Why do we dance? (2001)

by Raewyn Whyte

In the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center and concurrent damage to the Pentagon in a terrorist attack on 11 September 2001, the internet has been a much-valued source for information and personal communication. While mainstream news reporting by such journals of record as The New York Times and global tv channel CNN was replicated online, with stories accompanied by audio and video clips and photo galleries, people seeking the stories behind the headlines turned to alternate, independent news sites such as <http://killyourtv.com/wartime/&gt;, <http://www.alternet.org&gt; and <http://www.poynter.org/>where international commentary and in-depth analysis from a wide range of perspectives continue to be available.

Arts stories were included in many publications, with headlines such as “Arts Groups at a Tragedy’s Center Try to Assess Where to Begin,” “Millions in public art destroyed,” ” The Solace in Sharing the Beauty of Great Art and Music,” “After a Pause, Arts Companies Find Their Role,” “Citing Safety and Taste, New York Groups Cancel Shows and Exhibitions,” “Renewed Respect for Power of Images.”

A key theme was the relevance of the arts at a time of crisis, and a clear consensus emerged. The performing arts are significant, not just because of their content but also because they draw people to share experiences; that “…the arts aren’t just events to be gone ahead with or cancelled after a tragedy. One of the powers of great art is to try to make sense of difficult things”; and that continuing with scheduled performances is a way to show “that the forces that wished to silence us have failed…that creative energy will always overcome destructive forces.”

Dancers turned to email and mailing lists to find out how their friends and colleagues had fared, to share their experiences, pass on messages about what we could do to help those most affected.  At the heart of their messages was a question revisited time and again by dance commentary in online publications such as <http://www.danceinsider.com&gt; — that question: “Why do we dance?”

Their answers to that question were often eloquently stated.

“… dance is one appropriate response to last week’s tragedy. In our arsenal — in your arsenal, as dancers — are both might and beauty.”  — –Paul Ben Itzak, Dance Insider mailing list

“… We are rescue workers like everyone else, but our jobs lie in the reconstruction of the means and relevance of coherent public expression, and the primacy of free and creative spirit in that task. …”  — David R. White, Executive Director and Producer, Dance Theater Workshop

“.. I sorely needed to see that performance, longing to have New York dancers transform the great grief I feel in the way that only dance can. … I was thankful to witness these dancers as they heroically gave a brief respite from the madness, to an audience of strangers…

…  The moment that I had been longing for, happened; that point when artistry and emotion transcends technique and time stands still.  Ms. Kent calmly spread a magical spell across the stage that completely transported me away.  Elegantly slow rond de jambes, a deliberate circling of the hands in first arabesque; the simplest of movements soothed the ache we had been feeling all week.  Emotion, clearly visible on her face, was transformed through her body into movement, providing an eloquent language for this time when we cannot find words… “  — Allyson Green, Review: ABT to the Rescue, Dance Insider

“Dance, because it is a direct expression of emotions and ideas that percolate just below the surface of the skin, connects us also with other feeling and thinking people. That is, in part, how dance manages to unite us in times of crisis. It is a unifying force. And because it is such a primal part of our identity as human beings, dance is something we all can relate to, emotionally, intellectually, viscerally.

…Dance can yield graphic images of horror and pain. But, ironically, because dance is so connected to the body, these images carry with them an undercurrent of hope. Dance exudes vitality, even when involved with ideas of our impending end. That is why it is so cherished. In times of crisis, it reconnects us to that fundamental fact of life: renewal.” — Deirdre Kelly, The Globe and Mail, Toronto


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Originally published as Dancing on the Net column, DANZ magazine September 2001

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