Creative Uses of the Arts —
July 20, 1933 — Round Table Meetings, International Council of Women for Civil Rights, Palmer House, Chicago IL
In presenting the question of the dance, in just a few minutes, I am trying to think what would be the most helpful, penetrating idea to give you, to illumine the thought of the dance in relation to yourselves and in relation to your children.
Going to a recital and seeing either myself or other artists of the dance is quite on thing. You are the spectators, and you are not supposed, shall I say, to follow the intricacies, labors, and efforts that go in to make an art felt. But the dance as a living, life experience, is quite another thing. It seems to me that is the aspect, under this head of leisure, that we should most definitely consider. For a great many years I have been appalled at the commercial aspect of the teaching of the dance. I hinted at it last night, and will now speak more directly about it. I know most of the schools are like my own, unendowed, existing to the point of my earning a living otherwise. All of the schools in the country, almost without exception, are unendowed, and they are treated exactly the same as the commercial aspects of life, the can of tomatoes, or anything of a commercial character.
You see your six- or seven-year-old child dancing, using a great deal of her own natural expressiveness, and you think it is remarkable. In some ways it is remarkable, and in another sense it is not remarkable at all. Her heritage from her spiritual lineage equips her to dance naturally and sweetly and rhythmically. She doesn’t have to be taught. The average normal child, five or six years old, is a natural born dancer. You have all heard that phrase used, under the head of what you would consider the specially gifted child. When we first had schools, Mr. [Ted] Shawn and I, we used to think that was true, that some had to be taught or could not be taught, but we found that was not true, but that it was a subnormal child that was not a born dancer. You see what I am driving at, that especially with girl childhood there is an innately divine rhythm in most children, that all it needs are the correct physical conditions and mental conditions, the conditions under which it can flower. I will come to that in a moment. After all, you don’t grow a rosebush or a geranium. Only God can do that. But what you can do is make the conditions of sun and air and water, and a little pruning, and the nature of the flower itself pushes it, it has its own natural self-expression, and the dance will grow as naturally as a flower, if we value it enough to let it.
Why should we value the dance anyway, as a life experience? I am not talking about it as an art, but as something delightful and healthful to do, something inspirational, something that releases human consciousness, all the way from a child up to grown people.
It depends, of course, upon what your idea of life itself it. We so quickly get into metaphysics, but we can’t help it. If life is a three-dimensional affair, that is one thing. If it is in terms of consciousness, that is another matter. What has the body to do with consciousness? It is its language, or expression. Just as your clothes are not you nor your body, but your means not only of protecting yourself from the weather, but a means of self-expression. You You really wear your bodies, as you do your clothes. They are and they are not you. They are your language and your terms, your medium of expression. They are also the symbol of yourself. Your body is the symbol of yourself. If you meditate on that a moment, it will turn up some rather difficult problems. Your body is a symbol of yourself. You see what we are leading to. Why should we stop dancing at fifteen or sixteen? Can anybody in this bright class give me any idea why we should stop? Supposing we learn to sing, or speak good English at an early age. Supposing you suddenly decided at thirty, having spoken good English, that there was no reason to continue it.
Speaking in a broad sense, it is the bad parts, not the good ones, that are responsible for our lack of reverence for the human body. It is funny what the old fellows did with the figures on the cathedrals. It is a strange idea that has come down all these years, that God must have made a mistake between the shoulders and the knees, but that the head was all right. Did you ever read Irving Cobb, on The Organs of the Body, with those that were respectable and those that were not? The lungs were respectable, and I think the stomach was on the borderline. The bowels were not at all respectable. They were outside of society, removed, as it were. If we could sufficiently ridicule our ideas about the body, it would do us a lot of good. It would sweep through our consciousness like fresh air. We think we are pretty emancipated. We wear bathing suits, nor nearly bathing suits, on the beach.
Apropos of that, I should like to say this, showing how the world moves, and that it can still move on and one: Years ago I lived in Brooklyn for my former sins. I lived in Brooklyn for five years. While there, I remember a group of women of uncertain years and uncertain beauty, but with a certain idea, and that was what they called the “Rainy Days.” They were a group of women who had the temerity to resent the bustles and the trains that we wore in those days. My mother attempted to wear them. They said it was perfectly ridiculous to wear them on rainy days. So on those days only, they cut their skirts to their ankles, and were hooted by the small boys in the street, and of course very much disapproved of by the purely biologic female who didn’t get the trend of the times.
I am not a regular educator, just an artist who has felt things deeply over years, and who has taught a little bit.
There are certain tendencies that have made our bodies inactive. Because of our present transportation, nobody walks any more. When we do dance, we have little cabarets in which we have rhythmic hugging. I don’t object to it myself, but I don’t like to call it dancing. We move around in a hot atmosphere, late at night.
If I had the room and the time I would put you all in bathing suits, and we would begin to dance. Maybe you think that is a joke, but it isn’t as much of a joke as you think. You would be amazed to see how your whole temperament would start to polarize itself the minute you started to move rhythmically, your whole temperament, not merely your arms and legs, because what are you really dancing with? You think you are dancing with your body, but it is your consciousness. The body can’t dance. With all the music in the world, a corpse can’t dance.
There is a great underlying rhythm in this universe. We are substituting a mechanical, and, as we say in Christian Science, a mortal mind rhythm, and we are attempting to keep up with that rhythm. A couple of hours ago my East Indian friend and I were talking, and I said, “The point is there is an inner rhythm for every living soul, and that is the divinest part of us, and that rhythm, furthermore, is connected with the great rhythms. There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t go on harmoniously for many, many more years than we are allowing to ourselves now, if we move harmoniously. That means we move without friction. The dance, you see, is frictionless. You cannot dance if you have resistance. It is impossible. You must relax. That is the first thing of a dance. You must give up your exterior will, and lie back on the music, and let yourself go, exactly as you do in swimming. That music and those rhythms harmonize you. Can you really think of anything that it would be more delightful to do in your possible leisure time than to have a condition in which your whole being began to balance itself? Not only your bodies, but your whole being. And further than that, that new ideas, new emotions, new thoughts, began to be released from that. You know, when, from early morning to late at night as you listen to the radio, see moving pictures, read the morning papers and magazines, do you realize that your consciousness is constantly being impressed, that you are made into a kind of blotting paper? You have no ideas yourself, but at the next dinner party you attend you have a reshash of what you have heard the past three or four days. You have made a sort of sounding-board of yourself, and just pass that along.
With the dance, it is volition all with you. It is with yourself. There is nobody to dance for you; you must do it yourself. After a while, you begin to feel that you are responding to things that are outside of yourself.
As a spiritual student, shall I say, for a great many years, I have come to realize that we are like radio stations, receivers of an invisible rhythm, an invisible life. Giuseppe Verdi speaks about self-realization. He has a message, and all his ramifications and orchestrations are on that one theme. The thing is self-realization. He speaks of it from a spiritual standpoint, which, of course, is the reality of it, but I refuse to make a difference between soul and body — I don’t think he really does, except that he is not interested in what I would call expression. He was interested in the inner realization, but why should we not go into our outer life with that? If we could stop being amused and dazzled with the mechanics of this age, and would realize that self-realization is life itself in beauty and rhythm, and then being to make our outer gestures harmonic with that inner realization, we would know a new life.
I feel that the commercial thing I spoke of last night brings out the worst characteristics of everybody. The child who can afford to pay and has no talent gets taught by a teacher who is 85 per cent business woman and 15 percent artist, and teaching should be the other way. The mind of the teacher of dance and of singing and of beauty should be on what she is teaching, and not on paying the rent, but what else can they do with the present system?
My thought is that the mothers and fathers should combine on a system where they would have a place, a room, an proportion of which would be a spot where, when the child, when it came in, would have all the beauty of the world that was in that child released into action, harmonized instantly by music and beauty. There should be, for instance, new paintings and new sculpture for the child to have as images on its mind, instead of the awful stuff we are getting.
If there is to be greater beauty in this world, we will get it. The men are doing nothing about it at all. They are still young boys of seven years of age, who have the radio apart on the nursery floor, and they will be intrigued with that for a long time. They are terribly chesty about going a little faster about the world, and when they get there they turn and go back again. What if you can get to London more quickly? If you can’t find anything there better than what you left, you might as well stay at home. I am fundamentally one of those fiery patriotic people, and at the same time I hope my feeling is universal. I understand the other people and they understand me.
I hope to form some kind of an association out of which will arise a serene beauty. It seems to me that the dance, that symbol of our spiritual life, that manifestation of our physical life, should begin. All the beauty that we are the inheritors of, from Greece, Egypt, India, began with the dance. From childhood, the rhythms of life began were taught to their children. So I beg you mothers and those who may become mothers, those interested in children, to realize that the dance is not mere entertainment and not even mere art, but it is a terrific life experience, and if we are to know greater beauty in this country I believe we must begin with the dance.
Source: Our Common Cause: Civilization: Proceedings of the National Council of Women of the United States. Including the Series of Round Tables, July 16-22, 1933, Chicago, Illinois (New York: National Council of Women of the United States) 1933, pp. 922-926.