Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Jumping in Feet First

Jumping in Feet First

The first dance

THE HISTORY OF DANCE goes all the way back before there was any history, if you see what I mean. That is to say, people have been dancing almost as long as there have been people at all. Anything before that gets just a little too confusing.

Dance historians and other scholars disagree over whether the kind of jumping up and down and prancing around done by horses, dogs, cattle and other animals should count as dancing for the purposes of the history books, and I'm afraid we're just going to have to let them keep arguing about it. For what it's worth, for the purposes of this history book, I'd be inclined to say that dogs and horses make pretty good dancers, but I'm not so sure about cattle. They're just generally too sluggish and ungraceful. Walt Disney's Fantasia, of course, gave us the image of dancing hippopotamuses (hippopotami?), but that's an animated cartoon and so doesn't really count in most scientific circles.

At any rate, dancing probably began when some prehistoric cave dweller stubbed a toe on a big rock by the campfire. Amazingly, this little scenario contains all the basic elements essential to dance — movement (jumping up and down), gesture (grasping the injured toe with both hands), special lighting (the campfire) and (if screams of agony count) some sort of musical accompaniment. Dressing rooms, box seats and exorbitant ticket prices probably came shortly thereafter. (Millions of years later, in works such as Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, com-

poser Igor Stravinsky provided ballet music to accompany similar primitive gestures and movement. It's always good when an art form can get back to its roots.)

Once early humans organized themselves into tribes, dancing became a more serious business, often with specific goals in mind. There were dances to inspire the soldiers before going into battle, dances to frighten the enemy and dances to console the survivors if the battle hadn't gone so well that day. There were dances to bring on rain (and probably others to say, "OK, we've had enough rain now, thanks"), dances to ensure good crops or plentiful hunting and fishing, and dances to celebrate marriages and births (often preferably in that order). Many tribal societies also developed a dance of death, or danse macabre, as a way of making the prospect of the afterlife a little less scary.1

Many religions around the world include dancing as part of their important rituals, whether to please or appease their various gods or just as a way to celebrate life. In India, Hindu teachings instruct that the world was created by a dancing god, Lord Shiva, which just goes to show how important they think it is. Christian sects, in fact — not all, but a stern few — are rare among world religions in considering dancing to be wicked, unacceptable and downright evil.2

The ancient Greeks considered dancing to be inspired by the gods and so put a lot of thought into the matter. They even developed a complex system combining rhythm and movement and called cheironomia, from the Greek word cheir, meaning hand. Dancing was presided over by Terpsichore, one of the nine Muses in charge of the various arts. In particular, there were two gods in charge of dance — Apollo, the sun god who also looked after philosophy and art, and Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry, fertility and other wild abandon.3

Thus, even from ancient times, we can see that dance has been divided into two categories — the highbrow dancing of artistic expression and the lowbrow dancing of getting drunk and having a good time. We continue to maintain these distinctions even today. In general, ballet is considered a highbrow, artistic pursuit. (The drunkenness and sexual pursuit comes later, usually at the party after the performance.)

Many of the best Greek dances actually come from the island of Crete, whose people were conquered around 1400 B.C. or so by mainland Grecians from the city-state Mycenae, or Mycenaeans, who stole all the Cretans' best moves. Every once in a while, Mycenaean Greeks were known to burst into bouts of frenzied dancing, for reasons historians have been unable to determine (though it might have something to do with the wine — see above). Even today, there are still some cretins in the dance world, but that's something else again.

The ancient Greeks divided theatre into two types, comedy and tragedy. (The term tragedy comes from tragoidia, or "goat song," because Dionysus and followers of the ancient Mystery religions considered the goat a sacred animal).4

Dionysus is also sometimes known as Bacchus, from which we get the words bacchanalia and bacchanalian. Dionysus, or Bacchus, had a traumatic childhood. His mother, Semele, having been accidentally reduced to a pile of ashes by his father, Jove, Bacchus was instead born out of Jove's thigh. That sort of thing tends to have an effect, and would have made big headlines if the Greeks had had medical journals in those days. (Handel later wrote a whole opera based on the Semele story, ash pile and all.)

Early Greek theatre contains many of the elements associated with modern theatre in general and in fact with ballet in particular. There was a chorus of dancers — all of them male, which meant that some men had to play the women's parts in the drama (thereby establishing a tradition of effeminate males in theatre that continues today). And to protect their feet on the rough ground of the outdoor amphitheatres, the performers wore little slippers not unlike those worn by ballet dancers today.

If I were more conscientious, I'd take-the time now to discuss the Greek dithyramb, a song-and-dance routine accompanied by flute music. But I'm not and I'm not going to dither about the dithyramb. Take it from me, it's very important and you really should read up on it if you want your knowledge of Greek theatrical history to be well rounded. Me, I always like to leave a few rough edges.

The ancient Greeks also developed a form of theatre later picked up on by. the Romans (and much, much later by the English), known as the pantomime. This started off all right but later became lewd and sensational and generally got out of hand. Sometimes, condemned criminals were added to the cast and forced to dance near flames until their flammable clothing caught fire and they burned to death in front of the audience. What fun! Anything to please the crowd, I guess. You'd think some of them might have had the foresight to dunk their costumes in water before the show, but apparently not. (Ballet has a long tradition of setting fire to its performers. In 1393, the French king Charles VI had a close call when his costume caught fire, and in the 1800s a couple of Parisian dancers got too close to gas lamps on stage and likewise went up in flames, causing severe burns from which they later died. Among other things, dancers should always carry comprehensive fire insurance.)

Dancing was also known in ancient Rome among Jews and early Christians, though much of the dancing mentioned in the Bible tends to turn out badly. Salome, for instance, danced at a birthday party for her stepfather, Herod, and what happened? John the Baptist wound up with his head on a plate.

King David mentions dancing often in his psalms, usually along with timbrels and tabrets — whatever they are. When David saw Bathsheba do a little soapy dance in the bathtub, he was so overcome with lust that he immediately slept with her and got her pregnant. Then he arranged to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, conveniently killed in battle so he could marry her. To be fair to Bathsheba, all she was really trying to do was keep clean and build up a good lather. The story tells us that David's actions "displeased" God, though given that the Book of Leviticus instructs that all adulterers should be put to death, David got off rather lightly. Bit of a slipup there, if you ask me.5

Jesus AND his followers seem to have had little time for dancing, though given how many other details the Gospels scrimp on, I suspect there was rather more dancing going on than we're led to believe. Jesus himself, in popular folksong, is sometimes referred to as Lord of the Dance (a term much more recently applied to that popularlizer of Irish stepdancing, Michael Flatley — although I'd be careful of making too close a connection there).

There must have been dancing at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, for instance, especially after Jesus turned all that water into wine (see Dionysus, above). And personally, I think Mary Magdalene probably knew a few interesting steps or two, and so did that woman at Simon the Leper's house with the special ointment and the long hair — but that's just a theory.

1 This doesn't always work, but at least it's worth a try.
2 The old joke goes that Baptists forbid lovemaking standing up because it might lead to dancing.
3 People who can name the nine Muses are generally the same ones who can name all 12 apostles and all seven of Snow White's dwarves.
4 This seems appropriate; since many in the theatre are old goats themselves and some performances can stink like a goat.
5 David also dressed up in linen and did a little dance in front of the ark of the covenant, which may have helped put him back in God's good books.

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