Dance is, at it’s heart, a joyful embrace of reality.
Drums pound, lightly and slowly at first, drawing us onto the rosined wood floor. Their beat is irresistible — hips begin to sway, feet tap and bounce along with the magnetic pull of the instruments. As the rhythm picks up, it becomes a gorgeous, playful tapestry of syncopation, twisting in and out and around itself.
This is West African dance, and I (along with half the people in the room) have no idea what I’ve jumped into — especially when our instructor scans the room, cracks an enormous grin, and hollers, “Ya’ll ain’t seen nothing like me before!” What have I gotten myself into? Eleven years of classical ballet training taught me strength, poise, the limits of muscular endurance and the human body’s magnificent capacity to sustain pristine arcs and lines. What it did not teach me, and what I am learning now, is dance’s ability to inspire joy.
With each new step, I realize that I am happier doing this and looking quite ridiculous than I ever was performing even my most perfect pirouette on pointe. This dance is exuberant, a defiant shout into a cynical world that life, and our bodies in particular, are good and beautiful. It teaches us to stamp, jump, shuffle, lunge with arched spines and heads thrown back, all worldly cares tossed to the winds of the artistic muses. The drums chuckle lightheartedly at my own self-importance and the sharp fierce form of the dance pokes fun at my worries about how good I look or how well I perform. It is not about me. I can see clearly for the first time that dance is, at its heart, not about one’s own skill, but rather about a joyful embrace of reality.
I stumble through the steps sweaty, breathless, and bumbling, but laughing nonetheless. This must be how David danced before the Lord as the Ark of the Covenant was processed into Jerusalem. Before today, that scene always struck me as bizarre. The king cutting a caper before the holiest of holy objects? Where was his sense of decorum? Did his subjects think him a crazy fool in that moment?
But now as I turn and twist, clap and shake to the wild rhythm, I understand. David’s dance, and all dance, was and is more than simply a delightful jig or a skilled leap performed for an audience. It is a form of worship and thanksgiving. David’s dance was a fitting expression of childlike joy and trust, focused upward and outward, selfless, as all dances should be.
To truly dance, body and soul, is to be anything but self-centered. Through the centuries, humans have danced not primarily to celebrate their own technical prowess, but to greet the arrival of the harvest, to make merry on a god’s festival or a saint’s feast day, to celebrate birth and marriage and everything in between, bound by love and an unspoken acknowledgment of the goodness of the perennial seasons of life.
“Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion,” Martha Graham, one of America’s most iconic dancers and choreographers, once insisted. It is precisely this element of unpretentiousness that gives dance its infectious joy.
No other art form highlights the beauty of our body-soul composite better, as we leap, twirl, kick, and bend. In an age when so many view their bodies with confusion, hurt, even disgust, dance — from the high art of ballet to the humble Virginia reel — is a reminder of what potent gifts they are. Dancing requires the dancer to accept both the incredible potentialities and the limits of her own form; it is this acceptance that makes dance powerful. It fosters humble gratitude and genuine wonder at the intricacies of our physicality.
Finally, after a thunder and whirlwind of rhythm and motion and passion, class winds to a close. I glance around at my fellow dancers. Every last one of us is breathless, faces shining with the joy of living, moving, and simply being. We gather to perform an impromptu dance to thank our drummers and trickle out of the building exhilarated, the blood still thumping through our veins in time to the drum’s beat. The whole world, I think, could stand to dance like this a little more.
Maria Bonvissuto is an assistant managing editor at a publishing house. She is an unabashed book and caffeine addict and is most likely to be found reading, playing classical guitar, or gallivanting off on an adventure with friends.