People who dance socially will find themselves going through stages. At first, they dance because it’s a joy to move rhythmically to music. Then, after a while, they find that it’s fun to discover new steps and maneuvers for their own experimental sake. And then there is the next step: the discovery of dancing as a mode of speech. It’s a way to speak to a partner. It’s a way to speak to a society. It’s a way to speak to one’s heritage, one’s tradition, one’s ancestors. It’s a way to speak intimately to music, if one so chooses. For a few, it’s a way to speak to God.
That step—between dancing because it feels good or because it’s fun to explore one’s physical limits and dancing because one wants to communicate something to, or construct something for, someone else—is the step into art. It requires a view of dancing as a language, with all the logic, grammar, and tonal nuance of a language. It requires an understanding of what an audience in a given performing space can see and of how fast they can absorb what they’re looking at. It requires a storytelling gift, regardless of whether one is choreographing or performing a work with a story that’s spelled out—for it is the tension of a story, realized or felt, that gives dance meaning. And it requires practitioners who have, themselves, sat in audiences and consistently asked about the events onstage, “Do I like this or not, and why?” rather than “Will I ever be this famous?” or “Will people like my work better?” or “What do you have to do to get this much production money and exposure?”
All four elements are in lamentably short supply today. The problem is global.
Aloff is dance critic at The New Republic.