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Origins And Definitions - Primitive Dances

( Originally Published 1935 )

Under the stress of joy, Man makes words. These words are not enough; he prolongs them. The prolonged words are not enough; he modulates them. The modulated words are not enough, and without even perceiving it, his hands make gestures and his feet start to move.

The english word dance is close to the French danse, which in turn is supposed to derive from the ancient high German danson, to stretch or drag. This meaning, to stretch, is important to hold in mind. Danson becomes in Middle-English, daunce, or less frequently dawnce; in Swiss and Dutch, dans; in Danish, dands; in Portuguese, dança; in Spanish and Italian, danza; in German, by the modification of Grimm's law, Tanz. Danson and Tanz have in common an, a root-combination of letters which are present in the original Sanskrit tan, which meant tension, stretching. In Greece it is teinein, to stretch; in Latin many of our words stem from the verb, teneo: notably, and probably directly: tension, intense, tenuous, etc. The Lithuanian is dinsan or thinsan.

It is apparent, therefore, that the idea of tension, from the very beginning, has been foremost in people's minds when they have thought about dancing seriously enough to invent or adapt word-sounds for it.

In all parts of the world, regardless of climate or other outside influence, there is a striking similarity in all of the earlier manifestations of human activity, whether it be in Canada, Java, South Africa, Greece, Tahiti, or Tierra del Fuego. Without any palpable mutual contact or intercourse, certain rites or habits of custom can be continually recognized as spontaneously correspondent. Normal human vigor seems to express itself emotionally through the medium of dance with an instinctive exuberance almost identically formulated. Obviously, there are differences in accompaniment of music and costume, governed by geography and accidental historical considerations. But, aside from these, and the nomenclature, there is an astounding likeness, even in small matters, in all primitive cultures.

Not only is a study of primitive dancing compulsory for a comprehension of the origins of dramatic art, but a constant recollection of its many categories, forms and uses continually classifies occasions for dancing right down to our own day. We may have lost the original significance of a date in our calendar or the source of its rite, but it always exists beneath if we lay bare a thin surface. In ancient Greece, spring festivals were the occasion for choral competitions; the clash of Roman sword dances reechoed to symbolic fights in the contest of the new year and the old. The Christian Mass reiterated the ritual drama of dismembered Osiris, a tribal scape-goat. The Twelfth-Night Masquerades in London's Inns of Court have a complete ancient magical precedent of mummery or disguising, while modern American negro spiritual singing, and `sanctified' dancing presuppose not only a Congo heritage but are parallel to the transports of Bacchic Maenads, the mediaeval Italian flagellants who sang their Laudi, and the mad dancers of Northern Europe whose mania attended the Black Plague.

The subject matter of primitive, or source dances is the seasons of man's life, the seasons of vegetation, and the seasons of the tribe's development or mythic history. By the seasons of man, one means the occasions of his birth and entrance into his tribe, the occasion of his coming-of-age, the marking of adolescence when he becomes a marriageable hunter, the occasion of his marriage, when he commences to increase his tribe, and the occasion of his death, when he quits his tribe. These human seasons have their correspondence in the solar wheel; spring, or planting time, compassed by the equinox; summer, the growing season, stamped by one solstice which we know as Mid-summer's Night or the Eve of Saint John; autumn, the harvest; then winter, the dead season which has in its other solstice, sleep, and the rebirth of the sun Tribal history itself furnishes many occasions for dance and song, not only the current events of the tribe, everyday life of necessary huntings or plantings, but the whole epos of a memorable past; old wars, old victories, old miracles; the worship of the ancestor Totem. Death dances were also connected with the ritual around fresh-dug graves, when the killed young tribesman met in the clouds, the fathers of his father.

Within these grand divisions two convenient subsections suggest themselves,—those dances which originate in social aims, and those which have a magic or religious purpose. There are birth dances of family and tribal con-gratulation, initiation dances which instruct new tribal members into cult-secrets and sexual information, marriage dances of sexual selection and property endowment, war dances and dances of welcome to strangers, or testimony of good fellowship. No hard or fast separation from magico-religious rite; can be asserted, but there is an obvious difference between such functions, and those which involve dance worship of the tribe's deity, Sun, Moon, Fire or River, Snake or Lion which gave the tribe its seed. Definitely utilitarian dances involving mimicry and magic are more dramatic, more concentrated than the others. Food, fish or game are desired. Or rain is needed. Or floods must be dried up. Then dance for it. A warrior is sick. Dance the demons out of him. A man dies. Dance to lay his ghost and protect his survivors from possible threats of his wandering shade. As Ruth Benedict says of the American Zuni, in `Patterns of Culture' The Dance, like their ritual poetry, is a monotonous compulsion of natural forces by reiteration. The tireless pounding of their feet draws together the mist in the sky and heaps it into the piled rain clouds. It forces out the rain upon the earth. They are bent not at all upon an ecstatic experience, but upon so thorough-going an identification with Nature that the forces of Nature will swing to their purposes. This intent dictates the form and spirit of Pueblo dances. There is nothing wild about them. It is the cumulative force of the rhythm, the perfection of forty men moving as one, that makes them effective.

Since death and disease are believed due to magical or supernatural reasons, those persons who have supernatural control are used to combat them. Hence magicians in using dances as medicine can be considered the first choreographers. As a magical operation, dancing is important for the attainment of desirable ends of every conceivable kind. From dancing benefit comes to both individual dancer and dancing group. Strength is generated, inculcated and a harmonious dynamism is set up towards a definite aim. Hence, in earlier times, dance was an absolute expression of the whole human being, since tribal members were completely religious.

D. H. Lawrence writes of a group dance, in `Mornings in Mexico':

All the men sing in unison, as they move with the soft, yet heavy bird tread which is the whole of the dance, with bodies bent a little forward, shoulders and heads loose and heavy, feet powerful but soft, the men tread the rhythm into the center of the earth. The drums keep up the pulsating heartbeat and for hours, hours, it goes on.

Even before there was definite, separated accompaniment, primitive people could not help being conscious of the sound of their feet tapping the earth. Dancers, in themselves, created a percussive accompaniment, and it was but a short step from clapping palms together, or on their thighs or bellies, to the slapping on an animal's skin, stretched between squatting knees or over a frame. Melody, the line of tune, whether imitation of wild bird notes or a vocalized projection of ordinary speech, is subsequent ornament on the initial skeleton of rhythmic beats. `Keeping in time' is a necessity in dance and the essence of music for it not only states the interval of the rhythm but it enables one to remember it. Percussive ordinance aids a solo dancer, but is an integral part of communal dance, providing a monitory signal, and a control of the group cadence which can be accelerated or relaxed with the intention of the dance's leader.

In natural, unfettered societies, the whole body, not merely parts of it, participates in this language, but our civilizing education in the conventions of respectful politeness teaches us not to point, not to laugh too loud, not to leap for joy, not to embrace in streets. Our demonstrative idiom has been withered from the time when kings in Israel tore their hair, wept aloud, beating their breasts or throwing themselves on the ground, or when King Charlemagne tore his beard for wrath at news of Roncevaux. The effect of this withering is most apparent in modern social dances and their practically static positions and movements.

When people seek to repress emotions too strong for expression, they adopt certain familiar gestures to explain conveniently what otherwise could not be risked to words. Signals for Yes and No, are much the same all over the globe, but there are tribes in Thibet and Africa, among whom nodding the head means No, turning it from side to side, Yes. The bending of one individual before another is universally accepted as a mark of respect, signifying both self-abasement before superior power and willingness to assume a comparatively defenseless position before the superior's mercy. A hand rubbed on the belly means hunger. Covering or uncovering the head, hat-tipping from the visor-raising of medieval helmets, nose-rubbing in mutual affection, handclasp, all are part of a visualized mimic telegraphy, but not of necessarily imitative gesture. Mimicry is another department of the dance; however highly developed, it is, nevertheless, secondarily developed.

Then there are movements of a more or less useful nature, which become regularized for efficiency, and by repetition methodized and professional; the swing 'of sowers and wood-choppers, bend and sweep of brick-layers or masons, heave and haul of sailors on tilted decks, the shift of weight from shoulder to shoulder of blacksmiths or miners. These actions, continuously repeated, tend to become, with alternations of strong and weak muscular reaction, infinitely precise, subtle, ingenious and quick; the movements, for example, of the fingers of cigar-makers, brain-surgeons or ivory-carvers, each possessing beauty in their mechanic proficiency. Fragmentary patterns in the physical acts of workmen, traffic-signals of policemen, the wind-up of a baseball pitcher, piston-legs of a Nurmi, arms of Koussevitsky, have qualities of dance about them, although it is snobbish and inaccurate to consider there, which is frequently done, 'as beautiful as a dancer's.'

There are also the gestures wholly separate from the instinctive, useful or acrobatic, which are neither linked to the physical world which conditions them, nor are direct reactions from exterior stimuli. These gestures are the manifest language of our interior lives, bodily signals of states of mind, our bodies being the most delicate and frankest instruments of all our action, cerebral as well as physical. These signals have ideographic significance. When seen by the eyes of those whom we interest, our thoughts and feelings are quite clear, even without words. These gestures have been called 'plastic epiphenomena,' or border activities of our moral lives. Like many physiological, functional gestures, a great number of psychological ones are spontaneous. Hops and leaps of children, or grown-ups- iii primitive society; spasmodic movements like fist-clenchings, lip-bitings, accelerated breath in anger, a large vocabulary of suggestible caress, tenderness, hostility or beckoning,—these are acts of which every one makes use, without having to be instructed by others, or even by observing others.

From the point of view of actual technique, primitive dancers have not a great deal to offer either in methodology or structure for our theatre. The ends for which they dance are entirely different from ours. Nevertheless, physiologically, as ritual health, they are fascinating. It is obvious how highly developed are the pelvic, visceral and gluteal regions of primitive people. The movement of the belly is a great aid toward digestion. Exercises of the female pelvis ease birth. The general physical condition of a constant dancer is apt to be excellent, and excellence in competitive dancing is an index of sexual vigor aiding in the choice of a well-developed, durable mate. All individualistic physical considerations are important but definitely secondary to the communal needs. Their results are frequently gratifying, but they are by no means the initial impulse behind tribal dances, which many popularizers would have us believe are merely sexual games or amorous pastimes. Primitive dances are, first of all, useful to the tribe as a whole for the large reason of its tribal survival and continuation.

Seeing films or hearing phonograph records of primitive dances and music is infinitely more valuable than reading descriptions of them, however de-tailed, which in print merely register as variations of shuffling, hopping, hand-clapping, howling, swaying, and a missionary's assurance that they were `indecent,"barbaric,"graceful' or 'repetitious,' which in all likelihood they were.

Even in its most advanced stages primitive dancing is still definitely itself: that is, primitive: repetitious, limited, unconscious, and however beautiful or novel, an extremely retardative and closed expression in comparison to the able use of the dances of cultures with progressive technique.

When, in the Western Hemisphere, architecture and dance proceed together, consciously developing in complement to each other, certain forms of theatrical dancing result, which are the subjects of this book, forms of dancing devised to interest an audience placed in specific physical conditions so they may be receptive to the performance of trained executants.

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