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, or worshipful.  It could be done for reasons of social binding  or it can be purposed as sheer entertainment.  Just as equally, it could be a varying combination of some or all of the aforementioned purposes.  I believe that at its core, dance is simply communication.  It beauty is in its simplicity of concept – mind utilizing body to express something.  The nature of the message being communicated is as varied as humanity is varied.

“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.”   -Ted Shawn, 1955

  • Ceremony/ Ritual

Dance can fill a ritualistic or ceremonial need, being done when tradition prescribes it.  The Kambala dance of Sudan’s Nuba people comes to mind.  The term Kambala refers to both a 28-day long ceremony to mark the induction of boys into manhood, and also is 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.

  • Worship

Dance can have the purpose of worship, in 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.

  • Abstract

Abstract dance can be inwardly focused and unconcerned with an audience, and conversely, it can also be specifically devised for an audience and presentational in its nature.

In the presentational abstract category, dance exists purely to express movement and form, creating shapes and patterns 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 presentational abstract 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.

A good example of inwardly focused, abstract 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.

  • Social enjoyment

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, Balkan line dances, country line dance, and even Irish Morris dancing are other examples of dance as a “social glue” of sorts.  All these folk dances are learned informally, by watching, or learning-while-following.  They were not devised for stage performance, are performed at social functions, often use traditional accompanying music and do not require formal or professional training.

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