I’ve been dancing since the age of three, and I can guarantee that I’ve heard all of the snide comments before. “That’s girly,” you say. So what? There’s nothing wrong with being girly. But my feminism is a topic for another time. “That’s easy,” or, “That’s how you’re getting out of PE credit?” Actually, the counselors at my high school almost refused to accept my 20 hours of dance a week as an extra-curricular physical activity. 20 hours.
Let’s focus on ballet here, just to simplify matters. Ballet is enormously physically challenging. I encourage any of you who are dismissing this claim to go and take a class. Or maybe just sit in. Try and lift your leg to ninety degrees (at a right angle with your other leg). If you can’t, that’s perfectly alright, just raise it as high as you can. Now hold it.
No, for longer. The reason that this is so difficult will be clear to any of you who have studied physics – you are attempting to hold an incredibly long, heavy object out from your hip socket with no outside support. This is rather common in even the most basic ballet class.
I admit freely that this level of strength requires exercise outside of dance class, but that commitment of personally-motivated physical activity is reflected in every sport. Crew members don’t reach their full potential by simply getting in boats any more than soccer players do if they only play soccer.
Another commonly overlooked component of dance is mental acuity. Teachers will generally give 15-25 complex series of movement combinations every class – often the pattern will only be shown once before students are expected to replicate it. The ability to recognize, memorize and perform something so quickly is honed after many years of practice and assists in hundreds of other aspects of education.
The reason I was drawn to language, for example, was how comfortable I felt learning grammatical structures, and one of my friends has known the powers of two to the 16th degree by heart since age 10. Dance teaches you to think, analyze and process information at an incredible rate, constantly challenging you not only to remember the combination, but to apply corrections you’ve received to each corresponding movement or position. Dance is a thinking art form and requires no less intelligence than any other field.
Like all art, dance is a reflection of society. To study dance is to study history. For each decade, there are immense change in belief systems, cultural taboos, political support and movements for justice, and for each decade, that change is mirrored in dance. Dance is constantly flowing, shaping and being shaped by the ripples of civilization. Dance is always relevant and always timeless.
Dance is universal. Human emotion is at its core, and this inspires empathy in all who seek to appreciate it. The grief, joy, anger or love that each piece encompasses is revealed in every gesture, every glance. This is what makes dance so pure – when you dance, your body is the art. There is no wall between the artist and the audience.
Dance allows us to feel and declare our passions with an openness that is rarely considered acceptable in everyday life; it allows us to share them generously with others and relieve our burdens, to feel a release from the weight of our troubles. We are ourselves, utterly, vulnerably. That depth of raw emotion is tangible even to someone at the back of the house. This freedom is an instinctive need for every human.
As students of Emory, we chose a liberal arts education. This should include dance as much as it should include literature, history, language and math, ideas originally called the studia humanitatis. Liberal arts are, after all, the studies of humanity – dance is its expression.
– By Emma Buckland-Young