an activity practised by the strong to preserve their ability to digest their experiences; those who dance are not burdened by ressentiment, or need for revenge. They have the sensory discernment needed to resist pernicious applications of the ascetic ideal. In Twilight of the Idols (1889) and The Antichrist (1895), dance appears as a discipline for training sensory awareness and cultivating skills of perception and responsibility, so that one is able to participate responsibly in the creation of values, conscious of what one's movements are making.
Nietzsche's ubiquitous references to dance are ever-present reminders that the work of overcoming oneself – of freeing oneself enough from anger, bitterness and despair to say 'Yes!' to life – is not just an intellectual or scientific task. An ability to affirm life demands bodily practices that discipline our minds to elemental rhythms, to the creativity of our senses, and to the 'great reason', our body, 'that does not say “I" but does 'I".' Only when we engage in such practices will we have the sensory awareness we need in order to discern whether the values we create and the movements we make express love for ourselves and the Earth.
We each have a way of moving to music that is so unique a computer can use it to identify us.
- The way we dance to music is so signature to an individual that a computer can now identify us by our unique dancing "fingerprint" with over 90 percent accuracy.
- The AI had a harder time identifying dancers who were trying to dance to metal and jazz music.
- Researchers say they are interested in what the results of this study reveal about human response to music, rather than potential surveillance uses.
When music comes on, some people are toe-tappers or head-bobbers, others sway their hips, and then there are those that let the rhythm move them to a full-body boogie. But, whatever it is, the way we groove to a beat it is so signature to an individual that a computer can now identify us by our unique dancing "fingerprint."
A recent study has discovered that the way that we move to music, regardless of genre, is nearly always the same. So much so, an AI can identify who the dancer is with over 90 percent accuracy.
An accidental discovery
Researchers at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at Finland's University of Jyväskylä have been using motion capture technology to study what a person's dance moves say about his or her mood, personality, and ability to empathize. They recently stumbled upon a serendipitous discovery while trying to see if an ML machine, a form of artificial intelligence, would be able to identify which genre of music was playing based on how the participants of the study were dancing. In their study, published in the Journal of New Music Research, the researchers motion captured 73 participants with the AI technology while they danced to eight different music genres: electronica, jazz, metal, pop, rap, reggae, country, and blues. The only instruction the dancers were given was to move in a way that felt natural. The original objective was a flop. The ML's algorithm was wrong in distinguishing genres over 70 percent of the time.
But what it could do was more shocking. The computer was able to correctly identify which one of the participants was dancing 94 percent of the time, regardless of what kind of music was playing, based on the pattern of a person's dance style. It was the movement of participants' heads, shoulders and knees that were important markers in distinguishing between individuals. If the computer were to have guessed randomly who was dancing with no other information to go off, the expected accuracy of its guesses would have been less than 2 percent.
"It seems as though a person's dance movements are a kind of fingerprint. Each person has a unique movement signature that stays the same no matter what kind of music is playing," said Pasi Saari, a co-author of the study, in a release.
Genre matters a little
The researchers noticed that some genres might have more influence on the way an individual dances than others. For instance, the AI had a harder time identifying dancers who were trying to dance to Metal and Jazz music. They aren't exactly an intuitive genre to groove to, so we all tend to go about it using the same types of movements.
"There is a strong cultural association between Metal and certain types of movement, like headbanging," Emily Carlson, the first author of the study, explained. "It's probable that Metal caused more dancers to move in similar ways, making it harder to tell them apart.
Will dance-recognition software become a thing?
It's possible that dance-recognition software could become something similar to face-recognition software, but it doesn't seem as practical. For now, researchers say that they are not as interested in possible surveillance uses of this technology, but rather what the results of this study say about how humans respond to music.
"We have a lot of new questions to ask, like whether our movement signatures stay the same across our lifespan, whether we can detect differences between cultures based on these movement signatures, and how well humans are able to recognize individuals from their dance movements compared to computers," concluded Carlson.
So don't worry about being identified at nightclub by an AI via your signature dance moves... yet.
The Zen of choreographer Merce Cunningham comes alive in a new documentary about his life.
- In Cunningham, director Alla Kovgan brings the avant-garde dancer to life.
- Merce Cunningham's seven-decade career left behind some of the most important modern dances in the twentieth century.
- In this interview with Big Think, Kovgan discusses how she approached the film while sharing Cunningham's ideas about success.
A good friend of mine loathes Instagram. He disdains the posturing, the attitude, the constant drive for an illusion of success. During a recent conversation, he championed the humility displayed on TikTok. While I don't believe Instagram is all ego—educational feeds like Squat University and reality checks like Nature is Metal make the app worthwhile—I understood his larger point: TikTok actually feels like social media while Instagram is used more like a pedestal.
Not that TikTok users don't care about success—they are human and humans are prone to crave acceptance, thumbs up, hearts, or by any other medium. There are plenty of views and likes on TikTok to get caught up in.
How we measure success, however, is an individual matter. For one author that means selling 100,000 books; for another, the mere completion of a text is enough. Some artists cater by writing on topics that have already proven to be big sellers while others break boundaries. If people want to come along for the ride, so be it.
The avant-garde choreographer, Merce Cummingham, was in the latter camp, says filmmaker Alla Kovgan, who directed the new documentary, Cunningham. Rather than require perfection, Cunningham allowed his dancers to experiment and, importantly, fail on stage. It is only by pushing the boundaries of what's possible that you learn. Cunningham was focused on the process. He created dances, Kovgan says, and allowed audiences to find him.
Beginning in 1944, Cunningham began producing dance works while his lifelong romantic partner, John Cage, supplied music. Fusing movement and music with the latest technological means, Cunningham's long career has left behind an incredibly rich legacy.
That's what Kovgan set out to capture when she began working on the documentary in 2011. The Moscow-born, award-winning director of "Nora" was taken by how Cunningham used space and time in his works. Capturing that on film was a challenge given how big (in terms of actual movement) every production was, yet the film beautifully captures the essence of this legendary dancer's contribution to the art. Even if you've never heard of Cunningham, you'll be taken by Kovgan's exceptional storytelling.
Cunningham - Official Trailer
Derek: What made you want to feature Merce Cunningham's work?
Alla: I never wanted to make a movie about Merce Cunningham. He's the kind of choreographer where you have 16 people going in different directions and you cannot make a single shot. I first learned about his work through cinema because I watched a 1965 piece he made. It was very interesting because it had multiple screens, dances, and a lot of electronic music and a lot of feedback loops. And I was like, "Oh my God, who is this person?"
I thought making a film about him would be impossible, but then 3D came out in a new way. I felt like there was a potential between 3D and dance. It all coincided with the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was in 2011 and the company shut down on December 31. I remember going to the last performance and it struck me that 3D and Merce can make a good fit. 3D works really well with space and Merce was very much concerned with working in space.
Derek: There is a lot of archival footage, with him being interested in technology throughout his career. You do a lot of work with split screens and the layering of film. Was that an artistic decision?
Alla: I was particularly struck by the period between 1942 and 1972—that was the celluloid era. People shot eight-millimeter, 16-millimeter, and 35-millimeter footage. I was impressed how much there was—not only footage but also photographs. Seventy photographers photographed Merce between '42 and '72. This is because he just said yes to things. He was obsessed with being captured and preserved.
When we got to make the movie, one of the biggest challenges was bringing the material that we shot today in 3D together with the archival material. We were thinking that the archival material should not be just single shots, it should be a collage of elements in space. Although the materials would stay in 2D, they're all placed in different planes. Each kind of archival moment is more like a three-dimensional block that's filled in with elements. Imagine how much more work it was to actually arrange and choreograph and choose those elements within the space.
Photo by Martin Misere / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Derek: Besides ballet, what other styles influenced Merce?
Alla: I'm not a Merce expert, but he took ballet and modern dance and tried to make a new dancer. Of course, he did a lot of yoga, and he has seen a lot of different dances, from Native American to Indian. He danced with Martha Graham for some time and she was a big influence. He developed a technique to not only be influenced by different styles and distill things for himself, but he also had to create a system that would train the bodies of the dancers. That's a tall order.
Derek: How much freedom did the dancers have within his instruction to express themselves?
Alla: All the freedom they could have. He wanted them to do the movement, and then, at least in my impression, is that he was quite open. He was quite interested in our flaws as dancers. Of course, things would change, depending on who was doing it. He was looking for individuals. They were not just realizing his vision, they were manifesting their personality through his work. It was a very stable company. People stuck around, sometimes for decades, which is a long time within the contemporary dance world. It wasn't easy; you had to accept not knowing and have a sense of uncertainty. But if you think about it, are we really certain about anything?
Derek: I try not to be certain about anything.
Derek: What struck you most about Merce's work during the period you cover in the film?
Alla: There was a kind of spirit that we're missing, or maybe it's only possible when you're young, and maybe it's only possible in some period and place. New York was definitely that place where everything was possible. You could actually have a loft with $20 a month and you could just to get together and do things because you just wanted to do them and be kind of poor. It was very romantic in a way. At the same time, I was incredibly struck by Merce's humanity and perseverance. He didn't have anything. He didn't have audience support, money, press, nothing. He persevered for two to three decades in that condition. His success comes when he's 45 years old.
John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Photo by Douglas Jeffrey / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Derek: How did his dancers and friends feel about him as a human and as an artist?
Alla: He influenced them incredibly. There were two different generations. The dancers who knew him in the early years experienced his pain. The dancers who knew him later knew him as this generous old man who was kind and loving. It was interesting in comparison to the dancers who were there back in the fifties, but both generations revere him and were inspired by him.
Derek: Speaking of pain, there were moments in your film that reminded of the dancer, Sergei Polunin, trying to evolve a dance form but getting stuck by convention in the process. How did Merce feel when audiences didn't take to him? There was a moment in the film where they talked about having tomatoes thrown at them at the end of a performance.
Alla: The reason he survived is because he had friends, and the number of those friends grew over years. Merce created dances and then waited for people to be able to see them. It took a while for people to understand what he was doing, and to understand you have to have a background. The reason Europeans got into this is because they have backgrounds; they take their kids to see modern dance since the age of five.
Because Merce had this community and friends, he always felt supported. That's one thing. But criticism was also part of the deal. He accepted what that was. He was not oriented for this kind of success, because everything now is measured by success. He was willing to take a risk. He was willing to gamble. He was willing to not be successful because when you work like that, when you have a choreographer making choreography, musicians making music, and visual artists making things, and they meet at the premiere, what is the calculated success?
They would always say sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn't, and they were willing to accept those times when things didn't work. You also have allow situations where things don't work. It affects you dramatically.
A new study finds that societies use the same acoustic features for the same types of songs, suggesting universal cognitive mechanisms underpinning world music.
- Every culture in the world creates music, though stylistic diversity hides their core similarities.
- A new study in Science finds that cultures use identifiable acoustic features in the same types of songs and that tonality exists worldwide.
- Music is one of hundreds of human universals ethnographers have discovered.
World music's most striking feature is its diversity. A quick survey of modern musical styles demonstrates this variation, as there seems little in commonality between the melodious flow of jazz, the tonal jolts of dubstep, and the earthy twang of country folk.
If we expand our survey beyond contemporary genres, this diversity becomes even more pronounced.
Katajjaq, or Inuit throat singing, expresses playfulness in strong, throaty expressions. Japan's nogaku punctuates haunting bamboo flutes with the stiff punctuation of percussion. South of Japan, the Australian Aborigines also used winds and percussions, yet their didgeridoos and clapsticks birthed a distinct sound. And the staid echoes of medieval Gregorian chant could hardly be confused for a rousing track of thrash metal.
Despite music's far reach across cultures and time, its diversity has led many ethnomusicologists to proclaim the idea of a universal "human musicality" to be groundless or even offensive. But a new study published in Science has found evidence that the world's musics share important acoustic commonalities, despite their apparent differences.
The universal qualities of world music
The researchers focused on vocal songs because it is the most ubiquitous instrument available to world music.
Samuel Mehr, who studies the psychology of music at Harvard, led a team of researchers in studying musical patterns across cultures. In their "natural history of song," the team collected an ethnography and discography of songs from human cultures across the world.
The data set only looked at vocal performances because vocal cords are a ubiquitous musical instrument. They focused on four distinct song types: lullabies, dance songs, healing songs, and love songs. These songs were analyzed through transcriptions, machine summaries, and amateur and expert listeners in an online experiment.
The researchers' analysis of the data revealed that these four music types shared consistent features and that cultures used in similar contexts. Some of the similarities were what you'd expect. Dance songs were faster and had an upbeat tempo when compared to soothing and slow lullabies.
But the researchers found subtler distinctions also shared across cultures. For example, love songs have a larger size of pitch range and metrical accents than lullabies. Dance songs were more melodically variable than healing songs, while healing songs used fewer notes that were more closely spaced than love songs.
"Taken together, these new findings indicate that some basic but fundamental principles mapping musical styles onto societal functions and emotional registers exist and can be scientifically analyzed," stated cognitive biologists W. Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu (University of Vienna), who wrote the study's perspective piece.
The study's online experiment asked more than 29,000 participants to listen to songs and categorize them into one of the four types. The researchers precluded offering information that either explicitly or implicitly identified the song's context. They wanted listeners to guess based on the song's acoustic features alone.
The listeners, amateurs and experts, guessed the correct song type about 42 percent of the time, a success rate that stands well above the 25 percent odds of pure chance. The researchers argue that this shows "that the acoustic properties of a song performance reflect its behavioral context in ways that span human cultures."
Far from tone deaf
Of course, we all know that music varies, and the study did find three dimensions that explained the variability across the four song types: formality, arousal, and religiosity. For example, dance songs were found to be high in formality, high in arousal, but low in religiosity. Meanwhile, healing songs were high in all three dimensions, and lullabies were the lowest.
"Crucially, variability of song context within cultures is much greater than that between cultures, indicating that despite the diversity of music, humans use similar music in similar ways around the world," write Fitch and Popescu.
In addition, all of the studied songs showed tonality—that is, they built melodies by composing from a fixed set of tones.
To test this, the researchers asked 30 musical experts to listen to sample of songs and state whether they heard at least one tonal center. Of the 118 songs listened to, 113 were rated as tonal by 90 percent of the experts. These results suggest the widespread, perhaps universal, nature of tonality.
With all that said, the writers still recognize avenues of future research. They point out that the current database doesn't explain the variance in societal contexts and acoustic variables. The vocal-only nature of the data also leaves an immense library of instrumental and rhythmic music unexplored. And as with any research into human universals, the database cannot hope to be comprehensive enough to support evidence from every human culture. Additional cultures and musical styles remain to be investigated.
However, Fitch and Popescu note, Mehr and his colleagues have provided a deeper understanding of a potential universal cognitive mechanism for music and a blueprint for future empirical tests.
"Today, with smartphones and the internet, we can easily imagine a comprehensive future database, including recordings of all cultures and styles, richly annotated with video and text, being assembled in a citizen science initiative," they write.
The universals that bind us
Music is hardly the only human universal. Scientists have identified hundreds of cultural, societal, behavioral, and mental universals that have been identified among all known peoples, contemporary and historic. These include language, tool usage, death rituals, and, of course, music.
Study of fossils has discovered that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, had the ability to control pitch (or "sing") at least a million years ago. But having the ability in tandem with the cognitive capabilities to control it is another matter. Humans are the only Homo genus we know has met all the musical requirements, and we can't be certain when these coalesced in our evolutionary history.
Additionally, archaeologists have found bone pipes made from swan and vulture bones dating back between 39,000 and 43,000 years ago. However, these were likely the result of a long creative process, likely preceded by instruments crafted by grasses, reeds, and wood, materials that are not as well preserved in the fossil record.
This makes it difficult to pinpoint when music entered our evolutionary history and therefore to pinpoint its evolutionary advantage. According to Jeremy Montagu, former musicologist at Oxford, one proposal is social bonding:
[M]usic is not only cohesive on society but almost adhesive. Music leads to bonding, bonding between mother and child, bonding between groups who are working together or who are together for any other purpose. Work songs are a cohesive element in most pre-industrial societies, for they mean that everyone of the group moves together and thus increases the force of their work. […] Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds the participants into a cohesive group, and we all know how walking or marching in step helps to keep one going.
According to anthropologist Donald Brown, despite human universals' widespread nature, they result from relatively few processes or conditions. These include diffusion of ancient cultural traits or cultures meeting the demands of our physical reality. They can also stem from the operation and structure of the human mind, and therefore can result from said mind's evolution.
Which is it for music? We don't yet know.
The Science study authors suggest a picture emerging that music is an evolutionary adaptation—though, whether music is its own specific adaptation or a byproduct of other adaptations remains even more unclear. However, Montagu suggests a more cultural origin when he writes: "Each culture develops the tuning system that best suits its ideas of musicality. It is up to the cognitive scientists to determine why this should be so, but they have to admit, if they are willing to listen to the exotic musics of the world, that these differences exist."
Further complicating the matter is the fact that while every human can appreciate music, not everyone can create it or even desires to (unlike language or other innate universals).
"In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters."
Dancing is a human universal, but why?
It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an 'I'. Dancing remains a vital, generative practice around the globe into the present in urban neighbourhoods, on concert stages, as part of healing rituals and in political revolutions. Despite efforts waged by Christian European and American colonists across six continents over 500 years to eradicate indigenous dance traditions and to marginalise dancing within their own societies, dancing continues wherever humans reside. Any answer to the question of why humans dance must explain its ubiquity and tenacity. In so doing, any answer will challenge Western notions of human being that privilege mind over body as the seat of agency and identity.
Current explanations for why humans dance tend to follow one of two approaches. The first, seen in psychological and some philosophical circles, begins with a human as an individual person who chooses to dance (or not) for entertainment, exercise, artistic expression or some other personal reason. Such approaches assume that dance is one activity among others offering benefits to an individual that may be desirable, but not necessary, for human well being. Alternatively, a raft of sociological and anthropological explanations focus on community, asserting that dancing is one of the first means by which the earliest humans solidified strong social bonds irrespective of blood lines. In these accounts, dancing is eventually replaced by more rational and effective means of social bonding that the dancing itself makes possible, such as language, morality and religion. While the first type of reasoning struggles to explain why so many humans choose to dance, the second struggles to explain why humans continue to dance. What is missing from these accounts?
What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?
Recent evidence for such a thesis is gathering across scientific and scholarly disciplines. Time and again, researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.
According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.
In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. From this perspective, every aspect of a human bodily self – from chromosomal couplet to sense organ to limb shape – is a capacity for moving that develops through a process of its own movement making. An arm, for example, develops into an arm by virtue of the movements it makes, beginning in utero. These movements pull its bones and muscles into shape, as contracting cells build the physiological forms needed to meet the movements' demands.
In this sense, a human being is what I call a rhythm of bodily becoming. A human is always creating patterns of bodily movement, where every new movement unfolds along an open-ended trajectory made possible by movements already made. Dancing can be seen as a means of participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming.
Further support for this thesis comes from anthropologists and developmental psychologists who have documented the importance of bodily movement to infant survival. As the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy affirms in her book Mothers and Others (2009), human infants are born premature, relative to their primate cousins: a human foetus intent on emerging from the womb with the neuromuscular maturity of an infant chimpanzee would need to stay there for 21 months. Instead, hopelessly dependent human infants must have a capacity to secure the loyalty of caregivers at a time when their sole means for doing so is by noticing, recreating and remembering those patterns of movement that succeed in connecting them to sources of nurture. In a view shared by Hrdy and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. In other words, infants build their brains outside the womb in relation to mobile others by exercising a capacity to dance.
Recent research on mirror neurons further supports the idea that humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons 'appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture' by allowing humans 'to adopt each other's point of view and empathise with one another'.
Nevertheless, the term 'mirror' is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. It is a capacity that must be exercised for a person to build a brain and body capable of creating relationships with the sources of sustenance available in a given cultural or environmental context. To dance is human.
In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.