Chapter 3 – Dance

We Dance

Truth and beauty are one. No human activity expresses the presence found in the creative process more than dance. No culture practices the art of dance with greater beauty and elegance than does that of India. Picture Shiva’s dance as the god stands on the demon with his four arms floating in space with stunning grace. “The upper right hand of the god holds a drum to symbolize the primal sound of creation; the upper left bears a tongue of flame, the element of destruction. The balance of the two hands represents the dynamic balance of creation and destruction in the world, accentuated further by the Dancer’s calm and detached face in the center of the two hands, in which the polarity of creation and destruction is dissolved and transcended.”

“The second right hand is raised in the sign of ‘do not fear,’ symbolizing maintenance, protection and peace [the Universe is friendly], while the remaining left hand points down to the uplifted foot which symbolizes release from the spell of Maya [P-B]. The god is pictured as dancing on the body of a demon [the false self], the symbol of human ignorance which has to be conquered before liberation can be attained.”[1]   

We Dance

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)
Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968)
Martha Graham (1894-1991)
Doris Humphrey (1895-1958)

We remember the story told by Joseph Campbell relating to a tour he was taking of Shinto shrines in Japan. Toward the end of the tour he pulled the Shinto priest who had been leading the tour aside to ask him a question. “I have seen your buildings, your shrines and heard you tell of the Shinto rituals,” he said, “but I’m afraid that I don’t get your theology.” The priest smiled and said, “No theology, we dance.”

Unlike most of humanity, this priest seemed to be clear about his identity and the story in which he was contained. In P-B, we have set ourselves apart from the rest of Creation as the superior animal with the ability to “reason.” We have wandered astray and become lost with the identity of the creature that “reasons.” In doing so, many of us have lost the joy of simple existence. We are not primarily the animal that thinks. We are the animal that dances.

History evolves in every art form as a succession of reactions to the established norm of the day. For example, the artists Courbet and Millet, 19th century French painters, were not content to paint the traditional portraits of the nobility or religious scenes from the Bible that the cognoscente and the elite artists demanded of them. They both wanted to paint genre scenes—common people engaged in ordinary activities. This is what “inspired” them, it is how they connected with the Implicate Order; this is what resonated with their heartfelt sense of what was true and beautiful.

Similarly, other 19th century French painters wanted to take their portable painting gear into the countryside where they were fascinated by the interplay of color and light. They did not try to paint realistic landscapes in the traditional sense but saw a different beauty. The impressionists created paintings that 150 years later draw the largest crowds to museum exhibitions.

In the evolution of dance, it was the same situation moving into the 20th century. We will look briefly at four dancers over a period of fifty years who were rebelling against the status quo. “It is the expression of a declaration of independence from classic ballet.”[ii] 

Our heroines are Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. The story is one of an evolution in the vocabulary of dance movement and a change in the relationship that the art of dance would have to the theatre. These four women, just like Courbet and Millet did in painting, become the prophets for a new way of self-expression in dance. Prophets on the cutting edge of change usually meet resistance.

Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco of Irish-American parents. She was by age eleven teaching the little girls in her neighborhood her new system of dancing. Described by Winthrop Palmer in his essay entitled “Modern Dance-Divertissement into Art,” “She recited a poem and taught the children to follow its meaning in gesture and movement.”[iii]  Later while studying classical ballet she had to admit that her muse had something different in mind for her.

Palmer described her reaction to those early lessons. “The stiff and common-place gymnastics he [her ballet teacher] called dancing only disturbed her dream of a dance that would express the feelings and the emotions of humanity.”[iv]  Notice again how Duncan, like Courbet and Millet, wants to be in touch with the larger human community, to make a connection with a deeper reality. She was driven like we all are to undertake the search for Simple Reality.

Ruth St. Denis and her partner Ted Shawn founded the Denishawn Company and School. They bridged the gap between the art of dance and the art of the theatre. They were entertainers but they were also theatrical. “While they were entertaining, they also taught their audiences to like the sensuous music, in movement, and in gesture; and they passed on a technique and a training method to their pupils which have inspired most modern dancers of our day. The modern dancer applied these theories to a dance that made use of the whole body, not just the feet and the hands and arms.”[v] 

Doris Humphrey’s contribution follows the flow of creativity in the arts that began in the West before the ancient Greeks. She was involved in the universal search for an expression of an ever more profound truth in a beautiful way, a way that resonates with the human heart. Truth and reality when profoundly understood are the same thing. “I wish my dance to be based on reality illumined by imagination; to be organic rather than synthetic; to call forth a definite reaction from my audience; and to make its contribution toward the drama of life.”[vi] 

It took Martha Graham to complete the circle that we saw Isadora Duncan begin half a century earlier and that is the integration of dance with the art forms of theatre, opera and music. “Merce Cunningham, one of Martha Graham’s most gifted pupils, has composed a ballet to the music of Erik Satie in the manner of George Balanchine. It is not unusual for a member of a modern dance company to have a contract with a Broadway musical. Meg Mundy and Jo Van Fleet, former members of the Graham Company, have starred in plays by Sartre and Shakespeare.”[vii]  Oneness in the arts, as in life itself, has evolved naturally to demonstrate the interconnection of all forms of beauty.

Fast forward fifty years from Isadora Duncan’s class for neighborhood children and we can begin to see the fruits of what our four dance pioneers started. To do that we have only to look back fifty years from today to see choreographer Jerome Robbins in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein in the creation of the musical West Side Story.

The natural flow of creativity from the Implicate Order through each one of us can be very vividly exemplified in the arts. The evolution of artistic expression is stunning in its beauty and we can use dance unfolding over the span of thousands of years as an example.

“Dance critic Walter Terry felt that it was the supreme example of a form that was possibly ‘the most exciting and potentially fertile development in the theatre since the Greek drama emerged from the danced poetry of the dithyramb.’ [Terry also felt] ‘the great wonder of West Side Story is that realistic action flows into dancing and out of it again without a hitch or break, just as speech swells or snarls its way into poetry and song.’ From the opening dance, which established the characteristics of the gangs, to the final catastrophic choreographed rumble, the threading of the dance through the music and plot was constant and fluid, a fulfillment of the choreographer’s dream of dance movement as the most natural expression of the characters and the action. West Side Story was final proof of the effectiveness of combining the roles of director and choreographer, [and let’s not forget the composer] although the dual responsibility would tax the creativity of successful director-choreographers to the limit.”[viii]  

It took centuries for the separate elements of acting, dancing and music to blend into a single integrated performance. It was a natural occurrence but the obstacles of the false self including the ego-centered intellect got in the way of what grew to be a marvelous form of entertainment. We can see over time that the principle of Oneness reveals itself in the theatre. Processes like collaboration, cooperation, and the integration of dance with other art forms all combined to produce the best possible artistic expression on stage.

“The trend that began with Jerome Robbins has led inescapably to the creation of the super-director, a person who conceives, directs, and choreographs the whole shebang. The first of the type was Bob Fosse, whose career was given its first boost by Robbins.”[ix]  The form of the American musical has now spread around the world from Hollywood to Bollywood bringing joy to billions of human beings.

We can all count on the continued evolution of the ability of artists to create new and beautiful forms of entertainment, especially if the creation occurs in the context of Simple Reality.


[1]     Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. New York: Bantam. 1975, page 232. 

We Dance

[ii]     New American Library. New World Writing. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. 1954, page 160. 

[iii]    Ibid

[iv]    Ibid

[v]     Ibid., pages 163-165. 

[vi]    Ibid., page 169. 

[vii]   Ibid., page 170. 

[viii]   Hendersen, Mary C. Theater in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. No date, pages 136-137.

[ix]    Ibid


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