Several years ago, a friend shared her thoughts on the beauty of ballet, and I was so struck by it all, I asked to share it online. It deserves to be out there.
Her notes strike me with this thought: Every moment of every day, our lives are filled with unintentional movements. We sit, slouch, lazily pick things up and move ourselves around.
But in ballet and dance, we bring the intensity of our full attention into our motion. The result: movements that have meaning. Dance is all about intentional, ‘ritual’ movement. And it is always in ritual that the real, hidden meanings of things become visible.
I have lately been thinking about dance, particularly ballet (but also ballroom), and why it appeals to me so much.
Many people don’t really care for dance, and have a hard time understanding why I get so excited about it. Yet, when they ask what is so special about dance, I find I don’t really know how to answer.
So, I’ve been doing some thinking and reading, and these are some of my conclusions.
There is harmony of the body in dance.
The dancers’ bodies move with perfect control, so perfect that every motion looks in fact effortless.
- There is complete unity between mind and body such that when the mind requires a pirouette, the body executes it exactly.
- There is order in the parts because each limb places itself in exact proportion to the others so as to create lovely smooth lines, and pleasing shapes.
- There is clarity or brilliance in the effervescent energy with which the dancers leap and bound, and the fluid grace with which the dancer’s bodies hold their poses.
Some people complain that dance is too sexual and provocative by its nature.
On the contrary, I would maintain that while dance can certainly be made to be so, it must be done so explicitly, and that of its nature, dance is not provocative.
Rather it is the perfect vehicle for disinterested and honest appreciation of the real beauty of the body.
(Brief personal interjection: Until I began studying ballet, I was almost overcome with disgust about the body, finding it dirty, ugly, and awkward. Only after studying ballet did I begin to see that the human body is capable of great beauty.)
In the dance, and only in the dance, the body exists the way God created it to exist. It is not bound by the imperfections that plague most of us. It captures, as near as anything can, the quality of the pre-lapsarian Edenic form.
It is regal. It is perfectly controlled. It is always graceful, but capable of enormous feats of physical prowess. It moves with lack of apparent effort, never stilted, never plodding. It is unconscious of itself, natural and easy, but dignified. In short, it is beautiful, and therefore, awakens an honest and pure appreciation for the form and artistry rendered thereby, as well as wholehearted gratitude toward the Author of such beauty.
The proper ‘sexuality’ of dance
The only sense in which I would say that dance is naturally sexual is in its conveyance of the proper relationship between men and women.
I say proper because in the dance, men and women must maintain their natural roles.
(Admittedly, with some of the more recent experimentation in modern dance, role reversals are becoming more frequent, but they do not belong to the traditional and historical forms of dance.)
Once again, the divine plan for humanity is modelled for us by the dancers. In the dance, the male and female dancers must have complete trust in each other to make the right decisions and to be in the right place at the right time, because if they do not have that trust, they cannot dance together.
Likewise, they must both have the commitment and will to be in the right place at the right time and to make the right decisions. Then they must act on that commitment. (Even one mis-step, one mislocation, and the dance is ruined, the dancers injured, and chaos ensues.) Thus is unity between the partners maintained.
The female dancer depends on the male dancer for his strength to lift her, to hold her, to support her in her moves so that she does not fall. She leans on him, and he sustains her. He shows off her grace and she shows off his power. Both require strength, for if she does not keep her body perfectly under control, he will lose his balance, and if he does not keep his body perfectly under control, she will fall. Thus is proportion maintained, and a model for all male-female relationships portrayed.
Finally, I think the brilliance may lie in the fact that this proximity of male to female is so unspoilt in the figures of the dance.
Their contact with each other is innocent and unselfconscious. It is assured, but not disrespectful. Their handclasp firm but gentle.
The dancers simply work together to draw a beautiful image, even as God planned when he made them male and female.
Unity, order, and splendor
Throughout this description, I have been using three headings under which to categorize my observations about dance. These headings follow St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty. St. Thomas defines the beautiful in terms of three essential concepts: unity or integrity–wholeness, proportion or ordered parts, and clarity or splendour–brilliance.
When found together, they elicit in the beholder a sense of profound joy, meditative appreciation, even a sort of yearning. Jacques Maritain, in his commentary on Thomas’ notion of beauty, further remarks that this sense of joy is even stronger in those who, “like St. Francis of Assisi. . .know that [beautiful things] emanate from a mind, and refer them to their Author” (Art and Scholasticism, pg. 20).
This is to say that full appreciation of beauty involves recognizing that God is the author of all beauty, and that the more beautiful something is, the more closely it reflects God’s vision of it.
It is a little difficult to apply the terms of Thomas’ definition as precisely to the art of ballet as to painting for instance, and yet it is possible, as I have shown.
I think that this idea of the “referral” of things to God is perhaps the answer. For it is in dance’s ability to convey an ordered notion of life that I find dance most appealing. It is precisely in its ability to show forth the vision of God for creation and for man that the dance achieves its greatest heights.
Jacques Maritain points out that, “Such also is the peculiar beauty of our art, which works upon a sensible matter for the joy of the spirit. It would fain so persuade itself that paradise is not lost. It has the savour of the terrestrial paradise, because it restores for a brief moment the simultaneous peace and delight of the mind and the senses” (pg. 19).
God planned for man a paradise. In the dance, that paradise is unveiled and regained for us by the movements of each dancer, the interdependence of partners, and indeed, the very structure of the art form.
So, while others may condemn dance, or at least see little to appreciate in it, I continue to be edified by it, inspired and encouraged by it to seek and achieve a more perfect way of life in mind, body, and soul.