Dance is celebration and dance is language, a language beyond words. The courtship dances of birds display this. It is beyond words for, when words fail, up surges the dance. This fever, which can take hold of all beings and drive them to the pitch of frenzy, can only be a manifestation of the Spirit of Life. Often explosive, its aim is to throw off every vestige of the dual nature of temporal things to rediscover at a bound the primeval Oneness. Then body and soul, creator and creation, visible and invisible meet and anneal timelessly in a unique ecstasy. The dance proclaims and celebrates its identification with the imperishable.
Such was David’s dance before the Ark of the Covenant or the dance which carried off in a rapture of endless whirling Maulavī (Jalāl-al-Dīn Muhammad Rumī), founder of the order of Whirling Dervishes and one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. Such are all the primary dances, dances which may be described, disco or ballet, choreographed or improvised, solo or group, in which, as best as they can, human seek freedom in ecstasy, be it restricted to the body or set on a higher plane – always supposing that there are degrees, forms and levels of ecstasy.
The arrangement and rhythm of the dance are the rungs of the ladder which provides this escape. This cannot be better illustrated than by the shamans, who on their own admission use dancing in time to the beat of their drum to achieve their ascension into the spirit world. Whether it was in the mystery religion of Ancient Greece, in African Orisha and Voodoo, in Siberian or North American shamanism or in the freest of contemporary dance, mankind throughout has expressed in dancing the need to throw aside the bonds of the perishable. The most mundane of dancing lovers differ not a jot in intention from those who join in the innumerable ritual rain dances, the ordeal of the Sun Dance of the Prairie Indians or the funeral dances of Ancient China. All try the soul and aim to strengthen it and to guide it along the invisible path which leads from the perishable to the imperishable. For if dancing is ordeal by fire and prayer, it is also theater.
There are thousands of examples, like the spirit-possession dances of Haitian Voodoo, which show that this essentially symbolic, theatrical element possesses curative properties. This doubtless is the reason why modern medicine has discovered – or rediscovered – therapeutic qualities in dancing which the so-called animist religions have always employed.
In India, Shiva-nataraja’s tandava was the prototype of the cosmic dance Confined within a circle of fire, this dance symbolized the discipline of yoga. Furthermore, in Tantric Buddhism, Buddha Amoghasiddhi, lord of the current of life, the creator and the intellect, is known as the ‘Lord of the Dance’.
Indian religious dancing brings into play every portion of the body in movement which symbolizes precise spiritual states. Hands, fingernails even, eyeballs, nose, lips, arms, legs, feet and thighs all move in a swirl of silk and colours and sometimes in a state of semi-nakedness.
All these images display and invoke a kind of fusion in the same aesthetic, emotional, erotic, religious or mystic motion, like the return to the Sole Being from whom all things emanate and to whom all things return in the ceaseless ebb and flow of the life force.
Chinese tradition, linking dance to the rhythm of numbers, held that it allowed the universe to operate. It tamed wild animals and established the harmony of Heaven and Earth. By dancing, Yu the Great brought to an end the flood cause by an excess of yin. The ideogram wu, which expresses non-manifestation or destruction, may, according to some critics, have had the original meaning of ‘dance’.
Of all places in the world dancing takes its most extravert form in Africa. As Father Mveng observes, it is ‘the most dramatic example of cultural display, for it is the only one in which human beings, breaking the mold of the natural world, can seek not merely freedom, but freedom from their natural limitation.’ This is why, he maintains, dancing is the only mystical expression of African religion.
In Ancient Egypt, where dances were as numerous as they were elaborate, ‘if we can believe Lucian some mimes “translated into expressive movements the most mysterious tenets of their religion, the myths of Apis and Osiris, the transformations of gods into animals, and above all their love affairs”‘.
Source: “Dance,” from Dictionary of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Cheebrant via