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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 9/15/2016 |


DANCE AS A WAY OF LIFE


When did humans take the first dancing step is anybody’s guess. Dance rarely leaves behind traces that are identifiable over millennia. Artifacts of human history, such as tools or cave paintings, do not convey the origin of this art form. However, it can be argued that evolution of dance is linked to that of the humankind.

Dance has been integral part of ceremony, rituals, celebrations and entertainment since the dawn of human civilization. Archaeology delivers traces of dance from prehistoric times such as the 30,000-year-old Bhimbetka rock shelters paintings in India and Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from c. 3300 BC.

Natya Shastra (“Treatise of Act”), the Sanskrit text attributed to Bharata, is one of the earliest document dedicated to the performance arts. The first complete compilation is dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE, although estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. It is also notable for its aesthetic Rasa theory, which asserts that entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal, and that the primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions. This encyclopedic treatise has influenced dance, music and literary traditions in India over many millennia.

Dance may have been used as a precursor to ecstatic trance states in healing rituals by many cultures, from the Brazilian rainforest to the Kalahari Desert. Medieval Europeandanses macabres were thought to have protected participants from disease; however; the hysteria and duration of these performances sometimes led to death due to exhaustion.

Many contemporary dance forms can be traced back to historical, traditional, ceremonial, and ethnic dances. Sri Lankan dance goes back to the mythological times of aboriginal yingyang twins and "yakkas" (devils). According to a Sinhalese legend, Kandyan dances originated 2500 years ago, from a magic ritual that broke the spell on a bewitched king.

Sufi whirling (or Sufi turning) is a form of physically active meditation which originated among Sufis, and which is still practiced by the Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order and other orders such as the Rifa'i-Marufi. It is a customary meditation practice performed within the Sema, or worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the source of all perfection. This is sought through abandoning one's egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one's body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.

One of the oldest structured uses of dances may have been in the performance and in the telling of myths. It was also sometimes used to show feelings for one of the opposite gender. It is also linked to the origin of "love making." Before the production of written languages, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from generation to generation.

The earliest record of dancing in European culture is Homer’s "Iliad." It describes chorea an early Greek dance form that evolved into a system expressive of all the different passions. For example, the dance of the Furies, so represented, would create complete terror among those who witnessed them. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, ranked dancing with poetry, and said that certain dancers, with rhythm applied to gesture, could express manners, passions, and actions. The most eminent Greek sculptors studied the attitude of the dancers for their art of imitating the passion.

References to dance in Europe in the Middle Ages are limited and fragmentary, being composed of some interesting depictions in paintings and illuminations, a few musical examples of what may be dances, and scattered allusions in literary texts. The most documented form of dance during the Middle Ages is the carol also called the "carole" or "carola." It was known from the 12th and 13th centuries in Western Europe in rural and court settings. It consisted of a group of dancers holding hands usually in a circle, with the dancers singing in a leader and refrain style while dancing. The term "carol" was first used in England for this type of circle dance accompanied by singing in manuscripts dating to as early as 1300.

Circle or line dances also existed in other parts of Europe outside England, France and Italy where the term carol was best known. These dances were of the same type with dancers holding hand-in-hand and a leader who sang the ballad. In Denmark, old ballads mention a closed Ring dance which can open into a Chain dance. In Sweden too, medieval songs often mentioned dancing. A long chain was formed, with the leader singing the verses and setting the time while the other dancers joined in the chorus.

The same dance in Germany was called "Reigen" and may have originated from devotional dances at early Christian festivals. Dancing around the church or a fire was frequently denounced by church authorities which only underscores how popular it was. There are records of church and civic officials in various German towns forbidding dancing and singing from the 8th to the 10th centuries. Once again, in singing processions, the leader provided the verse and the other dancers supplied the chorus.

Circle dances were also found in the area that is present day Czech Republic. Descriptions and illustrations of dancing can be found in church registers, chronicles and in 15th century writings. Dancing was primarily done around trees on the village green but special houses for dancing appear from the 14th century. In Poland as well the earliest village dances were in circles or lines accompanied by the singing or clapping of the participants.

The modern folk dances in the Balkans consist of dancers linked together in a hand or shoulder hold in an open or closed circle or a line. Chain dances of a similar type to these modern dance forms have been documented from the medieval Balkans. Tombstones as early as from 12th century depict dancing figures and inscriptions.

During the Renaissance period, there was a distinction between country dances and court dances. Court dances required the dancers to be trained and were often for display and entertainment, whereas country dances could be attempted by anyone. At Court, the formal entertainment would often be followed by many hours of country dances which all present could join in. Dances described as country dances such as Chiarantana or Chiaranzana remained popular over a long period - over two centuries in the case of this dance.

Ballet has its origins in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries where it was known as balletto. Once it spread to France, this formalized dance form came to be known as ballet. By the 18th century ballet had migrated from the royal court to the Paris Opera. Ballet as we know evolved by the 20th century, with all the familiar conventions of costume, choreographic form, plot, pomp, and circumstance firmly fixed in place.

In India, during the reign of the last Mughals and Nawabs of Oudh, dance fell down to the status of 'nautch', an unethical sensuous thing of courtesans. Later, linking dance with immoral trafficking and prostitution, British rule prohibited public performance of dance. Many disapproved it.

Following India’s independence in 1947, dance culture revived to regain its past glory. Classical forms and regional distinctions were re-discovered, ethnic specialties were honored and by synthesizing them with the individual talents of the masters in the line and fresh innovations emerged dance with a new face but with classicism of the past.

It was during the explosion of new thinking and exploration in the early 20th century that dance artists began to appreciate the qualities of the individual, the necessities of ritual and religion, the primitive, the expressive and the emotional. In this atmosphere modern dance began an explosion of growth. There was suddenly a new freedom in what was considered acceptable, what was considered art, and what people wanted to create. All kinds of other things were suddenly valued as much as, or beyond, the costumes and tricks of the ballet.

After the explosion of modern dance in the early 20th century, the 1960s saw the growth of postmodernism. Postmodernism veered towards simplicity, the beauty of small things, the beauty of untrained body, and unsophisticated movement. The famous "No" manifesto rejecting all costumes, stories and outer trappings in favor of raw and unpolished movement was perhaps the extreme of this wave of thinking. Unfortunately lack of costumes, stories and outer trappings do not make a good dance show, and it was not long before sets, décor and shock value re-entered the vocabulary of modern choreographers.

By the 1980s dance had come full circle and modern dance (or, by this time, "contemporary dance") was clearly still a highly technical and political vehicle for many practitioners. Existing alongside classical ballet, the two art-forms were by now living peacefully next door to one another with little of the rivalry and antipathy of previous eras.

At the same time, mass culture experienced expansion of street dance. One of the most popular dance of this genre is the break dance. The blend of Jamaican reggae and street dance created hip-hop.

Transcending beyond traditional stage and street, dance has found way into sports. The two most notable sporting events featuring dance are the women’s gymnastics and synchronized diving as was seen in the recently concluded Rio Olympics. Finally, dance is becoming intertwined with modern lifestyle as evident in movies (notably in Bollywood) to basement parties (notably among Indian diaspora in the US and UK).


[SUBHODEV DAS]

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