Reaching for the Divine: A Contemplation of Dance

“So then, Glaucon,” said I, “Isn’t this why upbringing in music is most sovereign? It’s because rhythm and concord most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously as they bring gracefulness with them; and they make a man graceful if he’s brought up correctly, but if not, then the opposite…and precisely because he had correct dislikes, he would praise beautiful things and, delighting in them and receiving them into his soul, would be nourished on them and become a man of fine character. He would correctly blame and hate what is ugly while he is still young.” 

 Plato: The Republic

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body,” said the renowned dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. As a modern choreographer in the 1930s and 40s, Graham based her technique and dances on progressive politics, changing choreography, and human expression. She focused her training, teaching, choreography, and performance on realizing the human experience and expressing the “inner landscape” of a human soul through dance. Her words and choreography, 181 works in total, are still discussed, performed, and praised all over the world today. Time Magazine named her the “Dancer of the Century,” and President Gerald R. Ford honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling her a “National Treasure.” Her fame rose because she recognized that dance is a transcendent art form; that it has power to heal and reveal what lies at the heart of a human soul.

Yet to many, dance is a child’s dream or a fun hobby. Parents treasure the young girl with the tulle tutu, the tight bun, and the pink ballet shoes. She is the quintessential little girl who dreams of dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. For many others, dance is simply a physical fitness class, an entertaining night at the Ballet, or an important evening with fellow businessmen. 

So this raises the question: what is dance, really? Is it simply a form of entertainment? Is it a child’s hobby? Is Martha Graham right that dance is the  “hidden language of the soul of the body?” Dance is incredibly difficult for even dancers to define. Does it require music? Does it require movement? Is running dancing? Is standing dancing? Dance is hard to discuss, savor, remember, document, and recreate. It is a moment in time that once over can never be re-lived. It is full of nuances and subtlety but requires years of studying. 

Because of this, dance scholars have debated the definition of dance. Yet, despite this wondering of definition, the early philosophers to the modern dance educators all agree that dance, no matter how you define it, is powerful. This power of dance has great implications on the human soul.

Martha Graham in Letter to the World, 1940 Image: Britannica

Graham saw it as power to express the human condition, her goal to express human emotion as powerfully as possible. So the Graham technique was born— a new form of dancing that was created in opposition to ballet. Ballet, modernists said, didn’t allow for emotion and personal expression. It was too restrictive, too formal, too ethereal. Graham wanted to dance about real human issues. She choreographed dances about bread lines and about poverty, about American prairies and about Greek tragedies, about romance and about war. She replaced the pointed toe of the ballerina with the flexed heel, and the soft lines of the ballerina’s arms with jagged elbows. The Graham technique begins with the contraction, every movement of the dancer beginning in her pelvic floor, contracting the abdomen muscles as the movement rises from within. The lines are jagged, broken, sharp, and raw. This new language, this new quality of movement, expressed emotions in dance that had not before been seen on stage. 

Graham was right; dance is an expression of the soul, and she demonstrated this through her choreography. But what does this mean? For the nihilist, it can mean almost anything and almost nothing. But for the Christian it has profound implications. Graham’s statement is correct, but lacking. Dance is the expression of a soul, but not just any soul: a divine soul; it is not just the “inner landscape” of any being, but a divine being. If humans were created in the image of God, then it is that of a soul reaching towards something divine, something beautiful. In this sense, dance either orders a soul towards beauty or creates discord in the soul. 

The combination of music and dance is the easiest place to see this. Despite the differences in ballet and modern dance, both are the embodiment of music. Dance is harmonies and discords weaving throughout bodies and transforming those bodies into musical instruments. Dance is the only art that combines the physicality of an athlete with the beauty of an artist. Dancers don’t just see it, they don’t just play it, they become it; they embody music. 

Anyone who has ever listened to music would say that music is powerful. It moves one to march, cry, fight, compete, love, dream, sleep. If listening to music has the power to move the body, if it has the power to affect one’s soul so deeply, what then, can moving to music do? What happens to the soul when music and movement enter the soul together through dance?

Dancers are taught to listen to the assigned music until it becomes one with them such that when they are performing they don’t have to think about the steps, counts, or music. When this is attained, it is not an imitation of life and breath, it is life and breath, no longer a replica but an embodiment. The music is such a part of the movement, the dancer merely has to listen. She embodies the music and morphs into something beautiful and, ideally, aligns herself with the divine. 

In the ballet, Giselle, the ballerina stands center stage in a long, white, tulle skirt, her eyes downcast, her feet flat on the stage floor and pointing towards the back corners of the theater, beyond the audience. As the violin cries, her arms daintily form a half circle at her waist. Ever so slowly, she raises her leg, drawing a line with her toe up her opposite leg until it reaches her knee. Then, as her arms slowly rise to form a circle above her head, her leg extends straight and up, her pointed toe eventually extending beyond her ear, beyond the theater exit to her right, and creating an infinite line beyond her. 

This dancer embodies geometry by creating lines and shapes, and she embodies arithmetic by solving an equation within her body. As one leg reaches to create a line beyond her ear, the foot in opposition holds her firmly to the ground. Her arms equally form a circle about her head; she doesn’t have to think about whether or not her arms are equal, she knows her arms are equal. Her eyes know the angle at which to look at the ground. Her body knows the created patterns, equations, and lines. 

Every time the ballerina attempts a perfect step, she is reaching towards perfection. The laborious hours at the barre not only instill discipline, but enable this dancer to gravitate towards the truth that lies within the step she is executing. No dancer has the ideal body, but reaching towards that goal, the perfection of the body towards the ideal type, that is where the soul is shaped and formed. It begins its orientation towards truth. 

Diana Vishneva in Giselle
Image: Wikimedia Commons

So what does this mean for the nihilist? What does this mean when the music is disordered?  What does it mean for a young dancer when she leaps and spins in fishnet tights and a glitzy leotard to the words, “Been there, done that, messed around. I’m having fun, don’t put me down, I’ll never let you sweep me off my feet.” “It’s fun.” She says. And there can be no doubt that jumping and turning to the upbeat rhythm is fun. “She loves it,” her parents say, or maybe they even say, “It’s good for her, it keeps her busy, she’s so strong because of it.” This might be true, but if only parents, teachers, and students analyzed their why. These are shallow and even dangerous explanations of a transcendent art form. Cheap, addicting music is like cheap, addicting candy. Just as sugar moves through the body and corrupts and destroys from within, how much more must dancing to suggestive lyrics and angry music move through the body and disorder the soul. It is imperative that parents, teachers, and students consider what they’re allowing into their bodies. 

Graham understood that dance is incredibly powerful, and Plato made it clear in Laws that dance education is critical to the formation of a soul. Not everyone will be a professional Graham dancer or ballerina, not everyone will experience cultural ritual dances from Africa, South America, or Australia. Not everyone will put on their heels and head to Salsa class. Not everyone will be able to discuss the trajectory of dance through time and history. But anyone can move to music, and everyone will at some time in their life dance. Thus, let it be done with awareness of the power they are allowing to enter their body, mind, and spirit; let it be ordered rightly in education and given its proper place in the life of the student. If dance is the expression of the human soul, and the human soul ought to be ordered toward the Truth, then the discords and harmonies weaving throughout the body will either create an amount of disorder in the soul that only the grace of God can heal or draw the dancer one step closer to attaining the soul’s ideal.

Love our Articles? Spread the word!

newsletter sign-up

Magnus News

Stay up to date on free courses, webinars, podcasts, and more. 
Bonus! Sign up today and get a FREE At-A- Glance Guide to the Liberal Arts, complete with recommended reading, available for a limited time. 

Subscribe Now and receive a free Guide to the Liberal Arts