The Lost Love of Dancing

Ancient Greek vases often show images of dancers, sometimes dancing in a chorus, sometimes dancing to ‘unheard melodies’ of their own. Their bodies have a peculiarly self-contained look: the limbs seem to radiate outwards from an inner source, and the face is often bowed, as though entirely absorbed in thoughts of its own.

Dancing, these figures suggest, is an occupation of the whole person, and a display of the grace and completion of the soul. As the Attic tragedies indicate, dancing was the preferred way of presenting the community on stage, and the verses chanted or sung by the chorus are chanted or sung in time to complex rhythmical steps. Those steps both unite the chorus into a single social organism, and also impose an elaborate discipline, heightening our consciousness of the words and the solemnity of the occasion.

Dancing for the Greeks was not merely a part of the drama, a spectacle to be compared with the modern ballet. It was also a social occasion, though one in which men and women danced apart. Girls were educated in choruses. They learned to recite, to sing and to dance together; but they could not dance with men without risking their reputations. Sappho’s poems are perhaps addressed to other girls in her chorus. The chorus imparted an education that aimed to unite the soul and the body of the virgin in a single continuous image of marriageable grace.

The separation of the sexes in the dance survived in the Mediterranean into the days of my youth, and the Greeks were especially good at it, wearing their national or local costumes, and dancing in formation to the complex and often irregular rhythms that had been handed down through the centuries. The men would dance athletically in formations that often parodied battle, and the women would follow, dancing with a kind of gentle hilarity that was a joy to watch.

Those examples suggest ways in which dance has been understood as showing the rational being to be distinct from, and higher than, the other animals. Dance, to use Nietzsche’s term, exists in an Apollonian version, which fully acknowledges and bends itself to the ideals of reason. In this form dance is an orderly, reason- and rule-governed epitome of the virtues and graces needed for the long-term stability of society. Whether or not there was also a Dionysian version, and whether it was from that Dionysian version that the art form of tragedy emerged, is another matter. Maybe Nietzsche was right about that. But maybe he was wrong. Maybe, in writing The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, he was compensating for his own frustrated sense of being a sickly outcast. Maybe the Dionysian frenzy portrayed by Euripides in The Bacchae was something beyond dance and also beneath it – a lapse into the merely animal condition from which it is one purpose of the tragic experience to rescue us. In any event, I take the vases, the poems of Sappho, the tragic choruses, and the descriptions of music in Plato and others all to be pointing towards another view of dancing, as a point of ‘social effervescence’, to use Durkheim’s beautiful phrase. The dance is a social activity, in which we exalt and idealise our rational nature. It shows freedom and discipline united in a single gesture, and at the same time made subject to the demands of social order.

Allow me, at least, that ideal picture of the ancient Greek dance. For, even if it does not correspond to the reality, it enables me to say important things about the downhill journey to what passes for dancing today. All young people need to dance, and – unless social convention forbids it – they need to dance in ways that put their sexuality on display. Put a group of young people together in the presence of rhythmical music and they will begin to move in time to the music, and to use the music to coordinate their movements. They might arrange themselves face to face, body to body, throwing arms and legs about in imitative movements. Nowadays, however, those movements rarely involve dance steps; they are not learned but spontaneous; and the dancers tend to avoid contact with each other, since there is no agreed convention as to what form their contact should take.

In order to set young people in motion in this way it is necessary to overcome their awkwardness. Their fear of conversation, lack of small talk, and generally clumsy manners, are the natural result of the education to which they have been exposed, which is directed to removing all ideas of elegance, distinction or grace from their behaviour, those old fashioned virtues being judged elitist and politically incorrect. But still, young people need to dance, and this result can be brought about, provided the music is loud enough to make conversation impossible, and provided the pulse is regular enough to jerk the body into reflex motion, like the legs of a galvanised frog. The best music for this purpose is not music produced by a band, since bands like to be appreciated and listened to, and will adapt what they play to the mood of their audience. The best music for the purpose is produced by a machine, perhaps only with the faintest hint that a human being had some part in its creation. Hence has arisen the new phenomenon of DJ music, in which the music is not created by the person who controls it but extracted from a variety of pre-packaged computer sounds, and used as a means to manipulate the movements of the crowd. Music becomes an instrument of crowd control, in the hands of a person whose position is justified by no talent that could conceivably excuse such a dangerous allocation of power.

Once the young people have been jerked into motion in this way a vestigial desire for partnership is naturally aroused, since the music suggests sexual motions and sexual union. Hence they will tend to pair off, so as to pulsate face to face, not usually looking at each other and certainly not speaking, but acutely aware, nevertheless, of each other’s bodies, as things replete with movement and governed by the machine. Their bodies become sexual objects, voided of personality, since personality is a relational idea, and no relation exists on the dance floor except that between bodies. Hence, when this kind of dancing happens, it is very disturbing to see children or old people joining in: the first because it transgresses the boundaries of the sexually permissible, the second because it excites our sense of the undignified and the shameful.

The spectacle I have described is related to dancing in something like the way a group speechlessly scoffing hamburgers in the street is related to a formal dinner party. It places a social void where our shared humanity has in the past been displayed, enjoyed and exalted, and it presents animal functions in the place of personal relations. Unfortunately, just as bad money drives out good, so does bad dancing drive out the older kind from any occasion where dancing is required. Weddings, hunt balls, village fêtes, the May Balls of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges – all the places in which elegant and sociable forms of dancing would in the past have been fundamental to the meaning of the event – are now dominated by the DJ, and by the conversation-stopping music that has no virtue beyond its galvanising pulse.

What exactly do I have in mind in referring to those older forms of dancing? Not the Greek chorus, certainly, but something of which I retain the clearest memory, and which is, here and there, still resuscitated, for example in the Ceilidh of the Scots, and the Tancház of the Hungarians. I refer to dancing which has retained the following features: first, it is often accompanied by, and may even, for its full effect, require, live music, made by a band that is as much involved in the movement as those who dance to their sound. Secondly, it involves formal steps, which must be learned in order that people can move together in a coordinated way. Thirdly it involves definite partnerships or groups, people who ‘single each other out’ so as to enter the fray together. Sometimes you could change partners – and this is one of the exciting aspects of the Scottish reel, that you find yourself dancing with strangers, with people of all ages, and sometimes even with someone of the same sex. Fourthly it involves patterns, formations, rounds, ways of creating an ordered motion greater than the motion of the parts. Finally, such a dance may, and usually does, have a conclusion: there is a point at which all the rounds have been performed, all the partners changed, or all the permutations gone through.

Only those who have taken part in that kind of dancing will know the high point of exhilaration to which it can reach. Unlike the DJ alternative it expresses not excitement but joy, not pleasure but happiness. Joy arises when we are doing something which is not simply a means to an end, but an end in itself, and when we are united around that end by others who have the same response to it. This shared response validates our rational nature and also confirms us in the knowledge that we are free.

That is, perhaps, a rather a Kantian way of putting the point. But I am not the only philosopher who has seen the matter in that way. Here, for example, is Schiller, writing about what he calls ‘English’ dancing, but clearly with the Scottish reel in mind:

The first law of gentility is: have consideration for the freedom of others, the second; show your freedom. The correct fulfillment of both is an infinitely difficult problem, but gentility always requires it relentlessly, and it alone makes the cosmopolitan person. I know of no more fitting image for the ideal of beautiful relations than the well danced and multiply convoluted English dance. The spectator in the gallery sees countless movements which cross each other colorfully and change their direction willfully but never collide. Everything has been arranged so that the first has already made room for the second before he arrives, everything comes together so skillfully and yet so artlessly that both seem merely to be following their own mind while never impeding the other. This is the most fitting picture of a maintained personal freedom, which respects the freedom of others.

What Schiller has noticed is that the kind of discipline involved in a formation dance is there not just to constrain our freedom but also to display it. Through the dance we are made aware of our freedom, and aware of it as a shared social condition. Precisely because our movements are not means to an end, but ends in themselves, and yet at the same time meticulously subject to rules and conventions, do we experience them as movements of the whole person. The self is made present in the movements of the dance, is embodied there, and comes face-to-face with the other who completes it.

I refer to this phenomenon as the ‘withness’ of the dance, and have the immortal Xanthippe as my authority. (See R. Scruton, ed., Perictione in Colophon, St Augustine’s Press, South Bend Illinois, 2001.) The traditional formation dance involves a posture towards the other, the partner. It includes the other essentially, and includes him or her as a free being whose every moment is consensually related to a movement of one’s own. This ‘withness’ is a kind of template for all other social relations, a form of mutuality which illustrates the kindness of our kind, and which shapes the ability to accommodate and defer to others in relations of reciprocity.

It is surely clear that withness is absent from the DJ dances that I described earlier. The young people who jerk on to the floor in obedience to the puppet master at the desk do not move with each other at all. If they are dancing, they are dancing at each other. The difference between “at” and “with” is one of the deepest psychological differences we know. It is exemplified in all our encounters with other people—notably in conversation and in sexual gambits. The essence of sexual abuse is that it is aimed at someone, rather than arising with someone. The decay of manners that we have seen in recent times is to a large extent a result of the loss of withness and the rise of atness in its stead. Rudeness, obscenity, the ‘in your face’ manners of the new TV presenter – all these are ways of being ‘at’ other people. Courtesy, manners, negotiation and deference are, by contrast, ways of being with.

And here we see one reason why it matters, and matters deeply, that the old love of dancing has withered in our societies. Not only was dancing a picture of the ideal, in which freedom and order are perfected and reconciled. It was also a form of education, in which people learned to treat each other as free and equal. This form of education was not a matter of rules and precepts so much as of being fully and gracefully embodied. So it was in the choruses of young girls in ancient Greece. And so it was in the academies of dance in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hence the loss of that education has led to a growing retreat of withness from the forms of human life. Consider the boy-girl relation, as it is developing today. Almost immediately the question is in the air: will we or will we not have sex? The idea of sexual union as a culmination of a mutually sustained ballet of deferential gestures has all but disappeared from the thinking of the young. Courtship seems like a waste of time and a form of social hypocrisy. Yet, when too hastily arrived at, the sexual act causes trauma, as we know from the repeated accusations of ‘date rape’ by young women in America. The reason is surely obvious: sex performed with another can be full of joy; sex performed at another always verges on assault. But withness is a social attribute of the free and rational being. It must be learned, and it is best learned through the dance. Lose the dance, and young people lose one way of learning how to defer, to yield gracefully and to unite considerately. Surely this is relevant to much of the emotional confusion that we witness today?

This is not the place to moralize. Let me instead pass to the aesthetic consequences that have ensued, as a result of the loss of the love of dancing. Perhaps the principal consequence has been the gradual decay of the sense of rhythm – a decay that can be witnessed in much popular music today. Often what seems like rhythm, and the foregrounding of rhythm, is in fact an absence of rhythm, a drowning out of rhythm by the beat. Rhythm divorced from melodic organization loses its last link to the social dance. It then becomes inert; it is no longer a true gesture and is therefore without the plasticity of gesture. We are often told that rhythm is of prime importance in pop, that it is music to dance to, and that those who judge it by the standards of the concert hall, a place of silent listening, have simply lost the plot. This is certainly a fair response to the more curmudgeonly forms of criticism, but it raises a question of profound importance in the study of music, which is that of the nature of rhythm.

Rhythm is not the same thing as measure. It is not just a matter of dividing time into repeatable units. It is a matter of organizing it into a form of movement, so that one note invites the next into the space that it has vacated. This is exactly what goes on in dancing—real dancing, I mean. And complaints that might be made against the worst form of pop apply also to the lame attempts at dancing that it generally produces—attempts which involve no control of the body, no attempt to dance with another person, but at best only the attempt to dance at him or her, by making movements sliced up and atomized.

Pop music in the early days of rock inherited forms of dancing in which steps and partners were integral to the practice. Of course, the waltz and the foxtrot were already on a slope towards the narcissistic non-dancing that we witness today. The long-term effect of the Viennese waltz, transmitted to the modern world in the form of the slow waltz and (its four-beat equivalent) the foxtrot, was to fragment the community on the dance floor into an assembly of couples, each haloed by the sexual electricity of their clinging bodies. Enough remained of the old forms of dancing, however, to endow those couples with some of the vanishing courtesy and elegance. Waltzes and foxtrots required steps; they followed rules and conventions; they could be enjoyed by people of all ages and regardless of intimacy.

Rock ’n’ roll is linked to those older forms of dance by the fact that the couples touch, swing around each other, move together in an attempt to recapture withness. In a song like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ you notice that the rhythm is generated internally, by the melodic line, and generated by the voice alone. The backing then joins in, and does so not by measuring out the bar lines and slicing up the time sequence, but by taking up the pulse of Elvis’s voice. Measure, here, is not imposed upon the melodic line like a grid, but precipitated out from it, making virtual bar lines in the ear, as we respond to the syncopation of the voice. There is no violent drumming, no amplified bass, none of the devices which—I am tempted to say—substitute for rhythm in so much contemporary pop. The withness is there in the voice of the singer, and has not been driven out by the atness of the drum kit. And this withness is felt by the listener as an urge to dance, an urge to look around for the person whose hand could be taken and who could be led on to the floor.

When organized melodically, as in Elvis, rhythm is raised from the level of measure to that of gesture and movement. The difference here is not material; it is phenomenological—a difference in how repetitions are heard. In the one case they are heard as regular beats, like the pulse of a machine; in the other case they are heard as repeated movements, of the kind that our bodies produce when running, walking, or dancing. And so it was with the pop music in the days immediately following rock ’n’ roll – music like that of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and a hundred others, which is now widely listened to, but rarely danced to, precisely because it contains a memory of real dancing. Its very melodiousness ensures that it will be banished from the disk jockey’s computer table, and replaced by a grotesque caricature of music in which rhythm is replaced by beat and melody by senseless repetition.

The loss of the true forms of dancing, therefore, involves a loss of the sense of rhythm. This loss infects all of music, even the music of the concert hall. Cut off from the natural experience of withness, unrefreshed by that pure joy in our mutual embodiment that we once knew from the dance floor, serious music acquires a sharp-edged metallic quality, as though it were trying to stir the metal limbs of a machine. When such music tries to dance – as in a piece like John Adams’s ‘The Chairman Dances’ from Nixon in China – it produces a pulsing ostinato, far from the joyous ease of a Dvořák scherzo or the intense release of bodily life in The Rite of Spring.

It is not only in music that we are affectd by this loss of rhythm. Our movements at home and at work, our words in conversation, our decisions and desires, all have a rhythmical component. The old ways of dancing taught us that rhythm is not a solitary thing but a form of social awareness. ‘I’ve got rhythm’, Ira Gershwin tells us, and George shows what he means. But this rhythm is not something that the singer has on his own. The Gershwins are referring, and the music shows this, to a way of ‘being towards others’. I apologize for using that Heideggerian expression, since I can imagine no human being more inimical to the idea of dancing than Heidegger. But alas, it is sometimes Heidegger who provides the words that we need for what we most want to say. We learn how to be in our bodies by learning how we are for others, and rhythm is something that we internalise by moving, talking, thinking in ways that accommodate the observing eye and ear.

And perhaps the most important rhythms that dancing conveyed to us were those of a courtesy purified of all sexual emotion. In the formation dance the eager young couple were very soon separated by the pattern, so that the young boy was dancing with a grandmother, and the girl with another suitor. The rhythm that they shared was thereby purified of its sexual connotation, given a social meaning higher and more lasting than the selfish urgings of desire, and built into the entire experience of community. There was, in this, a renewing of innocence, and a respect for the ages and conditions of human life. Those virtues were given a kind of rhythmical reality, and we see them reflected in the formal turns of phrase, the rhythm-imposing costumes and the extended courtesies that helped our ancestors to mix distance and respect, freedom and discipline, in ways that we have to a great measure lost.

Now I have been writing about the lost love of dancing, and in a tone of regret. Let me therefore conclude on a more positive note. There is no reason why social dancing of the kind I have been praising should not return. Indeed, the craze for Salsa suggests that it might. And there is no reason to think that young people will not find some other way of rediscovering the withness that they will not find by clubbing. Maybe the rise of sport as a social arena is to be explained, at least in part, by this hunger for an elegant display of the human body. And maybe, when young people search, as they must, for a paradigm of withness, they will find it on the football field, or learn it from watching what goes on there. All is not lost, if that is so. But it is worth drawing one last lesson from this thought. Social dancing of the kind I have praised in this article did not merely exercise the virtues of freedom and order. It obeyed the precept of equality. Anybody could learn the steps, and everybody could join in, regardless of how agile, young or attractive they were. The new replacement activities arise to a considerable extent from the official culture of equality and political correctness, with its fear of elegance and distinction. They are nevertheless massively discriminatory. The cult of sport, good though it is for our sense of withness, requires us to turn the spotlight on young, athletic and attractive people, and to rub into the remainder the humiliating awareness that they are not part of the game. In losing the love of dancing, therefore, we have lost a major source of our love for ourselves.

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