On Dance

Dear past me,

The way I imagine you right now, it’s your sophomore or junior year of high school. You’re probably at musical rehearsal doing homework or trying to catch up on sleep between scenes, dreading having to go up on stage. After all, participating in your school musicals was more of a social thing for you — you aren’t a great singer (though you love to sing) and you’re a terrible dancer, which isn’t great considering that your school loves to do tap-based musicals.

That’s actually what I wanted to talk about — your difficulties with dance. As you know, you are the only girl on your mom’s side of the family who hasn’t been a dancer at some point or another, including your mom, who used to do ballet. This has always made you acutely aware of how bad at dancing you think you are and has given you an aversion to it. It’s funny, you grew up in a household where the radio was on from the first person who got up and it only turned off when the last person went to sleep. Because of this, dancing is common there, yet you never dance if you can avoid it. This, as we both know, has made it a problem for you since you were young  — you are terrible at letting go and enjoying yourself without over analyzing things. Dance, when not choreographed, is spontaneous and you hate that! You are a person who loves to plan. Choreographed musicals are fine, at least someone is telling you what to do there even though you feel a little silly, but dancing at a party causes panic, not joy for you.

In the future where I am writing, we are in our third year of college and we are 21 now! I don’t mind dancing after a few glasses of wine, but that doesn’t count; I am still working on letting go in my proper state of mind. I am doing better at this these days, I do dance sometimes in the privacy of my own room or even with a few friends, but I still haven’t really gotten over how self-conscious I am about the way that my body moves during dance.

I actually made what I consider to be a huge step in that regard. A little while ago, the unthinkable happened: we were asked to dance in a class. Of course, not by ourselves, but it did involve the terrifying ordeal of being seen not only by classmates but by our professor as well, and as we both know, I am constantly striving to please, so the combination of having to dance and wanting to do my best for the sake of the class was panic-inducing.

Surprisingly, it was kind of fun — yes, I was nervous the entire time and entirely too aware of my own body for it to truly be a cathartic experience, but it was super cool to see everyone in the class having fun and being able to let loose in a usually more formally academic setting.

Here’s the thing, past me — dancing is so much more than what you think it is. To you, it’s something that people do for musicals, competition, or at prom and other parties, but the history of dance and the ways that it has been used as a form of protest makes it so much more interesting than that.

The first proof that we have of humans dancing is over 9,000 years old. Found in India, a series of cave paintings that depict scenes of daily life clearly shows one image of people engaging in communal drinking and dancing. Of course, this means that people were probably dancing before this, but dancing leaves no archaeological traces, so we have to rely on secondary proof such as these cave paintings. It is theorized that dancing became widespread around 3,000 BCE as the Egyptian civilization began to use it in a religious context, bringing it into an integral part of human life and this trend continued into the period of the Greeks and up to today.

Of course, why we dance is more open to interpretation. A recent study inspired by this video of a dancing cockatoo, “…suggests that the basic capacity that underpins all this dancing, the ability to move in time with music, is probably just a happy accident of evolution.” Essentially, both birds, like Snowball the cockatoo, and humans, are vocal learners. We hear and reproduce sounds as one method of learning information and learning how to transmit information, which is what separates us from dogs or monkeys, or really most other animals. Thus, the fact that birds can dance and other animals can’t suggests that dance and music are inherently tied to our auditory processing system. Moreover, this same study claims that the auditory processing system is deeply linked with the basal ganglia, which is responsible for movement and other subconscious brain activities. This explains why dancing is natural to most of us — it’s literally inscribed in our nervous system. And, like most things, we likely originally started dancing for the same reasons birds do, to attract a mate, keep that aforementioned partner, and foster group affiliation, as dancing with others tends to strengthen the bond of that group of people.

Regardless of why and how we started dancing, this evolutionary fluke of a relation between the auditory and movement-oriented sections of our brain has become something greater. With the inclusion of dance in religious ceremonies in Ancient Egypt, as I mentioned before, dance takes on a symbolic meaning greater than evolution. Religion, in the earliest stages of human history, was essential for the success of early civilizations, as religion is linked to encouraging community-oriented behaviors and as an explanation for natural phenomena before science, so dance being linked with religion makes it symbolic of so much more than the sum of its parts.

Since this time, the symbolic and aesthetic values of dance have infinitely multiplied and thus become infinitely varied, but one branch that is particularly interesting is dance as protest. Marginalized peoples have long been using dance as a way to protest against unfair circumstances. I remember learning about the Ghost Dance in high school, which “…was a manifestation of Native Americans’ fear, anger, and hope regarding the onslaught of white invaders, U.S. Army brutalization, and the U.S. legislative oppression of indigenous nations.” This dance movement was so effective in communicating the discontent of Native Americans that it scared the oppressors, tragically leading to the Wounded Knee massacre, which killed the movement, but it does show that dance really is a valid and constructive form of protest that has the power to scare those that it is rebelling against.

Moving back towards our class, enslaved Africans also used dance to rebel. On slave ships, they were often separated from others who spoke their language, and music and dance became the language both of communication and of rebellion. As we have been learning, enslaved peoples continued to use music and dance as a way of keeping connected to the culture of their homeland, notably in Congo Square in New Orleans, and in a situation such as that, simply holding on to your identity is an act of rebellion against a system that demands submission and conformity. Morgan wrote more on this particular history in her last blog post as well. Of course, these public displays were exploited by white people both for voyeuristic purposes and as a way to keep enslaved peoples from revolting (and later trying to get rid of this practice altogether after the Civil War), but nevertheless, it stands that dance in New Orleans has always been and continues to be an act of protest against oppressive systems. This can be seen in the modern bounce music scene, where artists such as Big Freedia use dance and music as a way to demand visibility in a world that favors white, heterosexual artists.

Thus, the Baby Dolls are part of a much larger continuum of dance and protest in New Orleans, reclaiming white and masculine dominated spaces as their own through costume and dance, as Alexis talked about in her last blog post, writing “The women [Baby Dolls] do not care who watched or what people thought. They did it for freedom of expression in a society where they were oppressed. Their confidence created a drive for black women to feel empowered when society denied them this empowerment. I believe that if the Baby Dolls did not possess this confidence the Baby Doll community would not have established such a meaningful role in New Orleans culture.”

I completely agree with Alexis — I have written a fair amount on the Baby Dolls and protest over the past few months, particularly in this blog post, and I don’t feel the need to go any further right now. I think her words are enough to express exactly what I feel.

I can’t say that the class we did with Dr. Broomfield helped me overcome my own discomfort with dancing. I still don’t like it, especially in public, but thanks to this study of dance and the Baby Dolls, as well as how Steve Prince uses them in his works to symbolize rebellion and hope (I think this is also represented in how he made the audience come up on stage and dance to jazz music as part of his lecture), I do appreciate it much more. I really admire my classmates who got into the dance during class and I admire the Baby Dolls and other New Orleans dance traditions for their very effective use of dance as a way of reclaiming spaces and protesting against unjust power systems, but it is not something that I am comfortable enough doing to do it on my own. I am, however, happy to engage when other people ask me to and as Kim Vaz-Deville asked us to do in her lecture, I would love to be able to help groups that engage in it. And this is something I wouldn’t be able to do and appreciate without learning about and engaging with protest and dance.

So, past me, you may not have overcome your fear of dancing, even for worthy causes, but I am doing the best I can to learn about it and support those who do. This, I think, is the biggest difference between us – you neither like to dance nor appreciate the power of dance, but current me is proud of her progress in understanding and supporting a practice that makes me personally uncomfortable to do. Thus, my advice to you is to be more open-minded over the next few years until you catch up to where I am now (and of course I am still trying to improve). Good luck to you, and I promise it gets better.

Love,

Helen

P.S.: Give your cat some love for me. 

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