Dance is one of the oldest and widespread art forms, being found in every culture, with a variety of purposes.  It can be ritualistic, abstract, worshipful, healing, purely aerobic, or sheer entertainment.  Equally, it could be a varying combination of some or all of the aforementioned purposes.  First let us explore some examples of single-purpose dance.

     It can fill a ritualistic or ceremonial need, being done when tradition prescribes a need.  The Kambala dance of Sudan’s Nuba people comes to mind.  The term Kambala refers to a 28-day long ceremony to mark the induction of age-set boys into manhood, but the term is also used to name the dance that is done throughout that 28-day ceremony.  The mimetic Kambala dance is thought to cause the newly inducted Nuba men to be brave and audacious, as it is thought by dancing and making rhythmic sounds like a bull, they attain the same properties of strength that a bull possesses.  Not all ritualistic or ceremonial dances are mimetic though. 

     Other examples of ceremonial or ritualistic dance can be found in Native American culture, where there are war dances, courtship dances, harvest or fertility dances, and dances done to initiate entrance into selective subcommunities within the tribe.

     Ancient Egyptians had a 3-part funeral dance ritual.  First they performed the dances that were a component of the funeral rites.  Then they performed the dances that expressed the grief of the funeral attendees.  Lastly, they performed the secular dances that were meant to entertain the spirit of the deceased.

     It can have the purpose of worship, either directly communing with your divine source, or communicating to others a chosen liturgy.  Classical Indian Dance such as Bharata Natyam, Kathak, and Kuchipudi, among others, all descended directly from the temples in India, where dancers (called devadasis) were dedicated to temples.  Devadasis were part of the daily ritual of worshipping the deity, performing dances in praise of the god.  Often the dancer is communing or praying directly to the deity.  Additionally, many of the classical Indian dances use the dancer as a medium, portraying the god, in addition to all of the other characters in the particular canon/ doctrine they are performing. 

     Similar to classical Indian dance is liturgical dance, specific to the Christian religion.  It refers specifically to dance that venerates God.  Its purpose is to either worship God directly, or to communicate to others the Word of God, the liturgy.  In both situations, the emphasis is on the Creator as the focus and purpose for the dance, not the dancer themselves.

     Another example are the whirling dervishes that are a branch of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  Their continually spinning dance is done to empty their minds of conscious thought so that they might entrance themselves in order to commune with God and the Universe.

     There is dance that exists purely to express movement and form, creating shapes and patterns of abstraction in space.  Nritta is a classifying term found in Indian dance that refers to dance steps performed only rhythmically.  The body does not convey mood or meaning.  Its only purpose is to create beauty by exploring and moving through various patterns, symmetries (or asymmetries), lines, and positions in space and time.  The focus is on the axis of the dancer, and how everything relates to their axis. 

     Doris Humphrey’s vision of modern dance fits into this category.  She did not attempt to tell a story, or to evoke a specific emotion. Unlike Martha Graham, her contemporary, Humphrey was interested in purely aesthetic, abstract considerations.

      Dance can have the purpose of binding communities or families together, as a means of social enjoyment.  The middle eastern debke comes to mind.  It is a line dance, of folkloric nature.  The steps are not terribly complex in order to facilitate widespread participation, and the dancers all are linked together, performing the steps simultaneously together.  Depending on the specific culture, they may hold hands, or cross arms at the elbow, or lay arms over neighboring dancers’ shoulders.  Also dependent upon culture is if the lines of dancers are mixed sexes or segregated sexes. 

     Jewish Yemenite wedding dances are another example of dance as a “social glue” of sorts, as well as having a ceremonial/ ritualistic function. 

     Dance as entertainment can be split into two subcategories.  One is inwardly focused, in which the dancer is not seeking to perform for an audience, and one is outwardly focused, which definitely takes an audience into account when performing.  It can be thought of as the difference between a social dancer and a stage dancer.

     A good example of inwardly focused dance would be something called Trance-Zen Dance.  The naming of this form is not stringent, nor important.  It has been called many different things in varying communities, but its purpose is universally the same.  It is thought to be done to experience free flow dance movement, silencing your inner critic and moving how your body dictates in response to music that is usually of the world, club, or sacred genre.  The emphasis is on spontaneity and improvisation.  Sometimes it is done for self-healing purposes, for some it is a form of moving meditation, and sometimes it is done for pure diversion, relaxation, or exercise (much like nightclub dancing).  An audience is irrelevant and unsought for in this subcategory.

     Alternately, dance can be formulated as entertainment devised specifically for an audience.  Whether the audience’s motivation for attending a performance may be altruistic, patronizing the arts, or to simply spend a night away from television, taking an audience into account definitely changes the character of the dance.  It becomes more formal, more practiced, more disciplined and more aware of the audience’s presence.  A good example of this outwardly focused dance would be typical ballet, as evidenced in the forming of touring companies with repertoires and wardrobes and stage lighting schematics.  This is certainly not limited to just ballet companies.  There are jazz, contemporary, modern, and even American bellydance companies that strive to entertain their audiences, to elicit a response from an audience, to perform for an audience.

     Storytelling dance dips its toes in one or all of the above purposes for dance, sometimes simultaneously.  Using elements of theatrical expression to project mood/ emotion and following a plotline, it crosses genres between acting, mime, storytelling tradition, and dance, blending them all together for a finished product.  Add to those multiple artistic disciplines the skills of set building, prop construction, and costume design/ creation and you have a more refined, fleshed-out creation.  Storytelling dance does not have to be this sophisticated.  Indeed, it varies in that respect from culture to culture.  But what is the same across cultures is its root purpose.

     It is theorized that the earliest storytelling dances probably had their purpose rooted in passing on mythology or cultural traditions.  Before a written language could be devised, we know there were cave paintings, glyphs, and dance.  Dance was relied upon to carry a civilization or tribe’s history, traditions, and social codes (for example, morals and values) down from generation to generation.  This is not to say that dance was solely done for this purpose, just to delineate just how ancient and inherent storytelling dance truly is.  It almost goes without saying that these storytelling dances are also incredibly widespread, examples being found in almost every culture:

  • Native Americans continue to perform the dances that illustrate the history of their individual tribal groups, passed down to them from their ancestors, several generations prior. 
  • The Sanskrit word “Kathaka” (from whence Indian Kathak dance is named) means “storyteller”.  Ancient Kathakas were mainly men who narrated the scriptures using music and mime, traveling from village to village to indoctrinate people through story and drama. 
  • In Russian Romani dance, the performers often act out specific situations as a particular character, using pantomime and comedy to communicate the storyline. 
  • The Bedouin gaysa was documented in an autobiographical book by Marianne Alireza as “pageant” she witnessed, depicting hunt scenes between dancers costumed as desert warriors of old times, leaping after and pursuing other dancers costumed with animal heads, in a pitting of man vs. beast, with musical accompaniment. 
  • In ancient Greece, the combination of dance and pantomime to tell a story through gesture and mimicry alone was referred to as Iporchima or Emmelia. 
  • Balinese culture is rich in storytelling dance, naming their dances after specific stories.  For example, the Barong narrates the classical story of good vs. evil, the Gambuh tells the story of a prince in his quest for a princess, the masked Jauk brings to life stories out of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, Arja dance-drama tells a story of forbidden love, war, and magical spells, and the Legong Kraton tells a story of capture of a maiden and the resultant war over her between two rulers very reminiscent of Helen of Troy. 
  • Chinese Wuju features very complex plotlines that use singing, acting, acrobatics, and dance, to illustrate a narrative. 
  • In a more western scope, ballet historians consider the Ballet Comique de la Reine to be the first ballet, performed in 1581.  It was devised by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx to recount the Greek myth of Circe. 

     This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but one can see how storytelling dance knows no cultural boundaries, and how at the heart of it, shares a universal sameness of purpose.  The purpose of Malice Dreaming Productions is to bring that cross-cultural, multi-dimensional art to audiences.  To immerse them back into the realm of escapism and transporting fantasy.


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