A dear friend asked for some thoughts on dancing. Dancing? The only kind of dancing I was ever able to do was with a soccer ball – and that was never too graceful. More like blood, sweat, and tears: a scene from a First World War trench! Yet, it is amazing what one begins to think about when a topic is suggested for a post. The exact theme given was, “Why Seminarians also Should Learn to Dance!” It might not seem too controversial or heavy but knowing yours truly it’ll probably end up “way out there”!!!
So here goes.
What does the term dancing make one think about? If you were to list three things about it what would they be?
How’s this for a list:
- Pelé – the world’s greatest ever soccer player.
- Punk rockers and Communists.
- Degas – and his love for ballet.
Told you it would be “way out there”!
More could be added to the list – some of which would cause all sort of reactions (like St. John Vianney’s sermon where he blasts dancing totally off the dance floor; or the thesis that it is the unanimous opinion of the Church Fathers that dancing is immoral; or St. Francis de Sales’s teaching that it is not a sin, but that only a very serious occasion of sin!). I’ll leave that question for another time, but work on the premise that the Second Council of Nicea, when it spoke of immoral dancing was referring to immoral forms of dancing – the later being a subset of the former.
Why should seminarians learn to dance? Think about it. What does real dancing, pure dancing do? For soccer fans it is said that one of the greatest – if not the greatest – soccer teams ever was the 1970 Brazil World Cup winning team. This team featured probably the greatest football (soccer) player ever: Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Commonly known as Pelé. On the field this man – and the team he was part of – moved like members of the finest group of ballet dancers you could ever imagine. And funnily enough, in preparation for their great success they included ballet into their training!
What did ballet give to a soccer team? Well, maybe it was the poise and the agility. Maybe, however, it was something that every leader needs to learn: discipline. The leader learns how to follow before he, or she, begins to lead. From the very little I know about ballet it seems that one has to practice, and practice, and practice, and…You get the idea? Like anything worthwhile, it takes blood, sweat, and tears. The mastering of something beautiful does not happen overnight. Discipline, discipline, and discipline. Our dear Fr. Kolbe once said: “Keep order, and order will keep you!” Does dance, like anything else, become sinful when it is a pandering to disordered passions?
So a soccer team – masters with and ball, who were prepared to learn from ballet – gives a little insight into why seminarians should learn to dance. For they must have control of their passions, and the mastering of anything involves controlling oneself. Is the temptation not before seminarians to dream of someday running a parish? Doing everything better than old Fr. McNally – whose ways are out of date? Yes, it would seem that discipline in dance can assist younger men to have a sense of proper liturgical decorum: a respect for the form and the beauty of the Church’s most ancient treasure. Learn to dance young man; learn to dance. In other words, allow the steps given by the Church for the best part of 2000 years to be your guide rather than forcing your steps onto those who had the Faith long before you were born!
That makes one think of modern renditions of Irish dancing. River Dance presentations have always seemed to me as an attempt to be “modern” – which usually means “out of date” five minutes after beginning. Like attempts to modernize the Church’s liturgy the attempts to come up with modern dances are usually interesting but more dependent on what was already tried and tested than most people want to admit. Ancient forms and gestures in the Sacred Liturgy may be more fully appreciated if seminarians were to learn forms of dance that ennoble the spirit. Maybe – I don’t know. It’s just a thought. One thing seems for sure: if dance doesn’t help seminarians become better priests, then at least it will give the seminarians an opportunity to treat members of the opposite sex with a sense of reverence. Dancing partners have to show respect for one another – if not the dance descends into a farce.
Furthermore, dance allows for a level of fitness that is often not appreciated. Seminarians (often being over fed instead of learning to the discipline of self-mortification in the area of food) tend to put on weight as their years in seminary pass. Skinny little guys who enter seminary often are ordained in physically unhealthy condition. Regular dancing could assist them in keeping more healthy – and even give them the edge on the soccer field!
Now, there is no doubt about it that certain movements called “dance” are simply acts of self-promotion (and maybe even attempts at self-glorification). Man’s insecurities are never far away. Maybe that’s why some people never venture onto the dance floor? Elvis’s dance routines are silly – and obviously intended to promote himself.
Another such movement that was never a dance but simply a step closer to self-annihilation was the pogo – the actions placed before the Western youth by the 1970’s punk rockers. Basically, it involved standing on one spot and jumping up and down. How it ever became known as a dance is mind boggling. Surely, standing on a spot and jumping up and down (when noise was being pumped out from amplifiers) is nothing more than jumping up and down! Even when thousands of people are all doing it together – stinking, smelling, with sweat pouring out of everybody – then it is still nothing more than jumping up and down. Yes, it might be the imitating of someone on a pogo-stick but it is certainly not dancing. One can fully appreciate why the Church Fathers would condemn such a piece of nonsense: anything where one acts like a mindless idiot is not going to take one to Heaven!
Interestingly enough, while Western minds were being warped even more by the phenomena of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and other nicely engineered forms of Nietzsche’s ideas, their contemporaries in those countries under communist dictatorships were learning to dance! Having lived amongst many a child of those former dark days, it was remarkable to see that they could all dance – and it wasn’t the pogo they had been conned into performing. While the communist were trying to twist their heads they still permitted them to gather for dance – it was maybe the only public gatherings that were allowed. Here’s guessing why – the old commies probably loved dancing too. So it wasn’t suppressed. And so, years later when they had all become professional advocates of democracy (and big cars – for some!), the children who grew up under their regimes had the gift of being able to really dance. When, so-called, free Westerns found themselves in the company of Easterns at a dance it was nothing short of embarrassing. Only the Austrians – with their lovely Viennese Waltz – were able to stand alongside them, or rather, one should say, dance alongside them. Communism’s legacy? A generation that could dance, and still dance. Punk’s legacy? A generation that has grown too old to be able to even jump up and down!
How does that relate to seminarians? Well, most of them are given a very poor philosophical training indeed. First principles are not at the top of their list. If you are taught to dance you have to always go back to it’s first principles. If you reject the fundamentals you’ll do yourself, or your dance partner, an injury. So too with seminarians: if they are not able to reason from first principles they’ll give sermons that are…Well, you’ve probably heard many of them – and forgotten them as well. If you haven’t heard them, don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything.
Dance involves following a master: it is his steps that must be meticulously followed to become perfect at the particular performance. The language of dance is not there to be ignored. If it is one is exposed to an anti-word. The pogo is an example of Nominalism in action: it’s all about one, one, one, one, one…Or maybe that should read, “me, me, me, me, me….” Like a spoilt child. In Nominalism there is no connection between one thought and the next; there is no universal incarnated in the particular. It is a whim of opinion claiming personal reality over objective reality. Seminarians would do well to learn how to dance as a way to remind themselves that man learns through the senses, which are the masters of learning. To ignore the steps of reality is to cut the body off from the soul. To ignore the dance of reality is to drift off into imaging one can be Fred Astaire just by claiming to be so. Ask such a dancer, singer, actor, and choreographer how many hours work it took to get to that level. Total dedication. How many seminarians put in that amount of time to the One who should be their first love?
Finally, there is Degas – and his beautiful paintings of ballerinas. Without a sense wonder at how someone is able to craft such works one wonders whether seminarians will ever be able to come to appreciate the depth of man’s soul and its longing to behold the face of God. How did Degas manage to capture such beauty? If dance were destructive then how did he manage to draw such good from it? Maybe it was God’s power in him – allowing him to see beyond fallen man? Maybe, but the wonder of the dance must have moved his heart in its own longing for God. Could he see something there that was a spark of the Divine Majesty: the glory of God radiant from its truth, simplicity, and harmony?
There seems to be some interplay between the ascetic and the aesthetics that the seminarian would do well to consider. There is the discipline of mortification (dying to oneself through the putting aside of bodily pleasures by an act of the will seeking a greater good), and the appreciation of beauty. The true masters of art do not reject what nature gives – they do not claim freedom from the given – but see its being as the source of the beauty they long to hold in their art. Often they carry the heavy burden of being able to see beauty being trampled down by modern utilitarian vandalism, while so many others walk by. It was no accident that Punk Rock produced a group called Crass who in turn produced a diatribe called “Punk is Dead” – where the ugliness of self-absorption is all too apparent as selfishness and hatred drive the lyrics on. How deep a wound in the soul of the artist must such vulgarism produce. Seminarians would do well to cultivate such a sensitivity. Dance may lift the soul to such a place of insight.
There is no love for a great good in the anarchist; nor is their a love for dance. Seminarians can easily become utilitarian-anarchists who carry the contagion of nihilism. The temptation to do so permeates contemporary culture with it anthropocentrism. Without being grounded in the unchanging certainty of reality – and mastering the discipline of returning to it again and again – they end up being unable to lead neither themselves nor their future flocks in a true “liturgical dance” where it is the Other [God in Himself] who comes first. Instead, they try to create something new – destroying the God given forms as they do so. The ugliness of acrylic leotards in the Sanctuary says it all. Seminarians need the discipline that comes from true dance; and a love for the beauty of its form. If not, God’s presence in souls will be dead. Teach seminarians (and even popes) to dance – it might just clear their heads of fuzzy thinking!
P.S. I can’t dance to save myself, and I was a poor seminarian. Viva Immmaculata!!!!