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Dance, Dance, Revolution – 4/5/2015

A few years ago there was a video making the rounds on the internet which you might have seen. It was a short piece narrated by an internet entrepreneur named Derek Sivers. His message was about movement-building and the importance not just of leaders but of the people brave enough to be their first followers. It was the image of the actual video, though, that stuck with me.

The scene is of an outdoor concert: a host of people sprawl lazily on a grassy hillside, staring passively towards the stage. But in the center of the video’s frame is one young man who is not sitting or lying back like the rest. Shirtless and shoeless, his pasty white skin glistens in the summer sun as he dances, all alone, to the music. And friends, it must be said: this is not particularly good dancing. It’s erratic and disorganized – almost frantic – and terribly, terribly awkward. He dances alone for what seems like an eternity. He was dancing before the video began. Has he always been dancing? Will he ever stop?

Then, a new person joins in. Their movement together is no less awkward or strange. Watching I found myself growing sympathetically uncomfortable. And yet, more people join them. After the seeming endlessness of the lone dancer, the whole screen fills up with a huge crowd of staggering, flailing, undulating people in barely one minute’s time. From a single pebble, and then another, an entire landslide is begun.[i]

There is something in the power of dance to get people active, engaged, and moving together which lends itself to social change and upheaval. Or, at least, tightly controlled nations and societies seem to think that such a connection exists. One of the leading accusations at the witch trials in Salem was that of having been seen in the woods late at night, dancing. In Germany, during World War II, listening and dancing to jazz music was a popular mode of teenage rebellion – popular enough to get people sent to prison, and executed for it. The decades of Communist rule in Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania all saw a crackdown on folk dancing clubs for fear that the radical influences of polka and line-dancing would destabilize the state. Among its more minor crimes, albeit one of its least popular, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan specifically banned dancing at weddings. And 60-or-so years ago it was common in this country for municipalities to attempt to legislate or control what sorts of music or dance moves would be permitted in public assemblies. The criminalization of dance is a universal sign of a system of power so paranoid about its own survival that it must control the bodies of its citizens.

Emma Goldman is sometimes quoted as having said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” She didn’t actually say this. What she said came after a fellow activist criticized her wild and reckless energy on the dancefloor as being harmful to the cause that they were both devoted to. “I did not believe,” she said, “that a Cause which stood for…release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy…If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”[ii]

I dwell on the subject of dance this morning because it is woven into the stories of Passover and Easter, and the great religious traditions from which each emanates, in curious ways. The Exodus from Egypt ends with a great dance party, as the Children of Israel celebrate their escape on the far shore of the sea. Several of the Psalms – which remember, were essentially a hymnbook – call upon the congregation to dance in their worship of God. And it is said in the second book of Samuel that “David,” the ancient king of Israel, “danced before the LORD.”[iii]

The Christian hymn, “The Lord of the Dance,” imagines Jesus as a dance-caller, teaching new steps to the world. That song is only about 50 years old, and its author, Sydney Carter, believed this image of Jesus to be an entirely novel one. He was inspired, in fact, not by any precedent for it in the Christian tradition, but by a statue of the Hindu god Shiva in the pose of Nataraja: the dancer whose dancing destroys all illusions and allows everything in the universe to move.[iv] But, even if Sydney Carter didn’t realize it, he was actually harkening back to a scene in one of the Christian bible’s apocryphal texts – the books about Jesus and the early Christian movement that were left out of the biblical cannon for including or hinting at unpopular ideas. In the Acts of John, just before his arrest and murder, Jesus arranges the disciples in a ring around him, holding hands. He engages them in a call and response, saying, among many other things, “Who danceth not knoweth not what cometh to pass.”[v] Though the text is ambiguous, it seems to be describing a scene in which Jesus teaches a specific dance to his students, as a final gift before his death.

Dance is, of course, almost impossible to record in words. This problem bedeviled the world of ballet up until the advent of modern recording equipment. Before then, the complex choreography of a production could only be stored in the memory of people who trained with its original creator. Students might horde such riches, refusing to teach them so that their special knowledge would be in demand, or they might instead seek to train as many new people as they could in the dance their master conceived, so that the unique pattern of movements would not die with them, and be lost.

Both of the festivals we mark today are about acting and embodying moments that are larger than words. We can read the scripture and recite its words, but it is the behavior of our bodies that is truly at issue: To struggle for liberation against the crush of oppression; to practice loving peace in the presence of violence and death: these are the only ways to make these sacred stories live again in us. And while it might be possible to do this on our own, like a lone dancer, flailing awkwardly in an empty field, I don’t recommend it. Dance, like liberation and redemption, can be attempted individually, but it can only ever truly be effective when we practice it collectively. The courage to be seen as a weirdo, a heretic, or a danger to the status quo on our own is important, but even more important is the shared courage to be seen as any or all of those things, together.

 

 

[i] Go ahead and watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ

[ii] Emma Goldman, Living My Life

[iii] 2 Samuel 6:14

[iv] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1456932/Sydney-Carter.html

[v] The Acts of John 95: http://gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm

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