Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dancing to the Rhythm of Life

The more intellectual we perceive ourselves as being, the more self-conscious, foolish, and clumsy we feel in tapping into the wisdom of our bodies. However, rhythm and dance are as profound a set of tools for knowledge as reading. It is in the processing emotions through our bodies that we gain insight. We’re never too old to cultivate the gift of rhythm, to learn to harmonize our bodies to the pulsing life force of the cosmos. The more adept we become at attuning our bodies to rhythm, the less we live in our heads and distort reality through the lens of our mental constructions. As we learn to harmonize mind and body and soul, we join in the cosmic dance.  Turn on the music and dance. Dance as though your life depended on it. Dance for healing. Dance for joy.

The healing component of dance emanates from the body’s need for its own very particular kind of sanctuary.  It becomes a safe place for the body's natural self-regulating functions both to process emotional overload as well as attend to healing physical and psychic scar tissue. The stresses of modern life, whether from work, relationships, hurry, worry, pollution, manifests in the build-up of blocks in the muscle and tissue of the bodies. Dance dissolves these blockages, while teaching us how to listen to our bodies and relax even while engaged in motion.

Music of the Soul

In recent years many churches and religious movements, which had once disdained anything associated with the human body, have begun to enrich their worship through praise dancing and a broader range of musical forms, including the more rhythmically-attuned gospel music.  

In taking the sacred out of everyday life, European-America’s brand of religiosity, may have created a deep and suppurating sore in the hearts of my slave ancestors. Secular and religious music became split just as secular and religious life parted ways. While the subsequent diversity of forms that evolved, from blues to gospel music, are indeed enriching and beautiful, this artificial division of life creates its own bone-deep wound.

 Slave culture had inherited from its West African forefathers an extraordinary reverence for creative expression. That is, white Christians perceived the soul to be a spiritual object, sometimes depicted in paintings as a human heart with wings. West Africans, on the other hand, perceived the soul to be an “experience”  rather than an object, that is, a mode defining a continuous process of creativity, which opened a channel or gateway to receive the divine inspiration.

There is an old African proverb that says “A village without music is a dead place.”  Within the expressive culture of the traditional West African village, each member of the community would become involved in music-making, whether in the playing of an instrument, hand clapping, drumming, dancing, singing, commenting and responding.            

This loving and communal embrace of music-making was transferred into the environment of the American plantation, where slaves mastered a variety of musical instruments, including fiddles, clarinets, fifes, tambourines, castanets, banjos. In fact, the banjo, was itself derived from a West African stringed instrument called the “kora.”

“Patting Juba”

In many ways, the drum was the most vital instrument of all; and the poly-rhythms it produced were perceived as the “ears of God,” and the pulsating life-force of the universe itself. However, early Americans enacted laws against the use of the drum by slaves, fearing the remarkable talent these people possessed to “make their drums talk.”  Rather than completely lose the means by which to gain access to the spirit world, slaves evolved modes of conveying cross-rhythms by hand-clapping, foot stomping and “patting juba.”  The practice of juba represented an ingenious substitute for the banned drum. Slaves were able to achieve a high degree of rhythmic complexity by striking their hands together, than striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other, and slapping the thigh, simultaneously keeping time with foot-tapping. A nineteenth century traveler in Georgia, Lewis Paine, described his astonishment upon witnessing slaves “patting juba” for the first time. He marveled at “the rapidity of their motions, their accurate time, and the precision of their music and dance,”  concluding, “I have never seen it equalled in my life.” So deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of African slaves were the rhythms themselves, that even without drums these cadences became transmitted intergenerationally, creating such modern form of music as jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, long after the actual ties of the slaves had been completely severed with Africa.

Both dance and improvisational music, beginning with the work songs and spirituals composed and sung in the cotton fields have traditionally been nurtured by the black community. However, it is important to recognize the fact that these cultural forms were not merely forms of entertainment. They brought its practitioners in touch with their true selves, transcending the artificial, dehumanizing prescriptions their slave masters attempted to pin on them.

The Devil’s Music

Church music with an expressive intensity characteristic of its African roots, evolved alongside secular musical forms within the black community. The Negro spirituals eventually evolved into a form of music known as “black gospel.” But both musical forms shared an intensity of expression and often a call and response pattern, of congregational response, encouragement and praise.  The secular music of Africa-America evolved from the same roots, and reflected many of the same patterns of rich expressiveness, call and response and complex rhythmic patterns. The syncopation of banjo-playing and foot tapping had evolved into ragtime music by the turn of the last century. And a new form of black music was developing in the Mississippi Delta region, which evolved into the “Blues.” as a musical art form arose after slavery, but which was  oftentimes dismissed by critics as “the Devil’s Music.”

In recent years many churches and religious movements, which had once disdained anything associated with the human body, have begun to enrich their worship through praise dancing and a broader range of musical forms, including the more rhythmically-attuned gospel music.
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