My horses dance. You might say they’re just driven by instinct. But when you see them run into the field on a cool, winter morning, tossing their heads, twirling around, bucking, and lifting their feet in the air, you have to think they’re playing with movement in time to a rhythm in their own heads. For me, that’s dance.
I hear people saying, “I can’t dance” and I’d like to debunk that myth. You can breathe. You can move and you have rhythm within you. Just own it. You dance. It turns out dancing is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not just for the pleasure it brings, but because it can help keep your brain intact.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the effects of different recreational activities on older adults and their impact on dementia. At the top of the list for protection against dementia was dancing! Richard Powers, who writes a dance blog at Stanford University speculated on the reason for this: “Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.”
I get it! It keeps you moving, thinking, responding and inventing all at the same time. No wonder it’s good for the brain.
Still, it’s tempting to let the limitations of our bodies limit our desire to dance. I know because that happened to me. For years I danced for fun, but then my back started stiffening and my knees grew more cranky and creaky. I wanted to dance in my twenty-something body, not the sixty-year-old version, and maybe that meant not dancing at all.
Last year I was invited to a meditation and dance retreat over the New Year’s holiday with Karen Nelson, a master teacher well known for her work with a form of dance called Contact Improvisation. I told her, “Karen, it sounds great, but I don’t think my body is up to it. I can’t dance with the great group of younger dancers who will likely be coming.” She nodded empathically, then added, “It won’t be an issue. You can do whatever you can. One woman who always participates is your age and has only one leg. You can work with any limitation.”
I signed up. I looked forward to meeting that woman.
Dancing with a one-legged dancer
The woman, Karen Daly, inspired me throughout the workshop. She lost her leg to cancer in her childhood and with it lost part of her spirit. She learned to cope, work and manage her life using a prosthetic leg. Then, in mid-life she discovered improvisational dance. Dancing transformed her. It made her feel whole. Soon she was putting aside the prosthetic and navigating life more joyfully on one leg.
I watched her at the start of the workshop as we were sitting on the ground, stretching and breathing. She looked as graceful as anyone in the workshop. I asked her to be my partner in the first improvisational dance of the event, and together we explored the space between us, sitting, crawling, rolling on the floor, and occasionally, and carefully, standing. We weren’t jumping or running, but who cared? What mattered was how we tuned into each other’s energy and physical presence. As we danced, I no longer saw Karen as a one-legged dancer. She was a dancer, a beautiful one, and a very courageous woman.
In her new book, Joy Ride, Karen describes her journey from cancer into self-acceptance, and how her life was transformed by improvisational dance.
Even the philosopher Friederich Nietzche, usually portrayed as a dark, cranky, old nihilist, knew the merits of dancing. He said,
“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”
He also believed dancing helped the quality of our thinking:
“Thinking wants to be learned as dancing wants to be learned, as a kind of dancing.”
Not bad for a guy in pain, who spent the last part of his life confined to an apartment, dying of syphilis. For Nietzsche, dance was not about performance or social dancing. There is no record of him dancing in public. He was caught, however, hopping about his apartment, dancing.
By the way, if you missed this stunning video of two Chinese dancers a couple of years ago, the man missing a leg, the woman an arm, it’s still worth watching.
I’ll balance out Nietzche with a little faith, after acknowledging that his famous announcement “God is dead” has been taken woefully out of context. Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance also inspires me.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance.
I hope you dance.
Don’t try to be good. Don’t try to get it right. Don’t worry about what you look like or whether you’re a dancer. Breathe. Move. Then move more. You’ll be dancing.
Be like those horses. Dance for the spirit of it. For the hope in it.