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Dance – Etymology and Genesis. A Global Perspective [Part 1]

Author: Nrithya Jaganathan

The word “Dance” comes from an old German word, “Danson”, which means “to stretch.” Richard Kraus, in his History of the Dance in art and Education defines arts as follows, “

Dance is an art performed by individuals or groups of human beings, existing in time and space, in which the human body is the instrument and movement is the medium. The movement is stylized and the entire dance work is characterised by form and structure. Dance is commonly performed to musical or other rhythmic accompaniment, and has as a primary purpose the expression of inner feelings and emotions, although it is often performed for social, ritual, entertainment, or other purposes.”

Mats Ek, noted Swedish choreographer crystallises the essence of dance in his International Dance Day 2003 message in which he says, “Dance is thinking with your body. Is it necessary to think with your body? Not for survival perhaps, but for living. There are so many things that only the body can think. Other things, like peace, might be more important than dance. But then . we will need dance to celebrate peace. And to exorcise the demons of war, like Nijinsky did. Emma Goldman, the anarchist, maybe said it best : “a revolution that does not allow me to dance, is not worth fighting for”. The god Shiva created the universe with his dance. But dance is the opposite of all divine pretensions. Dance is an everlasting attempt, like writing in water. Dance is not life, but it keeps alive all the little things that the big thing is made of”.

Man has always danced. To dance is thus human. As Sheldon Cheney, the distinguished historian of drama says in his book, “Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting and Stagecraft”, ( New York : Tudor Publishing Co,.1929, pp11-12),
“ Man dances. After the activities that secure to primitive peoples the material necessities, food and shelter, the dance comes first. It is the earliest outlet for emotion and the beginning of the arts…Not only did the drama as such – the art of which action is a pivotal element – arise out of primitive dance…Music, too, which can hardly be disassociated from the theatre’s beginnings, traces its ancestry to the sounds made to accentuate the primitive dance rhythm, the stamping of feet and clapping of hands, the shaking of rattles, the beating of drums and sticks. Dance, then, is the mother of the arts.”

In the lives of primitive peoples and ancient civilizations, dance was not external to survival. In fact, according to cultural historian Curt Sachs, dance, “provides bread and everything else that is needed to sustain life”. Dance was important to primitive man, so much so that it was even a means of social identification. According to Havelock Ellis, when a man belonging to one branch of the African Bantu tribe met a Bantu of another branch, he would ask, “What do you dance?”

What goes without saying is that movement is intrinsic to life. When we talk, we tend to wave our hands a lot. The instinctive upward thrust of the arms in jubilation, the desolate droop of the shoulders in sorrow…movements of the body that come unrehearsed. To dance, therefore, is an urge to express oneself, to reach out and to build bridges. Ted Shawn writes, in “Dance We Must”, “We know that body movement is life itself – our movement begins in the womb before our birth and the new born infant’s need for movement is imperative and continuous. When we sleep, there is constant movement, our hearts beat, our intestines work; in fact as long as there is life there is movement, and to move is hence to satisfy a basic and eternal need…” But is dance just about movement? The quality of the movement experience is crucial to dance, but it is when dance transcends the physical that it becomes an art. And then, dance can give a sense of exhilaration, a sense of heightening of life, an effervescent joy, a sublime merging of the physical and emotional aspects of our very being in an integrated symphony of expression. Psychoanalyst, Joost Meerloo, in “the Dance” ( New York, Chilton books, 1960) suggests that dance is such a widely found form of human expression and emotional release that those who cannot dance are “imprisoned in their own ego” and have lost the “tune of life”. [ History of the Dance in Art and Education, Richard Kraus, Prentice-Hall,1969]

Cyrielle Leseur, aged 8, a young French boy who is studying dance in the programme Danse a l’Ecole, Le Havre, France, says like this:

What movements say,
They do not know themselves,
They gather, they assemble,
Enrich themselves, join together,
Follow each other, draw their own shapes,
Develop and fly way.
Some repeat themselves to survive,
The rest, they wander,
And by uniting, they design a dance.

Kalakendra.com : December 5, 2005, 10:58 am