Why do we dance?
September 28, 2016 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Dance is a language, and social dance is an expression that emerges from a community. A social dance isn't choreographed by any one person. It can't be traced to any one moment. They are as old as our remembered history. In African-American social dances, we see over 200 years of how African and African-American traditions influenced our history. The present always contains the past. And the past shapes who we are and who we will be.
posted by ChuraChura (27 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
That guy Ted, he can't dance.

Dance gets formalized for so many of the wrong reasons, as well as for some reasonable reasons.

I was at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio free lesson or something and they showed an infamous slide step where there rules required the legs to be kept together. Then someone researched actual Fred Astaire films and pointed out where Fred did the move with his legs separated. New rule...

Ballet has been a deep influence in world dance. I was at an academic talk about pre-revoloutionary dance in Iran and other than a few ancient drawings elements had been imported from Europe. Israeli folk dance was strongly influenced if not outright by the modern dance crowd (who were all from a ballet background).
posted by sammyo at 3:08 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio free lesson or something and they showed an infamous slide step where there rules required the legs to be kept together. Then someone researched actual Fred Astaire films and pointed out where Fred did the move with his legs separated. New rule...

I've done this sort of dance- competitive ballroom, at college. It's a nearly exclusively collegiate activity, like a capella. In competition there is an actual syllabus, and if you do any moves that don't fit, well. Don't. It's like ice dancing, or gymnastics. Aesthetics matter, but just following the rules is absolutely required. There's a dress code; leads and follows must be hetero pairs; etc, etc. It's incredibly, awfully, straitjacketed.

The world of vernacular dance, by contrast, is extraordinarily rich and deep.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:44 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I nearly went to grad school to explicitly study how street/social dance changes as it becomes competitive/performative and then I realized how constrained my employment options would be with that doctorate, soooooo... What I've learned through doing ballroom tango vs Argentine tango, swing dance in Harlem vs swing dance at Dance New York downtown, etc. is how constrained competitive and formative dances become, even if they began as social dances. As Brown says, social dance is creative. Stage dance is where it becomes preserved in amber.

Social mores shape and constrain dance. White, western Christianity has long characterized any dance at all as sinful and sexualized. This view can actually change the shape of the dance as well as shaping who gets to do it and where. When I was looking into the degree I met Anna Beatrice Scott, who told me that in addition to the Patting Juba dance tradition mentioned in the TED talk, hip movements changed under slavery: they went oblique, to the side, rather than thrusting straight ahead, in order to avoid the unwanted attention of slave masters.

(And then there's the impact of the most widely-known pre-video way of capturing dance for posterity: Laban notation, which as I recall is stronger at capturing the upright, limb-focused moves of ballet than torso-heavy non-Western styles... and then there's that whole thing about Laban and his relationship to the Nazis and his interest in time-and-motion studies but there's more there than I can address)

As for ballet's influence, ballet has influenced other dances, yes; much modern dance responds to it (either following its tradition or refuting it, depending on the style). Scottish dance traces its roots back to French ballet. The idea of creating The Ballet of, say, Senegal or Mexico probably has some colonialist baggage. Not sure whether that's in the form "to prove we can keep up with Europeans" or "to formally preserve our cultural traditions in the face of colonization." (Anyone else have a source on this?)

I don't think ballet is unique in its influence or has more influence than other styles. Dance styles travelled from Asia along the Silk Road, making for similarities between Indian Kathak and Spanish Flamenco. African dance's influence is massively pervasive, stretching to Japan and Korea, Brazil, basically serving as the ground for all popular dance in the US.

For more on how social dances evolve, one of the greatest resources out there is Richard Powers, a professor at Stanford who studies dance history. Check out his writing on the French Apache Dance, for example.

in conclusion: everyone should dance more often
posted by gusandrews at 8:21 PM on September 28, 2016 [24 favorites]

Dance can be language, but that's a far cry from saying it is language. Come on now.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:31 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's the language of Luuuvvvvvvvv!
posted by sammyo at 4:10 AM on September 29, 2016

Thank goodness people never use metaphors.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:41 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dance is a highway.
posted by belarius at 7:04 AM on September 29, 2016

Tango is cool, but contact improve is truly best style of dance.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:44 AM on September 29, 2016

I've done just a smidgen of contact improve so I'll deeply and totally agree with the last comment with a, sigh, caveat, that the verb "is" perhaps is often sometimes "should be" or "could be". I'm sure I just needed to practice more. ;-)
posted by sammyo at 6:37 PM on September 29, 2016

Dance is language. It has phrases and it communicates ideas and meaning. It is generative and innate.

I don't have citations this time. you and Chomsky can fight me.
posted by gusandrews at 8:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

and it's contact improv. like improv comedy.
posted by gusandrews at 8:49 PM on September 29, 2016

Not all dance communicates ideas and meaning, and defining dance as a language impoverishes its potentialities. And don't get me started on music...

(I have a lot of experience working with modern dancers...this is a popular bugaboo and I'm probably inordinately touchy about it. I could have worse vices.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:06 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

And don't get me started on music...

"Music is a language" is a very common thing to hear. It is usually said with a degree of great satisfaction, as if it's a profound truth. I have become increasingly skeptical of the depth of this statement, which has become a sort of received idea, especially among educators. Certainly there are some appealing things about the metaphor. There are elements of music, like the 12 notes in our system, which are combined into larger units which are governed by a kind of syntax. I've heard (maybe in a presentation by Victor Wooten) an interesting discussion of thinking about learning to play music the way a child learns language. But I agree with Joseph Gurl that the resemblance only goes so far. But, how far? It isn't sensible to say, translate this 16 bars of music into German, or into Cherokee, or what have you. To my knowledge, there aren't any cultures who use music as their primary means of daily communication. I'd be curious to see if anyone with a deep background in both has ever discussed this.
posted by thelonius at 2:57 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the context of this video, which takes about the various ways African-Americans have used social dance over the past 200ish years, calling dance a language is perfectly reasonable. She's talking about dance as a method of resistance, as a way to communicate and maintain culture.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:45 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reasonable? Sure. But still false.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:50 PM on September 30, 2016

Meh. Dogs barks are language too, sorta. I'd rate music and dance as pre-human language, but still presumably a deeper language than dog barks even.

It's clear that music, dance, ritual, etc. are not nearly as deep, powerful, or evolved as the real human languages, ala English, German, etc., mathematics notation, probably some programming languages, etc.

We should acknowledge dog barks as language because they are indicative of the evolutionary path we took to get here. We should similarly acknowledge that music, dance, etc. likely played a serious roll in taking our ancestors from Chimpanzees to Humans.

In particular, there is every reason to expect that evolutionary our great intellect in merely runaway sexual selection like peacock tail that exists almost entirely to help us establish status and impress prospective mates.

At least historically music, dance, ritual, cave paintings, etc. were seemingly critical to making us as intelligent as we have become. It seems important evolutionary that arts like this occupy this pre-human language, above most animal language, but well below real human language.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:54 AM on October 2, 2016

Well then, since amoebas were an important step on our evolutionary path, then I guess we should consider them humans!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:38 PM on October 2, 2016

none of you are dancing halfway near enough
posted by gusandrews at 8:02 PM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

too true
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:24 PM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can I just interject how awful and stilted ballroom-dancing has always seemed to me? Like taking actual dancing, chemically removing any sort of joy or charm, and just leaving the depressing technicalities behind.
posted by signal at 4:42 AM on October 4, 2016

White, western Christianity has long characterized any dance at all as sinful and sexualized.

Which makes it extra odd, to me, that Europeans came up with partner dancing in an embrace. I don't know of a non-European example, and it took a long time to catch hold even in modernizing Europe. (Started as peasant dances; the waltz was too shocking to get past high-fashion, high-status dances, and then the polka came through with the same hold but so much inarguable innocent joy that people got used to the embrace and accidentally elected Polk. Probably.)

signal, I am in either violent agreement or violent disagreement; ballroom dancing done not-for-competition delights me; have you danced, or even seen, any? Even the waltzes at a contra?
posted by clew at 7:13 PM on October 4, 2016

Can I just interject how awful and stilted ballroom-dancing has always seemed to me? Like taking actual dancing, chemically removing any sort of joy or charm, and just leaving the depressing technicalities behind.

I have the opposite reaction - ballroom dancers honed by a lifetime in the burning forge of competition can take dances of social whimsy to a level of mind-blowing athleticism which, while what you see in a competition is heavily focused on technical aspects of dance that leave you utterly cold, mastering that stuff is a means to an end; when those people are goofing off and just having fun with dancers of similar championship-forged skill, the joy and charm is through the roof... meanwhile what they are actually doing is also spectacular!

Charm and joy from masterful dancers is a sight like no other, but mastery isn't achieved by only doing what is fun.
posted by anonymisc at 10:44 PM on October 6, 2016

Have you seen actual tango versus ballroom tango? The real version is passionate, imperfect and sexy. The ballroom one looks like it's being performed by androids who had the dance described to them over a telephone.
posted by signal at 11:30 AM on October 7, 2016

I think you're working from some misconceptions. There is not a "real" tango any more than there is a "real" type of dog; breeds & dances may share some common ancestry but there are myriad different ways to interpret music and to dance to tango. Some religious sects are convinced that only their god is the one true god, but that path leads nowhere good. You are a fan of sexy (for example), but even from the facial expressions of ballroom tango you know that sexy is not their intention, so to suggest they don't understand or got it wrong is self-defeating. For a more apples to apples comparison, you would instead look among ballroom dances that more often are intended to be sexy. Rumba perhaps?
(This dancing is probably not your thing - it's a show, it's dated, there's a bunch of bad stuff in it, it's not tango, etc - but it might at least illustrate that the ballroom dance that happens to have "tango" in the name isn't the start and finish of tango in ballroom dancing.)
posted by anonymisc at 3:07 PM on October 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been to Buenos Aires. There is a real tango.
posted by signal at 7:36 PM on October 11, 2016

And it's sexy as fuck.
posted by signal at 7:38 PM on October 11, 2016

And that 'passionatta' video left completely out of evens.
posted by signal at 7:40 PM on October 11, 2016

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